VALIS / Philip K. Dick

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

valis

VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

5 comments
  1. His later works can be quite unwieldy — Valis included. Have you read The Martian Time-Slip (1964)? It’s quite good — I would argue almost as good as Ubik etc.

    (note: the title is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with a “?” as it is a question)

    • fcbertrand said:

      Yes, indeed, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does have a question-mark (?) at the end, though most current commentators leave it off, for reasons unknown. The novel thereby becomes one potential answer to the title: Do androids need to sleep? If they sleep, do they dream? If they dream, is it of “electric sheep”? Also, PKD wrote a LOT of novels before VALIS, and better than VALIS.

    • You are both quite right – I have amended the post to include the question mark.

      No, I haven’t picked up The Martian Time-Slip yet – my next PKD fix was probably going to be ‘Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said’. But there are several of his works I still need to get around to reading. If only there was more time…

  2. Jeff said:

    It’s nice to see someone else disappointed in something by a writer whose other works they admire. I’ve shelved A Scanner Darkly. I found it an endless tittle-tattle about drug culture. I realise he was empathising with the complexities experienced in difficult lives. But understanding the thinking behind something you aren’t enjoying doesn’t necessarily motivate you to continue. Maybe I’ll pick it up again someday.
    Actually, VALIS appeals to me more. Sounds like a deliberate fudge of knowledge and power to leave readers pondering what it refers to.

    • Thanks Jeff. Your description of VALIS is spot on I feel, so it could be worth giving it a go!

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