Gregory Benford is a Nebula winner and a former Worldcon Guest of Honor. He is the author of more than thirty novels, six books of non-fiction, and has edited ten anthologies. He has been our regular science columnist from the get-go.
Rave on, it’s a crazy feelin’ and
I know it’s got me reelin’
I’m so glad that you’re revealin’
Rave on, rave on and tell me—
“I’m gut shot,” Philip K. Dick says.
Harlan Ellison steps back from the front door, out into the blaring Orange County sun. Phil doesn’t have a mark on his wrinkled gray shirt. He does have both hands splayed across his belly, though. “Huh?”
“I mean, I’m venting from both ends, after lunch over at that crummy Mex joint.” Phil waves a hand, Come in, and trudges back into his dingy apartment.
Harlan had found out from his old fan buddy Rog Ebert where Phil Dick lives in a small apartment. Phil doesn’t wear sunglasses indoors. Not the Hollywood type at all.
Harlan comes in and sits while Phil reads the notes he’s brought. Rog Ebert’s doing well as a film reviewer back there in Chicago, where Harlan worked on pulp stuff and getting mostly nowhere. That’s what Hollywood types thought: Ohio and Illinois and just about every damn state that started with a vowel—nowhere. Roger knows everybody in science fiction from his fanzine days. Phil never did fanzines but Harlan had met him at conventions so they’re kinda in the same small incestuous tribe. Harlan had done some background on Phil before setting up this proto-business meeting. Resonances galore.
Phil’s address alone tells the tale: he has washed up in an apartment complex in Santa Ana, his life in the Bay Area having shipwrecked a decade before. Divorced wives, abandoned children. A fan, Bruce Pelz, is a librarian at UCLA and told Harlan, at a LASFS meeting he had gotten sucked into, that Phil had gone to UC Berkeley when he was moving south, asking them to take his collected papers—old manuscripts, letters, notes. They shrugged him off. So did Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, UCLA. Only Cal State Fullerton’s Will McNelly found this out, called Phil, got whatever Phil hadn’t already tossed, funneled it into the Special Collections file cabinets, long term investment. Smart move, Harlan thought. Plus Phil himself moved to Orange County. A bonanza nobody knew fell into their hands.
But the world would, eventually—Harlan is sure of that. Not only does Harlan appreciate that film versions of Dick’s works will be good box office, he also finds the man’s askew writing strangely sympathetic. Harlan feels that weird way himself sometimes, but without drugs or alcohol. When reading Dick, Harlan touches upon his background unease about living. Nostalgia, sure: when Jeffty was five and feeling the wrongness of his small world—he was there, big time. Phil had said he loved that one…
But so much else too. That mordant comedy and wild metaphysics, like Poe maybe. A doomed genius who supplies a style of horrors and frissons. Bling-siding you with cosmic explanations, lightning bolts of brilliance flashing over salty oceans of insanity.
Phil had some of that, funneled through a tremulous fear that his world might flicker and dissolve.
So down the 5 freeway Harlan comes, past the endless light industrial sprawl, down to the Orange County that has damn few oranges on view anymore. Getting off in Santa Ana exposes Harlan to street scenes he seldom knew. Commercial signs are in Spanish, and darker men in cowboy hats, shades, and thick mustaches loiter on corners. Old emotional terrors start to seep into the edges of his perception of this tatty yet sunny barrio. His New York and Ohio street smarts won’t be much good here. Driving himself through the ethnically jumbled streets of Santa Ana cements Harlan ’s unease, but his Thomas Brothers map gets him to Dick’s bland-modern condo building. Parking is easy, unlike Los Angeles. He had rolled the windows closed, locked up and kept his wallet with him.
When he approached the door of Dick’s small condo, he hears something like a cheap motorbike banging. Harlan then took a deep breath to settle his nerves before knocking on the door.
Phil is glaring at Harlan’s pages. Harlan looks around the cluttered living room, where Phil lives like a bear in a cave. The silence stretches so Harlan says, “I could hear you hammering on that Olympia”—a nod to a typewriter surrounded by stacks of manuscript paper—“like a woodpecker on meth.”
Dick’s eyes twinkle. “With one letter change, I am indeed a wordpecker on meth.”
“I did that back in the sixties, not anymore.” A shrug. “Gone semi-straight.”
