Philip K. Dick’s Unfinished Novel Was a Faustian Fever Dream

The sci-fi author died before he could write "The Owl in Daylight," but he described trippy plot ideas about aliens, music, and Disneyland

Cartoonish mural of a sleepy-looking owl
Photo by Chris DiNoto on Unsplash

Each “Unfinished Business” will examine an unfinished work left behind by one of our greatest authors. What might have been genius, and what might have been better left locked in the drawer? How and why do we read these final words from our favorite writers — and what would they have to say about it? We’ll piece together the rumors and fragments and notes to find the real story.

On January 10, 1982, the science fiction author Philip K. Dick sat down for an interview with journalist and friend Gwen Lee to discuss The Owl in Daylight, a novel that he’d been composing in his mind since May of the previous year. He wouldn’t finish—or even really begin—the book before his death from a stroke a few weeks later, but the novel he outlined to Lee has had as strange an afterlife as Dick himself.

The title, The Owl in Daylight, derived from an expression Dick had heard used once by a television character from the Ozarks. Away from home and confused, unable to understand the world around him, the man described himself as being like “the owl in daylight,” and the phrase stuck with Dick thereafter.

After explaining the title, Dick told Lee how the idea first came to him as he’d finished his previous novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. At some point he’d realized that that book’s protagonist, a young woman named Angel Archer, was actually smarter than he was. Specifically, Dick felt, she was wittier, better at logical deduction, and more insightful about others.

How could it be possible for someone to create a character that was more intelligent than themselves? This puzzled him. Dick couldn’t shake the sense that he had not actually created her.

“She didn’t come from my mind,” he explained. “She did not come from my mind, because it’s impossible, unless I somehow contain another human being.”

He had earlier explained to Lee that sometimes this happened to him. He’d write a character, thinking they were from his own imagination, only to meet them in real life later on. Was this just odd coincidence? Clairvoyance? Dick preferred to call it a “precognition”—an ability he’d had for a long time, and which he’d explored in his early novel, “The World Jones Made,” and elsewhere.

Real or not, Angel Archer was so close to Dick in his writing that he told Lee he felt real physical anguish upon finishing the novel. “The pain was so great at losing that woman as my friend […] after I sent the manuscript off, I discovered that I was hemorrhaging, gastrointestinal bleeding.” (It would turn out there was another, more direct reason.)

The puzzle over how he could have created Archer, and the real pain he connected with letting her go, inspired him to try and tackle a very difficult challenge in his next novel, which he told Lee would be “the hardest job of all.”

Every writer who’s any good is tempted at some time in his career to do a version of the Faust story.

“Every writer who’s any good is tempted at some time in his career to do a version of the Faust story,” Dick explains, “Because, I mean, it is almost the paradigm of the writer. Faust and the writer are almost the same person. A good writer is Faustian.” He speculates that this was the same impulse that led James Joyce to write Finnegans Wake, “which no one can understand.”

Dick proposed to mix Faust together with Beethoven— “the greatest genius, creative genius—not intellectual, creative—genius the world has ever seen.” Like Faust, or Beethoven, the central character would therefore have to be pursuing the “absolute ultimate” of something.

Only, Dick wondered, how could he figure out what this would even be, without himself being a genius on the level of his character? It seemed analogous to his Angel Archer conundrum.

In the interview, Dick then diverts into a long discussion of Pythagoras, millimicrons and Fraunhofer lines, and an error he’d detected in a centuries-old analysis of Parminedes that undermined the basis for 2,300 years of Western science… all to try and explain how, eventually he did come up with an “absolute ultimate” concept: a way to communicate information simultaneously through color, music, and mathematics.

“And I just couldn’t go on anymore,” he says, “I had now thought, I had literally thought of a concept which I could not think of.”

In an attempt to explain this better, Dick resumes his tangent about Parminedes, moves on to St. Anselm’s ontological arguments for proving the existence of God, the possibility of self-authenticating statements, and their relevance to German codebreakers in World War II…

The tape cuts off just as he is about to launch into Claude Shannon and the development of information theory.

Reading the transcript of the Lee interview has two simultaneous, conflicting effects. It makes one doubt Dick’s claim that he somehow created a smarter character than himself—for he comes off as incredibly well-read, brilliant, and witty.

But it also might make one wonder if he is totally out of his mind. His long discursive tangents seem to track logically from sentence to sentence, but looking back they seem to make no sense at all.

Was Dick out of his depth? Or had he gone far deeper than he could describe with words?

In a 1965 essay called “Schizophrenia and The Book of Changes,” Dick described himself as having a “preschizophrenic personality […] generally called ‘schizoid affective.’” He reflected on the nature of the schizophrenic’s universe as unchained from time, creating causal relationships between things that others don’t experience as being connected.

