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In a rare interview, Philip K. Dick gives us a glimpse into differing perceptions of science fiction in Europe and America. A self analysis of his personal experience battling for legitimacy as a writer reveals very different attitudes toward sci-fi across the Atlantic ocean. While many decades have passed there still prevails a subtle difference between the two cultures that can be felt in the publishing industry.
Comparison between my position as a writer in America and my position as a writer in France, I’d be very happy to discuss that. The position which writers as myself in America are—those positions are very lowly. Science fiction is considered something for adolescents, for just high school kids, and for disturbed people in general to me, in America. And the publishers will buy a novel which must be rigid moral standards, the standard which librarians have which has to do with sex, violence, and so forth.
So we are limited in our writing to books which have no sex, no violence, and no deep ideas. Just something of an adventure kind of nature, what we call “space operas,” which are just Westerns set in the future. And this is a strong pressure on us, the field of Science Fiction; this is the genre there, ranked at the level of [Nurse 00:01:51] Romance publications. We are considered at the bottom-rung.
Now, it wasn’t as bad today as it was a few years ago. Because recently, the academic community have discovered us and there are scholarly articles being written in America about Science Fiction. And also, science fiction novels are being used in courses at universities, in high schools, and colleges. In fact, one of my novels is used even in a course in the modern novel, not just as a science fiction novel but as an example of the modern novel. But that’s rare. And the general attitude is still probably prejudicial in America.
Now, I started out as a Pulp writer, doing stories for Pulp Magazine. And I never imagined myself to have any book so I was not dismayed by this attitude. I just took it for granted. I had been a clerk in a store and I was used to having people yell at me and tell me what to do. And so to find myself a writer, and to be yelled at and told what to do did not surprise me.
But then I discovered that in Europe, especially in France, science fiction was taken seriously. And the Science Fiction writer was not regarded as something on the level of a janitor. And my delight was enormous, and my amazement was enormous. And my agent was quite pleased.
And I began to meet people from France, so they’d come over and visit me. A gentleman who was doing a dissertation on a novel of mine came to visit me. And I was simply amazed; I could not imagine anyone taking Science Fiction seriously.
Now, as far as my own work went, I had written what I consider to be serious novels. But they never received any great popularity in America. The largest number of sales of any novel of mine was “Solar Lottery,” which sold something over 300,000 copies. “The Man in the High Castle,” which I won the Hugo Award for sold almost—well, by now it’s sold almost over 300,000 copies. But by and large, the average American Science Fiction novel sells about 40,000 to 50,000 copies which in a country the size of the United States is a very small portion of the reading public.
Now, there are exceptions of course, like “The Andromeda Strain,” which become best-sellers. These always are highly-promoted by the publisher and usually involve very simplistic ideas such as a disease from outer space. They are ideas that are archaic. They’re no longer really interesting ideas. They’re something that H.G. Wells either wrote about or could have written about.
And I would say that the greatest stimulus for me, as a serious writer, has been the French reaction to my writing which began somewhere between 1964 – 1968. It was in 1964 that Editions Opta first approached me and state that they wanted to publish all of my work, they said. And from their correspondence I could tell that they had a quite different attitude towards my writing and towards Science Fiction in general. So I was stimulated to do a much more serious type of novel just knowing that eventually it would receive a more serious audience.
But in America, it was common for instance, I remember, when I purchased my first published story, somebody said to me, “Do you read that kind of stuff?”
And I said, “Madam, I not only read it, I write it.”
And people would say to me, “Well, why don’t you write something serious? Why do you write Science Fiction? Write something—get serious,” by that they meant ‘important.’ And I realized, I did as well as I could. I wrote the most profound, the most imaginative novel I could and just floated it out into the world and just hope eventually, it would receive an audience.
But there is a considerable difference between the French interest in Science Fiction and the American interest. And I appreciate French interest enormously. In fact, it would be impossible for me to continue my career without the help the French public has given me both financially and spiritually.
There is a major flaw in America which does not appear to exist in France. And that is the American people are basically anti-intellectual; they’re not interested in novels of idea. And Science Fiction is essentially the field of ideas. And the anti-intellectualism of Americans prohibits their interest in imaginative ideas and intellectual concepts.
But there’s another facet as regard my particular work say compared to other Science Fiction writers. I grew up in Berkeley. And my education was not limited at all to reading other Science Fiction novels that preceded my own. So it has been de Van Vogt, Heinlein, or people that kind, Padgett, Bradbury—what I read, because it’s a university city, was Flaubert, Stendhal, Balzac, Proust, and the Russian novelists influenced by the French—people like Tourgueniev. And I even read Japanese novels, modern Japanese novels, novels who were influenced by the French realistic writers.
And I think that one reason I’m more popular in France is because the slice of life, realistic novel that I write is essentially based on the 19th Century French Realistic novels. For instance, if I would’ve named my favourite novels I would’ve named, “Madame Bovary,” and Stendhal’s, “The Red and The Black.” Those would be my two favourite novels, or Tourgueniev’s “Father and Sons.” And in a sense, I was learning about the novel not from English prose novels but from French prose novels.
So it makes sense perhaps that my writing would be well-received in France. A novel of mine such as “Simulacres,” for example, which contains maybe 15 to 16 major characters is definitely derived from such French writers as Balzac. I think this applies more to me than to other American Science Fiction writers.
In fact, I think that is a great flaw in American Science Fiction writers and their readers, that they are insulated from the great literature of the world; Russian novels, French novels, English novels, and the great American novels. In other words, it’s a closed loop. An American Science Fiction writer is usually someone who has been a Science Fiction fan and read only Science Fiction novels. And so he goes on to write science fiction, he bases it solely on prior science fiction.
But because I was fortunate enough to live in Berkeley, which is probably as much an intellectual centre as you’d find anywhere in the world, I was not limited as my other friends who write Science Fiction are.