“Wow,” Harlan manages, looking around the one-bedroom setup. Thin gray rug, big amp speakers for a stereo, paperbacks in bookshelves made of stacked raw pine and cinder block supports. Opera disks. Smart poverty.
“Let’s just say I am between wives.”
“Ha! Me too.”
He has just reread The Man in the High Castle and so expected a rather dour sort; they’d never talked much at cons, just nods. But Phil jerks his head up and says, “How many?”
“I win, I’ve had five. Y’know, had dinner with Bob Bloch, a damn good writer, couple months back. He says, ‘That Harlan is the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water.’ I can see what he means.”
“I started out early. Got expelled for hitting a professor who denigrated my writing ability, first semester. Next twenty or so years, sent that professor a copy of every story I published. Only stopped when I heard he died. Hope I had something to do with that.”
“Right. Jewish artists like Jacob Kurtzberg or Stanley Lieber became Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. They claimed their name change had nothing to do with them trying to hide their Jewish background. I never did.”
Phil stands, tosses Harlan’s proposed ideas aside. He insists on showing off his stereo with glinting, mischievous eyes. He starts Wagner’s Tannhäuser prelude and after a few moments asks, “Can you hear the nuances from the left speaker?”
Harlan nods. Not his fave music.
“Good, good. I can’t. I went to a doctor to check and found that I’m losing my hearing in the left ear. Good news. I was afraid it was my speakers!”
A woman abruptly slams in the front door in a hurry and without looking at them strides into the bedroom. Harlan stares in her direction when she barges out carrying two suitcases.
Phil just shrugs. “Girlfriend moving out.”
Harlan murmurs some commiseration, knowing the vagaries of women only too well.
Phil says, “You’d guess that a guy who won the Hugo for best SF novel would do better with women.”
Harlan thinks it doubtful. “I’m burned out on Hollywood women. Actresses, more so.”
Phil is still swaying to the Wagner, a foot stomping to the big drumbeats. He leans over and whispers, “I came damn near to dating Ursula Le Guin.”
“What? You’re shittin’ me.”
“No, we were in the same high school class in Berkeley. Senior year, same class as that actor, Robert Culp.”
“Geez! He played the lead in a TV drama of mine, ‘Demon with a Glass Hand.’ Sharp guy.”
“He was on our track team. Not that I ever did such. Once I asked Ursula out. Her eyes got big and round and she just shook her head, backed away. Talked to her decades later on the phone, corresponded some. She said we never met. Maybe so, I just walked up, don’t think I even said my name, asked her out—figured she was a book gal, same as me. Couldn’t score with her.”
Harlan laughed. “Imagine the books you two could’ve written together.”
Phil gives him a thin sly grin. “I’d rather not. She was class wallflower—or would’ve been if she ever came to a dance. I was class oddball. Told my parents I was going to the dance but slipped the lock to the school library and spent the evening reading. Found some Raymond Chandler that way.”
Harlan warms to the memories. “Chandler—what a guy! Even though he hated science fiction. His voice is not the voice of logic but the voice of experience, with all the jaded disaffection that comes from knowing firsthand how senseless and self-contradictory a composite metropolis like Los Angeles necessarily is. Has to be.”
Phil is looking out the window. “Chandler isn’t everybody’s cup of bourbon. But he got some things right that still are. Santa Ana too, yeah, it’s probably no crookeder than Los Angeles. But you can only buy a piece of a big city. You can buy a town this size all complete, with the original box and tissue paper.”
“So you and me, we’re both just high school grads.”
“I bounced out of UC Berkeley right away. Otherwise I’d have learned about words I’d learned from reading, but which I’d never heard pronounced, like ‘chaos’ and ‘outré’ and such.”
Phil says this as he moves to the window. An odd pink glow seems to frame him in the view. The light has an oily quality that seems to wrap around him. He looks up into the strange sunlight and changes the subject. “Do you ever think about the meaning of scripture, transcendental matters?”
Dick’s eyes widen a bit. “That coincidence—Culp being in your TG show, and in school with me and Ursula. Think that’s an accident?”
“Uh, yeah.” Where is this going?
“You saw that pink light, just now? When that comes to me, I know a connection is getting made.”
