Bummed Out And Ugly

On the occasion of Philip K. Dick’s birthday.

Via Philippe HUPP/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The great thing about the library was that nothing too fucked up could happen there.

Untold multitudes of librarians and patrons would disagree with me, but I’m only speaking for myself. Even when I went to the library with my father, things were relatively chill between us, and would remain that way until we left. It was a building decorated in every shade of brown the ’70s had on offer.

We walked to the back of the library, past the magazine racks, to the reference materials and the study tables. All sorts of people sat back here, but the ones I noticed the most were the crazy people, because I was with one. The library was wonderful because it was calm and full of books and this peace could be anyone’s for no price at all. If you’re crazy at a certain level, chances are, you don’t have an office to be crazy in. The library is a decent replacement — an office of crazy, where you can work on projects no one cares about or understands, sitting at a heavy wooden table next to lamps and metal carts and encyclopedias. And my father worked very hard.

“Come back fast,” he said. “You have to help me.”

He sat, and I escaped like I was spring-loaded and shot at the science fiction section. I brought some books back and sat down with him. I hated to look at him writing his crazy-ass letters. He wrote with such care, his letters so pristinely serifed they looked Old German, and everything he wrote was straight garbage at best, something that would put him in jail at worst. I hated it so much, and it got sadder the more I thought about it until I thought I would start scream-crying at the office of crazy. So I went elsewhere. I read about anywhere but here. I read about space shit. No one wants to be that predictable and psychologically obvious, but sometimes things are exactly the way you expect them to be.

Once in a while, my dad would interrupt me. “How do you spell ‘legislation’?” he’d say. “How do you spell ‘inheritance’?” Questions like that, words like that. Sometimes he had me copyedit the whole thing, fixing spellings and sentence structures for letters in which he politely requested the return of $3 million from the governor, or a helicopter to Seoul. And I would go from crazy-ass letter to book to letter, book, letter, book.

The world my dad lived in was the one in which dark forces thwarted him at every turn, keeping his fortune just out of his reach and turning his family against him. He knew it was a false world, and none of the letters he wrote to the president or the rants he subjected us to were able to bring back the true world. At the library, he would write his letters and I would read Philip K. Dick and, each of us, in our own way, would hate this world.

Today is Philip K. Dick’s birthday. Even if you don’t care about science fiction, you know about him. There’s the Philip K. Dick who belongs to everyone: American science fiction writer, known for drugs, paranoia, ontological fuckery, and the occasional really awful sentence. A heap of screen adaptations, most of which are glossily plastinated trash. At this point, dude is even recognizable as an adjective: You can throw Dickian on the heap with Dickensian, Orwellian, and, like, no women.

There’s also the Philip K. Dick who is mine. The one I’ve been reading for half of my life. The one who wormed his way into my life before I could be thoughtful and critical about the things I loved. The one who reigns in my personal pantheon.

Recently I hung out in a group with a guy who said innocently, “Being fat led me to Star Trek.” We all laughed, but he hadn’t been joking. That would’ve been a bad joke, a ha-ha-ha-nerds-are-like-this joke of the variety I have absolutely no time for. We laughed because he wholly meant it. It’s not the whole truth, but I will match that guy and say that being bummed out and ugly led me to Philip K. Dick. Helped, anyway.

At 15, there are a multitude of things that can make us bummed out and ugly. Physically, I did not have my shit together — haystack hair, a round and unfinished face, a gawky body with these boobless tits that were all nipple. Even when we’re hideous as teenagers, we also look sort of uniquely, never-again great, so when people claim they were ugly back then it’s hard to believe. Yet it felt irrefutably true. And we were poor and my dad was crazy, major bummers both and a formula that equaled staying long hours at the library while embarking on the grand project of reading everything in the science fiction section.

