What was it about Dick’s work that caught your attention?
Partly it was that he and I had similar interests in certain things, such as Taoism and the I Ching—after all we were both Berkeley kids of exactly the same generation. And then, his sci-fi novels were about ordinary, unexceptional, confused people, when so much sci-fi consisted of Campbellian or militaristic heroes and faceless multitudes. Mr. Tagomi, in The Man in the High Castle, was a revelation to me of what you could do with sci-fi if you really took it seriously as a novelist. Did you know we were in the same high school?
You and Philip K. Dick? Really?
Berkeley High, thirty-five hundred kids. Big, huge school. Nobody knew Phil Dick. I have not found one person from Berkeley High who knew him. He was the invisible classmate.
That could almost be taken from one of his novels. So you didn’t know him at all?
No! We got into correspondence as adults. But I never met him physically.
Lem singled out only one American SF writer for praise, Philip K. Dick—see the 1986 English-language anthology of his critical essays, Microworlds. Dick, however, perhaps due to his mental illness, believed that Stanisław Lem was a false name used by a composite committee operating on orders of the Communist party to gain control over public opinion, and wrote a letter to the FBI to that effect.
Now, if a book slots easily into its genre, it’s because it’s been designed that way by a writer who knows exactly what he or she is doing. That, I suggest, is an important difference between literary and genre fiction. Not that writers of literary fiction don’t know what they’re doing, but there is a difference in the level of planning. A genre novel is governed by limitations, and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel within those limitations. A literary novel is governed by nothing – nothing I can think of, not even the requirement to be comprehensible – and the whole of the writer’s skill is directed towards creating the best possible novel. This involves, at some point, a surrender to the unknown.