Darko Suvin (VERSION 2015, 14,960 words)
“You’ve read these?” Allen scanned the volume of
Ulysses. His interest and bewilderment grew. “Why?
What did you find?”
Sugermann considered. “These, as discriminated
from the other, are real books.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Hard to say. They’re about something.”
(Dick, The Man Who Japed, ch. 9)
Reality is that which when you stop believing in it, it
doesn’t go away. (Dick, VALIS, ch. 5)
1. Two Personal (But Not Only) Premises
It must have been 1972 or ’73 when my nose was first rubbed into the work of Philip Dick by a student at McGill, a young woman who went on to become a professor of psychology at Berkeley.
A friend of hers, a young Lithuanian-Canadian, was one of those fans having the entire opus of favourite SF writers in his flat, in this case all I was missing from Dick. I then asked my coeditor Dale Mullen whether he’d let me edit an issue of our journal, Science-Fiction Studies, on Le Guin and Dick, which soon became two separate issues. Among other matters in organizing that issue, I somehow got Dick’s phone number in southern California to solicit from him a contribution, which he eventually graciously gave. I had the feeling he was somewhat bewildered by academic attention, and it turned out later he had classical ambivalence toward it–he both wanted and resented our praise. Our conversations were entirely practical and unremarkable, except for one incident after he had received the SFS issue in 1975, when he gently complained about my slighting of his German, since he had been readily understood by the hotel he stayed in in Munich.
This turned out to be an instance of his talent for fabulation, for it appears he never was in Munich, but I was at the time entirely innocent of his psychic complexities…
Many years later, when his executor was preparing a volume of his letters for print, he asked me for permission to reproduce Dick’s 1974 letters denouncing me and two other prominent participants in the SFS issue, at the same time that he was cordially conversing with us, to the FBI as agents of a Soviet-bloc Communist committee situated in Cracow and going under the name of Lem; he knew that Lem wasn’t a single person because the latter had corresponded with him in several languages… I have since understood the terrible existential panic he was in when he tried to ingratiate himself with the FBI, and forgiven if not forgotten.1/ It is a case in point for Dick’s typically American cocoon, the political illiteracy to which I shall return in my conclusion. But away with memories of Atlantis! How is it proper today to talk about him? We could say this as in the title of Michael Bishop’s novel: “Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas”–and we are alive, at a time probably worse than his fears, 20 years later. We have therefore the benefits of hindsight, of having available almost all that matters which he wrote, including the mainstream novels, his letters, essays, and other expository prose. All of this, including a lot of critical literature, should of course be critically sifted, for beside benefits snares for the unwary have also multiplied since he died in 1982. And furthermore, most important, all of us who have loved (or love-hated) his work, but who at any rate have recognized his genius–that is, his cognitive importance to us the readers then and now–have cognitive, which means also ethical, obligations to his opus and his memory. Perhaps I should then start rather from 1975, when the first major collection of critical work on him was published in that SFS issue. This would for me personally be an obligatory starting point because I feel that my essay in that issue needs supplementing in two ways: by taking into account the new materials, and also new theoretical insights and positions some of us on the Left have arrived at examining the few splendors and many miseries since 1975–including among the splendors new thinking about salvation sparked by new needs and with help of Liberation Theology or a better understanding of Walter Benjamin.
My question would then be what does P.K. Dick’s fiction from Ubik on have to say to those of us, his readers, who have not given up trying to make sense–in however overdetermined and roundabout ways– out of our common world in order to find out possibilities of action in it. After all, we see the powerful social classes, all the Palmer-Eldritch-type mad capitalist and military groups lording it over us, that work successfully for destruction all the time–which proves that action is possible. We need horizons and orientations, today more than ever, which allow for radical change to counteract their destruction of material and moral life, of our bodies and our values. Let me be as clear here as I can: I do not wish to talk in the simplified language and conceptuality of a difference between “esthetic” and “committed” or engagé texts, nor, a fortiori, in that of “progressive” vs. “regressive” that lurks at its back. I hold with and Brecht that “to see how or as”–as opposed to staring or seeing only retinally–is to think as well as to see, that the optical nerve functions by way of the brain. The whole history of art and philosophy has shown us that we cannot understand any “what” without the “how,” for the “how” is in a way an inquiry into “what is what.” A navel-gazing “how” may engage our sympathies at moments of the gazer’s great navel pain.
But such a “how,” that denies it exists as a function of “what,” grows increasingly sterile. Thus I do wish to cleave to the fundamental opposition between Eros and Thanatos, fertility and sterility, making our lives easier or more difficult to understand.
Therefore: what can Dick’s late novels say to those of us who are not interested in theology as believers or even near-believers, but who are prepared to see theology and cosmogony as an interesting and perhaps highly important symptom of earthly relationships? Those interested in mystical experiences or Gnostic divinities are welcome to find pleasure in dealing intransitively with them, but I wish to explore whether they could be profitably treated as a highly abstract or coded form of transitive talking about individual vs. community and other crucial matters of relationships among people in Dick’s time–and by easy extension, in our unhappy times too.While I would like to investigate the significant post-Ubik novels of Dick with this in view, I can here manage only an overview of some foci in selected novels. I cannot, as one should, reconsider here the two “bridge novels,” Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (written 1966, published 1968) and the much richer Ubik (written 1966, published 1969). I shall concentrate on A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth, and the “VALIS Trilogy.”
1.2 Methodological: The Emitter and His Signals
What I am looking for as far as method goes is a tool or lens which would allow us to approach the tug-of-war between simple psychological alienation or rebellious anomie on the one hand and, on the other hand, a more articulated delving into the collective reasons ceaselessly reproducing that alienation and reification, between a creativity or critique that is useful or useless for radical anticapitalist change; and only a “thick” version of such an approach, not only ideational but also formal, has a chance to be enlightening. This may be a central problem of all SF (not to say of all art today); at any rate, as befits a major creator, it is clearly a major and increasingly foregrounded dilemma at the heart of Dick’s opus. I have no wish to conceal that this is a variant of the permanent Left or radical critique of the bourgeois world, which is for urgent salvational reasons inevitably drawn to ideal polarities, although we know full well that in practice, and especially artistic practice, there is little black and white but rather various shades of grey and all other colours. The
point is that taking centrally into account the shifting spacetimes and value-systems in fictional texts can retain this political interest but supplement it not only with the tools of modern narratology and if you wish semiotics (let me invoke here only early Lukács, Bakhtin, and Jameson), but also of modern existential and phenomenological inquiry. Indeed, this approach can at its best embody the politics in its inquiry, while recalling it overtly and criticizing where need be any of its stripes, including the necessary simplifications of day-to-day activism. In other words, I wish to test and if need be clarify my 1975 thesis that in P.K. Dick’s opus we can see an oscillation between the horizons of transitive epistemology, where reality is undoubted but the characters’ or reader’s approach to it is in question, and intransitive ontology, where the reality itself is in question. I shall use the shorthand of “epistemological” vs.”ontological” for these horizons. Perhaps this distinction can be further focussed by borrowing the one between signal and
noise from the theory of information. Given a stream of information, signal means all that informs us about the source of that stream or that has “meaning”–in the case of a novel, a however roundabout or mediated meaning about possible relationships in the koinos kosmos (as Dick would rightly say), the Possible World Zero common to author and readers. It is then usually thought by engineers that noise is all that which carries no information or has no meaning. However, noise gives us another type of information, that about the channel. It is autoreferential information, indispensable for any technician who wants to repair a radio or TV and, as De Carolis points out, “listens to the buzzes and whistles to draw information about the device and not about modern music” (modern music then often incorporates the buzzes and whistles by upgrading them from noise to signal). I’d add that in a larger sense, this somewhat misnamed noise is also information, and indeed one about a specific subset of PW Zero, the psychophysical consciousness of the author as refracted through the writing conventions and genres she is using. In the case at hand, the “device” or subset is Dick’s existential situation as he understood it at the moment of writing, and (this seems important) through or indeed in part because of the writing.
The problem here is a dialectical one: on the one hand, the flow of information being received by the readers scanning the novel is single; on the other hand and simultaneously, at every and any moment optimal information about PW Zero can only be attained by distinguishing clearly between the channel noise–here, Dick’s psycho-theological encoding–and the meaning coming from and about the signal source. In the theory of information, this distinction is essential but only possible as the work of an external observer: “the channel itself is indifferent to it.”
In the classical case in which a system observes itself, which is the case of every artist, there is an inbuilt temptation to confuse signal and noise. The temptation grows particularly strong in the case of a badly functioning society which causes the appearance of isolated and anomic intellectuals and reinforces their anguish. I hold that this is the case of a good part of us, and that in the humanist intelligentsia the isolation–Karl Marx’s “alienation” and Hannah Arendt’s “loneliness”–is directly proportional to our clear-sightedness and significance as intellectuals, say writers. It causes what De Carolis calls a “primary solipsism.” Even conservative or Rightwing writers in SF have been known to share the anomie, witness Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” and the interminable follow-ups in the novels of his senility. The pedigree of such solipsism is impressive, for it extends from Buddhism and Plato’s Myth of the Cavern to all subjectivist philosophy, say from Descartes through the German Idealists to early Wittgenstein and today. Their common horizon is one of taking the blend or confusion between signal and noise for a natural condition of our PW Zero. An epistemic beast, how to understand the source, is mistaken for an ontological beast, what the source is. The central materialist tenet that we can only have given interpretations of reality but that it exists outside of us and independent of any our group, is here abandoned.
