Anne Dick was the controlling wife who never really understood Phil Dick's art and wanted to pull her husband away from the ill-paying fiction he was writing and domesticate him as part of her jewelery business. That, at any rate, is one version of the story, not least, at times, Philip K. Dick's own. This revised version of her 1993 biography might be an attempt to set the record straight; an inevitably partial account that rewrites history in order to defend herself. But this entertaining and insightful record of Anne and Philip's marriage from 1959 to 1964, during which Dick was writing some of his greatest books (The Man in the High Castle (1962) and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965)), comes across as a plausible account of having spent five years trying to make an emotional investment in the life of a brilliant but deeply troubled man.
Whether certain events did or did not happen, whether Dick actually did this or said that, what Anne Dick writes resonates with what others have written about her husband. True, this might be because Lawrence Sutin drew upon the earlier unpublished version of this account in his 1989 biography Divine Invasions, but after all, it was Dick himself who was the notorious self-mythologiser. Emile Carrère's more recent I Am Alive and You Are Dead: Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (1993, but not translated into English until 2004), which is also indebted to Anne's account, seems rather more inclined to take Dick's word for things. As its subtitle suggests, though, it is a portrait rather than a biography. Enough of Dick's own writing and interviews, and the historical record of those bizarre letters to the FBI shopping fellow SF writers as stooges for an international communist conspiracy, suggests that Dick was at the very least an unreliable witness. True, his ability to use his own life as a counterpoint to his wild imaginings was part of what makes him great. His pained riposte to Anne's understandable hurt at seeing herself skewered in Confessions of a Crap Artist that "it was all just a book . . . a book has nothing to do with life" (Carrère, p. 54) is understandable; after all, it is an artist's job to take an everyday incident and move it in a different direction, examine how it would replay in different circumstances. But if, as seems to have been the case, one of Dick's problems was a congenital inability to separate real life and imaginings, it is no wonder that Anne would have seen in the fiction a record of underlying hostility. In VALIS, Dick was to produce one of the most astonishingly funny and painfully honest records of mental instability in existence, and there is no wonder that people who had to live with that instability found him difficult to live with.
The actual marriage years—the life that Anne and Phil shared—take up only a third of the book, and the central section follows Dick to the end of his life in 1982. What becomes apparent is that he kept in contact with her throughout those years. She was, after all, bringing up his daughter, but Anne seems convinced that there was a bond beyond that, and beyond what might come across as Dick's desperate neediness. Shortly before his death, Anne told him "I always loved you." Dick, she says, did not respond at all. The truth of the matter must remain unresolved.
The final part of the book seems to be Anne's own exorcism of demons: her investigation into the early life of Philip K. Dick is her own attempt to understand what made him what he was and, perhaps, come to terms with her inability to comprehend both his writing and what drove him to write. As such, it's doomed to failure. While we get some insights into Dick's upbringing and early family life we never get an answer, and it’s highly unlikely that we ever will. Throughout his life, Dick's relationship with his mother was difficult, his father was absent, and he was traumatized by the knowledge that his twin had died soon after birth. There are hints of abuse. But this is part of the received wisdom about Dick, and the source for most of this is Dick himself, who as we have seen was not averse to rewriting his life to attract attention and sympathy. What Anne also stresses is that the paranoia we find in Dick's fiction, especially in early stories such as "Roog" or "Colony" (of which more later), reflects his interior state. She points to several of Dick's novels, both mainstream and science fiction, as reflecting his life in a kind of estranged way. This is clearer and more obvious, perhaps, when she considers those aspects of his life she was close to. Nevertheless, it both helps and hinders.
Whether characters or events in a Dick novel are based upon his own life or feelings is largely irrelevant to experiencing his fiction. It is meaningless to ask whether Philip K. Dick resented his wife asking him to go to the store to buy her some Tampax; what we experience is the reaction of the character in the novel. Anne's petulant question why Dick never told her of his resentment is insensitive both in personal and literary terms. Nevertheless, for Dick to argue that a book "has nothing to do with life" and then go on to write a novel in which one character is called "Horselover Fat" and another is "Philip K. Dick," is disingenuous at best, and a writer who draws upon the mundane events of his life and then romances wildly about them has only himself to blame if he is misinterpreted. Anne Dick seems to be spot on when she describes the paradox of her husband thus: "Underneath his modest manner, he was a forceful powerful person (who felt very weak and was very sorry for himself)" (p. 243). Yet, as she also points out, this is a man who is idolized by his readers, especially his younger, male ones. In the end, we probably can't separate the biographical from the creative aspects of Philip K. Dick, but it does no credit to Dick the writer, who says more about what it was to live in mid-twentieth century USA than many a bigger mainstream name, to romanticize his failings and misfortunes. Like all searches for the "real" Dick, Anne Dick's biography leaves us confused, but it asks many of the right questions.
In contrast, The King of the Elves, volume one of the Subterranean Press revised Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, is in many ways what is wrong about reader reaction to Dick. Proudly announced as an expansion of the previous Collected Stories with new notes and two added tales, it is the kind of small press offering aimed at collectors rather than readers and which, frankly, will do the average reader no good at all. It is part of the "Dick Industry" rather than something that offers anything really significant.