“Uh, Culp wrote for TV too, like me…”
Phil waves that away. “More proof, then. See, back in1974, I was recovering from some meds I got after getting a wisdom tooth pulled. I got home delivery of Darvon from a young dark-haired girl. My eyes fixed on her golden necklace, a fish-shaped design. ‘This is a sign used by the early Christians,’ she said, and pow!—I knew something big had come to me. She then left, smiling mysteriously. That symbol is the vesicle Pisces.”
“Yeah, seen it on bumper stickers—”
“The sun glinted off the gold pendant, made a pink beam. Flat-out mesmerized me. It imparted wisdom and clairvoyance to me.” Phil straightened his posture, glanced back at the window—which had no pink glow now.
“I also believe it to be intelligent. It came to me again, a separate recurrence. It imparted to me that my infant son was ill. We, my wife and I, we rushed him to the hospital. My suspicion was confirmed!” Phil spread his arms, palms up, as if to a divine blessing. “By professional diagnosis. I knew I was right about that light.”
“Hey, great.” Harlan thinks about how to get away from this. Back to the outlines he had made of three of Phil’s novels that he can pitch to studios. Obviously, without Phil along. That was the major point he had to make, coming here. He stands up. Phil is too rocky to take into a pitch. Maybe best not to go into the outlines he’s written. He’ll just wing it, if he can get to see a welcoming director. He had thought to use Phil’s name recognition to get in. He still can, just not have Phil the man along. That could come later….
Phil peers at him. “Believe in an afterlife?”
“Not much. I’ll live on in my stories, that’s it. Uh, you?”
Phil looks down and away from Harlan. “Let’s say the church I currently don’t attend is Episcopal.”
“I prefer to worship in my own way.” A lie, but maybe useful.
“Ah! I’m a friend of the Bishop Pike brand of Christianity, kinda weird Episcopal,” Dick says with evident relief. Then he speaks of hearing a voice from the cosmic sky but allows that what he heard from on high tended to vary often.
Spending time with someone else who has gone to strange places is somehow comforting for Harlan. It’s not crazier than the stuff he hears from the dope crowd, is it? “Thing is, I think my ideas about getting your novels into more movies could amplify your spiritual stuff. Plenty film possibilities, if the timing works out.”
Phil just nods. Once people are ready. If I’m ready, Harlan muses. “I figure I’ll do the pilot script, yes?”
“You’ll have to. I’m a novelist, you’re the short story guy, scripts too. Once was, I wrote eleven novels in a two year stretch. Trick is to not write any of them twice. I had energy. Not now.”
Harlan nods. “You’ve got plenty of fans, that’s what matters.”
“Yep, that’s why I hide out from them.” A quick, frowning stab of eye contact. “You didn’t give anybody my address, did you?”
“Years back, I heard somebody was selling it. So I moved.”
Harlan understood. There’s nothing more exciting to an adolescent reader than an unknown genre writer who speaks to your condition and has something great about him. Phil’s Ace paperback cover promised mere thrills but the writing provides real meaning. Harlan had felt that, too. The combination of evident value and apparent secrecy made Elmore Leonard fans feel more for their writer-hero than mainstreamer Borges lovers are allowed to feel for theirs. When they tell you it’s going to be good, what more can you hope for it to be? But if you find a genius visionary in a fifty cent per copy doorway into another mind, you’re enlisted in a Cause. Even if, as with Phil, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences.
Harlan has learned to just nod.
Several years passed before he ran into Phil again. He says hello to Ursula Le Guin and there is Phil, beaming. The con comm says Phil is a last minute add to a panel on New Ideas in SF because they were unsure he would show up at all. So the three of them go on and do the usual, lacing their commentary with sly humor and some deft self-promo. Le Guin is funny and self-deprecating, shy. She calls Phil “our own homegrown Borges.” Phil looks puzzled. The Loscon audience is decently behaved and large. But partway through that a fan makes a dumbass joke about “City on the Edge of Whatever” and Harlan loses it. He’s in the middle of a lawsuit about this same ancient Star Trek script, so shoots back, “TV is full of art defilers! Script assassins!” and somebody shouts back a jibe about, “You’re a colleague of H. P. Hatecraft, Harlan!” and Harlan loses it even more. Some things you can’t let pass.
