Influences: Philip K. Dick’s VALIS

I’ve read many of Philip K. Dick’s novels over the years and I would say his vision is probably the most memorable, not to say influential, of all the science fiction authors whose work I’ve digested. All his stories are sideways glances at life, and are often peopled with odd characters with fractured psyches (Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After The Bomb) or who have identity issues (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said, and A Scanner Darkly). Dick expertly and fluently plays about with the plasticity of reality, especially in the last two books mentioned, but perhaps the best example of questioning the very nature of reality, at least for me, is his 1981 novel VALIS, written just before he died.

It isn’t a coincidence, I think, that VALIS came in the wake of Dick suffering a major nervous breakdown, which, I seem to remember, he once described in terms of a ‘revelation’. The main character in the novel, who goes by the unlikely name of Horselover Fat (apparently a play on the meaning and derivation of his own name), is essentially Dick himself; however, it can be seen as a species of a personality splitting into two, as Dick uses the device in order to argue about Fat’s (Dick’s) theories regarding the ‘revelation’ that the protagonist has after he has suffered a similar crisis. The VALIS of the title is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, an artificially intelligent satellite orbiting the Earth that he and his friends believe is aiding them in their quest to divine the reality behind the reality, so to speak. The novel, then, charts the characters’ search to understand the reality around them.

Dick appears to imply that meaning and truth are to be found outside ourselves, rather than inside us. Also, that there is something ‘greater’ moving behind the scenes, directing and arranging. This, of course, is a common thread through the whole of human civilisation and thought, the possibility that we are merely the players on a stage, and that we are simply reciting our lines and acting out some manner of script that we have no influence over and cannot change. VALIS is also a treatise, disguised as fiction, on perceived truth, as opposed to objective truth: truth itself, despite our species-long search, is one of the hardest things to find.

And of course, that particular uncertainty, that spiritual no-man’s land, is the region cannily inhabited (some would say cynically exploited) by religion. If truth could be solidly objectified, it stands to reason that ALL of humanity would see things in exactly the same way. Patently, that isn’t the case. My reading of VALIS bears this out; what Dick appears to be saying is that the fracturing of Horselover Fat’s mind, due to the breakdown, can either be seen as a disintegration of his mind OR that he’s been allowed to see the dismantling of the machinery of reality itself through having had a mental crisis. The point is that, to Fat the reality he sees is the one he believes is the real one, while what others see is the totally different, false reality.

The novel also has the character of presenting itself as a conspiracy, painted on a much broader and more profound canvas than anything the current crop of ‘conspiracy thriller’ authors could possibly come up with. Here, in Dick’s vision, the plot revolves around something ‘other’, be it ‘God’ or an artificially intelligent satellite, occultly directing the ways of man and with its own inscrutable agenda. Humans are merely the actors, starring in a vast cosmic play written and directed by some kind of intelligence, which is to be hoped is benign in nature. Fat’s breakdown has essentially ripped the veil from his eyes, enabling him to get a glimpse of the machinations being perpetrated by this ‘other’. In his search, he becomes obsessed with various religions and philosophies, such as Christianity, Taoism, Gnosticism and Jungian psychoanalysis, in a search for what Wikipedia describes as a “cure for what [Horselover Fat] believes is simultaneously a personal and a cosmic wound”. Ultimately, Sophia (to be equated with wisdom), in the form of a two-year-old girl, manifests at the end of the book, telling Fat that the ideas and conclusions he has come to are essentially correct.

Even from the above necessarily brief précis, it’s obvious that the book is a deeply thoughtful and complex book, at least in terms of what it sets out to do. Dick’s meditation on the subjects he is attempting to elucidate raises this novel from the level of a mere science fiction book, to that of a vitally important rumination of the nature of everything, from reality to mind itself. In my opinion, this book single-handedly gives the lie to some high-minded people’s insistence that sci-fi is ‘not literature’ – on this showing certainly, it knocks the spots off any ‘modern’ novel whose aim is to grasp at life and wring truths from it. Over and above that, it lays everything out in an accessible style, plus it has that one element missing from many a current ‘lit-fic’ novel: a story, and an engaging one at that.

Added poignancy is provided from knowing that Dick himself experienced a similar breakdown and a fracturing of the carefully constructed façade of reality. According to Wikipedia, the life of his son was saved through one of the ‘revelations’ he received from the ‘real-life’ VALIS – despite the doctor’s assurances that his son was in fact healthy, Dick insisted that he was suffering from a malady that was life-threatening. So tests were ultimately performed on the boy, and Dick was proven right. Dick attributed this insight to his contact with the higher  intelligence.

Whatever you make of the provenance of the story, it’s a wonderful tale, written by a singular human being who possessed a master-storyteller’s gift. Iwould recommend not only this particular novel, but would also direct you to any of his other works as well. The richness of the language and his imagination reap their own rewards. Rather than pity the man for having had a breakdown, marvel at the brain that consistently produced such masterworks over a thirty year period. Not many writers can clain such a fine literary pedigree.

6 Responses to “Influences: Philip K. Dick’s VALIS”

  1. Fascinating reading Simon! I’m embarrassed to say I have only met Philip K Dick’s work via the screen so far (Scanner Darkly, Totall Recall, Paycheck and Blade Runner are some of my favourite films) – but now I am determined to work my way through the books as well.

    I have read most of Isaac Asimov however and some of the concepts you mention in this post seem to echo various bits & bobs of short stories I read by him. It also occurs to me that maybe the Wachowski brothers (I hope I spelled that right) may have read VALIS at some point as it seems to have similarities with The Matrix.

    Philip K Dick has to be one of the writers I class as ‘Great’ and maybe it is time I stopped saving him up for a treat one day and actually got on with reading him. Thanks for giving me the nudge to get on with it by writing this blog post.

    • He is indeed a great writer, sadly underrated I feel… even though he’s a great writer, many people, while having heard fo him through the films adapted from his work, have very rarely read that work… glad to have inspired you, however…

  2. It’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve read VALIS, but I recall it as quite a *sad* book, almost grief-stricken, or heartbroken. I read a bunch of his stuff back in the day and this was my favorite. Love that vintage paperback cover; I was well chuffed to find it for cheap in a used bookstore recently.

  3. I will say that here in the States, PKD’s rep has been growing over the past 10-20 years, starting when Vintage reprinted all his books in well-designed trade paperbacks throughout the ’90s. And the Library of America recently published collections of his best novels in hardcover.

    • Yes, I saw the Library of America were reissuing his books… over here, Gollancz are doing a sterling job of repringting many of his novels in their SF Masterworks imprint…. need to read more of them though…

  4. reading science fiction books is the stuff that i am always into. science fiction really widens my imagination ,*;

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