Tuesday, December 29, 2015

article: Philip K Dick in Sonoma County

(originally published in North Bay Bohemian September 20, 2015)

Total Recall

How Philip K. Dick's North Bay experiences influenced his work

Philip K. Dick is the van Gogh of science fiction writers, striding the hazy line between genius and insanity. PKD, as his fans call him, never lived to see his writing transformed into such blockbuster films as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau and A Scanner Darkly. North Bay fans of his stories should know that he lived in the area, and his time here shows up in his work.

feature-1-d58ad8b9ec8ae943.jpgWhen Dick died in 1982 at age 53, his New York Times obituary described him as a "prolific, sometimes visionary science-fiction writer, whose multilayered stories probed the discrepancies between illusion and reality." While bureaucratic absurdities are Kafkaesque and governmental overreach is Orwellian, in the world Dick created, reality itself conspires against you.

Dick never lived to see the amazing and lasting legacy his labors gave birth to, but it's intriguing to follow his path through the North Bay to see how it influenced his skewed literary visions. Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago and grew up in Berkeley. He began visiting Sonoma County as a child and lived in Sonoma at 550 Chase St. with Joan Simpson in the summer of 1977.

A character with Simpson's name appears in Dick's short story "The Day Mr. Computer Fell Out of Its Tree." The two were introduced by Dick's childhood friend Ray Nelson, who co-authored The Ganymede Takeover with him. Nelson also wrote the short story "Eight O'clock in the Morning," which was the basis for the cult sci-fi film They Live.

Anthony Peake wrote in A Life of Philip K. Dick: The Man Who Remembered the Future that Dick attended the Cazadero Music Camp when he was 11. While there, he nearly drowned in the Russian River, and developed a lifelong fear of water.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dick lived in Point Reyes Station with his third wife, Anne. It was there that he wrote The Man in the High Castle, his Hugo Award–winning masterpiece recently adapted into a TV series by Amazon Studios.

In a 2010 New York Times article on Dick's time in West Marin, the writer Jonathan Lethem said in an interview it was Dick's most productive time. Lethem included five novels from Dick's time in Point Reyes Station in the Library of America anthologies that he edited.

"The river of his literary ambitions—his interest in 'respectable' literature—joins the river of his guilty, disreputable, explosively imaginative pulp writing," Lethem told the Times. "It's the most important passage of his career—more masterpieces in a shorter period of time."

Anne Dick says in an email that Dick was a fan of Jack London. He visited Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, and had read his works. London's 1908 dystopian novel, The Iron Heel, inspired 1984, according to Orwell biographer Michael Shelden, and probably struck a chord with Dick.
Sonoma County features in several of his short stories. "Exhibit Piece" mentions a camping trip to the Russian River, and a character in The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike lived in Fountain Grove, now part of Santa Rosa. In "What'll We Do with Ragland Park?" a character owns Sonoma Valley vineyards.

Dick even mentions Luther Burbank, the plant (and marketing) wizard of Santa Rosa, in the short story "A Terran Odyssey":
   Scratching his nose, Hardy murmured, "What did you have in mind?"
   "Maybe I could find a mutant potato that would feed everybody in the world."
   "Just one potato?"
   "I mean a type of potato. Maybe I could become a plant breeder, like Luther Burbank. There must be millions of freak plants growing around out in the country, like there's all these freak animals and funny people here in the city."
   Hardy said, "Maybe you could locate an intelligent bean."
   "I'm not joking about this," Stuart said quietly.

The story later became the 1965 book Dr. Bloodmoney, a post-apocalyptic novel that features a self-governing community in West Marin menaced by Hoppy Harrington, a Thalidomide baby missing all of his limbs who gets around with servo-powered prosthetics and aggressive powers of psychokinesis.

The town of Sonoma is headquarters for the Rhipodian Society in Dick's semi-autobiographical novel VALIS ("Vast Active Living Intelligence System"). VALIS is based on a series of mystical visions that Dick had between February and March 1974 while living in Santa Ana, which he called the "2-3-74" or "Pink Light" experience. Robert Crumb, of Zap Comix fame, illustrated a version of the event that he titled "The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick" in Weirdo issue 17. Dick continued writing about this experience for the rest of his life, trying to interpret and explain it to himself. His voluminous notes were stored in a home in Glen Ellen and published posthumously as his 944-page Exegesis.

