VALIS: Reconciling human suffering with divine purpose

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsVALIS by Philip K Dick science fiction book reviewsVALIS by Philip K Dick

It’s often said that “one must suffer for one’s art.” They must have been referring to Philip K. Dick. He slaved away in relative obscurity and poverty at a typewriter for decades, churning out a prodigious flow of low-paid Ace and Berkeley paperbacks (sometimes fueled by amphetamines), went through five marriages, battled with depression, mental illness and suicide attempts, all culminating in a bizarre religious experience in 1974, and struggled to come to grips with this for the next eight years until his death in 1982 from a stroke at age 54. And yet it wasn’t until VALIS (1981) and the posthumous Radio Free Albemuth (1985) that he addressed these experiences directly in fictional form.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSo if you want to get inside the mind of PDK, Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS are as close as you can safely get unless you are a real masochist and dare to tackle his huge volume of ramblings on his personal religious, hallucinatory, and visionary experiences in Feb/Mar 1974 (which he called “2-3-74”). They weigh in at a hefty 8,000 hand-written pages, which Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem have somehow wrestled down to a “slim” 944 pages in The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. So if you think VALIS is incoherent and somewhat unhinged, I would say, “No, this is the Cliff Notes version!”

Let’s be upfront about VALIS. This is not really a SF novel, nor is it a traditional narrative at all. This book is a brutally honest, oftentimes darkly humorous, painful exploration of PKD trying to come to grips with some bizarre religious/hallucinatory experiences in 1974 during a particularly troubled period in his life. These experiences culminated in him being struck by a pink laser beam from an artificial living satellite (VALIS: Vast Active Living Intelligence System) orbiting the star Sirius, and was imparted a brief connection with a “transcendentally rational mind” that told him his infant son was suffering from an inguinal hernia and needed immediate surgery to save his life (which turned out to be true). He also experienced moments when ancient Rome superimposed itself on 1974 California and he became Thomas, an early Christian being persecuted by the Romans, when he suddenly understood and spoke Koine Greek (called xenoglossia), and saw visions of Jesus Christ’s imminent return to the world.

And before you say he obviously took too much LSD over the years, keep in mind this all happened AFTER he had given up amphetamines and dried out. Plus, if this is just a drug-induced trip, then PDK must be the most erudite and deeply-read philosopher-junkie of all time. His explorations cover Christian Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Zen Buddhism, the Old and New Testaments, Greek philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, and earlier thinkers), Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Wagner’s opera Parsifal, and various musicians and writers of the time. AND HE ACTUALLY TRIES TO CONNECT ALL THE DOTS BETWEEN. If that doesn’t prove he was losing his mind, what does???

There isn’t much point in describing the plot of VALIS. It is the rambling and bizarre religious and philosophical discussions of the characters as they struggle to try to understand why human beings must suffer and inflict hurt on themselves and those around them. If there is a divine being, a creator, why does it allow people to do this to themselves? This is hilariously summed up by PKD’s cynical friend Kevin, whose cat ran into the street and was run over by a car. Kevin repeatedly says that if he ever has an opportunity to confront the creator after death, he plans to whip out the body of his dead cat from his coat and demand, “Why did my cat have to die?”

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe best parts of the book are the talks between narrator Philip K. Dick, his alter-ego Horselover Fat (Philip in Greek means “fond of horses” and “dick” is German for “fat”) his friend Kevin (modeled after writer KW Jeter), and Catholic friend David (modeled after writer Tim Powers). They are all very supportive of Fat after he first loses a close friend Gloria to suicide, another self-destructive friend Sherri to cancer, and his wife Beth who leaves him and takes his infant son Christopher.

Apparently Fat is irresistibly drawn to helping others, hopeless cases in particular, and then gets dragged down by their various psychoses. It is after Gloria’s suicide that PKD’s personality first cracks and gives rise to Horselover Fat, who is crushed by Gloria’s suicide and is then subject to all the bizarre hallucinations, visions, and pink lasers. PKD is his friend and confidant, who can view Fat’s travails and mental struggles from a safe distance, and watch him toil away fruitlessly at his Exegesis each night, pining away for the women in his life who keep causing him grief and guilt for being unable to save them. There is a very powerful moment toward the end of the book when this schizophrenic gulf seems to have finally been healed after 8 years of struggle, only to relapse once more after a moment of divine salvation is inexplicably snatched away again.

So what does VALIS all add up to? Does any of this crazy, deranged, home-brewed philosophic mish-mash make any sense without mind-altering drugs? BEATS THE HELL OUTTA ME. But what a wild and brilliantly-twisted mind it takes to try to make any sense of such a convoluted, frustrating, lonely and often despairing life story. The pink laser is just the trigger for a whole host of other thoughts on the underlying reality that is forever occluded to us mere mortals except for brief bursts of pure information from VALIS. To give a sense of PKD’s Exegesis, here are some sample passages:

(Excerpts from Tractates Cryptica Scriptura, appendix to VALIS)

No. 14: The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.

No. 30: The phenomenal world does not exist; it is a hypostasis of the information processed by the Mind.

No. 38: From loss and grief the Mind has become deranged. Therefore we, as parts of the universe, the Brain, are partly deranged.

No. 39: Out of itself the Brain has constructed a physician to heal it. This subform of the Macro-Brain is not deranged; it moves through the Brain, as a phagocyte moves through the cardiovascular system of an animal, healing the derangement of the Brain in section after section. We know of its arrival here; we know it as Asklepios for the Greeks and as the Essenes for the Jews; as the Therapeutae for the Egyptians; as Jesus for the Christians.

No. 48: ON OUR NATURE. It is proper to say: we appear to be memory coils (DNA carriers capable of experience) in a computer-like thinking system which, although we have correctly recorded and stored thousands of years of experiential information, and each of us possesses somewhat different deposits from all the other life forms, there is a malfunction — a failure — of memory retrieval. There lies the trouble in our particular subcircuit. “Salvation” through gnosis — more properly anamnesis (the loss of amnesia) — although it has individual significance for each of us — a quantum leap in perception, identity, cognition, understanding, world- and self-experience, including immortality — it has greater and further importance for the system as a whole, inasmuch as these memories are data needed by it and valuable to it, to its overall functioning.


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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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2 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    I take it then, Stuart, that we should NOT be expecting an in-depth analysis of the Exegesis from you anytime soon? LOL!

  2. Yeah, let me think about that one for a bit Sandy…then again I could take a year off from sanity and I bet I could cover more ground if I had several personalities~

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