The Divine Invasion: A dense gnostic allegory about salvation

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsThe Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick

Before his death, Philip K. Dick wrote several books about suffering, redemption, and the divine in the contexts of Christian Gnosticism, Jewish Kabbalism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, anamnesis, and the dualistic nature of the ultimate divine being. After writing two books that explored his personal religious experiences in 1974, Radio Free Albemuth (written in 1976 but not published until 1985) and VALIS (written in 1978 but published in 1981), he wrote The Divine Invasion (written in 1980 but published in 1981), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (written in 1981 but published in 1982), and an unfinished novel called The Owl in Daylight. Radio Free Albemuth was the first version of what was rewritten as VALIS, and The Divine Invasion and The Owl in Daylight were intended as a thematic trilogy. However, after PDK’s death in 1982, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer was substituted for the unfinished The Owl in Daylight and grouped together as the VALIS TRILOGY.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Divine Invasion is dense religious allegory that begins with some of the familiar SF elements frequently in PDK’s earlier novels but quickly delves into his ideas about gnosis (finding knowledge, enlightenment or salvation by recognizing a higher spiritual realm separate from the material world), anamnesis (the process of “losing forgetfulness” or regaining knowledge), and the dualistic nature of the divine Godhead, which was separated in the Fall into a superior supreme being and a lesser creator god (a “demiurge”) who shaped the material world that humans live in.

The plot is very complex, but here goes. Herb Asher lives a solitary life on a planet called CY30-CY30B, where colonists live in isolated domes. Herb is contacted by a local deity named Yah, who contacts him in a vision and demands that he help his neighbor Rybys Rommey, a woman who is sick with multiple scleroisis and also is pregnant with Yah’s baby via immaculate conception. Herb has been a recluse content to listen endlessly to the pop music of star Linda Fox and handling communications for the colony.

With the help of a bearded beggar named Elias Tate, who is the immortal incarnation of the prophet Elijah, Herb agrees to serve as husband to Rybys (like Joseph to Mary), and they travel to Earth along with Elias, ostensibly to cure her illness. However, the Earth is ruled by a Christian-Islamic Church and a Scientific Legate who are warned of the arrival of this reincarnation of Yahweh (by an A.I. system humorously named the Big Noodle) and consider this a “Divine Invasion” and threat to their dominion of the planet. But in reality, it is the fallen angel Belial who rules this world and enslaves humanity in the prison of the material world.

The authorities pursue Herb and Rybys, seeking to kill the unborn child who will be Yahweh. They escape various attempts but finally are involved in a fatal car accident which puts Herb in a coma and kills Rybys. Herb’s body is placed in cryogenic storage while waiting for a spleen replacement, and the child Emmanuel survives but suffers a head injury that causes amnesia. Meanwhile, Elias Tate manages to save the child and smuggles it to safety. Emmanuel grows up in a special school with another girl named Zina, and she gradually helps him remember his divine origins through the process of anamnesis. It becomes clear through a series of dense philosophical discussions that Emmanuel and Zina are both aspects of the divine Godhead that was split asunder in the Fall, and that it is up to both halves to unite again and heal a sick and corrupt world.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsZina reveals to Emmanuel a more idyllic parallel universe in which both Herb and Rybys are still alive. Even more strangely, Belial is nothing but a baby goat in a NY zoo. Feeling bad for it, they innocently free the goat, but Belial seizes the opportunity to regain control of this parallel world. In this world, Herb works at a high-end electronic sound system store, and encounters a beautiful young aspiring singer named Linda Fox, who he knows will become a huge star in the future. He falls in love with her, but is tricked by Belial the goat into confronting her. Eventually, Linda Fox fights and defeats Belial, freeing the world of his evil and saving Herb in the process.

Though very dense and confusing at first, The Divine Invasion reveals itself as an allegory of how the two separate aspects of the divine being, in the form of the creator Yahweh (reborn in human form as the child Emmanuel) and the feminine aspect that remained in the material world to look after and protect mankind (represented by the girl Zina Pallas and Linda Fox). The two riven parts of the Godhead must recall via anamnesis that they are one entity, and thus united confront the fallen angel Belial, who controls the material world and keeps mankind subjected to his corrupt vision of reality. The conflict between the divine and Belial also represents the struggle for salvation of individual human beings, who must live in the corrupt material world and choose between the baser pleasures of the material world ruled by Belial and the higher spiritual plane of existence beyond our world of illusions ruled by the ultimate divine being, whose various aspects include Yahweh the Creator, Christ the Savior, the feminine goddess Diana, etc.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIt’s difficult to view The Divine Invasion as a SF work, because it’s really an attempt to put PKD’s extremely complex and convoluted religious and philosophical beliefs into fictional form. And unlike the more auto biographical Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS, this book takes a much broader and more allegorical approach to his still-evolving Gnostic ideas about suffering and evil in the material world, the dual nature of the divine, and the possibility of salvation through gnosis. If you are interested in these ideas, especially as they relate to PKD’s own religious experiences and life story, then you will be able to appreciate how many of his early stories questioning the morality and reality of our world evolved into his much more convoluted thinking after his religious experiences of 1974. And while he flirted with madness and schizophrenia in Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS, he seems to have found a more coherent philosophical framework for his thoughts in The Divine Invasion. It is still a difficult book to understand, and may be very unsatisfying as a work of fiction, but it remains an essential read if you are a serious PKD student who wants to achieve ‘gnosis’ by diving down his rabbit hole.

There are also several biographies of PDK that would shed more light on his life and ideas, and I will have to make time for them someday. These include Lawrence Sutin’s Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (2005) and Emmanuel Carrere’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (2005), and of course the rambling, obsessive notes of PKD himself, meticulously edited and boiled down by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem in 2001 as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. If you have read all these books, consider yourself a truly dedicated scholar of the most complex, troubled and fascinating personality to have ever been part of the SF genre.


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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4 comments

  1. Wow, that’s not complicated at all.

    • No, not at all… And this is NOT the book I would recommend for anyone unfamiliar with PKD’s work — start with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Learn from my mistake, folks!

  2. Yeah, this is clearly the work-you-way-up book.

  3. I definitely need to listen to this book again, and I agree it is almost incomprehensible unless you have read Radio Free Albemuth or VALIS and know PKD’s life. That said, it’s got layers and layers of mystical and philosophical ideas to explore, so well worth the effort.

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