The Pink Light experience begins with Dick in great pain after having his wisdom teeth removed. When the pharmacy delivered his medication, he opened the door and light reflected off the young delivery woman's fish medallion. Mesmerized, he asked what it was, and she explained it was a symbol of the early Christians.

Dick said he then entered a time-slip and felt himself co-existing in ancient Rome just after the crucifixion. Another personality from that era took him over for about a year. In his shorthand notes, he called our world the Black Iron Prison and wrote repeatedly, "The [Roman] Empire never ended."

Later, he said a pink light flashed in his eyes and beamed information into his brain, telling him his son had a congenital hernia and needed immediate surgery. Dick was right. After taking his son to the hospital, he was told by a doctor that his child could have died at any time.
Information kept flooding into Dick's brain, which he thought came from an ancient alien satellite orbiting our planet. The Pink Light experience formed the basis of VALIS and The Divine Invasion, and the film Radio Free Albemuth directed by John Alan Simon.

In 1978, Dick attended the Octocon II convention in Santa Rosa. The guest of honor was Dune author Frank Herbert, who wrote and took photos for the Press Democrat from 1949 to 1953. While it is unclear whether Dick connected with Herbert at that convention, he definitely met Robert Anton Wilson, author of The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

Wilson had had his own mystical experience, which he thought came from the star Sirius, around the same time as Dick had his visions. The two discussed their common experiences at the Octocon convention.

In his foreword to the first book in the Cosmic Trigger trilogy, Wilson describes their conversation: "My impression was that he was worried his experience was a temporary insanity, and was trying to figure out if I was nutty, too. . . . The parallels to my own experience are numerous, but so are the differences. If the same source was beaming ideas to both Phil and me, the messages got our individual flavors mixed into them as we decoded the signals." One of Dick's characters in VALIS even mentions having read Cosmic Trigger.

The world that Dick knew has slowly transformed into a Phildickian story. Paranoid PKD never imagined the voluntary popularity of data mines like Facebook. Smartphones spying on their owners is predictably Orwellian; the twist is now they are must-have status symbols.
Dick would probably be pleasantly surprised to see solar-powered homes sprouting like mushrooms across the county, but the near-monopolistic Pacific Gas & Electric's effort to cut compensation for residential solar power generators and increase fees for solar customers has a faintly Phildickian feel.

Maybe he wasn't so paranoid after all.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

article: Frank Herbert ("Dune") in Santa Rosa

(Originally published in North Bay Bohemian Feb. 4, 2015)

Sci-Fi Pioneer
'Dune' author Frank Herbert's early career in Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa is world-famous for its plant wizards and beer alchemists, but few people know its place in science fiction history.
Photo courtesy of Jack Vance estate

Long before Frank Herbert published his masterpiece Dune in 1965 he lived in Santa Rosa when his first sci-fi short story got printed in 1952. Traces of Santa Rosa can be found throughout his later books, including Dune.

Herbert moved to Santa Rosa in April 1949 with his wife, Beverly, and two-year-old son, Brian. They were soon joined by Bruce, born two years later. Herbert worked for the Press Democrat for four years as a photojournalist, writing a wide variety of features, columns and news articles—including one about the very first Doyle Scholarship Fund check presented to Santa Rosa Junior College. The Herbert family moved to Lake Chapala, Mexico, with sci-fi writer Jack Vance in September 1953 to start a writer's colony.

My search for this lost archive of Frank Herbert articles started when SRJC journalism instructor Anne Belden took our news-gathering class on a field trip to the Press Democrat last year. I asked the editors if they had an index of the articles Herbert wrote while working there.

"We haven't digitized issues going that far back," editor Jim Sweeney said. "But I, for one, would be interested in seeing that. Maybe we'll have an intern do that some day."

"OK, you talked me into it," I quipped.

At the time, I was just joking, but later I started taking the idea seriously. My research began last summer when Sweeney let me access the paper's news clip and microfilm archives, but that fall I took a break for two more semesters to write for SRJC's Oak Leaf News.

My assignment: covering the trial of the campus cop caught pilfering a quarter-million dollars from SRJC parking meters. I attended each of Jeffrey Holzworth's courtroom appearances for three semesters, up to his May 29 sentencing. Though I never got paid, I earned a total of three news writing awards.