Obversely however, for use in a highly sophisticated and sui generis context such as fiction or art in general, the engineering aspect of the theory of information has to be modified. No significant writer is able to quite forget the meaningful signal. The urge to communicate to readers matters not confined exclusively to herself as channel seems to make the difference between creativity and psychosis. We shall see that in Dick’s case there is a functional equivalent to the emitter’s indifference in an artful oscillation concerning the presence and nature of meaning within a spectrum of mutually exclusive explanations. While the civic persona of Phil Dick may have hovered very near psychosis and was most probably at moments deep within it, the control and clarity largely evidenced in his work disallow using this as a key to their interpretation: the writer’s persona, the implied author, was for all relevant purposes not psychotic or crazy.
The criteria I’m using as epistemic tools makes it mandatory for criticism (as I understand it) to scrutinize whether it is generally possible to extend the author’s understanding of his situation as exemplary to everybody else’s situation. A spread of answers is possible, which I tried to discussonce for the specific case of Victorian SF (Suvin, “Narrative”). In the pessimal case, the author is so idiosyncratic that it cannot be extended at all; the writings are then soon forgotten. In very rare optimal cases, the author’s understanding can be shared with some appreciable accuracy by large groups of people, entire social classes of a civilization–these are then the authors taught in Literature 101 or high school, your Shakespeares, Dostoevskys, Rabelaises, Homers or Lucretiuses.
More usually, the author’s take on reality cannot be extended outside of a small group sharing his existential position (his core fans, in SF parlance), or at least not without confronting it significantly with other types of understanding which the critic has good reasons for treating as more illuminating and useful–in brief, better. Any such more normative reasons are finally in the nature of a bet and neither necessarily nor (for sure) eternally valid. But for given purposes, those of discussing a worthwhile and significant but not quite optimal writer–which is, as a rule, what we do in SF–they can be supremely useful. Given the resonance that the works of P.K. Dick have now had for 30 or 40 years, and which may in the foreseeable future vary as to whom it affects and in exactly which directions but to my mind has no reason to abate, I believe this is his position in our present debates.
To discuss the significance of Dick’s later works, then, necessarily leads to some disentangling of meaning and noise. It also necessarily leads to some, I hope discreet, use of his biography. I shall assume as a given for this investigation what a number of us have been arguing about the epistemologically transitive and thus socially critical or “signalling” nature of his earlier novels, which culminates (as is by now generally accepted) in what I called his “plateau tetralogy” of The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, and Dr Bloodmoney (written 1961-64, published 1962-65). I leave here unresolved the stature of the contemporary Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, on which some critics heap one-sided praise2/ whereas others such as myself now doubt we should speak of a “plateau tetralogy.” Finally, I see no other way of seizing what Dick is getting at than to identify in each case the main nodes of his plots, which inevitably means also to interpret them, while getting at an encompassing evaluation only after having disentangled them. Dick’s truth lies in his plot or fabula.
2. Approaching the Later P.K. Dick: Dead End and Necessity of Salvation
2.1. Both for my purposes and in fairness to Dick, I do not have to deal with works that do not represent him at his utmost stretch (except as testimonials to his dilemmas). In my judgment such is the case of five novels written in what one might call his crisis decade 1966-76, that is between Ubik and A Scanner Darkly. Stableford and Clute rightly call Deus Irae “a rather unsatisfactory collaboration with Roger Zelazny.” In Galactic Pot-Healer (written 1967-8, published 1969), the emblematic artist-craftsman is chosen as the necessary helper of a very unclear godhead. Though any novel by Dick will have its share of felicities, the central flaw of this one is a hesitant approach to an “inner space” quasi-Jungian allegory, which is neither clear nor cogent enough to sustain the weight put upon it. It also ends abruptly, and such perfunctoriness will increase in the following three novels. A Maze of Death (written 1968, published 1970), Our Friends From Frolix 8 (written 1968-69, published 1970), and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (written 1970-73, published 1974), are broken-backed narratives. Most of A Maze is a banalized ontology, with insufficient narrative control and a plot of successive murders in an isolated planet community à la Christie’s And Then There Were None, which is pulled back into epistemology in the last dozen pages. There the preceding narration is revealed as a collective dream generated by a mind-linking machine to alleviate the dead end of a crew’s endless voyage in an out-of-control spaceship. This superordinated reality seems even more hopeless, since it lacks the presence of divine manifestations from the universe of the realistic dream, but in Dick’s frequent sting-in-the-tail reversal one appears to the main character Seth who will be reborn as a cactus.
Our Friends is a story of competing supermen “races” out of van Vogt, where a redeeming man returns from the stars with a selfless Frolixian alien who wipes out the superior part of the supermen’s brains. The usual and prescient Dickian police state is in evidence hunting the little working man, and among the felicities which make it the most interesting text of the three is some excellent satire of fakely objective TV comments; however, the final discussion pits the superiority of private sentiments not only against the arrogance of power but also against intellect in general.
Finally, the protagonist of Flow finds out he officially does not exist in the US police state of an alternate reality, but in the last quarter of the story his original reality seeps back for reasons vaguely indicated as due to mind-altering drugs, that also ontologically alter reality. The main turns in the plot thus arrive like a succession of rabbits out of a hat, in a quite arbitrary way. These new drugs are associated with a subsidiary female character, one of the four or five who flit scattershot in and out of the protagonist’s life; there is also a subplot bearer, no less than a humane police general… Beside the grim background of concentration camps and besieged campuses, the novel has, as usual, some splendid passages of pain and bewilderment, and six pages of a great Parable of the Rabbit trying to overcome his biology, which however stands isolated in the narration.
All these novels are interesting documents–but not much more–for what Stableford and Clute call Dick’s “sense of a shrinking [and derelict] world,” full of pain and increasing loss of orientation for everybody involved, that has been coming intensively to the fore since Martian Time-Slip and is calling for extraordinary forces of salvation. The dead end in and of these novels, where the politics (if any are indicated) can only be totally oppressive and are to be forsaken in favour of new existential orientations, centered on an ethics of love and caring, threatens to dissolve even the powers of coherent narration. All of this indicates well the reasons for Dick’s receptivity to a sudden radical break of horizons which would hold the promise of starting anew. Robinson’s example of Our Friends From Frolix 8, where “For the first time since the 1950s, a world police state is overthrown, but the revolution is accomplished by an alien with God-like powers” (Novels 103), indicates the direction to be taken.
My question is, then, whether the remaining half a dozen novels–the two “bridge novels” Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (written 1966, published 1968) and the richer Ubik (written 1966, published 1969), and then A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth, and the “VALIS Trilogy”–and their peculiar do-it-yourself theological focus and argumentation may be read–in terms of literary theory as well as of theological tradition–as a parable of collective earthly matters.
I am dealing here with Radio Free Albemuth and the “VALIS Trilogy.” A first tentative indication of the horizons within which to approach the later Dick is then that the theological aspect of his speculations may be a property of the channel, of the individualist psychology of Philip Dick, while the focus on the salvation of our common world below deals with the source in Dick’s reality, the USA of 1967 to 1981 (as emblematically represented by its different California locales). Not being a psychologist or theologian, I’m in the position of the engineer who is not interested in the channel except insofar as it is indispensable for articulating the source–but at that moment, I may be supremely interested in the channel. In fiction, the channel is even more intimately interwoven with
message or meaning than in information theory, for it codetermines if not the source, then our understanding of or take on it.
However, before I get to Dick’s last “vision” novels, I wish to sound the depths of his descent into despair in A Scanner Darkly as a logically and historically necessary introduction to my question. It is a powerful and almost unbearable novel, certainly his first masterpiece since Ubik.
2.2. Dick’s Second Plateau: A Scanner Darkly
In this novel (written 1973-75, published 1977), Dick’s frequent depiction of a US police State (“this fascist police state,” ch. 1) to whom the little man-protagonist is opposed grows almost totally dark since the little man Bob Arctor is himself an active agent of the police, a narc with the cover name Fred. While the rich live “in their fortified huge apartment complexes” (ch. 2), the little people–our almost exclusive focus in the text–live in a totally controlled State where surveillance cameras (upgraded to holograms) are routinely used, every pay phone is tapped, supersonic tigh beams are used for police assassinations (ch. 10), and the closest friends inform on each other (Fred, Donna, Barris) and suspect each other. Two themes are prominent: the universal use of drugs which not only cause hallucinations and loss of reality sense but finally make for physical death or at least brain death; and the SF gadget of the scramble suit, an invention that hooks up a multifaced lens to a mini-computer holding a million and a half physiognomies projected at random onto a spherical membrane that fits around a person. The suit makes police agents unrecognizable, and is used not only for spying on the public but also in all of the narc’s contacts with the police. This latter quite improbable ploy, which no police in the world would have authorized, serves to strengthen the paranoid situation where not only everybody informs on everybody but nobody knows who is who.