Ursula says, “The world scoffs at old ideas. It distrusts new ideas. It loves tricks. In movies, especially. I can’t think of any better example than the climax of The Godfather, in which Michael Corleone attends the baptism of his godson—played by the infant Sofia Coppola—as his enemies are executed on his orders.”
Phil just laughs and tries to restore calm with, “A good Trek title, that was, Harlan. Cosmic. I always knew I couldn’t write good titles. If I could, I’d have been an advertising writer instead of a novelist.”
That gets laughs so Harlan says, “Ever revisit your titles, then?” He does not notice that Ursula blinks furiously and slips away, lips pursed.
To his surprise Phil says, “Yeah, my novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep got picked up for a movie. They want a retitle of—”
Harlan blinks. “You mean, optioned?”
“No, bought. I hated the first few screenplays. A guy named Ridley Scott took the helm, got things into motion. He saw an Alan E. Nourse book somewhere and liked its title, The Bladerunner. So he stuck that on it.”
Harlan thinks he would sell his right arm to have Scott do his stuff, but just says, “Has he got a star yet?”
Phil shakes his head. “I refused to do a novelization of the film so they’re not too friendly with me, ignored my ideas. I heard they liked my pick, Robert Mitchum. Too old, they said, to play the lead. Then Dustin Hoffman.”
This astounding news sets Harlan’s envious teeth on edge. Phil goes on, “A producer named Herb Jaffe got his son Robert to do yet another screenplay. The kid flew down to Santa Ana to speak with me about the project. And the first thing I said to him when he got off the plane was, ‘Shall I beat you up here at the airport, or shall I beat you up back at my apartment?’ That was before Ridley Scott came on board.”
More astonishing news. Harlan opens his mouth to say something cutting and witty, can’t think of anything, so Phil says, “So guy named Hampton Fancher finally wrote a good, solid script. After I finished reading the screenplay, I got the novel out and looked through it. The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel.”
Harlan struggles to not show any envy. Fixed smile, bright eyes, no frowns. “What’s the look of this Blade Runner future?”
“That Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks, Ridley said.” Phil says this blandly, as if discussing the weather.
“Classy,” is all Harlan can manage.
“They were surprised I refused a $400,000 offer to ‘novelize’ the script. They said the cheapo novelization would have to appeal to the twelve-year-old audience. That would have probably been disastrous to me artistically.”
Harlan stares at Phil, as if across an abyss. “I admire that.”
“That insistence on my part of bringing out the original novel—they were just furious. They finally recognized that there was a legitimate reason for reissuing the novel, even though it cost them money. It’ll come out with the film poster as a cover and the original title in parentheses below the Blade Runner title. It’ll be a victory not just of contractual obligations but of principles.”
Harlan finally can’t hold it. He springs up, shouting, says, “You should’ve told me about getting a big studio deal!”
The crowd stirs: here comes prime gossip. Phil rises as well, the panel hour is over, Le Guin gone. Harlan launches into a stream of sputtering invective. Norman Spinrad stands up at the back, both laughing and talking. Phil just squats, saying nothing, grabs Harlan at the waist, and—incredibly!—hoists him up. Phil tilts to the side and Harlan fits on his hip. Laughing, Phil strides offstage, Harlan struggling. It is the most embarrassing moment of his life. When Phil puts him down he stands still, blinking. For the first time in his life, Harlan has nothing to say.
Driving down the 5 freeway, the sun has peeled back the last layer of gray and now glares down. The morning air outside now has a wiggle in it. The breeze blew hot and out to the sea. A mounting Santa Ana flurry. The devil wind sucked the air dry, raked an all-day itch across your skin, and urged closeted pyros to light a match. Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind.” He draws in the odors of bottlebrush trees, eucalyptus, sage, ragweed, desert and chaparral vegetation…everything his sinuses hates. Plus dry air to irritate them further.
Coming down here, so far from the Hollywood dreamscape, he sees what much of SoCal is for others. Towns that are now just offramps. He couldn’t tell Fullerton from Santa Ana. They were cheek by jowl near fake-hacienda suburbs only a short way from bleak boulevards of broken dreams. Yawning concrete slab streets with empty sidewalks, where payday loans sign light up red and green like an advertisement for a Christmas that would never come. The hum of distant traffic like giant insects, hovering everywhere.
