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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.

When 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.

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