A thick web of correspondences obtains in the novel. The scramble suit resonates semantically with drug-induced scrambled receptor sites in the brain, or the split between its two hemispheres.
This was a popular hypothesis at the time, which is presented with a fair amount of pseudoscientific gobbledegook: “a toxic brain psychosis affecting the percept system by splitting it” (ch. 7) mixes about three incompatible theses. This can be taken either as one of Dick’s frequent fast shuffles as a virtuoso semantic cardsharp or more charitably as a sign he wasn’t taking the hypothesis too seriously as a causal explanation. Dick was usually (alas) little interested in causes, he was interested in the phenomenological results, which had then to be explained through the best analogies he could at the moment find. In other words, the cybernetically created shifting identities are not only parallel but in some unexplained way analogous to the drug-created split identities. A further almost Symbolist correspondence surrounds the acronym SD: it is the new superdrug Substance D, whose source the police can apparently never find; it is Spiritual Death or Slow Death; it is also Scanner Darkly (with the A edited out in another fast shuffle–and an early title was “To Scare the Dead,” Shifting 229). Finally, the omnipresent image of the novel is the materialized metaphor of a man divided against himself: when the narc “Fred” has to spy on himself he must edit enough out of the holo videos to keep his identity as Arctor secret.
The boundaries of fact and fiction begin to crumble in this “creative editing yourself out” (ch. 7) but leaving enough in to avert suspicion. Nonetheless, there are two villainous forces in the book, the total police control over his characters’ lives and the total invasion of drugs into it.
Though the novel is held together not only by the system of correspondences but primarily by the focus on how both these forces “scramble” Fred’s mind, their duality introduces a basic confusion of values. The police control which is ostensibly there to combat drugs is shown as not only abhorrent but totally counterproductive: in order to inform on the dope-dealers the narcs have to begin taking drugs themselves, and in fact our protagonist Fred /Bob Arctor becomes addicted to Substance Dand succumbs to it in the course of the novel. But on the other hand Dick’s animus is clearly against the drug culture, which he knew well but only marginally participated in during the 1960s (his thing was rather pills). True, his appended “Author’s Note,” which identifies this novel as a requiem for the naive and wiped-out drug-taking generation of his, is entirely too oversimplified to account for
the book. Still, if the drugs are supremely bad, then the bad and grotesque police fighting it is in a way good. This contradiction is never explored nor even mentioned in the novel (it can obliquely be inferred through Fred’s sympathetic boss, and is accompanied by some dubious theology about God transmuting evil to good in ch. 14). It is of a piece with Dick’s permanent ideological type that I would call “the good ruler,” or finding the good in a bad ruler. How illusory and misleading this tends to be can be seen by comparing it with the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles, which revealed that the L.A.P.D. Crash sections had set up prostitution and drug networks to compete with the gangs they were supposed to be fighting…
Finally, there is also a hint that there has been a total take-over by commercial interests:
all places are the same, with identical McDonaldburgers everywhere: “Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed: it just spread farther and farther in the form of neon ooze…. How the land became plastic, he thought…” (ch. 2). However, this is not analyzed further; the economics of the drug-trade will only surface at the end, but then in an interesting way.
Instead, A Scanner focusses on the phenomenology, and primarily on Fred’s increasingly split and malfunctioning mind. This is both the novel’s limitation and its strength. On that level it is coherent and narratively consistent, even though it does creak in a few places (such as Arctor’s German quotes in ch. 11, or his final adventures as “Bruce”). As K.S. Robinson puts it, “There exists no finer character study of an undercover agent in contemporary America than this novel ” (Novels 109). Amid the thick gloom, the novel abounds in sympathy for the put-upon little people, primarily Arctor and his love Donna. Arctor’s possibly drug-induced visions, as when he hears a voice saying death will be vanquished and all the lives “backward right now” will be righted, do not help him to help himself. In the same culminating chapter 13, amid his withdrawal seizure, Donna recounts to him the story of Tony Amsterdam who saw God after an acid trip and felt very good;
however, after a year he realized he would never see God again: “he was going to live on and on like he was, seeing nothing. Without any purpose.” What he had actually seen through a doorway was another mysterious world of silence and nighttime beauty: “And then later on, when he couldn’t see it any more, he’d be on the freeway driving along, with all the trucks, and he’d get madder than hell. He said he couldn’t stand all the motion and noise, everything going this way and that, all the clanking and banging.” After this parable, Donna tells the stupefied Fred /Arctor he’ll be restored: “On the day when everything taken away unjustly from people will be restored to them. It may take a thousand years, or longer than that, but that day will come, and all the balances will be set right.” (all in ch. 13). Such passages prepare the outburst of the soteriological theme in the “VALIS cycle” (Albemuth and the “Trilogy”).
Though not sufficiently developed, Donna is an interesting character. She’s both a federal
police agent and the member of a resistance movement, and uses Arctor’s illness to “plant” him inside a work farm which the resistance suspects of growing Substance D. Her speech about ripping off Coca Cola as a capitalist monopoly (ch. 8) is an instance of the genuine, somewhat crazy plebeian resentment not too far from Pirate Jenny’s song from Brecht-Weill’s Threepenny Opera, the downtrodden dishwasher girl dreaming of killing the whole class of her oppressors. The authorial voice is very near to Donna: after the Tony Amsterdam parable and some further meditation on this cursed, fallen, wrong world, she hears a police car siren in hot pursuit: “It sounded like a deranged animal, greedy to kill.” (ch. 13)
Arctor gradually loses his identity, evolving first into a cohabitation with the emotionless
informer Fred, while after the crisis both identities are lost in a seemingly brainless treatment patient called Bruce. Unbeknownst to him, Bruce has been secretly planted by Donna to work for the powerful and rich New Path company, which offers work-rehabilitation for the drugged. In their closed fields, we are shown Bruce discovering the pretty flowers that indicate the company grows the drug Substance D or Mors ontologica. It is made clear that even though he doesn’t understand what he saw, he will be able to report back. Thus finally, the spirit of rebellion and subversion is continuing on in spite of the overwhelming forces of the Police State and drugging. It must be confessed though that this is only a vague and in some ways unresolved indication, a little undying spark of hope amid the overwhelming gloom.
Among the novel’s strengths is sceptical self-reflexivity (Dick’s forte whenever used), so that epistemology and ontology are actually discussed on the final two pages. When Bruce thinks the blue flower are gone, the New Path boss who cut off his view tells him, “No, you simply can’t see them…. Epistemology….” (ch. 17). This fits well into Dick’s definition of reality as “that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away” (VALIS ch.5), but not with his less clear-eyed moments. Both of the themes here, the occlusion of reality by means of biochemistry or of electronic optics, are epistemological. So is all the talk about the split percept system, Fred’s selfdiagnosis that he has a “cognitive… rather than perceptive” impairment (ch. 7), or the realistic affair of the forged cheque (ch. 11). Ontology, a true change in reality, takes over briefly here and there, as when the picked-up girl’s face melds into Donna’s and this registers on the scanned holo-cube (at the end of ch.s 9 and 10). Yet doubts linger on: compared to Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians which
invokes a superior reality, Dick’s title is not only technologically upgraded from glass to scanner (ch. 13), but even in this largely epistemological novel lacks Paul’s monolithic confidence in a real and superior reality.
The private psychological problems of the small man culminate and self-destruct in this
descent into Hell, after which they cannot be of further fictional use for Dick. As in Dante, even though much more ambiguously, he emerged and looked at the stars.
2.3. Dick’s Second Plateau: Radio Free Albemuth
Diametrically oposed to Scanner in tone (but not only in that), Radio Free Albemuth (written 1976, further RFA) is Dick’s first full-blown attempt to translate his “mystical experience[s]” (RFA ch. 2) into fiction, to present them as fiction, and to cope with them by means of fiction. Since it was published only after the Valis Trilogy and Dick’s death, in 1985, it has been unduly overshadowed by the Trilogy and the debates it promoted about his sanity and his theological system, which I consider marginal to my purpose and to Dick’s significance. Unduly, for it is a coherent, lucid, and significant achievement, at least on par with the “Valis trilogy.” On the whole, it successfully melds the Police-State theme with the theme of invading extraterrestrial visions.
The police State is instituted by Ferris F. Fremont–a blend of Nixon, McCarthy, and Hitler– who had become US president in 1969. First of all, this locates the story in a parallel Possible World or universe, which is however a parable of what is coming about in the Possible World Zero, our universe in the mid-1970s. But dating the swing to full repression to before rather than after the novel’s appearance is strange. In this type of dystopian SF, the nearer the story date the greater the urgency. Orwell’s putting the Possible World in a shockingly near future was also a twisted way of talking exactly about what Dick too is talking about, for the date of 1984 simply inverts the last two digits of 1948, the year Orwell was writing. Thus, in a further twist on Orwell, Dick’s chronological
novum underscores the urgency of danger: in a very similar world, whose Berkeley and Orange County venues are described with detailed autobiographic realism, freedom has already been lost.
