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Brian Aldiss on Philip K. Dick

by Andrew May

Originally appeared on the website philipkdick.com

Philip K Dick in the Afterlife: An imaginary conversation
By Brian W Aldiss
Avernus 1992

I recently dug out my copy of this little book, and it occurred to me that, because of its small-press nature, it probably isnít as well known as it ought to be. Iím particularly fond of it because it links two of my favorite authors. Dick, of course, will need no introduction for visitors to this site, while Aldiss (an English author of the same generation as Dick) can sometimes rival him for way-out ideas, plots and characters. But first and foremost Iím a PKD fan - my favorite Aldiss novels are Report on Probability A and The Eighty-Minute Hour, which probably arenít the ones an Aldiss fan would choose.

The book is 24 pages long, and consists of a 5000 word playlet involving just two characters - the spirit of Philip K Dick (ten years after his death, now resident in London near the Albert memorial), and a woman variously identified as his twin sister Jane, his father Edgar, and VALIS. The play was first performed in October 1991, with Petronilla Whitfield as the woman and Aldiss himself playing the part of Dick. I saw a subsequent performance (with the same actors) at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London in March 1992. Thatís where I bought my copy of the book. The room was very crowded, and I was sitting in the second row immediately behind Aldiss (before and after he took his place on stage). I remember my knees were pressing uncomfortably into the back of his chair - the most intimate Iíve ever got with a superstar!

The first thing to say about this work is that the style is pure Aldiss, not Dick - itís quite a jolt to hear old Phil talking in a British idiom (and there are some throwaway jokes that a non-British audience may miss). But the central concerns - "What is human?" and "What is real?" - are Dickian enough. Like a character from one of his novels, the central PKD figure is wont to interpret aspects of his environment (such as the advertisements carried by passing London buses) as personal messages to him from some higher intelligence.

Aldissí intention in the play, as stated in his introduction, is to explore the motivations behind Dickís preoccupations, his personality, and above all, his writing. In the course of this exploration, Aldiss puts some great phrases into Philís mouth, such as -

For all the Dick characterís philosophizing, the greatest light is shed by the female character. At one point she says, with Zen-like insight, "Some people cling to unhappiness as if it were a Gothic form of pleasure, or addiction. Thereís nothing but thinking makes it so."

"... Thinking makes it so" - that is the key. The process of artistic creation, in Dickís novels specifically, but more generally as well, represents the broader theme of this work. A passage from Miltonís Paradise Lost (or "Lost Paradise", as the PKD character calls it) is quoted on a couple of occasions, and could serve as a fitting epitaph for Dick:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven ...


Copyright © 2000 Andrew May

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