VALIS (1981) by Philip K. Dick

VALIS1981Beyond the reality bending, beyond the suburban discontent, beyond the fragile male ego expressed as nonchalant sexism, PKD’s preference for the word “vast” most struck me from the very first novel I read by him, especially by the time Jason tells Alys, “But you’re vast,” (170) in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. It’s not a word I hear every day, and Dick uses it constantly. 

Here’s the thing, though: Flow My Tears was published in February 1974, written before the 2-3-74 events that triggered the whacked out, mystical wanderings of VALIS, Radio Free Albemuth, and The Exegesis. So, “Vast Alys” existed before VALIS.

I’m not sure what that proves, other than Dick had, at least, the name of his AI cosmic diety from the Roman Empire picked out before he ever encountered the supposed Xerox missive. I’m not saying he was lying; pink light psychedelics, bishop-possessed cats, and theophany are likely to happen when you combine Gnosticism with oral surgery. They don’t call it transcen-dental-ism for nothing.

Overall, VALIS is the better written and more entertaining version of Radio Free Albemuth, the posthumously-published, unpolished prototype of VALIS, though I don’t think I would have enjoyed it half as much if I wasn’t already drowning in the pages of Dick’s personal journal, The Exegesis. Officially, only two of the characters are constructs of the author, PKD himself and his alter ego, Horselover Fat, while the other supporting characters are modeled off of real people (including Tim Powers), but it’s easy to interpret all of the group members as some form of Dick’s own psyche, battling to win his logic and his soul, much like Joanna Russ’ The Female Man (1975).

Perhaps I’m just desperately looking for some much needed self-awareness from this shifty author. Fortunately, Dick takes a lot of jabs at himself in VALIS (“Probably he sneaked off and wrote about it in his journal” 25), a refreshing change from the ardent zealousness of his exegesizing, though so much of the humor, based on the journal the public wouldn’t read until thirty years after his death, must have gone over heads. (The Exegesis excerpts seeded throughout VALIS are mere hints of his journal’s leaden and contradictory ramblings.)

The most important difference between RFA and VALIS: PKD discards that ridiculous idea of a folk music revolution, instead planting subliminal messages in a simulacra David Bowie film, which makes more sense for the time period, though maybe an album by the genre-crossing Linda Ronstadt, whom he loved so much, would have been the better choice to bleed the ideas of VALIS and government corruption into mainstream America. But PKD was too deep inside his own head to be in touch with pop culture.

Anyway, here’s this month’s BINGO card. It’s pink!

PKDBINGOVALIS_Done

One BINGO. Being a fictionalized, semi-autobiographical account, VALIS is missing that signature PKD sense of oppression and near-futurism. Much as PKD heroes complain of their struggles against the state, PKD himself (and many of his paranoid heroes, actually) had it pretty good, and the PKD of this novel exercises a surprising amount of legal and financial freedom. Another interesting deficiency: not a single mention of two of his other favorite words, “sidereal” and “ergic.” I felt sure I’d see them here.

Next month’s review for the Bookpunks’ Exegesis with a side of fiction support groupThe Divine Invasion (1981)

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20 thoughts on “VALIS (1981) by Philip K. Dick

  1. marzaat says:

    You’re pushing me closer to taking the VALIS dive.

    Is this the novel where the Tim Powers character is shushed about mentioning C. S. Lewis? (I’ve heard Powers himself mention that one.)

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    • Yes! And it’s a perfect passage to demonstrate Dick’s embattled psyche:

      “A careful study of Kevin’s cynical rantings reveals this structure at every turn. David continually quoted C.S. Lewis; Kevin contradicted himself logically in his zeal to defame God; Fat made obscure references to information fired into his head by a beam of pink light; Sherri, who had suffered dreadfully, wheezed out pious mummeries: I switched my position according to who I was talking to at the time” (p 29).

      … I should have used that quote for a synopsis…

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  2. Warstub says:

    Hmmm, maybe it’s better appreciated before reading The Exegesis? Don’t know – it was the first novel of his I read, and it comes in during the beginning of a “more serious” SF reading list for me. Prior to this it was all Clarke, Asimov, Herbert, Orson Scott Card, and Greg Bear territory. I’d never read anything like Valis before, and pretty much everything afterwards – Pohl, Knight, Blish, Silverberg, et al. – would get the hard comparison (sort of). And to be fair, my contemporary SF list stops at Greg Egan – I don’t think I’ve read anything published after 2000.

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    • It’s my theory that VALIS is best read along with, or after, the Exegesis, considering none of the other Exegesis pals cared much for VALIS. I don’t think it’s great, but The Exegesis experience adds another dimension to VALIS.

      And no PKD could probably survive a Bear to Silverberg transition. He’s not satisfying in either sense.

      You’re like Joachim with the pre-2000 loyalty. I never planned to read new releases when I started this, but I gave that up when The Peripheral and The Bone Clocks came out.

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      • I would think the Exegesis is even more baffling if you haven’t read RFA or “Valis”.I still haven’t approached it,although I have seen excerpts of it in the past.

        Bob Silverberg is an excellent author,but found him a less intense reading experience than PKD.I don’t like to compare the two though.

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        • Nope, can’t compare the two, but if I didn’t restrain myself, I would have already read all of the Silverberg, whereas I can take or leave PKD.

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          • Bob Silverberg examined the traditional themes of science fiction in a meditive way,but Philip Dick transformed them into something strangely different that was wildly exotic and intellectually challenging.You can think what you like about my description of them though.

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          • There’s no doubt that Dick engages in erudite themes, but his earlier books I’ve read are less heavy-handed about it. (Silverberg engages in a lot of literary themes and symbology, too, but not in such a dense way.) Seeing Dick post-analyze his own books in The Exegesis has ruined the fun for me, and put much of his intention into doubt: that whole “Wow, Ubik is actually the truth of reality and Runciter is actually *insert whomever he is obsessed with at the moment*” stuff.