Fremont comes to power by denouncing a mysterious but ubiquitous subversive organization “Aramchek”: “Obviously no one can destroy it. No one’s safe from it. No one knows where it’ll turn up next…” (RFA ch. 3). As Valis reveals to Nick, Fremont is himself part of a vast secret organization which has assassinated the Kennedys, Malcolm X, King, and so on. Like Hitler, he institutionalizes ubiquitous “security” agents–specially zealous are the young– to check on “the moral state of hundreds of thousands of citizens,” and builds concentration camps (ch. 9).
I cannot but interpolate here that a bad limitation of Dick’s–which he however shares with the great majority of US SF–is his insularity. While vastly if unsystematically knowledgeable about music, literature, and the aspects of philosophy that interested him, he was not at all conversant with nor really interested in the world outside the USA–except for the Cold War rivalry with the USSR which subsumed the Vietnam War, but is here explained as a covert identity of the two “Fascist” powers. True, the USA is a very big island and up to the invention of the airplane, submarine, and ICBM could really isolate itself from the Old World, but at the same time it has since the 19th Century related to most of the world as the rich North to the poor South, and moreover a North which is rich because the South is poor. Therefore, Dick is reduced to noticing poverty only in the specific and overdetermined form of the US slums, mainly formed by immigrants, and he can easily forget economics in his otherwise totalizing explanations. Nonetheless, if we factor this limitation in, then Fremont’s canny political invention and strategy is prescient of, and continues to be highly apposite to, the present regime’s repression in Bush Jr.’s “Homeland” (including the use of the Social Security number for checking on people). And the objection that the huge US military establishment proves it cannot be in cahoots with USSR is met with another, to my mind prescient reply : “To keep our own people down. Not theirs.” (ch. 15) The prescience is again partial; the real reply would be, of course, “to keep both the US and other peoples down.”
The visionary experiences are discussed as they unfold between two alter egos of the author, Nicholas Brady and Phil Dick, who also function as alternative narrators in a tripartite Phil-Nick- Phil narrative.3/ Nick has the revelations from aliens that push him into an underground movement called “Aramchek” against the dictator Fremont. His friend Phil, an SF writer, functions not only as a dialogic sidekick but also as a doubter whose confutation adds to Nick’s credibility, and finally as an ally who remains as the focus in a coda to the novel after Nick’s death.
Dick’s message is heavily and multiply safeguarded and so to speak fenced in through
spinning a series of conflicting interpretations, a feat he excelled at. This is a staple of interesting SF, prominent in Wells’s foundational Time Machine, though Dick probably absorbed it rather through van Vogt’s Null-A series. As he put it, “Theories are like planes at LA international: a new one along every minute” (ch. 19). It has the function of forestalling, ventilating, and undercutting the reader’s objections. Phil’s first alternative hypothesis is one of psychosis: As far as I was concerned it was a chronic fantasy life that Nicholas’s mind had hit on to flesh out the little world in which he lived. Communicating with Valis (as he called it) made life bearable for him, which it otherwise would not be. Nicholas, I decided, had begun to part company with reality, out of necessity…. This was a classic example of how the human mind, lacking real solutions, managed its miseries. (ch. 5) Come back, Nicholas. To this world. The present. From whatever other world you’re
drifting away to from pain and fear–fear of the authorities, fear of what lies ahead for all of us in this country. We’ve got to put up one last fight. “Nick,” I said, “you’ve got to fight.” (ch. 14) However, Phil then witnesses Valis flashing a message to Nick which saves his small son from death by an undiagnosed hernial failure, and his second hypothesis is that Valis is God, more precisely the Christian Holy Spirit (ch. 7). A bewildering string of incidents and speculations taken from Dick’s life, including some frank admissions of the fear that made him collaborate with the FBI by denouncing others (ch. 10), is worked into the novel. It is revealed the messages from the star Albemuth are beamed to Earth through an orbiting satellite, which is discovered and blown up by the Soviets, covertly allied with the USA. The messages seem to imply also that the characters live simultaneously in the evil Roman Empire (an idea possibly stimulated by the masterpiece 334 by his acquaintance Thomas Disch), at a time when the first failed attempt of overthrowing it by
Christ will be repeated. It should be stressed that the soteriological speculations arising out of a channelling of the 1960s impulse for justice and peace into mystical visions are as usual, but perhaps more fully so, firmly rooted in a American demotic or plebeian language, a mix of innocence and arrogance, that makes up a great part of their charm and believability. When the vision allows him to see the trashy world around him with new eyes, Nick reflects: My incompetence had called these invisible friends forth. Had I been more gifted I would not now know of them. It was, in my mind, a good trade. Few people had the awareness I now possessed. Because of my limitations an entire new universe had
revealed itself to me, a benign and living hyperenvironment endowed with absolute wisdom. Wow, I said to myself. You can’t beat that, I had caught a glimpse of the Big People. It was a lifetime dream fulfilled…. (ch. 18)
Phil’s third hypothesis is that a parallel universe, possessing a more advanced science that had not divorced itself from Christianity, was assisting our backward Earth; or alternately, fourth, that the ancient Christians were returning and broadcasting to Nick’s through his unused brain tissue (ch. 19). A fifth hypothesis about a superior life-form from Albemuth materializing in his brain and making the chosen carriers immortal is broached later by Sylvia, a first sketch for the Sophia of the Trilogy. When this welter of conflicting interpretations has slyly established that what is to be interpreted is at any rate believable, we are given Nick’s most extended dialogue with Valis, a fatherfigure arranging for a usually fatal accident out of which Nick walks away reconstituted, understanding he has been reborn many times, “to work toward some distant goal unseen, not as yet comprehended…. Overthrowing the tyranny of Ferris Fremont was a stop along the way, not a goal but a moment of decision, from which I then continued as before.” (ch. 23). For all the echoes of Plato’s anamnesis, the mystical vision is here also a political one, which can be shared by total disbelievers in supernatural agencies. Dick constantly oscillates between rankest UFOlatry or mystification of the Scientology type and a shrewd realization of political oppression and a faith that enables resistance to it.
As Nick then correctly realizes, Fremont would win, the police would destroy their small
resistance group. Typically and self-reflectively, Dick envisages resistance by means of coded messages through art: Nick is a highly placed recording studio executive and he attempts to smuggle subliminal messages into popular records. This fails, Nick and his whole group are shot, and Phil is condemned to perpetual forced labour. However, an opening toward brighter perspectives is re-established in the novel’s coda, narrated by Phil as lifelong convict of the Fascist regime.
It is a double opening, ideological and pragmatic, on a continuing subversion against the
Fascist takeover. The ideological opening is achieved in the discussion, similar to the end of a Shavian play, with another convict friend, the plumber Leon, who prefers political resistance to religion but appreciates Aramchek’s actions and its reliance on the inner voice of simple people. His final judgment is however: “There has to be something here first, Phil. The other world is not enough…. Because… this is where the suffering is. This is where the injustice and imprisonment is.
Like us, the two of us. We need it here. Now.” (ch. 30) And at the end of the whole novel, the despondent Phil hears the latest hit rock release from a radio used by staring kids beyond the pressgang workplace, which features the exact words Nick was going to use smuggling in the revelation about Fremont. Nick’s group was a diversion that achieved its goal. The tune is suddenly cut off, but still it exists. The novel ends on this impenitent 68er note: The transistor radio continued to play. Even more loudly. And, in the wind, I could hear others starting up everywhere. By the kids, I thought. The kids.
It should be noted that this culmination of the novel, to me one of the high points of Dick’s
whole opus, articulates the typical Dickian, multilingually coded, title in political terms. For “Albemuth” carries strong echoes of “alba” from Latin which means both white and later, as in Provençal poetry, dawn and also a poetic form, the song about dawn when the lover must part from his damsel (best known in English literature from Romeo’s dawn parting with Juliet); while “muth” means courage in German, phonetically adjusted to proper Semitic sound as in the Biblical “behemoth”. The courage of waiting for the dawn of justice, the supreme earthly or societal virtue, hidden in an allusive metaphor. The whole title of Radio Free Albemuth imitates in its form the various “freedom stations”–true or fake–of anti-Nazi and anti-Stalinist resistance as well as some countercultural enterprises run by local communities in the 1960s as “the free University” and indeed “free” radio-stations (e.g. in the US and Japanese student revolt). Beyond that, it can be glossed as an emission by a more knowledgeable, artistically hidden source working for freedom from political oppression and instilling the courage of waiting for the dawn of justice. There are
many noises in the channel, and some outright fade-outs; and as any emission, it is liable to misinterpretation as to what the source is saying.
3. The “VALIS Trilogy”
The novel VALIS (written 1978, published 1981) can be divided into two parts, before and after the viewing of the eponymous movie Valis in chapter nine. Both parts are rather prolix, but the first part especially so. They are situated in the 1960s California, to begin with the Bay Area where “[t]he authorities [had become] as psychotic as those they hunted” (ch. 1), and the author’s alter ego is suffering from “fear, helplessness and an inability to act” (ch. 4). As K.S. Robinson encapsulates it, the first part is of interest as a presentation of a character similar but not identical to P.K. Dick, split into Horselover Fat and Phil Dick: “the flamboyant science fiction thinker, with reality breakdown as his dominant theme [,and] the hard-headed realist observer of contemporary America” (“Afterword” 251). In my terms, Fat’s belief in a divine revelation from VALIS carries the ontological theme, bolstered by long excerpts from Fat’s exegesis, and Phil’s as well as his friend’s Kevin’s needling the epistemological theme.
