VALIS – Philip K Dick (1981)
It’s odd to imagine that Christianity would have a place in Science Fiction, a genre which seems on the face of it to be by definition Anti-Christian. Paradoxically those books which have Christianity as a central theme have turned out to be classics of the genre; Moorcock’s ‘Behold The Man’, Blish’s ‘A Case of Conscience’, Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’, Keith Roberts’ ‘Pavane’, and then there’s VALIS.
Based very much on Dick’s own religious experience, this is not, contrary to what one may imagine, an endorsement of organised religion. Dick masterfully manages to debunk much of the nonsensical dogma surrounding modern Christianity through arguments between himself and his companions.
In terms of structure, I’m reminded initially of Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, another book in which the narrator talks of his former psychotic self in the third person, and explores ideas of philosophy while on a journey to find himself.
The philosophical discussions are a joy, and often very funny, particularly in the running joke of Kevin, who wants an answer from God as to why his cat should have been run over.
It’s a novel of two halves, just as Dick, who appears as himself in the form of narrator, is a man of two halves, writing schizophrenically in the third person of the central character, Horselover Fat (‘Horselover’ being Greek for Philip, and ‘Fat’ being German for Dick).
Horselover’s story begins when in Nineteen Seventy Four he underwent a religious experience (Dick’s own theophany from this time is already well-documented) and for the first half of this book Dick paints a bleak picture of his former self as a suicidal depressive, further traumatised by the suicide of a female friend and the subsequent death of another to cancer. He spends his time transcribing the messages in his head received from an entity he calls ‘Zebra’ which may or may not be God.
The two Dicks are supported through their experiences by two male friends; David, a devout Christian, and the sceptical Kevin (allegedly the SF writer KW Jeter) although it is Kevin who, in the second half of the novel, takes the others to see an experimental Sci-Fi film, ‘VALIS’. From this point Dick has to face up to the fact that he may not be psychotic after all, since much of his exegesis is contained within the film.
The more I think about it, the more I begin to believe that not only is this Dick’s best novel (despite it not being an easy read. I found I had to have a large dictionary to hand in order to make sense of words such as ‘hypostasis’ and ‘isomorph’) it certainly ranks among the best SF novels of the Twentieth Century. No one but Dick who alone, I’d imagine, among Twentieth Century SF writers was so extensively well-grounded in theology, philosophy and the devices of SF, could have written something like this.
Like all Dick novels its plot sometimes seems ludicrous. At the denouement for instance, God or Buddha, or Christ, in the form of a two-year old girl called Sophia, reveals herself to the trio and admits to being instrumental in the downfall of Richard Nixon. Within the context of VALIS, this seems to be perfectly plausible.
The post-modern element is also something Dick seldom employs, choosing in this case not only to set his book in contemporary America, but to populate the novel with himself, ‘Kevin’, Richard Nixon and possibly other ‘disguised’ individuals.
Described on the blurb as ‘a wildly comic novel’ this most certainly isn’t. It’s darkly funny and packed with profound insights on the nature of religion, madness and society, and tragic ironies, as one would expect. It contains all of Dick’s trademark themes; the nature of reality, mental illness, fakes (indeed, it is postulated that the entire universe might be a fake, and God – as a living Universe – irrational if not insane).
What’s it about? Even having just finished the last page, it’s hard to say. Maybe it’s Dick trying to exorcise his own demons in an attempt to fictionalise what was for him a very real experience. Within the book Dick is healed by the Child Saviour for a short while, his two selves reunited in peace with each other. Shortly afterwards he receives a phone-call in which he is told that God, effectively, had been killed. The child was dead, and Dick polarised once more into two separate halves.
Maybe that’s just the way world is. Maybe Dick never really liked happy endings, knowing as he did, that there seldom are any.