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          • Yes,his earlier books up to “A Scanner Darkly”,have a light-headed,edgy,surreal starkness and comedy about them,unlike the later,more clinical novels,although RFA does have a clear,concise prose style that makes it quite easy to read,despite it’s anodyne quality and change in outlook.

            Bob Silverberg had a serious but more direct attitude to the themes of human transcedence,rather than Dick’s strange, chameleon shaping mysteries,that was his trademark style.

            Well,you don’t have to let it ruin it for you I think.Dick[or Horselover Fat?]was convinced of what happened to him,and rightly so I think,but perhaps he was just using “Ubik” as a cipher for what he thought had happened to him.It probably made it easier to understand through the themes he had unintentionally made similar to what had happened to him.It doesn’t have to be taken literally.

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      • Warstub says:

        That is what I love about Joachim’s site, but for me it’s not so much about loyalty but about attention-span – I’ve only actually read about 14 books since ’09. I remember reading ‘Returning’ by Ian R. MacLeod in Interzone in ’92 and that, along with Egan, during the late 90s pushed me towards more contemporary stuff like Robert Reed (who I never ended up reading) and Stephen Baxter (who bored me into a catatonic state). I have tried Miéville but couldn’t maintain interest. Radio Free Albemuth and Orbitsville (Bob Shaw) were the last two SF books I read, and they were both easy reads, so that kind of says a lot about my reading habits I think.

        No, it was the other way around – no one could compare to the experience I had reading Dick – Silverberg came close (But then, Pohl was fun to read but left me disappointed, unlike Clarke who could elevate the reader past the final page – not an easy task!). So in that sense, Dick would often satisfy me when other’s failed to.

        I have had Ready Player One recommended to me, so at some point I am going to try diving back in (I’m looking at Light by Harrison too). Maybe it’ll be this year – I’ve just resigned from my job so plan on being free from responsibility and stress for a long time! haha

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  3. I don’t think “Valis” is a good book to start with if you haven’t read him previously.I’d read over twenty of his books before I read it,but found it difficult.It’s a seriously absorbed treatise,where unlike his other stuff in which he let the art form his books,I think it’s subservient to the subject matter,that makes it flawed.

    Do you really like it more than “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” or even “Flow My Tears,the Policeman Said”? “The Divine Invasion” is much more like vintage Dick,despite being riven with obvious theology.

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    • “Like” is a strong word, haha.

      I’m not crazy about any of his stuff so far, though I feel a fondness for his short stories, but more upon reflection than when I was actually reading them. “Absorbed” and “subservient to the subject matter” are good descriptions for VALIS, but all of his work feels that way to me, so far. Reading Exegesis at the same time adds a dimension that I appreciate more than the actual story.

      Like you already suggested, I might have more love for his earlier works. This late ’70s trippy scrutiny of his subjective reality pretending as objective reality is tiresome. It feels too much like church/that point at parties when people get obnoxiously drunk and high. “Under the veil” fiction can go both ways, and I prefer personal interiority to external “whoa, reality” stuff.

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  4. Do you have any favourites among his short fiction? I can’t believe you really found “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” similar in tone and apperance to “Valis”.I think you might like “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,but as I remember,you have “A Maze of Death” coming up,which might like too.Both can be seen as forerunners to “Valis” and “The Divine Invasion” before his 1974 experiences,but approached more difficult themes with subtlety and spontaneity.

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    • No no no, I don’t think Androids and VALIS are similiar in those ways, other than both feeling very PKD. I enjoyed Androids very much and it went quickly, but, I dunno, his stuff just doesn’t stay with me very long. Like cotton candy. Maybe if I had been around at the time of publication, it would have had more of an impact on me, but so many of his signatures have been lifted by recent writers and filmmakers, so I’m probably jaded to his stuff by proxy. Maybe?

      As for short fiction, I would have to go look. I remember bits of stuff, but can’t remember titles. Memories of those stories tend to surface every once in a while, and they come with positive feelings. That’s all.

      Subtlety and spontaneity sounds like a good combo.

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      • I see what you mean.They both have his unmistakable signature on them,but DADOES has a light-headed intellectual quality,that as you say,made it easy to read,which can’t be said of the more academic density of “Valis”.I think though,that you’re probably suffering from what I call post canonisation syndrome.It felt very different when he was unrecognised in his own country,and was only highly regarded by fellow SF authors and a strong core readership abroad.

        A very few of his short stories seem to anticipate his 1970s experiences and the Exegesis.Have you read or can recall “Upon the Dull Earth”,which he wrote very early in his career?It deals with themes not unlike what he would write about in RFA and “Valis”,and this was before he had visions.

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  5. liminalt says:

    I was dissatisfied with Valis, although it was so long ago that I read it I can’t actually remember a huge amount about it now. My favourite PKD remains “A scanner darkly,” I think probably because more than usual, some human emotion and pathos got blended with the reality-warping and weirdness, and I found it quite moving, as opposed to just interesting.

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    • I think “A Scanner Darkly” is much better than “Valis”.It was the last novel he wrote before his writing changed,following his 1974 experiences.Dick himself was supposed to have considered it his finest,which is probably justified after such a long career stretching back twenty years.

      You’re probably right about the “human emotion and pathos blended with the reality-warping and weirdness”,but I think much of his stuff has more depth than just being interesting.ASD is probably just more concerned with the human cost of decay rather than metaphysical changes,but he still found room for human concerns even then.

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  6. […] explains my PKD BINGO posts. In April, I blogged and BINGOed about VALIS (1981), the most self-aware novel I’ve read by PKD so far. Dick’s signature lack of […]

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