At one point he noted that this was not dissimilar from the effect of certain hallucinogenic drugs, which he also knew well.

“Anyhow, LSD has made this discovery available to everyone, and hence subject to consensual validation, hence within the realm of knowledge, hence a scientific fact (or just plain fact, if you prefer). Anybody can get into this state now, not just the schizophrenic. Yes, friends, you, too, can suffer forever; simply take 150 mg of LSD–and enjoy! If not satisfied, simply mail in–but enough. Because after two thousand years under LSD, participating in the Day of Judgement, one probably will be rather apathetic to asking for one’s five dollars back.”

Dick wrote often of his own vivid hallucinations, possibly a result of drug use. In addition to LSD, he experimented with mescaline, PCP, and amphetamines. It was while on doctor-prescribed sodium pentothal (after an impacted wisdom tooth) that he described seeing a “pink beam of light” reflecting off the fish-shaped pendant on a girl’s necklace (the girl was delivering him prescription opioids at the time).

“It invaded my mind and assumed control of my motor centers […] It set about healing me physically and my 4-year-old boy, who had an undiagnosed life-threatening birth defect that no one had been aware of. It had memories dating back over 2,000 years… there wasn’t anything that it didn’t seem to know.”

According to Dick, he brought his son to see a doctor after this, and they confirmed the “pink beam’s” diagnosis. He began to refer to the voice as the “Vast Active Living Intelligence System” or VALIS, and wrote a novel inspired by this “alien being” in 1981 as well as thousands of pages of a philosophical treatise he called “2-3-74” (the visions having come to him between February and March of 1974) in which he hoped to “fathom” the “entire universe transformed into information.” This project was eventually edited and annotated by scholar Pamela Jackson and the novelist Jonathan Lethem and published in 2011 as the 900 page “Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.”

“Dick wasn’t a legend and he wasn’t mad,” Lethem wrote. “He lived among us and he was a genius.”

Five days after Gwen Lee’s initial discussion with Philip K. Dick about The Owl in Daylight, she returned to resume the conversation. This time, Dick dove directly into the form and plot of the novel without getting sidetracked by the philosophical underpinnings.

It would begin from the viewpoint of an “entity that was not human but presumably from another star system.” This entity’s planet would have no earthlike atmosphere but only isolated “pockets” of breathable air and so the beings there would never have developed an ability to speak. They would therefore have “no art that is predicated on sound.” In other words— no music.

Instead of language, these beings would communicate visually, through their highly advanced abilities to see color and light. Dick notes then that their planet would seem mystical or heavenly to us, as many religions, from Sufism to Zoroastrianism to Judaism to Christianity, strongly associate light with “the next world.”

“And I got to thinking,” Dick says, “What if their world is our heaven and our world is their heaven?” (Lee liked this line so much she used part of it as the title to these published interviews.)

Dick’s protagonist then would be an entity from this other world—a “mystic” who has visions of this next world—where sound exists, and music was ubiquitous. In other words—Earth.

The novel will open with this protagonist entity on an intergalactic starship of some kind, travelling to Earth, to prove that his mystic visions are real.

Dick claims that his literary agent balked at this point, arguing it would not be possible for such a being to narrate a book. How could it, without access to our language—which is based in sound?

But Dick gladly smooths this wrinkle away with another long aside about how Bach and Beethoven composed music after having lost their hearing, because they could mathematically interpret the notations, and therefore the alien would simply use technology to create some kind of pressure-impression of sound, similar to how some sight can be restored to the blind through pressure on the eyeballs.

Lee brings him back to the story again, asking how the mystic would manage to bring all this technology all the way to Earth.

“Oh, that’s just a plot problem,” Dick replies.

Lee then asks if the entity’s mystic visions would be a kind of “precognition.” “I’ll gussy it all up so nobody will notice I’ve used it before,” Dick replies.

This settled, Dick returns to his Owl in Daylight plot. After arriving on Earth and discovering sound and music, the entity will believe it was on a sacred planet, which Dick compares to “finding God.” Except the entity wouldn’t be able to experience it, without the biological components to hear.  The only way is to download his consciousness onto a “biochip” and to then enter into a “symbiotic relationship” with a human being.

After a brief discussion of synesthesia and a memory of once seeing one of Beethoven’s quartets as a spiky cactus while on an LSD trip, Dick explains the lucky human to be biochipped will be named “Ed Firmley”—and here the POV would switch.