With Holzworth behind bars, I headed to the Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library to finish scrolling through rolls and rolls of microfilm. In total, my research uncovered 138 articles and more than 200 photographs by Herbert during the four years he lived and worked in Santa Rosa.

The Press Democrat's first Herbert byline appeared April 25, 1949: "14-Year-Old Bride Misses Death by Hair's Breadth!" His first photo-feature appeared May 22 of that year with the epic title, "The Things You Find in the Garbage . . . Old Automobiles, a Human Skull, Money, Silverware, All in Day's Work at the Dump."

Herbert wrote articles with spicy titles like "Location of Freeway Signs Confuses Many Motorists" and "Judge Greene Dislikes Courtroom." Several of his articles highlight local features of Sonoma County: the Gravenstein apple crop, the drop in egg prices, the county spelling bee and a series of articles about the telephone company's plans to upgrade to dial-phone technology. There is even a photograph of Santa Claus sitting on Herbert's lap.

SRJC is featured in five of Frank Herbert's photos and articles. He photographed a Day Under the Oaks fashion show and a visit to the Bear Cubs football team by Frankie Albert, 49ers quarterback and later head coach.

The craft-beer movement in Santa Rosa is older than people think, and Herbert documented it himself. His photos of Courthouse Square show the old Grace Brothers Brewing sign, proudly boasting, "A Sonoma County Product." Herbert's photo of a harvester is captioned, "Truckload of hop vines is swung into automatic stripper at W. G. Dutton Ranch on West College Ave."

Herbert explored a "surrealist extension into the fourth dimension" in his Aug. 25, 1950, article, "To One Part Verne, Add Galley of Zomb, Drop in Heathcliffe and expect Occidental." Herbert's twist on a drive in the country could be considered his very first sci-fi story, years before his "Looking for Something" got published in the April 1952 issue of Startling Stories magazine.

Santa Rosa's influence on Herbert shows in his later works. Before Dune became a bestselling series, he published The Santaroga Barrier in 1968, about a small town in Northern California with an oddly familiar name.

There are hints of elements or characters in Dune in Herbert's early Press Democrat articles: a family of model-train enthusiasts voice-controlled their train set in December 1949 with a "weird device"—like the Bene Gesserit controlling people with "the Voice." That same month he wrote about decorating and lighting the Cedar of Lebanon tree at Luther Burbank's Home & Gardens, where the "plant wizard" is buried by his greenhouse—like Dune planetologist Liet-Kynes, buried in the same sands he tried to transform.

Inspiration for Baron Harkonnen's anti-gravity belt.
Herbert rode in an Air Force jet May 1950 and said the distance from Santa Rosa to the airbase that took 45 minutes for him to drive only took four minutes by jet. "I am still trying to accustom my mind to a new conception of time and distance"—like Dune's Guild Navigators folding space.

Most prescient of all these lost archives is Herbert's July 1952 photo of 685-pound "Tiny" Atkins, bedridden after a car accident, loaded bed-and-all by five men into a moving van. Watching their efforts, the budding sci-fi writer must have imagined some sort of gadget to help lift the man—just like Baron Harkonnen's anti-gravity suspensor belts.

I could write a book about all the fascinating Herbert articles I discovered. In fact, I am; I'm calling it Frank Herbert's Lost Archives, Vol.1: The Santa Rosa Press Democrat 1949–53. It's dedicated to my brother Robert the Magician, who died this summer after surviving AIDS for 18 years.

The sands of time forget many things, but now people will remember that Herbert's spice flowed from Santa Rosa

Returning after my brother's death

My brother Robert the Magician died last summer after surviving AIDS for 18 years. I had been trying to publish my Frank Herbert book before he died, which I worked on at his bedside, but he faded away too quickly at the end. He was a great human being with a great heart, and I miss him every day.

My brother Robert the Magician, right before his death.
I got a new a night job and am working on a couple screenplays. I am setting up a series of How-To videos, which combines several of my talents and interests. Subjects will range from airbrush techniques and homemade synthesizers to building robots with Arduino microcontroller boards. More news to follow.

There is even talk of starting the Sonoma Synthesizer Society, and hosting a homemade instrument festival this summer. There will be a how-to video about that, too.

So, I took a break after my brother's death, but now I'm back and swinging for the fences.