“Reality it that which, once you stop believing in it, does not go away.” — PKD, Valis, 1981
Having been an ardent fan of Philip K Dick for most of my lifetime, it actually took me quite a while to get around to VALIS amongst his catalogue of work. If I had arrived at it earlier, certainly it would have coloured much of my perception of the man going on to his other stories, because I’m now utterly convinced that this is where he went off the rails. The first in a series of novels that he never completed due to his death prior to the release of BLADE RUNNER – an adaptation of his vastly superior novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? – perhaps I’m selling the story short overall given that the complete narrative has not and will not ever have a chance to come full circle.
PKD had always walked a line of paranoia, schizoid madness, fringes of reality and how human perception and drug use ties into the expansion, dissolution and reconstruction of the self – he was, after all, culturally prominent through the 60s and 70s in California and several of his novels (such as A SCANNER DARKLY) contain lengthy post-script tributes to the friends he has lost over the years to drugs, be it by death, illness or psychosis. Inspired by a series of religious experiences he had in the mid-1970s, VALIS takes his trademark loose grip of reality and runs it through an alternate personality/unreliable narrator grinder into religious parable, and although there’s a good streak of attribution to schizophrenic disassociation underpinning his rationale (and the fact he understands much of his visual/auditory hallucination to stem from this) it nonetheless comes undone frequently and never really resolves itself into a coherent whole. As a study of a man broken by the suicide of a friend/potential lover and sent over the edge searching for the next incarnation of a Messiah/vessel of Gnostic Wisdom as a coping mechanism, this disjointedness is a pretty poignant reminder of mortality and the wounds that are left behind in a person after such an event. However, despite having fictionalised versions of David Bowie and Brian Eno in the narrative (both of whom I’m a huge fan and noticed the parallels immediately) as well as fictionalised real-life accounts of events in Dick’s own life, I really feel like this one got swamped in metaphysics and there are many other of his tales that are more focussed and deserving of accolades and attention than this. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the post-modernist madness, but madness it certainly is: later parts of the trilogy follow the semi-autobiographical nature of VALIS where Dick came to believe himself to have been taken over by the spirit of the Biblical prophet Elijah and it’s actually quite sad seeing such a spectacular mind unravel before your very eyes.
If you’ve never attempted a PKD novel I’d definitely steer you towards his earlier work before this: DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, A SCANNER DARKLY, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, or UBIK are all complete mind-fucks in their own right and his short-story collections are a treasure-trove of high-concept science-fiction – many of which have been adapted into full-length features since his death due to the sheer density of the ideas contained within them.
Now, I know I said that I was tackling three simultaneous SOLARIS reviews next, but the collective experience of watching and reading them all back to back has left me in a sort of existential fugue. I might not actually get to them, depending on how my headspace resolves ahead of the move overseas.
I’m also fielding suggestions for anything anyone would like to recommend as I’m closing in on the last few of the Top 100 Sci-Fi Novels of All-Time that I haven’t already read (excluding a few Heinlein novels because as much as I respect some of his work he was also a total shitbag).