It has been over a year after Phil hoisted him along in front of that con panel audience. Harlan recalls it as a peak of spitting rage, followed in seconds with a rueful realization. Everybody was laughing, but they were laughing with him. Incredibly. So he just grins. And they laughed even more.
Immediately fandom thinks the two of them rigged it for show. So what? It embeds the moment in the passing fan culture. Harlan recalls P. T. Barnum’s great advice, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Or maybe it was Mencken. Or Heinlein.
So zoom he does, down to see Phil. His next visit has a point. What’s more, Phil doesn’t even seem to recall the convention incident.
“Look,” Harlan says over a takeout Mexican lunch at Phil’s, “my work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. So ‘gadfly’ is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous.”
“Um,” Phil grunts skeptically around a bean and pork burrito.
“So I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I’m a combination of Zorro and a Jiminy Cricket, sharp swords and fast chirping. My stories go out to raise hell.”
“Seems to me you write to shock.”
Harlan smiles and nods. “Precisely. That’s why I can help you get into movies. Big-time. More than with just the one book. You’re a shocker.”
“I’ve got an even better deal going on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep now. The script looks even better. Something about starships on fire, Ridley told me on the phone. They started on it in late 1980 and shooting should be nearly done soon, by January 1982.”
“Good! Might work, with that good a director. You’re going in at the top. Still, Heinlein and Asimov and so many others—all great, with no movies.”
Harlan pauses. Phil just doesn’t seem to care much about this. Maybe age was getting to Phil? The man shrugs, eyeing the window next to him. “Y’know, I’m an agoraphobe. Don’t like high views. You?”
Another side channel. “Uh, no.”
“I was over at a party at Benford’s, Laguna Beach. He has a big sweeping deck on Skyline Drive, close-in view of downtown and the Pacific. Had a champagne setup out there that everybody went to, watching the sunset, toasting to it. I sat in the living room with my back to it the whole time. Couldn’t bear to even turn and look out. First time I realized I want the inner view, y’know?”
And live like a bear in a cave, yes… Harlan’s voice goes whispery. “I can get that inner stuff into a script. The sudden insights—”
“Talk about insights! Turns out Benford is a twin, identical. I had a twin sister, y’know. She died six weeks after we were born together. I talked to Benford about that, envy him. His twin is a physicist too. She…lives on in me. I feel it.”
“Your stories have plenty of doubles, twins, simulacra.”
“Yeah, they do.” Phil gazes off into the distance. “Kind of the way writers have to live. We’ve got this inner world. Nobody pays us much, but we know we’re doing something artful, as well as we can do it. Maybe as well as it can be done.”
Harlan wants to nudge their talk back toward business. “Too true. Me, I’ve got plenty experience, TV mostly. Gives me a substantial advantage in futuristic screenplays. I know the ropes and the tropes.”
“Okay. I want to show you where my work is going,” Phil says, slurping on a takeout margarita. Harlan is beginning to understand this guy, though much remains mysterious. His own home that he calls Ellison Wonderland has a spanning view of the valley. He likes looking out at mountains while he hammers away on his manual typewriter. His inner self explodes onto the page, while he looks out at distant spectacles.
Phil gets up and puts on a disc. Buddy Holly rings clearly through the small room, “Rave on, it’s a crazy feelin’ and I know it’s got me reelin’—”
“So let me rave, okay?” Phil Dick leans forward, eyes piercing. “See, damn near all my work starts with the basic assumption that there cannot be one single, objective reality. Cannot.”
Harlan leans back and nods, putting on his pondering face, as he has learned to do with Phil. The man is wearing baggy trousers and a worn shirt, a Berkeley bohemian with wrinkled clothes, stringy gray hair, dirty fingernails, an apparent indifference to shaving. Not Hollywood, no.
Harlan can see the throat muscles straining as Phil’s reedy voice squeezes out, “So y’see, for a movie of High Castle, I really want a last scene, toward the end. When we’ve overthrown the Nazis, and their leaders—including Adolf!—get tried for their war crimes. The Führer’s last words are Deutsche, hier steh’ ich—which means, ‘Germans, here I stand.’ Damn powerful stuff.”
“That takes the movie pretty far afield—” Harlan begins.
