Philip K. Dick’s twin sister Jane Charlotte died when the six weeks’ premature pair had survived to their originally anticipated birth date.
I normally don’t consider much biography of an author when I’m reading his stories; for example, C.S. Lewis’ long bachelorhood means nothing to me in his fictional works, Lovecraft’s failed marriage or even the insanity of his parents are interesting as biographical details, and surely influenced his work, but that knowledge is hardly necessary to be spooked by At the Mountains of Madness.
Philip K. Dick’s profound sense of his sister, however, of phantom twins, of lost parallel lives, of tantalizing recovered false memories, always provides a fascinating further insight into his stories.
In We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (go track it down now if you haven’t read it), the hero ultimately regresses to a childhood fantasy where he – while walking down a rustic lane – encounters a very small and helpless race of aliens that only he knows about who nonetheless intend to invade Earth with overwhelming numbers to wipe it out. The child in the fantasy, through mercy and compassion, convinces the invaders to reconsider, at least as long as such a gentle spirit like the hero lived.
This story takes on the challenge of presenting multiple series of life memories, and the delightful part of it is trying to determine which of the character’s narratives – if any – are true, or if even the contradictory memories could in some way be complementary. It is the idea of the aliens with whom the child communes in his fantasy, however, that gives the story its heart and depth. Dick – in real life – often referred to his sister as his “phantom twin,” someone who walked with him in an alternate existence, but it is also likely that he viewed her in two ways: as the phantom who “aged” along with her double and also as the real Jane Dick who died – small and helpless, yet destined to invade Philip’s world for the rest of his life.
The helpless phantom soul is represented in a much different way in Minority Report (Again, the movies won’t help you here – go read this story now). Here the action centers around a “pre-crime detection system” which relies on telepathic idiot savant slaves, stunted children, sustained in a near-vegetative state. The “pre-cogs” are imprisoned together, living in this world but seeing possible worlds in the near future – a week or two in advance. The story centers on a normal man who has been pegged by at least two of the pre-cogs as intending to commit murder within seven days, his victim unknown to him.
“Deformed and retarded,” Anderton instantly agreed. “Especially the girl, there. Donna is forty-five years old. But she looks about ten. The talent absorbs everything; the esp-lobe shrivels the balance of the frontal area. But what do we care? We get their prophecies. They pass on what we need. They don’t understand any of it, but we do.”
Despite the many changing fates of Anderton, the fate of the precogs is irrelevant to the story: no matter what, they run in the background, providing scrambled insights on alternate futures, but eternally trapped in a demented and stunted childhood – their mercies exist only for others.
PKD is known for being weird himself and for writing weird things, but the thing that people forget is that he was one of the best action-adventure science fiction writers of any time period. His plots move fast and always center on the unique actions of the protagonist – whether it is the self-preservation instincts of the forced-to-retire Anderton in Minority Report, the “cravings” of timid Quail in We Can Remember It, or the action-first attitude of the mechanic in Paycheck or Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? PKD’s heroes are often working class men of action surrounded by weirdos who are more concerned with the status quo than whatever legendary desires the protagonists keep in their hidden hearts. These heroes realize that – while the world may promise them wholeness in an alternate future – the world is lying to them.
Still, they chase those dreams down anyway, because the world they occupy now isn’t any more honest to them.
Upon his death, Philip K. Dick’s cremated remains were buried next to the grave of his twin sister.