When I found Philip K. Dick, he was no big secret. He was in a partial state of rediscovery — there were a bunch of nice paperback reissues from Vintage, plus a five-volume set of collected stories on which I systematically placed holds at the library. Everything — I placed holds on everything. Why’d I get it so bad for Philip K. Dick?

I first loved the twists. The showmanship! The pulpy excitement of it all! The first PKD book I ever read was Eye in the Sky, about eight visitors to a particle accelerator who get trapped in each others’ subjective realities. Back then, it was so easy to wow and surprise me, and each time the world as we knew it turned out to be a construct, false, somehow not right — it knocked me over. Imagine PKD typing in a Benzedrine tap dance thinking that this would really get them. Did it ever. If you pet a dog in a PKD novel, get ready for the dog to melt and in the puddle will be a slip of paper that reads “SOFT-DRINK STAND.”

Of course, there was more to it. Knowing that reality could be up for grabs, manipulated, and twisted gave me a prickly, shivery joy. But this would be a shallow pleasure without the deep sense of sadness in the best of PKD’s work. When the world you knew was ripped away from you, even if in that world you had a shitty job and couldn’t get a date, he recognized that you had to mourn. You mourned for the false world that you missed, you mourned that any kind of true, real world was elusive or else completely lost and that nothing would ever be the way it was meant to be, whatever that was.

There are cool ways to be into science fiction, and there are less cool ways. If I’m really going to dig into it, being into Philip K. Dick used to be a hipster’s way of liking science fiction. (It’s now probably sub-hip, a little past-hip, a bit like being into Haruki Murakami.) However, PKD is great at eluding coolness. It’s a singular joy to read his work and find what is elegant and transcendental about it but also very much pulp trash — lowdown and frumpy. In Ubik, PKD performs a kind of genre Tourette’s by continually describing the weird outfits that all of the characters wear. For. No. Good. Reason. He loved a good throwaway idea, and sprinkled things like telepathic Martian jackals and slime molds from Ganymede and psychic newspapers throughout his stories. Appropriately, his characters were often losers. They were hustlers and auditioners, scrappy people who seemed anxious all the time and had to balance getting ahead with being decent protagonists.

PKD cared about trash — or, rather, that which others deemed to be trash.

What do you do when you grow up in a world you hate? Sometimes, you do a 360-degree pivot turn on your heel and run right back into its arms. I thought absolutely none of this at the time, I’m pretty sure, but looking back, PKD’s was a science fiction that made my life seem OK. Granted, the crazy of PKD’s work and my dad’s crazy weren’t the same. My dad’s crazy was sad, boring, degraded, and degrading, and as I’ve hopefully established, the crazy in PKD’s work is incredibly the greatest, as well as heartbreaking and dignified in the most unexpected of ways. But all throughout PKD’s stories and novels I found loserness and crazy and I found trying one’s best and having it all be futile, swept into the trash with the leavings of a discarded world. I found both the things I did not want to think about and the opposite of those things, aka space shit. I think it helped.

Years ago I briefly dated someone and the best thing this person did was try to take me to the apartment PKD had been living in when he died. I say “try” because it’s unclear that this was the actual apartment he lived in. It was in Orange County, and the sun was hot like a huge hand pressing down on us. Things were pretty much over between us, but I stepped closer and draped my arms over him. Pickup artists everywhere, take note: Bring her to the place where her favorite science fiction writer died and she’ll go wiiiiiiiiiiiiild.

“We should ask someone,” one of us said. No one came in or went out. I squinted at the ugly building trying to glean anything PKD-like about it, and the Necker Cube in my mind shifted drowsily left then right. It was probably not his building. It probably was. This was exactly the kind of place where he would die. This was not a fitting place for him to die. This guy and I were being momentous and interesting. This guy and I were deluded and confused.

Oh, and now I see that was, I guess, the whole point. Happy birthday, Philip K. Dick.

Alice Sola Kim’s fiction appears in Lightspeed, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation and a MacDowell Colony residency, and has been honor-listed twice for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award.

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