At first Dick claims he’ll be a “loser composer” and a real “Woody Allen character,” but then, mid-stream, he changes his mind. No, actually Firmley will be a somewhat successful but blasé composer, “a young nudnik nitwit” who writes film scores for cheap science fiction movies. “You know, these clones of Star Wars.” (He goes on to describe a movie Firmley could score that sounds a lot like Blade Runner, adapted from his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which he’d discussed at length with Lee earlier, and which would be released later that year.)

Either way, poor Ed is then kidnapped and bopped on the head in an alley, and the biochip is then implanted in his brain with the alien consciousness inside.

After Ed wakes up, he doesn’t know what’s happened, and resumes his regular life. Meanwhile, the alien in his brain is listening now to music for the first time ever. It’s a revelatory, mystical experience. Utterly blissful. Except for one thing… Ed has terrible taste. All he likes is dull “KJOY” music. Because of this, the heavenly/spiritual thrill of music soon wears thin for the alien-in-biochip, which desires more and more experimental and avant-garde stuff (Dick suggests perhaps Brian Eno).

One day Ed accidentally listens to part of a Mozart opera in the car and it thrills the alien-in-biochip like “the top level of Dante’s Divine Comedy,” Dick says. “He gets a glimpse—not a glimpse, see, it’s the audio equivalent of a glimpse.”

But then the glimpse is gone, as Ed goes back to KJOY again.

Furious, the biochip decides to take matters into its own circuitry. He feeds Ed more and more advanced mathematical ideas, which Ed uses to compose more and more outstanding, serious work for the alien to enjoy. Soon, Ed becomes “one of the most—if not the most—creative and original composers on earth.”

But as with any Faust story, there is a terrible price for this divine inspiration.

The stress the biochip imposes on Ed’s brain in passing him all these incredible mathematical ideas, begins to kill him. He goes in for a brain scan—at which point the doctors locate the biochip in his head.

The alien then addresses Ed and confesses to him what has been going on. (Dick likens this moment to Flowers for Algernon, which he tells Lee he finds very moving). The alien insists that Ed save himself by having the biochip removed and returning to his old life of writing “schmaltzy cornball nothings.”

But of course, Ed now cannot go along with this return to his old self, even if it means he’ll die. “He is now conscious of real art, he is no longer a hack.”

But, wait, another twist. The alien’s crewmates, who have been somewhere else this whole time, realize they can make Ed into a biochip. They can implant Ed into one of their alien brains and take him back to their world to symbiotically experience the human “next world” just as Ed has done for the original alien.

A happy ending, Lee wonders? Yes, Dick agrees, but well, actually, no.

A happy ending, Lee wonders? Yes, Dick agrees, but well, actually, no. Because this “heavenly exchange” will eventually kill the new alien, who Dick explains will be a sort of a Christlike figure, having sacrificed himself for Ed. And Ed will, of course, have to die along with the new Christ-alien.

“This is the paradigm of Faust,” Dick tells her, “Faust reaches into a Godlike realm, grasps this thing and brings it back. But dies at the very moment that his hand closes on it. Death and victory become one event for the Faustian man. It’s incredible. This is the Faustian victory.”

At this point Lee asks if the new alien, carrying Ed (carrying the original alien), could just biochip someone else. Or re-biochip the first alien—did he die, or what?

Swiftly, Dick devolves into a discussion about cloning and whether or not putting yourself on the biochip necessarily kills you, and on and on.

Eventually he just stops.

“I—I’m going to, uh, leave that open ‘cause I don’t want to write the end before I get right to it. It’ll be—this is—I guess it’s OK—this is something I better check, you know, to develop. This is something I’m pretty sure about, you know, we’re [unintelligible]. Yeah.”

There’s then a break in the tape, while Dick takes a phone call from his ex-wife Tessa.

Later, Dick and Lee resume their discussion, weirdly, right back at the beginning again. He re-explains the origin of the title The Owl in Daylight and the idea of it being Faustian, almost as if he had not just explained it all five days earlier. Has he forgotten?

This time, however, Dick moves further into the underlying and personal meaning of the bargain that Ed will be making.

“You know, the ratio, like you know on a graph where the cost rises in proportion to the output, is that the cost line is rising higher and closing the gap all the time, you know. So that you could look on the graph, you can see that those two lines are going to meet and finally the cost line is going to be higher than the yield line—the cost line is going to be higher than the yield line, you know.”

In a later interview with Lee, Dick would note that back in the 60s he’d written eighteen novels in just five years, and stories on top of that. Neither of them draw any connection to his struggle with amphetamine addiction during the same period.

Instead, Dick just reflects that his own physical stamina has been declining. That he can “still write well” but that it takes longer, and the costs are higher each time. Eventually, “it’s inevitable” that the costs will outweigh the output.

