During the course of his career, sci-fi author Philip K. Dick—who was born on December 16, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois—confronted soulless corporations, authoritarian governments, and divine entities in his novels and short stories. His work has since gone on to inspire generations of science-fiction authors and provide the framework for more than a dozen TV and movie adaptations. Learn more about the fascinating mind behind Blade Runner, Minority Report, and so many other standouts of the genre.
1. Philip K. Dick started reading sci-fi by accident.
Dick started reading science fiction when he was about 12 years old—but it wasn't something he purposefully set out to do: When he went into a store to get the latest copy of Popular Science, he found the shelf empty. A magazine called Stirring Science Fiction caught his eye, and he thought "Well, shit, the title is similar," and decided to pick it up. From then on, he was hooked.
He said the writing, on reflection, was terrible, but he was able to suspend his disbelief and enjoy the offbeat tales. Dick started reading every sci-fi writer he could and followed the genre throughout the rest of his life. In a 1974 interview, he said his favorite writers at the time were John Sladek, Chip Delaney, and Ursula LeGuin.
2. He believed a supernatural voice guided him throughout his life.
Dick claimed on numerous occasions that a disembodied voice would pop up now and again to guide him through crucial moments in his life. He called it Ruah, meaning the spirit of God, and it first began speaking to him in high school when he was stuck on a physics exam, which he says he aced with the voice's help. The voice would reappear for short intervals afterward and only offer brief bits of advice before disappearing again. “I have to be very receptive to hear it. It sounds as though it’s coming from millions of miles away,” Dick once said.
During one such “talk” (which came complete with a blinding pink light), the author claimed the voice alerted him that his son was in danger of dying from an undiagnosed right inguinal hernia. Though Dick's retelling differs from his wife's, they eventually got the baby to a specialist, where he was officially diagnosed and eventually operated on to save his life.
Many of the details surrounding the voice were eventually folded into the book VALIS , where a fictionalized version of Dick (named Horselover Fat) is guided by a similar omniscient pink light. He later said the voice in his head went completely silent after writing The Divine Intervention, the follow-up to VALIS.
3. Philip K. Dick’s first novel only earned him around $1500 in 20 years.
Despite being one of the most acclaimed sci-fi writers of all time, Dick didn't always see a lot of money from his work. In a 1976 interview, he said his first novel, 1955's Solar Lottery, only made him around $1500 (around $7705 today) during the first 20 years after its release—there was a $1000 upfront payment followed by a $500 payment 10 years later for a reprint. A few years after Solar Lottery, his first hardcover novel, 1959's Time Out of Joint, earned him just $750 (around $7500 today).
4. He read actual Gestapo diaries while writing The Man in the High Castle.
The Man in the High Castle shows a terrifying alternate reality in which Nazi Germany and Japan prevailed in WWII and split the world up among themselves. In researching the novel, Dick spent seven years trawling through documents to work out what choices the Nazis could have made to realistically win the war. This included reading actual Gestapo diaries to get into the heads of the Nazi regime.
Though the material gave him the insight necessary to craft a more believable book, the experience was too off-putting for Dick to ever consider writing a follow-up. "I started several times to write a sequel to it and I would [have had] to go back and read about Nazis again," Dick said in an interview. "And I’d just like to off every one of them—it’s what I’d like to do. And so I could never do a sequel to it."
5. He hated the original Blade Runner screenplay.
Blade Runner—based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—is one of the best-known Philip K. Dick adaptations, but the author was less than enamored with the original script written by Hampton Fancher.
“They had cleaned my book up of all of the subtleties and of the meaning […] It had become a fight between androids and a bounty hunter,” Dick said in his final interview. But the studio soon brought in David Peoples to revise the script, which Dick described as “simply sensational.”
6. Dick turned down the chance to write a Blade Runner novel tie-in.
Though Blade Runner is an adaptation of Dick's novel, it's also fairly removed from the original text. To make things more consistent for audiences, the movie studio offered Dick a handsome sum to write a screen-accurate adaptation of the Blade Runner script that would land on shelves for the film's release—but it came with a catch.
"The amount of money involved would have been very great, and the film people offered to cut us in on the merchandising rights. But they required a suppression of the original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in favor of the commercialized novelization based on the screenplay," Dick said. "My agency computed that I would accrue, conservatively, $400,000 if I did the novelization. In contrast, if we went the route of rereleasing the original novel, I would make about $12,500."
Instead, Dick and his agency "stuck to our guns" and re-released the original book, despite the studio's threats that they would forbid them from mentioning Blade Runner on the cover.
7. Every major adaptation of his work was released posthumously.
Though Philip K. Dick's work has spawned numerous TV shows and movies—Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and Total Recall (twice!), to name a few—only one was released while the author was alive. It came in an episode of the 1962 British television series Out of this World, which loosely adapted the author's 1953 short story "Imposter." Unfortunately, every episode of the show except one ("Little Lost Robot") was erased after airing, so there's no way of watching it now.
Dick was alive during the bulk of Blade Runner's production, but he died on March 2, 1982, just months before the movie's release. Fortunately, he did see a few special effects shots from the film during its production and was impressed by what the team came up with, saying that effects wizard Douglas Trumbull captured his version of futuristic Los Angeles perfectly.
His views on the movie had grown more positive by the end of his life, and in his final interview, he even expressed excitement about attending its premiere, saying, “I hear the film's going to have an old-fashioned gala premiere. It means I've got to buy—or rent—a black tuxedo, which I don't look forward to. That's not my style. I'm happier in a T-shirt.”
8. He was turned into an android in 2005. (Then again in 2011.)
In 2005, Hanson Robotics debuted an android modeled on Dick at Wired NextFest. The project was the brainchild of David Hanson and was as true to the genuine article as a mid-2000s android could be. It wore clothes donated by Dick's children, had a synthetic face that was hauntingly lifelike, and spoke in the author's actual voice. To get the speech element right, thousands of pages of Dick's journal entries, interviews, and books were uploaded into the robot's software. This allowed people to ask the android a question and get a response in Dick's voice in return. If you had asked a question that wasn't uploaded into the android, there was a built-in language-deciphering system that would attempt to answer it.
In a strange twist, Dick's robot head was lost after Hanson forgot it in a duffel bag while changing planes bound for San Francisco. A new one was constructed in 2011 for $50,000 and touts improved facial expressions and vision technology.