Through most of the book, “Fat plunges into the flow of theories, terms, citations, accepting, forgetting (never refuting), collaging, stitching…. As we read, we lose the propositions in the process.” (Palmer 335) Confusingly if endearingly, right at the beginning the narrator, whose diagnosis is that Fat is going nuts, says “I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity.” Phil the narrator keeps in the first eight chapters a running fire of shrewd observations about how Fat projects his hunger and his take on world as information onto the God that is supposedly firing independent info (the Logos) on him. Thus, Fat(as Phil) is writing very convincingly how Fat is a silly and whacked-out psychotic. Yet this ironic distance conveys in fact Fat’s (and even more so the author’s) sanity and believability. In the novel’s second part, sparked by the viewing of a movie which convinces the little group around Fat to visit
the movie-makers, it becomes clear Phil was a disbelieving patsy, and his frequent and quite shrewd sardonic observations and rude hyperbolae were set up so that they can be confounded, wiping out the reader’s disbelief too.
However, at the end it still remains unclear how Fat can go cavorting around the world–
unless Phil is truly a psychotic imagining this. This is only one main example of an intrusive, perhaps willed, lack of focussing in the novel as it develops: a lot of mutually incompatible speculations, repetitive info dumping, repetitive fixations of Fat’s (such as the needless detour on his relation to Sherri for a chapter and a half), or simply bits of sloppy writing–the noise in the channel. Amid all this, the interesting aspect of Fat’s cosmology is his belief that we all live in “the Empire,” a Black Iron Prison for body and soul, composed simultaneously of contemporary USA/ California and the Roman Empire at the time of the first Christians. The less interesting aspects is Fat’s belief in a plasmatic quasi-divine species which from time to time bonds with people like Jesus, the Kennedy brothers, and Martin L. King, or–at different times–his belief in an irrational and evil ruler of the present universe (or at least Terra, as in C.S. Lewis) behind whom the real benevolent forces of creation also operate and venture down to help us. This is, as Dick knew, a form of Gnosticism. Therefore, Dick’s home-made cosmology added, the phenomenal world of evil isn’t real, and we deluded people are morally innocent–though neither necessarily follows from the rule of evil.
Fat has grown increasingly agitated by missing God (like Tony Amsterdam) and is coming to believe that his choice is immediate salvation or death. Therefore, when his group views the movie Valis, written and directed by the rock star Lampton who receives the same pink-beam burst as Fat did, after some decidedly delirious exegesis they contact the makers, and get invited to visit them in Northern California. The movie-makers appear to be from a race come to Earth in ancient times to counteract the Empire with help of VALIS, the satellite from Albemuth, though hints may be found that its info radiation is also toxic. The real godhead or Logos is Sophia, the preternaturally wise two-year-old daughter of Lampton’s wife and VALIS. At the first interview with her, Phil and Fat fuse back into one person, that is, Phil grows whole. The new female Christ’s or Wisdom’s teaching, where Dick rewrites the Sermon on the Mount, is a kind of humanist rather than theist religion: “Man is holy, and the true god, the living god, is man himself…. You… are to love one another as you love me and as I love you….” And further: “The day of Wisdom and the rule of Wisdom has come. The day of power, which is the enemy of wisdom, ends…. This has not been your world, but I will make it your world; I will change it for you. Fear not.” (all ch. 12) However, Sophia warns them not to trust the Lamptons, who turn out, in a Van-vogtian twist of competing supermen, to be on the wrong side. Immediately thereafter, Sophia is killed by the Lampton group, supposedly in an accident, Fat “returns,” and sets off on a search for her reincarnation. The rest remain in California; at first disenchanted, they keep getting hints that the true king may return.
They keep the faith and wait. It is a minimal and unresolved ending, when compared with the highflown
hopes of salvation or even (as K.S. Robinson points out) with the aching dream-glimpse of
harmonious life in a petty-bourgeois suburban Arcadia, taken from an earlier age or childhood memories (ch. 7).
What is one then to make of this novel, which is to my mind at best a half-success both ideationally and narratively? Ideationally, because it perhaps rightly refuses to present any coherent cosmo-theological system. But then the interest shifts out of the cosmological non sequiturs either into the analysis of Fat’s psychosis and/or into the interaction of Fat with Phil, Kevin, the deity, the superior race of Lampton’s, and similar. The urgency and importance of the salvational quest, as well as the grave charm of the encounter with Sophia, have undercut the assumption of simple psychosis. Yet the interest in the quest bogs down in narrative repetitions and meanders, for the novel abounds in false starts and dead ends; themes and motifs get picked up and dropped for no apparent reason except that another and more dazzling one occured to Dick as he was writing.
Reportedly, the major narrative success of his last period, A Scanner, was tightly edited by a New York editor. He could have profited from such help here.
The main hinge where a lack of clarity and narrative coherence makes itself felt is the ideationally central Sophia, who appears too late and is snuffed out after one bout of interviews and pronouncements. Maybe there’s a valid allegorical point there, something like “we see supreme and coherent wisdom only late and only briefly,” akin to incarnating Wisdom into a two-year-old girl, which I take to be a valid and indeed felicitous indication. In the theology of VALIS, Wisdom, even when revealed, will be destroyed by the forces of the Blind God just as Christ was. This is a tenable if despairing hypothesis. But the novel as a whole has a much too large investment in realistic questions of life in Orange County and Fat’s sanity to make such a sudden and brief irruption of allegory believable. The same holds for the ensuing second split of Phil and Fat, with a regenerated and active Fat roaming around Oceania (which suggests to me he hadn’t learned much from Wisdom). The echoes of Gauguin are out of place in a Tahiti and Bikini of nuclear fallouts and venereal diseases.
In the French 18th Century, a short prose form was found which came to be called conte philosophique. In the hands of great writers, such a “philosophical story”–that is, a narration whose goal was to reveal through a series of incidents and debates about them a major ideological and civic point– became a major social force, and by the way a major form of early SF. It faced the false pretenses of European civilizational superiority with the dignity and wisdom of Others–the superior political and sexual morality of the Tahiti chief in Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage or the superior cosmic stature, material and moral, of the inhabitants of Saturn and Sirius in Voltaire’s Micromégas. Dick’s final works, and perhaps most of his major achievements, aspire to the status of a novel kind of roman philosophique, indeed in the “VALIS Trilogy,” with its ambitions of a new Ulysses, of a roman-fleuve philosophique. The ambition is laudable and where it most nearly succeeds of major importance. But a do-it-yourself philosophy, even by an imaginative genius as Dick certainly was, will result in major problems. One way of putting it would be the significant fact that in VALIS the true God “takes on the likeness of sticks and trees and beer cans in gutters–he presumes to be trash discarded” (ch. 5)–though perhaps the superior extra-terrestrials do this as his agents. As in RFA and indeed earlier, Dick’s god is an artisan /artist–potter, writer or modern sculptor–who works in trash and discarded Americana. Dick knew of Stanisław Lem’s diagnosis that he makes art in spite of and out of trash, the metaphor for his world pinpointed by his famous neologisms “gubbish” and “kipple,” and went the atheist Lem one better by deifying trash.
The cosmology itself is like the above description of the divine force, cobbled together from bits and pieces of trashy Americana with a beautiful little glazed pot thrown in at some points, but with little unified impact except as they are typical objects of a realist gaze. This is to be followed in the other two novels of the Trilogy.
3.2. The Divine Invasion
This second novel (written 1980, published 1981, further DI) is ideationally and narratively more coherent, though the following account streamlines not only Dick’s gradual revelations but also his sometimes competing explanations, confusingly overloaded details and layers, and simple inconsistencies (only a single set of planes will be landing on LA International Airport in my account, without collisions). True, for most of the first eight chapters it is located on a standard paranoiac planet where each colonist lives alone in an isolated dome, akin to Dick’s earlier and usually inferior SF. However, that planet is far from the influence of the evil Demiurge fashioning the reality of Terra (as in C.S. Lewis), so that Jehovah can arrange for the coming about of a latterday and somewhat weird Holy Family. It consists of Herb Asher as an unwilling Joseph, Rybys as a
combination of Virgin Mother and sick Bitch, and their child-to-be Emmanuel. Dick’s usual roles of the little-man protagonist plus the powerful protagonist are filled by Herb and–in a jump to Gnosticism–the boy Emmanuel or Manny, who eventually turns out not to be Christ but the fallen male aspect of a split Godhead that has for unclear reasons forgotten his divine character. The family, accompanied and aided by old Elias, then travels to Earth for the novel’s theological-cumpolitical battle evolving in the flesh and mind of the characters.
The central antagonistic conflict is, as in VALIS, between a reconstituted Manny and the satanic ruler of this world, Belial, who has crowned his dominion since the fall of Masada by setting up a clerico-fascist police State run by the combined forces of the Christian-Islamic Church and the Communist Party; in a Vanvogtian subplot, there is a behind-the-scenes struggle between Church and Party, on the model of the medieval Papacy vs. Empire. This dystopia is again a version of Plato’s Cave, the Black Iron Prison from VALIS: “They are living in a cheap horror film” (ch. 5).