Lee asks, “Do you feel it’s imminent?” and Dick says he thinks it isn’t. He admits that while he personally finds writer’s block to be a relief, he hasn’t written anything since finishing the Archer novel, last May, and that this almost killed him: “Yeah, I was bleeding internally. When I got finished, I was living on aspirin, scotch, and potassium tablets.” He recalls drinking with his agent and “all of a sudden I started bleeding and I knew it was from everything […] I never even told the doctor about it because I figured it was, you know, it’s like your headaches, when they start—it’s a coefficient of all the stress, the fear of failure.

Lawrence Sutin, author of the biography Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick explains that Dick was well aware of the state he’d left himself in. He feared dying of a heart attack. In a letter he recounted driving his car intentionally into the metal support beam of a parking garage. Previously he had “crushed an aluminum pop can so that it cut into his wrist.” Sutin speculates that he sensed that Timothy Archer would not be a big hit. And after the countless hours he’d spent on 2-3-74, he had failed to solve the mysteries of the universe after all. “What it is I simply do not know, nor do I expect ever to know,” Dick wrote.

He continued to receive visions and to hear voices. VALIS gave him a vision of a savior named “Tagore,” living in Ceylon, “the second incarnation of Christ” who is “taken to be Lord Krishna by the local population.” VALIS told him that Tagore was dying “voluntarily,” having “taken upon himself mankind’s sins against the ecosphere.”

Dick told friends that he was “receiving communications from God and that they troubled and confused him.”

A few weeks after his interview with Lee, Dick mentioned to his therapist that he was having trouble with his vision. Despite the doctor’s urging him to go to the emergency room, Dick returned home to rest. The next day he was found there, on the floor, having had a stroke. A few days later, now in the hospital, he had a second stroke and became brain dead. Five days later, he was taken off life support and died on March 2, 1982.

If Dick really did have precognitive abilities, they were only accurate about his “increasing costs vs. declining yields” in the short-term.

Yes, his final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer would not sell terribly well. At first the posthumous reprintings of his other novels failed to attract many fresh readers.

But looming also was Blade Runner, the film adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which Dick told Lee in one interview that he was very excited about. He told her enthusiastically about the music, the special effects, and all about Ridley Scott’s visual style. Dick even gushed about liking Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He told Lee about his publisher’s hopes to sell a half million copies of the novel if the film did well.

Unfortunately, that summer’s theatrical release of Blade Runner was met with mixed critical reviews and underwhelming ticket sales. But it also galvanized a new generation of dedicated Philip K. Dick fans, science fiction aficionados turned on by Star Wars and Star Trek but now ready for something grittier, darker, and deeper. As the ‘80s wore on, Philip K. Dick’s fans eventually lifted Blade Runner and Dick into the pantheon of cult classics.

Eight years later, the 1990 adaptation of Dick’s novel Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwartzennager, was a #1 box office hit, given 3.5 stars by Roger Ebert, who declared it “one of the most complex and visually interesting science-fiction movies in a long time.”

And in the years since, Dick’s works have only gone on to more and more adapted success, including “Minority Report,” “A Scanner Darkly”, “The Man in the High Castle” on Hulu, and the Blade Runner 2049 sequel, it is hard to undersell the influence of Dick’s work on the world of film, science fiction—and all of fiction.

In 2003, Frank Rose wrote of “The Second Coming of Philip K. Dick” in Wired: “Dick’s anxious surrealism all but defines contemporary Hollywood science fiction and spills over into other kinds of movies as well. His influence is pervasive in The Matrix and its sequels, which present the world we know as nothing more than an information grid; Dick articulated the concept in a 1977 speech in which he posited the existence of multiple realities overlapping the “matrix world” that most of us experience.” Rose goes on to connect Dick’s influence to Vanilla Sky, Dark CityThe Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZMemento, The Truman Show, and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. “Memory, paranoia, alternate realities: Dick’s themes are everywhere.”

Perhaps it was a true Faustian victory after all, but with Dick’s very real costs already paid off, the yield line of his work has only continued its astronomical rise.

In recent years, among Dick’s hardcore fans online (or “Dickheads” as they call themselves) there has been continual fascination with The Owl in Daylight, and what might have been a final masterpiece.

However, there’s something of a split in which version of the novel to endorse.