“Look, one major theme of my stories asks the question, What constitutes the authentic human being? So this movie, the universe where the Axis won, it’s only shadows in our universe.”
“I want to have Hitler not get hanged, but fade away, kinda evaporate into gray mist. To suggest that it’s not necessarily real. See?”
“Isn’t that something like ending it with, ‘It was all a dream’?”
Phil stands, pumped with energy, scowling. “Hell no! That’s not what I mean at all.”
Harlan stares at Phil. Getting through the script phase is always tough, especially working with a table full of exec producers and riffraff. All with lots of notes and bright, new dumb ideas, crap from the usual suspects. But Phil keeps waving a copy of Harlan’s latest High Castle script revision, eyes wide.
This happens every time Harlan talks to Phil—the big swerve. It is 6:00 p.m. on a Friday, usually Harlan ’s hour to take a dive into the Hollywood scene—bars with overpriced beers, cocky Ray-Bans, carefully tuned tans, perfect hair, scheming eyes. He’s ‘between wives’ after all. But he is stuck here, waiting out the freeway traffic. All to lower the risk of pushing the man into some lurching act-out scene when they finally got in for a big full script pitch at a studio. The money boys were fans. They wanted to see The Man Himself.
No, better to let him spout his steam here. Writers! he thinks. I’m one, but sure as hell not like this.
With careful calm he says, “I’ll take this new slant up with the studio guys. Kick it around a little. New idea for an ending.”
“Those pikers don’t know an ending from their own ass!”
“Um, well, y’know, Phil, I have to work within the studio system—”
“That’s your mistake. You should be an independent. Sing free!”
Phil waves this away and says, “Look, what I’m getting at is kinda like something where I live, here—just a few miles from Disneyland. For years they had the Lincoln simulacrum running there. Like Lincoln himself, pretty good robot. So y’see, that Lincoln was only a temporary form, which matter and energy take”—he spread his arms wide—“and then lose.”
Harlan wonders if Phil is onto something or just daft.
“See, the same is true of each of us, like it or not. Fake realities will create fake humans. Or fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans—turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland, see? You can have the pirate ride or the Lincoln simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride—you can have all of them, but none is true. But a movie can be! See?”
Phil has succumbed to the American faith that if a novel is good enough, important enough, it will be made into a movie, and so become immortal.
“Ahhhh…” he begins, pauses. How to now get the man off this tirade? Not let it disturb the movie script they are trying to hatch?
Phil says, “Y’know, people think we science fiction writers predict the future. I remember that the US Department of the Interior made a thorough prediction of trends in 1937, and they missed atomic energy, computers, radar, antibiotics, and World War II. Yet they all kept on with this simpleminded, linear extrapolation that was merely a new way to be stupid in an expensive fashion.”
Harlan feels a twinge, a resonance, and says, “That’s why I never grew up. Not deep down, where it matters.” He shoots out his hands, beseeching. “I don’t want to predict! Hell, you and me, we have high school educations. We live in illusions, sometimes our past—at least the rent is cheaper there. My home is festooned with the kind of collectibles young boys had, right? Cartoon and Western and space figurines, pop culture oddities, paraphernalia of every kind extending back to the pulp and radio eras. It was the house you dream of when you’re a short Jewish kid in Painesville, Ohio, and real life is an actual physical battle.”
Phil nods. “Me too, but I don’t like junk on shelves. See, I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have. Sure, maybe it’s my past world. Because the world we actually have does not meet my standards. I can see now that the universe is information—” he too thrusts out his hands—“and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. We’re something like computers, really, compiling our reality as we go. It’s a pink truth. Harlan, I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist.”
“I think High Castle will make that clear to the public,” Harlan says rather stiffly, to mollify the man and get him to move on.
Phil shrugs off the idea, his face knotting. “See, I’ve been having…visits. Visions.” Phil leans forward earnestly.
“Like I’ve lived other lives. I’m sure of it now. Like I’m remembering something that was real, solid—recalling it at last.”
“You remember being where?”
“Back when I was twelve I had a dream of searching in Astounding Stories for a story called ‘The Empire Never Ended’ that would reveal the mysteries of existence. That was the Roman past speaking to me! The empire that’s still here. Questioning reality is not just ‘What if’—it’s ‘My God; what if’—see?”
