I’ve written about the biographies of Philip K. Dick before. They each give a different view of PKD. Recently I discovered there were six volumes of his selected letters from Underwood-Miller/Underwood Books. I don’t know why I didn’t know about these before or think to search them out. I just didn’t. They are all currently out of print. I saw a quote from one letter recently and went to ABEbooks to buy it. Wowza. They were expensive. My buddy Mike who shares my interest in PKD and I bought five of the six volumes, but we just didn’t want to pay $350 for the first volume. What a mistake. I’ve seen four copies come up for sale lately, all over a $1,000, with two going for $1,500.

I’m not a book collector and won’t pay those prices. I just want to read them. The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick Volume One covers the years from 1938-1971. MIke is reading in 1972 and finding some good stuff. I started with the sixth volume, 1980-1982, the last. Reading PKD’s letters gives a whole different feel for the guy that I didn’t get from the biographies. Mike sent me one letter I found particularly intriguing.

After I read that I had to read “Who Shall Dwell” by H. C. Neal. According to ISFDB it originally appeared in the July 1962 issue of Playboy, and then was reprinted three times in anthologies from Playboy about science fiction (1966, 1968, 1971). Then it was reprinted in two other anthologies, Themes in Science Fiction (1972) edited by Leo P. Kelley (where PKD read the story), and Look Back on Tomorrow (1974) edited by John Osborne and David Paskow. ISFDB offered no biographical information on H. C. Neal. But I found this introduction in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Searching Google didn’t come up with anything until I added “newspaper writer” to his name. I then found his obituary.

I love discovering forgotten science fiction authors. It appears H. C. Neal wrote one science fiction short story, for Playboy no less. It was liked enough to be reprinted in five anthologies, the last being in 1974. In 1972, Philip K. Dick wrote a rather gushing fan letter. Reading PKD’s letters shows you he was often very sentimental, often wanting to help people. Dick did have mental problems, and he did do some drugs, but nothing like his reputation.

Why did PKD feel so strongly about Neal’s story? What did he think it was one of the finest stories the science fiction genre produced. Well, I had to track down a copy. I found two copies of Themes in Science Fiction for sale and ordered one. However, I later was able to find it online.

I don’t know how to ask H. C. Neal’s heirs for permission to reprint this story, so I’m going to take a chance they won’t sue me. I’ll gladly take it down if someone notifies me (classicsofsciencefiction at gmail dot com). I’m hoping it is out of copyright because the story came out during the era when writers had to renew their copyright, and maybe Mr. Neal never got around to doing that. And I hope it’s not a big deal to reprint this here since I only have about a dozen readers. But I do want to reprint it because I think it’s important to understand PKD’s letter.

This isn’t the finest science fiction story ever written, but it’s pretty good. Stories about bomb shelters were common back in the 1950s and 1960s. I wonder if Neal was inspired by the September 9, 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Shelter” because the stories are very similar, except for the endings. To me, Neal seems to be speaking directly to the TZ ending, offering an alternative ending that’s positive about humanity.

I have to assume Philip K. Dick admired Neal’s story because it’s pro-humanity and PKD felt science fiction was too cynical. But like his explanation to Mr. Neal, Dick was sad because he lost touch with his wife and son, and here was a story about a man who sacrificed himself for his children and others. Maybe he admired the story because it made him feel guilty.

This one letter shows us PKD’s sentimental side. Mike said that’s common in the letters he’s reading. The letters I’m reading are more about the writing business, but they also include letters to pen pals. Dick is often generous, asking his agent to send gifts to people.

If you’re fascinated by Philip K. Dick and have read some of the biographies, I’m sure you’ll want to read his selected letters. Unfortunately, they are priced out of reach of most fans. Let’s hope they are reprinted soon and stay in print next time. If Kindle editions were available for a reasonable price I’d buy them again because my old eyes prefer ebooks.

James Wallace Harris. 12/7/21

One thought on “Getting to Know PKD

  1. Very interesting story, though I’m not as impressed as PKD was. I did love the phrase “oatmeal Christianity” immoderately.

    The collected letters are that costly! Good gravy. I would’ve passed on $350 as well. What you miss being frugal….


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