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Total Recall

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

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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.

PKD SLEPT HERE Philip K. Dick lived in this Sonoma home for a few months in the summer of 1977. Did he shoot hoops? - RORY MCNAMARA
  • Rory McNamara
  • PKD SLEPT HERE Philip K. Dick lived in this Sonoma home for a few months in the summer of 1977. Did he shoot hoops?

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.

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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.

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