There are two non-antagonistic subsidiary tensions: Manny meets the girl Zina, a refurbished female principle or Shekhinah much more articulated and charming than her predecessor Sophia in VALIS, and Herb finally gets to meet his idol singer Linda Fox who is in this universe not yet famous and thus not out of his reach. The first opposition is more weighty: the male aspect of divinity, aided by Elias–the prophet Elijah–and gradually remembering he is En Sof, wishes to reconstitute “substantial” reality by wiping out the enemy world as Lord of Hosts, a proceeding which discounts the unwilling victims of even the best power play, such as Rybys (ch. 5–the point is not fully clarified). The female aspect, equally opposed to the satanic Demiurge and dystopia, wishes to break reality down and to make the male principle remember their joint powers by using beauty and play in a subworld that Belial never penetrated, which I would interpret as art, playfulness, and epistemology, though in Dick it is also consubstantial with compassion (ch. 12). A series of reality fluctuations arises both from Belial’s temporarily getting the upper hand and from the contention between Manny and Zina; their ontology is somewhat unclearly superimposed on earlier epistemological fluctuations due to Herb’s cryogenic suspended animation–a contamination of recycling from Palmer Eldritch and Ubik. These fluctuations shape the tensions of the second opposition in the Herb-Linda subplot. However, the correct actions of the little man feed back into the macrocosmic level: Herb’s accepting Manny’s brute facts of reality (Linda’s menstruation) in spite of his esthetic idealization of her, as well as his turning back from his private interest at a key point, in turn enable Manny to realize his limitations and accept Zina.4/ In that sense Herb’s story is a sophisticated and optimistic semi-humanist rewrite of the bet in Job or Faust. Linda herself becomes then Herb’s intercessor or personal Saviour, the female principle on the micro-level, bringing mercy into the harsh world of Old Testament justice and divine wrath. Concomitantly, as the Godhead remembers its entirety and grows whole, Belial can be defeated without destroying the underlying reality his sway has occluded.
I would here too find the most interesting ideational aspect in the eventual fusion between
Zina’s beauty and Manny’s truth, which is a variant of Keats’s ending to the Grecian Urn, though I think it is unfortunately too optimistic about the powers of beauty to hold today’s
technoscientifically enhanced forces of destruction at bay without a Lord of the Hosts. I do not mind Dick’s creative rewriting of the Bible (see the witty discussion of it as a hologram in ch. 6) in a blend of Gnosticism, the Kabbala, Platonism, and scraps of half a dozen other mystery religions (cf. Shifting 337): by their fruits ye shall judge them. What I mind is that in DI the incompatibility between epistemology (that is, interpreting an underlying real reality–that which doesn’t go away when you disbelieve) and ontology (that is, changing the underlying reality or making it go away) is never fully faced; when briefly glanced at (in ch.s 5, 11, 13, and 15 for example), it is interpreted in different but always improvised ways. The trouble with the Gnostic-cum-Kabbalistic idea of two realities with competing supernatural powers running each, is that, in the SF parts or aspects, violating “the H.G. Wells Law”–to have only one (or let us say one set) of unbelievabilities in one narration–results in narrative incoherence; while in the “realistic” parts or aspects, it makes for case-studies of psychosis which are to me of some interest as articulations of real pain but of real inspiration only when its political causes are articulated–directly as in A Scanner or however indirectly.
3.3. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer and the “VALIS Cycle”
“If The Divine Invasion is considered as the work of Horselover Fat, then The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is ‘Phil Dick’ at work,” remarks Robinson wittily: “the narrator… Angel Archer shares many qualities exhibited by the narrator of VALIS: a lucid, straightforward style, using the colloquial language of 1970s’ California; and a fascination with their visionary friends and their ideas” (Novels 120).
This final novel of the putative VALIS Trilogy (written 1981, published 1982, further TA) is
not SF–nor Fantasy nor writing about visions that seriously suggests they change reality–but mainly a flashback account by Angel about Bishop Timothy Archer (modelled on Dick’s friend Jim Pike) and subsidiarily about his lover Kirsten and his son Jeff. While it has some grim humour and a number of Dickian insights strewn scattershot throughout without much regard to characterization, it is a world in which all main characters except Angel and the somewhat unclear commentator Edgar commit voluntary–or in Tim’s case involuntary–suicide, while Kirsten’s hebephrenic son Bill is maimed through electroshock treatments. Tim dies last, while searching in the Palestinian desert for the anokhi mushrooms, which the sect of newly found, sensational pre- Christian manuscripts apparently used to attain illumination (this seems the only faint SF element left). In ch. 14 Angel’s narration returns to the present framework for a coda in which Bill believes he has been taken over by a Tim returned from death.
Tim is fascinating to Dick, and his loss painful, because he too strove to get at the meaning or sense of existence. But he has a central flaw: to see everything in the world in terms of competing written texts, such as the manuscripts which prove to him Jesus was not divine, rather than seeing suffering people. Therefore, his stance is undercut by Angel’s pragmatic scepticism: it is as if Phil from VALIS were succeeding to finally demolish a dessicated Fat. Chapter 7, one of the two culminations of TA, contains a not only hilarious but also brilliant and for the nonce quite coherent demolition (starting from ancient Hindu logic yet) of the role of self-delusion in Tim’s occult beliefs, as well as a remarkable outburst of Angel ‘s against Tim’s book detailing his belief inastrology and in being haunted by his dead son, which I cannot forbear citing for the edification of all believers in occultism:
Cast charts of the stars, cast horoscopes while the most destructive war in modern times is raging. It will earn you a place in history books–as a dunce. You get to sit on the tall stool in the corner; you get to wear the conical cap; you get to undo all the social activist shit you ever engineered in concert with some of the finest minds of the century. For this, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died. For this you marched at Selma…. (ch. 7)
This leads to Angel’s scathing critique of “the otherworldly orientation of the revealed religions of the world” and of the bookish mind in Tim, failing to attain illumination. However, Angel not only notes at the end of this critique–eight pages of perhaps the most brilliant writing Dick penned after A Scanner–that she was herself also deluded in her opinions about Tim, and she turns out later to be deluded about other important matters, but as a narrator she participates in Dick’s fundamental confusion between occultist abstraction and conceptual abstraction in general. No human being can do without abstract concepts: in that sense, abstraction defines Homo sapiens. True, a purely “horizontal” abstraction, spinning concepts out of concepts, if unchecked by frequent “vertical” verifications in practice, can lead to irrelevant and highly pernicious systems, such as Tim’s (and sometimes Dick’s) occultism. It may be legitimate if a bit trite to deride a bookishness such as Tim’s, which does not notice he had run over a gasoline pump. However, the argument recurring in Dick’s whole Trilogy (and descending from The Brothers Karamazov) that the death of a cat or dog is ethically and indeed ontologically more significant than pretensions to divine omnipotence is itself a bit of high, if pleasingly materialist, abstraction; even Sophia in DI fails that test. And the refusal of abstraction is cannily caricatured in this novel, as Robinson notes, in the pleasant and wronged but also comically inefficient Bill: it seems appropriate that he is the polar opposite of the equally inefficient Tim. Equally, the bookishness is redeemed in TA’s second culmination, Angel’s relation in ch. 9 of the impact on her of the end of Paradiso, which issues in initiating her into “the real world… of pain and beauty” as opposed to Tim’s use of books where “words pertained not to world but to other words.”
The novel’s world is quite sterile, as is for instance spelled out in the great ch. 5 passage about suicides in America, cited later. For, the alternative to careful and verifiable abstraction is (except for music and tending animals, about which Dick is usually at the top of his sympathetic form) a politically passive–if not outright reactionary–and psychologically deadening pragmatism.
From Angel’s own stance, which indicts Tim for a wrongly conducted search after illumination and salvation, there are strong indications that we find her in a rut at the end of the novel: “I am stuck, now, and… know but know not what” (ch. 13). Thus I don’t see much reason or justification for the novel’s coda (nor for its title) in terms of a believable “transmigration of Timothy Archer.” If there is a point to the coda, it is in the dead end Angel has arrived at in her job and life, instanced in the inconclusive discussions with, and the New Age banter of, her would-be new guru Edgar. She is not a Holy Fool as Parsifal (who haunts this book). No resolution is arrived at in Dick’s last novel: to the end he remains a bearer of bad news.
Finally, if one is to try for a synoptic view of what might be called the VALIS Cycle (the so-called Trilogy, which we might as well accept as such, and RFA), their common denominator would be the explicitly theological salvational quest, arising out of the deep despair evident in all the post- 1966 works and culminating in A Scanner. My thesis is that the superhuman godheads are allegorical projections of individualist psychic states that Dick cannot otherwise account for (cf. his interview with Lupoff). They come openly onstage in Palmer Eldritch and then Ubik and Do Androids? as either clearly evil or deeply ambiguous, the recourse to them grows hesitantly affirmative in Our Friends and A Maze, and crescendoes into a full-blown main salvational theme here. Very interestingly, the bearers of salvation are either disembodied info dumps or females. As earlier too in Dick, anchorage in reality and salvation is sometimes sought in a personal erotic relationship, but few female figures can bear such a load. Linda Fox in DI can function as Herb’s personal saviour (in a heretical US filiation of female Intercessors or Christs, present for ex. also in Bellamy’s Looking Backward) only because she is semi-divine, in a universe codetermined by the female part of the Godhead. Usually, exaggerated expectations lead to exaggerated, sometimes hate-filled, characterization of the blameworthy erotic partner, or to the figure’s downgrading into plot prop or ideological mouthpiece. Beside the divine females in DI, the only exception is Angel in TA, a late but significant amends of Dick’s.
