Review of Valis (1981)

Philip K. Dick (writer).

Read in 2020.

From the blurb, I felt pretty sure this book would be bad. It’s the first part of a trilogy left unfinished by the author’s death. Actually reading it, I felt his death as a blow.

If A Scanner Darkly (1977) is the true face of Dick in fiction, Valis is practically autobiography. It is a lot less depressive than Scanner, but starts out dominated by a very similar sort of pointless drug-addict conversations. In Scanner, these conversations just kill time and have little to do with the science fiction premise. In Valis, there seems at first to be no science fiction premise. The subject of discussion is instead a series of paranormal life-changing events described by Dick as happening to himself in “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” (1978). Indeed, two of the characters in the novel are Dick himself, but it is ultimately a work of fiction.

The seminal events feel profound to those who experience them, but are initially dismissed, indeed undermined by the author’s framing. There’s still drug addiction in the picture, there’s tragedy and desperation that could drive people to delusion, one of Dick’s self-inserts has a mental disorder purportedly caused by such a tragedy, and many of the events clearly carry the signature of tenuous apophenia. There’s a skeptic—usually a character named Kevin—pointing out more reasonable interpretations, and indeed, Dick never totally rejects the realistic perspective wherein the central events were variously random and imaginary: The stuff of straight fiction, or what Todorov called the uncanny in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970).

It’s clear that Dick himself—the real person—ultimately believed that his paranormal experiences were genuine theophanies: Not just Todorov’s literature of the marvelous but real miracles. This doesn’t quite explain why, in the novel, he gradually wraps them up in a sfnal framework with orbital AI and such, bolting them onto a larger, less autobiographical plot, from which he then retreats back to the skeptical, Todorovian-uncanny framing of the opening.

The first point of inflection is when the characters go see a fictional fiction film, also called “Valis”. Its contents appear to confirm that something they’ve been lazily discussing as delusion actually happened. In chapter 9, the characters are on their way home after seeing the movie, and as they have their usual sort of drug-addict conversation about it, they turn gradually from the skeptical, dismissive view of those seminal events as uncanny to a radically different view of them as deeply significant and either fantastic or marvelous. Artistically, this is the high point of the book. It is like seeing the marginal figures from Scanner over-interpret a trippy Stanley Kubrick movie, and making the world around them science fiction as they go along. From just watching a movie, they descend or ascend into a world of gnosis, of surreal and profoundly narcissistic fantasy mixed into reality.

Although chapter 9, like most of the book, is written as a fairly mechanical dialogue, it is actually very well done. It is balanced, not in the manner of Henry James in Todorov’s reading, but on a higher level. As an experienced and curious writer of science fiction, Dick continually plays with the tools at his disposal and with the core ideas woven through all his novels. Valis is metafiction of a high calibre, wherein the writer knowingly exposes even his own real madness as one of many layers in the work, without ever coming across as a tedious Brechtian fiddler who merely finds illusionism gauche.

I was shocked by how well Dick pulled this off since the ingredients are all bad. Most problematically, his assertions are egotistical. Among other things, he believed that Jesus’s return was imminent. To justify this assertion, he claimed that time had stopped in 70 CE and had only recently resumed, so that Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:28 could be both accurate and applicable to Dick’s own life. This concept is narcissistic: It associates Dick himself with events of cosmic importance, for no logical reason. Indeed, in his mind, he had to assume that almost 2000 years of history was faked in a sort of grand conspiracy so that he would be important.

In the novel—in that crucial discussion of the film—he says that skepticism of his assertion “diminishes” him: It is an attack on his ego, inflated by what is essentially a psychotic break. To protect his inflated ego he draws on so much occult and esoteric Christian dross that you should not attempt to read this book until you’ve read The Bible (ca. 110 CE) and some work on the Dead Sea scrolls and the gnostics, such as Pagels’s contemporary The Gnostic Gospels (1979). Dick also makes untenable readings of ancient history and philosophy drawn from the Encyclopedia Britannica. He resorts to unaccountable, unverifiable divine inspiration to sew up the plot. He casts Richard Nixon as an antichrist, again making his own life special by association, his own political conviction crucial. The makers of “Valis” (the movie) are glamorous celebrities who share their similar insight. Even Linda Ronstadt shows up to grant more privileged secret epiphanies.

Like some fringe Christian cult leaders, Dick veers off the canon and brings in some Buddhism, landing in the non-Abrahamic assertion that it is actually humanity we must worship. Anthropocentric US Christian SF is common. Christian sermons infusing a selective memory of mundane events with cosmic importance are extremely common. To see any of it done half this well is rare, because it is false.

Though unusually literate, Dick’s premises—including his version of Christianity—are closely akin to the ravings of James Tilly Matthews. Dick apparently wrote this whole thing in the manner of a highly self-aware sufferer of schizophrenia, who is able to present their beliefs in a cogent manner and have a good laugh at how crazy these beliefs are, all while remaining crazy. The technological rationales are subordinate to this thrust of schizophrenia, but the structure of the writing is not. If Matthews had possessed Dick’s superb writing skills, people would have marched in protest against the air-loom conspirators. If Paul of Tarsus had possessed them, world history could have been radically different.

There is no sign of technical knowledge behind Dick’s hypertechnological rationales. There is no wisdom in Dick’s conclusions, either. The comedic climax of the book is when Kevin—by this point a sort of doubting Thomas—goes back to see a 2-year-old Jesus figure to ask her why his cat died in traffic, which is a question of theodicy. The way this is done is extremely funny, and intentionally so, but it has no conclusion. Dick ultimately reflects that he can’t explain bad stuff; he has no theodicy. His purported insights are not useful, except to inflate his ego.

As a work of philosophy, theology or proselytization, Valis is trash. In my reading, Dick never manages to bring a shred of credibility to his beliefs, so I cannot object to the book as a work of dangerous propaganda for its bad ideas. From a very different point of view, regarded strictly as literature, it’s amazing. In Valis, Dick illustrated the kinship between his beliefs, his disorder, and the writing of science fiction, including truly great SF, in a genuinely brilliant way. It is a deeply fascinating epistemological game he played and I wish he’d gotten to finish it.

References here: Archangel (2016).

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