Monday, 4 July 2016

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick - review

Although a huge fan of science fiction, I've never been overly fond of the New Wave authors of the 1960s. Their ideas were remarkable - but their stories tended to be relentlessly bleak and unrewarding - a bit like post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd without the wonderful music. And there's no better example than Philip K. Dick. (It's Kindred, since you ask.) The sheer inventiveness of Dick's stories come through in the number of 'adaptations' of his work, from Blade Runner (taken from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to The Man in the High Castle. But the negative side of his work comes across in those inverted commas round 'adaptations' - the stories usually need a lot of adapting to be less odd and nihilistic to work for a wider audience.

I knew nothing about Dick himself before reading The Divine Madness, a kind of psychoanalytic biography that attempt to retro-analyse Dick's strange life and thinking. His upbringing was never going to leave him normal. His twin sister (the book says 'fraternal twin' as if he could have had an identical twin sister, which is odd) died of malnutrition, as Dick almost did, when their mother didn't manage to feed them properly. For some reason, Dick's mother then seems to have brought him up blaming him for his sister's death and telling him he should have died too. Alarmingly, they even put Dick's name on the gravestone. Throw in a mostly absent and uncaring father and it's not entirely surprising the result was a troubled young man.

All the evidence in the book suggests that Dick had a serious mental illness - from apparently staging a burglary at his home (the book's hypothesis as Dick never admitted it) to paranoid delusions - compounded by massive prescription (and other) drug taking. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this slim volume was the occasional analysis of Dick's stories and novels. I had read many of them (though I wasn't fond of New Wave, I read a lot, because I felt I ought to) and it was genuinely interesting to see how a couple of major underlying themes, revolving around the loss of his sister, and the idea that the world we experience is not reality and reality will occasionally poke through and show itself, are replayed time and again. The book also explores effectively why Dick's female characters are almost always evil or unsympathetic.

What I was less sure about was the heavy lashings of psychoanalysis in the book. Freud's work has already been pretty well comprehensively dismissed as pseudoscience, and there is little evidence that later practitioners had any more scientific basis for their work. The Divine Madness, written by Kyle Arnold, an assistant professor of psychiatry, lays the analysis on thick. One clear example of this is when the author claims that the song-game parents play with their babies and toddlers 'Rockabye Baby' plays out a death wish in which the parents secretly want to commit infanticide. Unfortunately, as anyone who has had children this age knows, the game, like the similar action game 'The Farmer goes a-clip', is all about anticipation of a safe drop - it's the nursery equivalent of a rollercoaster ride. It's not about parents secretly wishing to finish off their little ones, any more than theme park ride owners secretly want to kill large numbers of people in vehicle crashes.

There are times it is difficult not to wince when reading the book - and I certainly couldn't include it as a review on the popular science website due to the lack of science - but it does give some fascinating insights into the mental processes and life of a very inventive but tortured science fiction writer.

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick is available from and

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