Some of the errors in this uncorrected proof have apparently been amended in the issued volume, so I will just confine myself to two things. First, a "Collected Edition" with notes should mean exactly that, and it would help if a revised collected edition contained new notes. Compared with the edition of the Collected Stories that I have in front of me (the 1988 Gollancz first volume Beyond Lies the Wub), this is actually an inferior work. The Gollancz edition has notes for each story (although many of these notes are simply date of first publication). King of the Elves seems not to have that essential information for most of the stories, and while there are some newer/different notes (for "Mr Spaceship," for example), this actually adds to the irritation of a reader who might expect thorough attention to this aspect of the book. According to the Gollancz edition, many of the notes are Dick's own, from various sources. This is not made clear in the newer incarnation; often only the "I" in the note signifies that it is indeed Dick writing. Who has written the other notes is unclear. What information there is, is often annoyingly imprecise.
The unpublished story is not, in fact a story. It is a fragment. "Menace React" (presumably Dick's title, but this is but one of a number of things that we are not told), found among Dick's papers, may date from Anthony Boucher's writing classes in the early 1950s. We are told that it has been heavily annotated "in an unknown hand"—not Boucher's—and that one of these comments reads "For God's sake, man!": absolutely the reader's reaction, for this is shoddy stuff whose only interest lies in precisely what we are not given. Is this added value in a book which contains stories which, however good (and some of them are Dick at his brilliant best), are easily available in cheaper editions? Perhaps, if we were certain of what we had before us. The note is unclear, but presumably this is the story's opening. (If so, it is a remarkable jump straight into the middle of the action, which deserves a comment. If not, from where did the title come?) If, say, this had been a facsimile page where the annotations are discernible (and so where someone might recognize them) and where what is annotated is clear, and if there was more available information about the story, it would illuminate our sense of Dick trying to find a voice in SF. As it is, there is a faint air of desperation about its inclusion, a need for an excuse when in all honesty a deluxe edition of the collected works of one of our greatest SF writers should need no excuse. The note makes some useful reference to an apparent supercomputer theme hinted at in the fragment, but what it cries out for is a thorough explication of Dick's elliptical style and what he may be trying to do. Otherwise, this really is only one step above the inclusion of a shopping list: in fact, a shopping list would give us some useful biographical information about Dick, whereas this only tells us that Dick tried (and failed) to write a short story.
What's new is not good and what's good is not new. Of course, purchasers of The King of the Elves will still have a very good book indeed. It contains some of Dick's best stories, and it is worth recalling how early some of these stories are, how quickly Dick was advancing science fiction as a literature of ideas rather than gimmicks.
"Roog" (1953) stands out as a story which is both an extended joke—from a dog's point of view, the garbage men are thieves, carrying away the treasures the dog feels it is his duty to guard—and a poignant attempt by Dick to understand another's mind. It is no coincidence that Dick, in his note to the story, stresses that the dog is "crazy." Everything that unsettles us about Dick is here, in his first sale. "Colony" (1953) famously suggests that paranoia is not simply believing that your friends and workmates are out to get you, it is that the everyday objects in the world about you are also part of the conspiracy. Dick's colonists end up literally naked in the face of a hostile world, abandoning everything that could be used against them, and it is not enough. The first Dick story to actually appear in print, "Beyond Lies the Wub" (1952), is, he claims, a story about empathy as the one true human quality. Certainly the spaceship Captain Franco, who would rather eat the "gentle wub" than discuss philosophy with it, is the villain of the piece. But the wub's empathy seems to have evolved as a weapon. Dick's headnote to the 1981 reprint in First Voyages claims that this gives the helpless beast an evolutionary advantage. Is this the same thing as moral superiority? In this respect, the story is a troubling one.
Even many of the minor stories such as "The Little Movement" (1952), a Toy Story-like fable about infiltration through the nursery and "Nanny" (1955), where consumer-capitalist rivalry is fought out through bigger and more violent child-care robots, possess the same warped innocence. What has now become the title story, "The King of the Elves" (1952) is both a moral parable about keeping one's obligations in the guise of a rather silly fantasy and one which takes us deep into the consciousness of someone entering a murderous delusion, but it's our inability to collapse the meaning into one sure and clear interpretation which makes the story so disturbing. Dick is often approached by readers and critics alike as a great writer who was not actually much good at writing, and it's true that there is much that's hasty and slapdash in his work. Still, the narration of this story, and the way the "alternating explanations" are presented through dialogue which in terms of the story is absolutely serious but in terms of what is going on is thoroughly "loaded," is masterly. Just look at:
"I have to meet the Elves at the old oak tree. We must have a general council of war against the Trolls."
"Yes, indeed. The Trolls. Have to watch for the Trolls all the time."
"Trolls are everywhere," Shadrach stated, nodding his head. "I never realized it before. You can't forget them or ignore them. They never forget you. They're always planning, watching you—"
"Then you will remain our king?" an Elf cried.
"It's a hard thing for a man of my age to change. To stop selling gasoline and suddenly be a king. It scared me for a while. But it doesn't any more."
No wonder the Dick mythology has arisen: no wonder everyone from Anne Dick downwards is fascinated by the paradox of someone who seems to embody both closed-in solipsism and desperate attempts to connect to and understand the Other. However, all this core material is available in widely available cheaper editions, so the purchaser of this new iteration of the Collected Stories is buying the presentation rather than the material. Which is fine: this is what small-press limited editions do. It is a shame, though, that the opportunity was not taken to add material value too. A proper critical edition of Dick's short stories would have been a fine thing. Although this is a good book to have, it is not essential.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the School of English, and a widely published critic. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham. He is the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.