A genological note: Dick subsumed the strengths of his then unpublished mainstream novels, culminating in Confession of a Crap Artist, in his first plateau beginning with Man in the High Castle. In this second, more hesitant plateau, he begins deliberately mixing SF and mainstream realism, drawing authorization for this from his heretical theology in which the Godheads are just as real as the Little Man. To my mind this does not fully work, but it makes for a bewildering richness of alternative hypotheses and plot twists. In a final welcome twist, the cycle culminates in TA, a realist novel about the quest for salvation which subsumes and subtly undermines the theological quests. For: all the objections Angel makes to Bishop Archer, the excessively book-fixated quester and eldritch palmer, could be made to P.K. Dick’s mode of Theological Fantasy.
4. Looking Backward at PKD
4.1. Questions, Objections
Probably, any criticism that could be addressed to Dick’s erratic brilliance from a Left or materialist point of view, he already knew and in some way or at some point in his life shared. If we quoted the young fireball atheist Marx to him: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world…. To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of people is to demand their real happiness” (Marx 175)–he would, possibly with some exaggeration, refer to his Berkeley phase as “a fireball radical and atheist” (Shifting 106)5/ and, more persuasively, refer us to his persona Phil from RFA and VALIS. If we told him what the real trouble was with the Gnostic-cum-Kabbalistic idea that there are two realities (the evil occluded one which we see and a more real underlying reality, consubstantial with the true God, which may displace it):namely, that it is extremely difficult to make a non-arbitrary or coherent narration out of it, and that he never succeeded in doing so–he could point to his prescient 1966 note, “Religion ought never to show up in SF except from a sociological standpoint… God per se, as a character, ruins a good SF story; and this is as true of my own stuff as anyone else’s. Therefore I deplore my Palmer Eldritch book in that regard.” (58) If we pointed out that, despite Angel Archer’s fulminations in TA against abstraction as deadly mechanical, no human being can (as I argued earlier) do without abstract concepts, and that concepts were certainly omnipresent in Dick–he could reply that the defining trait of SF readers is, “Basically, they enjoy abstract thought” (45), and that obversely, it is “the schizophrenic [who] is unable to think abstractly” (76). If we persisted in harping that whatever the means, the end is to solve people’s woes in this world, Dick could reply that even his wildest metaphysics never
forsook that goal, that for him Christ’s Kingdom of God was an actual, fleshly place existing not only in a possible but in a real alternative reality (238), and that his obstinate kicking against the pricks of the phenomenal world flowed out of his belief both in the utter necessity and the possibility of a just reality, to be attained by Blake’s mental strife (310). Insofar as the shifting and contradictory Dick clung to such answers, and never quite forsook them, he has remained the firebrand radical from his twenties, and it may then be secondary whether he was an atheist or a “panentheist” (46).
Nonetheless, if we then saw Dick not as a renegade, one of the many Collettis and Laclaus
intellectually fallen by the way under the terrible psychic pressures of Post-Fordism, but as a friend and comrade, we could still have legitimate, sometimes even strong, disagreements with some of his horizons and oscillations. Let me make it clear that I do not necessarily object to the theological coding: it may not be my way of seeing human relationships, but I am prepared to respect it. It becomes obnoxious if and when it hinders liberation on the reader’s Earth–as both Liberation Theology and the end of Dick’s RFA would agree. It is in that perspective that fuzziness leads astray. My objections would take different forms for different novels, but I shall here make only four points: the absence of strong yet mainly sympathetic female figures; the absence of urbanization and of the key production and speculation aspects of capitalist economics; the compositional fixation on what Dick calls his “love of chaos” which may be clearest in the “sting in the tail” reversal; and the characterological fixation on the “Good Magnate or Ruler” beside the Little Man. They converge in and largely constitute Dick’s political illiteracy, outside his clairvoyance about the police:
1/ I shall leave the first point to other critics since it is so blatantly obvious, and only state that there are to my mind deep subterranean links between the fascination with but also refusal to accept non-maternal femininity and the isomorphic refusals to acknowledge the city, capitalism, and little people acting together without the upper levels of power.6/ I do not mean to tell a writer what to write about; but Dick liked Spinoza, who knew that every determination is a negation and viceversa, and he knew that bringing light means shutting out darkness (206) and viceversa. It’s the writer’s business to choose what to write about; but it’s then the reader’s business to notice what his choice shut out.
2/ Dick’s loci are rural, small town, and suburban; cities occur rarely and then usually as nightmarish habitats. This is an understandable reaction to Los Angeles, though less to the still beautiful San Francisco of the 1950s and 60s. However, it is coupled with the taboo on large industry, industrial workers, and the workings of high finance (even in the US, never mind globally). True, except for the foreclosing local banks Dick had no experiential link to them, but he could have read up on them at least one tenth as much as he did on metaphysics.
He was very interested and shrewd about politics, until complete disillusionment set in at the end of the 1960s. In 1976, he wrote despairingly:
Perhaps my days of being a fighter for freedom are over, due to age, due to worry, but due mostly to the discovery–and existence–of the enormity of the secret political police apparatus… and the dreadful things they have done…. So my novel in progress [one of the drafts for the “VALIS cycle,” DS] has nothing to do with politics; it has to do with the mystery religions…. I have not made my peace with the “straight” society, but at the same time I am too weak, too worn out by illness and fear, to do anything but try to make financial ends meet…. (34-35)
Dick may be here too harsh on himself, for his mystery religions are also political. He also elsewhere rightly lists among reasons for his stance the disillusionment in oppositional movements (191). But politics rarely had for him to do with economics (the splendid system in Martian Time-Slip– cf. Suvin, “Opus” 8–and the unclear hints about Substance D in A Scanner would be among the exceptions): he knew all about reification and alienation, but little or nothing about exploitation.7/ He is nearer to Simak than to Pohl, never mind cyberpunk.
3/ I suggested earlier that the truth of P.K. Dick is to be found in his plots. This makes analysis doubly difficult. First, it ideally calls for a blow-by-blow discussion that results in exegeses longer than the texts they discuss, such as Barthes’s S/Z–and its pioneering imitation as applied to SF, Delany’s Angoulème–or previous works of the close reading school (Spitzer, I.A. Richards). The criteria for judging message vs. noise in the plot depend on believability and coherence; what may be believable is almost entirely, and what may becoherent is at least partly, a matter of cognitive (and finally ideological) horizons. Second, Dick could not only spin a new theory every minute (see the remark in VALIS) but he also, unfortunately, took to heart the worst teaching he could have got as a young writer, A.E. van Vogt’s device of a new idea every 800 words (66). John Huntington has clearly shown how this mechanical generation of complexity “give[s] the impression of deep understanding simply by contradicting [it]self” (172). It may make for richness and bedazzlement but it certainly enforces confusion. In particular, Dick has a recurring Vanvogtian habit of pulling a final rabbit out of the hat at the very end of a narrative so as to upset any conclusion about it. This may be a part of what he meant by his love of chaos, but as he also remarked, “a selfcancelling othing… will not even serve as a primordial chaos” (Shifting 209).7/ His love of chaos is thus potentially fertile, especially when brought to bear on what was experientially known to him, the personal relationships around the Little Man protagonist in a world of grim pressures. But its downside is mystification. The introduction of new concepts and absence of orthodox conceptual coherence is potentially liberatory, an act of primal subversion or naysaying; but the absence of any coherence, including narrative believability, however papered over by dazzling footwork, opens wide the door to arbitrary associations from the latest source Dick has read (such as the double brain hypothesis in A Scanner) or privately encountered.
4/ As to Dick’s permanent ideological type that I would call the “Good Magnate or Ruler,” or finding the good in a bad upper-class representative, this may be ethically appealing as charity toward all, but it is only defensible when one totally gives up questions of political responsibility. The best example is the supposedly good police general from Flow My Tears.
Reliance on the individual ethics of the powerful but good guy; mistrust of conclusions and
solutions; mistrust of strong women; disinterest in cities and exploitative economics: insofar as these obtain in Dick, his stories can only connect personal with universal redemption, “revolt and disobedience” (307) with changing the spurious world, by means of miracles. In such, often key places, they are not only ethically and politically but also narratively flawed. It might be fair to encapsulate Dick’s major strengths and weaknesses by noting that he–in the vein of Ibsen, Pirandello, much Post-Structuralism, and the Kabbala–tended to equate language and reality, “As if the world had become language” (DI ch. 14). He was quite right in refusing the prevailing reality, but his basic and irreducible philosophical as well as political mistake was, I believe, to envisage this refusal only from the vantage point of the lonely craftsman-creator, however allegorized; whereas reality can only be, and is constantly being, changed by bodies or classes of people.