There’s the “biochip” version that Dick explained to Lee in the interview, but also an almost completely different version that Dick described to his editor, David Hartwell, at Timescape Books just weeks before:

“It will be based somewhat (as I have discussed with you and Russell Galen) on Dante’s COMMEDIA—and also on Goethe’s FAUST Part One, In the future a scientist who is very old supervises the construction of an amusement park (something like the “lands” at Disneyland) of Berkeley, California circa 1949-1952 with all the various groups and subcultures of that time and place represented. In order to impose coherency on the Park he involves one of the planet’s leading computers in the operation of it, turning this high-level computer into the mind behind the Park. The computer resents this, since it prefers to solve abstract, theoretical problems of the highest order. The computer pays the scientist back by trapping him in the Park and making him subject to its mind (that is, the computer’s mind): the scientist is given the physical body of a high school boy, and he is deprived of his memories of his true identity (you can see the influence of Van Vogt on me, here, and also that of a number of my earlier novels) . Now the scientist, trapped in his own amusement Park and subject to the mind of the misused (misused and knowing it and keenly resenting it) must solve the maze that the Park represents and find his way out of it by solving problems propounded by the computer and presented to him in sequence.)”

It’s stunning how completely different this version of the book is from the other. Some biographies, like Sutin’s, have declared the Lee-interview-version the final and correct book, while other’s, like Andrew Butler’s The Pocket Essential Philip K. Dick leaves open the possibility that some other version would have prevailed, perhaps some kind of amalgamation of the two.

In an interview with The Twilight Zone magazine, Dick spoke to his eventual plans to merge the two books. “I’ve done two different outlines. I’ll probably wind up laminating them together and making one book out of it, which is what I like to do, develop independent outlines and then laminate them into one book,” he said. “That’s where I got my multiple plot ideas. I really enjoy doing that, a paste-up job. A synthesis, in other words.”

As a result, neither of the novel’s versions has ever quite become canonized, allowing fans to imagine how exactly Dick would have finished it.

One such re-imagining of The Owl in Daylight was written by Dick’s ex-wife Tessa. In 2009 she self-published a novel by the same name, in an effort to complete the project that Dick originally intended. She remarked that “some of Phil’s loyal readers begged me to write it” in an interview, and claimed to have at times felt as if Dick himself was writing the book through her: “Sometimes I do feel that Phil is communicating with me from beyond the grave, but that concept is too spooky for me to accept completely.  It’s probably just that I knew him so well that I can think the way he did.”

Tessa explained that she disregarded much of the other two plot versions and instead developed her own original ideas, loosely based on Dick’s own life. “The Owl in Daylight is my concept of what Phil’s novel should be,” she said. Her planned sequel, The Owl in Twilight, would build on her own ideas.

In the end, the Philip K. Dick estate, managed by his two daughters, asked Tessa to take down the publication and she obliged. (Used copies of the book now sell on Amazon for more than $150.)

Around this same time, the actor Paul Giamatti spoke to MTV News about a film adaptation of The Owl in Daylight, that he hoped to produce, which they called “a sort of Charlie Kauffman-esque experiment in blurring fiction and reality.”

But a few years later, in an interview with Collider, Giamatti described the complicated process behind the Dick biopic:

“Isa, one of his daughters, we were talking to about it.  I, I don’t know.  You know, it’s a tough thing.  They never did a script based on that story which was the last unpublished thing of his that still hasn’t ever been public—.  Well, he never wrote it. It only exists in the form of him telling somebody on tape, the plot to it. So, we were gonna use that actually ‘cause he got more and more into that thing of using himself as a character. So that seemed, actually, like a good launching pad for some kind of biopic about him ‘cause a straight biopic about him would be sort of pointless. So, it was always a tough thing to get the script right and that didn’t happen for a while. So, it’s gone in and out and I think they’ve gone back and forth about being willing to do it or not and, you know, it’s, he’s a tricky figure and, you know, for them I think it’s… There’s days when I think they’re very enthusiastic about it and then there’s days when they’re like, ‘You know what?  Maybe we should just…’”

He went on to discuss how the two versions of the novel could dovetail together even, calling that a “starting point.”

Currently the film adaptation has been taken down from IMDb. Its future is unknown. But as Dick’s work, and life, continues to inspire his fans all these years later, perhaps this starting point, this final novel, will someday find a finished form. Or maybe it will remain in some sense, an idea of a novel, something we can’t quite grasp.

Picture Dick, or Giamatti, or the biochipped Ed Firmley, about to die after having, at last arrived at the alien planet, the next world—our heaven.

“Death and victory” Dick told Lee, “become one event for the Faustian man. It’s incredible. This is the Faustian victory.”

And if, instead of victory, there is failure? Well, Dick thought, that’s just how it goes sometimes.

“If either occurs without the other it wouldn’t be Faustian. It would be something else. I don’t know what it would—you just die—I guess that’s just life, and you know that’s what—that’s the breaks, you know?”

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