There is a section in I Am Alive and You Are Dead, Emmanuel Carrère’s biography of Philip K. Dick, where the author describes Dick’s reaction to an invitation to visit Poland. The invitation was issued by fellow science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, who was planning to publish Dick’s Ubik in Polish. Under Polish law at the time, authors could only collect royalties in Poland, so Lem suggested that Dick take the opportunity to do a little travelling, perhaps attending a literary conference in Warsaw.

That’s where Lem came in; the groundwork had been laid, and his job was to soften Phil up and get him into Poland. Phil wondered what would have happened to him in Warsaw had he taken the bait. He could just imagine it: the lecture, the banquet that night, the toasts to his success, and then the next morning, when he would wake up with a hangover in a room with stark white walls, surrounded by guys in white coats holding syringes. “This won’t take long, Gospodin Dick, and you won’t feel a thing. You’ll even be able to give your lecture this evening.” And that evening he would find himself before an even larger crowd than before, because the foreign press corps would have been invited, and he would hear himself tell them that he had decided to stay in Poland, land of freedom.

We can see two terribly contrasting truths from this passage: the fundamental connectedness of all things, and the fundamental isolation we all experience. Isolation I have recently touched upon, and that experienced by Phil Dick in his paranoiac state speaks for himself. And yet even even he wrapped himself in ever more tortuous knots, the world was reaching out to him.

Assuming for the moment that Dick was wrong—that Lem was not a malign collective entity attempting to draw him into a trap on behalf of the Roman Empire—we can see in Lem’s gesture one of those powerfully human acts, at once terrifying, baffling, commonplace and entirely natural.

I say terrifying because what a risk, to send your words—your thoughts, a splinter of yourself—to someone you don’t know, have never spoken to or set eyes on, with no idea how they will respond. Obviously I don’t mean this entirely literally—writing these words, I do not somehow diminish my essence—but reaching out costs, it is an emotional investment that comes with no guarantee of remuneration.

It’s baffling, in a way, because writing to someone whose work you know is to speak with a being whom you feel you know rather well. Their words and ideas have found a home in your head, have shared living space with your own ideas. At the same time, this other person is a total stranger. How well can we know the person by their work—especially when their work, like Dick’s, is by turns hallucinatory, mystical, psychotic?

And yet, it’s so commonplace: almost of all of us have done this at one time or other, sending a letter or an email, a query or a salutation, to someone we have never met—and likely never will. I know I’ve written to people whose work I’ve enjoyed or admired, and I’ve received a few emails in my time from people who enjoy this site. It’s normal—one might even say natural.

After all, to write, to communicate, is our fundamental inclination. Solitary confinement is a terrible punishment because it cuts us off from the rest of humanity. Simply existing within the sphere of consciousness of another person constitutes communication, albeit of a most rudimentary sort. It would, on a very basic level, matter if everyone but you were replaced by androids without consciousness of their own. It would matter because, no matter how well they imitated human beings, you would always be alone.

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