4.2. Laudation, or What Remains
Finally, however, all objections would be sterile unless accompanied by a view of why do today, in our new body-killing and psyche-wasting global maxi-disorder, those of us who have no investments in born-again pentiti nor in the “Pink Beam” sects recur to Philip Dick? In brief, for a twofold reason: he never ceased to argue with the world, refusing the suffering of Joe Everyman yet also also solidarizing with his heroic endurance and active efforts under attack of the Powers That Be; he never ceased to search, and have him search, if often in contradictory, fuzzy or indeed flawed ways, for thisworldly salvation. (Alas, except for Angel in his last novel, this does not extend to her.) The first entry in Dick’s selected non-fiction, dating to 1949, has his protagonist think: “So it was not his world. If it were his world he would have made it differently. It had been put together wrong, Very much wrong. Put together in ways that he could not approve of.” (6) A quintessential countercultural figure of the Californian and US 1950s and 60s, he kept the faith to this root insight: saying NO in thunder and if need be galactic godheads. A quarter of century later, his definition of an SF writer was still, “He is stuck with a discontent” (74). Insofar as this holds, my apprehensions from 1975 do not obtain, for Dick has in these places not turned his back on illuminating the koinos kosmos, our common reality.
If few of us have anything to tell Dick about alienation, reification, and commercialization, on the contrary all of us can learn a lot from him about their effects in pain and bewilderment on normal Americans–which today, within the American and increasingly Americanized empire, means the pain and bewilderment of 95 or maybe 98% of all inhabitants of this globe. The Black Iron Prison from the “VALIS cycle,” a blown-up version of the dark scanning in A Scanner’s California, is diametrically opposed to the Reaganite fantasy of an Evil Empire–and today to Bush Jr.’s Forces of Evil–attacking the virtuously pure and free USA and “West” (whatever that may mean–“the rich North” would be more appropriate). Even in his last novel, his great gift of indignation was undimmed:
Thousands of young people kill themselves in America each year, but it remains the custom, by and large, to list their deaths as accidental. This is to spare the family the shame attached to suicide. There is, indeed, something shameful about a young man or woman, maybe an adolescent, wanting to die and achieving that goal, dead before in a certain sense they ever lived, ever were bom. Wives get beaten by their husbands; cops kill blacks and Latinos; old people rummage in cans or eat dog food–shame rules, calling the shots. Suicide is only one shameful event out of a plethora. There are black teenagers who will never get a job as long as they live, not because they are lazy but because there are no jobs–because, too, these ghetto kids possess no skills they can sell. Children run away, find the strip in New York or Hollywood; they become prostitutes
and wind up with their bodies hacked apart…. (TA ch. 5)
Dick fought hard against the temptation of weariness, leading people to look for a Fuehrer above them to whom they can delegate responsibility, the Man on the White Horse, which in practice means some form of Fascism. Mostly though not always, I think he avoided it. His godheads are either monsters to be fought, as Eldritch or Jory, or children, as Sofia, Manny, or Zina, working in tandem with, and in the best cases–as in my reading of DI–in feedback with the little people. Undeniably, there is a deeply salvational, and therefore in my book also political, aspect to this. His salvational godheads are sometimes overdogmatic, as Sophia or Manny until he learns better, but basically plebeian and liberatory. He passed judgment himself on dehumanized fanatics, whom he then called androids and schizoids:
Once I heard a schizoid person express himself–in all seriousness–this way: “I receive signals from others. But I can’t generate any of my own until I get recharged….” Imagine viewing oneself and others this way. Signals. As if from another star. [Maybe Albemuth?–note DS] The person has reified himself entirely, along with everyone around him. How awful…. (201)
There are two key phrases for me here. The first one is the generating of–not signals but–
messages. Dick’s oeuvre is full of messengers: from Juliana in Man in the High Castle and Walt in Dr. Bloodmoney, the theme grows omnipresent and mysterious in Ubik. In A Scanner, messages inside Arctor’s brain get so confused that they break down. By the VALIS Cycle, almost everybody is a messenger and everything a message (cf. Galbreath 113): the universe is practically nothing but information. Dick too was an urgent messenger.
The second key phrase may be “in all seriousness.” It has been noted that Dick was one of the most humourous writers of his time. His gamut was large: from grim to uproarious humour, passing through sympathetic pathos. Humour is seeing the same event or object in several incompatible frames at once. I cannot imagine an unhumorous SF writer I would care to reread.
An urgent message for salvation, with humour. This too, we have learned from Philip Dick.
*/ My thanks for help with primary and secondary materials go to Stefano Carducci, Alessandro Fambrini, Fabio Gadducci, Donald M. Hassler, Salvatore Proietti, and Mirko Tavosanis, as well to Prof.ssa Carla Dente, Dott.ssa Sara Soncini and the kind librarians at the Biblioteca d’anglistica, Università di Pisa; I could not have written this essay without them. It was sparked by the invitation to a keynote speech at the Dick Days of Mutamento ZC of Torino in May 2002, for which I also thank Giordano Vincenzo Amato and Gabriella Serusi.
1/ It is not fully clear just which of the 21 letters to the FBI Dick mailed and which he left in his trash expecting the FBI may sift it (cf. the debate in Mullen et al. eds., 246-64 and 275-78, and Sutin 215-17). In both cases he thought they may be read.
2/ Among those critics is Lawrence Sutin, to whom we owe the rich and refreshingly balanced, and thus so far the best, biography of Dick (albeit with a quite one-sided title), but whose readings of Dick’s texts often seem very dubious to me.
3/ To prevent confusion, “Dick” will henceforth mean only the author P.K. Dick, whereas his namesake in the various novels will be called Phil.
4/ I reluctantly part company here with Robinson, who thinks Herb’s subplot is from ch. 13 on in an illusory world, created only by Zina and not also validated by Manny (Novels 119-20). It seems both uneconomical and contradicted by as straightforward statements as one gets in the later Dick, though admittedly all of them call for more or less probable interpretations. Mine might be kinder than Robinson’s kind interpretation of what he sees as the ensuing murkiness (that is, failure) of the novel as deliberate on Dick’s part.
5/ Unless another name or title is mentioned, all quotes from Dick’s non-fictional writings are from Sutin ed. by page number.
6/ See Hayles for a first sounding into such interconnections.
7/ Rabkin’s article has the great merit of opening this discussion, but he takes economics as what impinges on Dick’s little people, not in the political economists’ sense of an encompassing system (a Dickian reality behind and within empirical reality, indeed).
8/ I have, except for this final section, rarely used Dick’s non-fictional pronouncements, for usually one can be found to buttress any thesis you want to set up. This is probably also true for pronouncements within his fiction, but there they at least serve to characterize the writing’s tone and horizon, and possibly the opinions of the narrator.
Primary (in order of writing)
Dick, Philip K. Galactic Pot-Healer. New York: Berkley, 1969.
—. A Maze of Death. New York: Paperback Library, 1971 .
—. Our Friends From Frolix 8. New York: Ace, 1970.
—. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. New York: DAW Books, 1975 .
—. A Scanner Darkly. New York: DAW Books, 1984 .
—. Radio Free Albemuth. New York: Avon, 1985.
—. VALIS. Worcester Park [UK]: Kerosina Books, 1987 .
—. The Divine Invasion. New York: Timescape Books, 1982 .
—. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. London: Gollancz, 1982.
[—.] The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick. Ed. L. Sutin. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
See also Lupoff below.
De Carolis, Massimo. “La condizione naturale del pensiero.” Il Manifesto Apr. 17, 2002, p. 14.
Galbreath, Robert. “Redemption and Doubt in Philip K. Dick’s Valis Trilogy.” Extrapolation
24.2 (1983): 105-15.
Huntington, John. “Philip K. Dick: Authenticity and Insincerity,” in R.D. Mullen et al. eds.,
Lupoff, Richard [and P.K. Dick]. “A Conversation with Philip K. Dick.” Science-Fiction Eye
(Aug. 1987), on http://www.philipkdick.com/frank/lupoff.htm. 13 electronic pp.
Marx, Karl . “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law,” in idem and
Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3. Moscow: FLPH, 1975.
Mullen, R.D., et al. eds. On Philip K. Dick. Terre Haute & Greencastle: SF-TH, 1992.
Olander, Joseph D., and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. Philip K. Dick. New York: Taplinger,
Palmer, Christopher. “Postmodernism and the Birth of the Author in Philip K. Dick’s Valis,”
in Mullen et al. eds. 265-74.
Rabkin, Eric S. “Irrational Expectations; or, How Economics and the Post-Industrial World
Failed Philip K. Dick,” in Mullen et al. eds. 178-87.
Robinson, Kim Stanley. “Afterword” to P. K Dick, Valis. Worcester Park: Kerosina Books,
—. The Novels of Philip K. Dick. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1984.
Stableford, Brian, and John Clute. “Dick, Philip K.,” in John Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds., The
Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, rev. edn. Danbury, CT: Grolier Electronic Publishing,
Sutin, Lawrence. Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. New York: Harmony Books,
Suvin, Darko. “Narrative Logic, Ideological Domination, and the Range of SF: A Hypothesis,”
in his Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction. London: Macmillan, & Kent OH: Kent
State UP, 1988, 61-73.
—. “Philip K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View,” in the above, 112-33.