“Look, Phil, we can maybe get some of that into the High Castle movie, if we play it right.”
Phil nods quickly, eyes intent. “I can see how to do that better now. The visions continue to get more real, specific, recovered memories. Scenes of ancient Rome—jammed streets beneath those temples, torches, riots, dirty togas. All superimposed over my boring Santa Ana neighborhood. I’ll look at a local playground and see a Roman prison. Behind a chain-link fence I saw iron bars peeking through. Children playing, laughing—but I saw overlaid on them Christian martyrs, sobbing, about to be fed to lions or the gladiators. People on the street, they had Roman military uniforms or tunics. Stone walls, brass doors, right beside Trader Joe’s.”
Could this vision thing be how Phil worked until now, in his twenties, when he sold a short story nearly every week?
“I didn’t go back in time, see, but in a sense Rome came forward. To me. My past self was getting through by insidious and sly degrees, under new names, hidden by the flak talk and phony obscurations, at last into our world again.”
Harlan blinks. “How?”
“Suppose that time stopped in a.d. 70, the year the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by a Roman siege. Everything that happened afterward was an illusion, see? So our world is still under Rome’s dominion.”
Definitely woo-woo. But Harlan lets the man ramble on, hoping for some nugget of truth. Could Phil mean he was some scrambled, reincarnated self?
“I believe the Roman Empire is active, not just images I can see. It was embodied in the tyrannical Nixon administration, for sure. They’re responsible for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I—”
“What’s your role in this, then, Phil?” Harlan has to stop this flood, redirect it.
“I’m an undercover Christian revolutionary, fighting to overthrow the empire. Pink truth! That’s why I react so much when I see a passing pretty blonde wearing the fish emblem, the Christian sign.”
“What’s all this mean?” Or is he just in a rave-on?
Phil leans back and peers at the ceiling, eyes veiled, breath shallow and fast. “Here I’m going to call on your faith in me. I’m telling truth here. I got this through revelations that start with a portal of pink light. These memories, they always start with that pink. It’s a spiritual force that unlocks my consciousness. It’s divine, see? It grants me access to esoteric knowledge. So I’ve fictionalized these experiences in a novel, VALIS. Stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System—which is what’s telling me this. It’s a transcendental, mystical mind, see?”
Phil leans forward and words fly from his mouth at machine-gun pace, a hoarse fusillade.
“I’m forming up a trilogy, all constellating around a basic theme. In the novel a guy I named Horselover Fat—who’s really me, my name translated from Greek and German Dick means thick or fat—comes across a perfect description of the Black Iron Prison. Which we all live in, not knowing, but set in the far future. If you superimpose the past—say, ancient Rome, where I lived and rebelled—over the present California in the twentieth century, then superimpose the far future world. In the future, y’see, drug use is widespread, and the age of consent has been lowered to twelve—more fun for all, I guess. So you got the empire, as the supra- or trans-temporal constant. Everyone who has ever lived is literally surrounded by the iron walls of the prison; they are all inside it and none of them know it. Except those of us who can see the past, lived there.”
Harlan doesn’t know how to respond, and Phil then stands, arms thrown out as if to an audience, and bursts into rasping baritone song.
“Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled forever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.”
Phil sits down, grinning. “That’s from the sixteenth century. I learned it as a boy—in that century.”
“You mean you can recall yourself in multiple past lives?”
“Yes! I doubt my previous selves ever knew their past, but now I do. God pointed it out to me with the pink light.” He leans back and sighs, contented. “Y’know, the technical term for this is ‘theophany’—self-disclosure by the divine.”
Harlan recalls that he too had toyed with the idea that he was being divinely reincarnated. That phase lasted maybe a month. In high school. Then he started looking into physics. Not much progress there, either.
“Why does it have to be from God?”
Phil seems startled by this. He considers, face furrowed with passing emotions, and then says abruptly, “Okay, take a science fiction approach, then. I’ll put it this way. We appear to be memory coils—that is, DNA carriers capable of experience—in a big, computer-like thinking system. See? So all of humanity, through time, has correctly recorded and stored thousands of years of experiential information—lives lived, stored. We’re in this system now, see? And each of us possesses somewhat different deposits from all the other life-forms, data stacked up. Sometimes, like my past in ancient Rome, there’s a malfunction—a failure—of storage. Some info comes right into our experience. We feel it, see it, again.” He pauses, eyes distant. “Weirdness abounds at the edge between worlds. Eeriness radiates from the ruins of lost ones.”
