A County Darkly

“When we look at Orange County in particular or southern California in general, what do we see?”

This question posed by Professor of English and Campus Writing Coordinator Jonathan Alexander encapsulates the latter years of Philip K. Dick’s life. Dick, who lived the last latter years of his life in Orange County, is best known for his award-winning science fiction novels that include “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?” and “A Scanner Darkly.”

On May 21, the UCI Humanities Collective and the Office of the Campus Writing Coordinator hosted “A County Darkly: Philip K. Dick in the OC,” a discussion amongst a panel of acclaimed local science fiction writers. The panel was made up of UC Riverside English doctoral candidate Jeff Hicks, UC Riverside English professor and “Science Fiction Studies” editor Rob Latham, UCI physics and astronomy professor Gregory Benford, Chapman University assistant professor of English James Blaylock and author Tim Powers. Benford, Blaylock and Powers, who are all accomplished and award-winning science fiction writers, were all close friends of Dick.

The five guests spoke about the events in Dick’s life that influenced his writing, particularly his paranoia and agoraphobia.

“Adventurous things happened to him, mainly in his own head,” Latham said.

The panelists shared anecdotes about Dick’s life, reminiscing fondly about Dick’s eccentricity and his constantly evolving beliefs and conspiracy theories.

As they spoke, core themes about the world of science fiction rose to the surface of the dialogue. The elegiac discussion turned into a reflection on the impact of location on an author’s perception of the world.

Latham, who did not know Dick personally, discussed the part of Dick’s life that he spent in Orange County, noting that Dick had negative opinions about Orange County, though he was comfortable in the area.

“The landscape of ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is a kind of a strip mall wasteland that, if you had to associate it with a part of California, you would associate with southern California,” Latham added. “[Orange County] is a strange atmosphere of surveillance in this depressing landscape of burger joints and gated communities.”

The schizophrenic characters housed within the pages of Dick’s novels are also a reflection of his relationship to his location: Dick spent the majority of his life in northern California as he developed his voice as a writer. His life amongst the rough, urban streets of Berkeley was swiftly uprooted at a dramatic home invasion. The foreclosure of his home led to his relocation to southern California and the utopian world of Orange County.

“The main function of his move to Orange County was that it was a total break from everything previous,” Powers said. “It sort of reset all the dials to zero. He had used up life in the Bay Area.”

The popularity of Dick’s novels is evident by the multiple awards and nominations he has received. “Do Androids of Electric Sheep?” was the source for the 1982 film “Blade Runner” and “A Scanner Darkly” was made into a film in 2006.
His works have clearly stood the test of the time and his genius was immortalized in 2007 when he became the first science fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.

“He was a wild and crazy guy,” Benford reflected, “who wanted to remain a wild and crazy guy.”