When, one evening in 1976, Philip K. Dick invited Tim Powers to his Fullerton apartment, the Cal State student expected the kind of night he often passed with the science-fiction titan: a wide-ranging conversation, fueled by wine and beer, about religion, philosophy and Beethoven.
The night began the usual way. But it took a strange turn as Dick's wife, Tessa, and her brother began grabbing lamps and chairs. "She and her brother were carrying things out of the house," recalls Powers. "I said, 'Phil, they're taking stuff, is this OK?' "
" 'Powers, let me give you some advice, in case you should ever find yourself in this position,' Dick said. 'Never oversee or criticize what they take. It's not worth it. Just see what you've got left afterward, and go with that.'
"And then," Powers recalls, "her brother said, 'Could you guys lift your glasses? We want the table.' "
Dick was an old hand at marital dissolution. Tessa had reached her breaking point, and that evening marked the beginning of what would become his fifth divorce. The author could bounce in and out of love affairs, stints in rehab and drug overdoses -- all the while never losing his cool.
This time, though, the nonchalance wouldn't last. After Powers left, Dick took 49 tablets prescribed for a heart condition, along with other pills. He slashed his wrist and sat in his car, parked in his garage, so the carbon monoxide would finish him off.
But he threw up the pills and his car stalled. The blood from his wrist clotted. After a quick stay in the hospital and two weeks in a psychiatric ward, Dick went home.
(Tessa Dick recalls the details, which come from Powers' journals, slightly differently.)
In the years after his suicide attempt, Dick went on to publish "A Scanner Darkly," "VALIS" and other novels since collected by the Library of America. (Dick is the only science fiction writer to be so honored.) He was able to see a reel from "Blade Runner," the now-iconic adaptation of his 1968 novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," although he died before the film opened in 1982.
These days, Dick is widely considered the science-fiction novelist who most accurately foresaw our contemporary world. Several new film versions of his books are in the works, including "Radio Free Albemuth," due out this year and set in Southern California, "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said" and "Ubik." His early novels are being reissued, most recently the Los Angeles and Ojai-set "Puttering About in a Small Land," which Tor put out last month.
And yet, Dick's time in Orange County, where he lived out his last decade, has been largely overlooked. That evening in 1976 captures the paradox of the era -- an incongruous one for a Berkeley bohemian. It was in Orange County that Dick was at his most stable marriage-wise and in regard to drugs. It was also there that he experienced some of the most disruptive and intense experiences of a disruptive and intense life.
Dick arrived in Orange County in 1972, after flying to LAX with a Bible and a cardboard box, doubling as a suitcase, tied closed with an extension cord. He was in some of the weirdest shape he'd ever known.
Born in Chicago in 1928, he grew up mostly in Berkeley, wrote several failed realist novels and worked in classical record stores. At times, he was reduced to eating horse meat. Dick -- who has been described, alternately, as paranoid, hilarious, childish and deeply empathetic -- wrote science fiction, he noted in 1969, because its "audience is not hamstrung by middle-class prejudices and will listen to genuinely new ideas."
During the 1960s, he began to garner acclaim in the genre, winning a Hugo Award for his 1962 alternate history novel "The Man in the High Castle," which imagines a world in which the Axis powers won the World War II. Still, the mainstream had no idea of who he was. "I used to look at his apartment," recalls his daughter Isa, now 42, "see all the books he had there, and wonder if every copy of his books was right there in his apartment. 'Is he really a real author?'"
Dick was a Bay Area fixture until November 1971, when he returned to his house in San Rafael to discover his doors and windows blown out, water and asbestos shards on the floor and his stereo and papers gone.
He would blame the Black Panthers, the KGB, neo-Nazis. But regardless of the perpetrators, he wanted out. When an offer came to appear at a sci-fi convention in Vancouver, Canada, Dick set out for British Columbia, and a month later had not returned. Eventually, he wrote to Willis McNelly, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, to ask whether that community might suit him.
"You must realize of course," McNelly wrote back, "that Fullerton is in the heart of darkest Orange County. . . . O.C. is also the place where Nixon's representative in Congress is a card-carrying member of the Birch Society."
Dick's next letter came from a rehab facility. "Dear Will," he wrote. "Well it happened, I flipped out."