“How much of the life do you recall?” As a pulp writer on speed…
Phil waves this away. “Snatches, mostly fights. Plus boring manual labor—we have no idea how easy we have it today!”
“So is this VALIS thing useful?” Like telling you what movies will be hits? Now, that would be useful…
Harlan sits back and thinks while Phil relates another event. He had experienced an incident of “xenoglossy”—which Phil says was the sudden ability to speak koine, a common Greek dialect during the high point of the civilization. His wife transcribed some, and a linguist identified it. “I had it for days, then gone. But it came back when I took Sandoz.”
“LSD-25. I took it to test if I was mentally ill. I passed.”
“Speaking Greek on LSD.”
“Yeah, what else? Look, I know my kinda divine madness sounds like somethin’ mental, but it wasn’t. Sharp, clear memories—from two thousand years ago.”
Harlan wonders if these were psychotic breaks or a religious experience, and how would one tell the difference? And if not psychosis, is Dick’s mental universe rooted in the same weirdness as his own writing?
Once he started actively working with Phil, he saw that the man still sometimes used amphetamines to write fast, even now, with movie money coming in. There were good reasons the team making Blade Runner didn’t have him come around much. His refrigerator was stuffed with bottles of amphetamine pills jammed in next to premade milkshakes. Phil gulped the pills by the handful and washed them down with the milkshakes, calling them his “happiness pills” and “nightmare tabs.”
Phil seems to read Harlan’s mind. “I know, I know—I admit it, I’m a flipped-out freak—”
“Have you ever had, uh, anything happen to you that was…uh, like reliving history? Your own personal history?”
Phil looks suspiciously at him. “Maybe…. The pink light comes and changes how I think.”
Ding-ding goes his doorbell. With relief he holds up a hand to stop Phil and bounds across the small living room to answer it himself.
“Ah!” Harlan cries in relief as he takes a script from a studio messenger. “Sorry, Phil, I promised I’d read this—studio stuff from an exec producer, prepping for our High Castle pitch.”
Phil fidgets, eyes dancing, and in a burst of energy says, “Hey, good idea, go to those script guys, but get that new Hitler ending in the script, right? Good scene!”
Harlan can but nod. Phil does not know that screenwriters regard original authors as pests. He thinks of a way to convey this sad truth to the man but something draws his attention. A pink glow. Through the window near the front door. Shimmering.
Within an instant Phil goes toward the door like a man fleeing devils, slamming it open. But then, Harlan thinks, that is his style, yes—the whole massive bulk of fearful demons half seen.
Could poor Phil be a degenerated example of multiple rebirths? Or reincarnations, maybe a better term? Has Phil ratcheted down through millennia, somehow passing through different bodies? Then others who claim to have past lives are plausible candidates. Could weird double lives be muddled in the minds of people farther down the pipeline of time?
Harlan realizes he has gotten caught up in Phil’s vortex. The man knows how to mesmerize.
Phil cries out, “Come see! Here’s the pink light. Radiant. So much of it this time!”
Harlan sees over Phil’s shoulder a true deep pink beam bristling, lancing down from a cloud. It has an intense burning seethe. He can smell an acrid stench.
The beam strikes Phil smack in the face. He topples backward.
Harlan runs over to him. His eyes are open, gazing at the pencil beam that plays across his face now, impossibly narrow. Harlan turns to look at the beam and then stops himself. The bristling heat emitted from Phil’s face is like a roasting oven.
“I see it all now,” Phil says in a mild, happy tone. He smiles.
Harlan runs to the phone. He dials 911 and barks out the address. “Hurry!”
He slams the phone back down. When he reaches Phil, the man’s face is split by a broad grin. Eyes wide. He is looking at the cloud above. Harlan deliberately does not.
He stands there and sees the light leave first Phil’s face and then his eyes. The man who grasped at so many truths is gone.
Harlan has a hunch that makes him smile too. It was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk. But it makes him happy.
With thanks to Gregg Rickman, Dave Truesdale, the late Grania Davis and to Phil and Harlan themselves. —GB
Copyright © 2018 by Gregory Benford