Essay by Ted Gioia

During February and March 1974, science fiction
writer Philip K. Dick experienced a series of strange
and exhilarating visions.  Almost exactly ten years
earlier, Dick had first taken LSD, and his perceptions
while tripping on acid prefigured this later mystical
mid-life crisis.  In a 1965 letter to a friend, he enthused
about the "joyous coloration, especially pinks and reds,
very luminous" and the "great insights into myself"
induced by hallucinogenics.  A decade later, now
apparently without the aid of illegal drugs, Dick was
again overwhelmed by an intense pink light, and
believed that it was transferring information to him
at blazing download speeds.  
"It seized me entirely," he
later explained "lifting me
from the limitations of the
space-time matrix."

Others might look on this
incident as the incipient
sign of acute mental dis-
order, but Dick had the
exact opposite interpretation.  
"I experienced an invasion
of my mind by a transcend-
entally rational mind, as if I
had been insane all my life
and suddenly I had become sane," he later told
science fiction writer Charles Platt.  Even more striking
—or ridiculous, depending on your perspective—
Dick was convinced that he had experienced an
extraordinary epiphany, rich with theological
implications.  He had encountered God, or something
roughly fitting the description, the deity as data
overload.  Dick started scribbling down jumbled notes
and journal entries in an attempt to decipher the
'wisdom' handed on to him, and the resulting
manuscript, which he called the
Exegesis, eventually
amounted to some 8,000 pages.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Inevitably, this life-changing experience impacted
Dick's science fiction writing, most notably in his
autobiographical 1981 novel
VALIS—the title an
acronym for "Vast Active Living Intelligence System."
Sci-fi novels are rarely autobiographical, but
not your typical sci-fi book.   Indeed, it is the strangest
work of genre fiction I've ever read.  Even if you're
familiar with Dick's other major books, nothing in
them prepares you for this one.  

Dick appears as two separate characters in
is both Philip K. Dick, a noted science fiction writer,
and Horselover Fat, a wreck of a fellow who has
attempted suicide and been institutionalized for
psychiatric evaluation…after having experienced strange
visions in March 1974.  But are they really two separate
protagonists?  At one point in
VALIS, another
character points out that "'Philip' means 'Horselover' in
Greek" and "'Fat' is the German translation of 'Dick'."
Thus Horselover Fat equals Philip Dick.  At moments
VALIS, Horselover Fat even disappears back into
the psyche of Philip K. Dick, a development that the
author's friends treat as a sign of Dick's return to sanity.  
But these interludes do not last for long, and Dick's
mental disintegration soon manifests itself again as two
separate individuals.  The result is an unnerving new take
on the old meme of the "unreliable narrator"—or what
we might call, in this instance, the "multiple-personality
unreliable narrator(s)."

Despite all the strangeness, Dick's familiar themes come
to the forefront again and again in this book, the same
concepts he had been pursuing in his writings during
the previous three decades.  In fact, some surprising
convergences can be found between
Dick's long unpublished first novel
Gather Yourselves
, which he had started writing in the late 1940s
—the character Carl Fitter in the latter work even keeps
a journal akin to Dick's
Exegesis. (And the title of that
early work could  serve as an admonition to the late-
stage Mr. Dick with his troubling multiple personalities.)
Over the course of around 40 books, Dick had contrived
many stories and characters, but his chief recurring
obsession could be summed in a simple idea, a concept
that is at the heart of
VALIS—and all his other major
works—namely that
reality isn't really very real.

The number of variations that Dick worked on this
theme is impressive.  Things are never what they seem
in a Philip K. Dick story.  And I don’t mean that the
butler turns out to be the killer or any of those other
plot twists, predictable even in their surprises, that genre
fiction has long employed.  In Dick's universe, the very
fabric of the universe is prone to give away at any
moment.  The characters themselves hardly change, but
their context is as likely to tear asunder as a wet paper
bag soaking in a parking lot puddle.   

Sometimes Dick provides a technological reason for
these radical reformulations of reality, but often he just
lets them occur unexplained in his stories.  For a writer
who devoted his career to the sci-fi field, Dick seemed
almost perversely unconcerned with explaining the
disjunctions that send his characters reeling in confusion
into an alternative universe.  As a result, his tales often
come across more like applied metaphysics than science
fiction.  And this explains much of the appeal of Dick's
storytelling:  where other sci-fi authors would blame
everything on aliens or weapons, Mr. Dick describes
similar plot twists in terms of transcendent events and
personal crises.  As a result, he has more in common
with existential novelists such as Walker Percy or
Albert Camus than with space opera authors like Arthur
C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.  

But in
VALIS, Dick reveals a very different attitude.  
He is no longer content to accept these tears in the
fabric of reality; he now wants to understand them.  
With almost desperate intensity he seeks for reasons,
and the result is something we never expected from
Philip K. Dick: a novel of ideas.  Sometimes crazy ideas,
usually implausible ideas, but ideas nonetheless.  Many
of these are taken verbatim from the
Exegesis, and Dick
even includes an appendix that features a selection of
these journal entries.  They are like a distortion of
Tractatus, as encountered in a nightmare.   

During the course of this novel, the narrator explores
almost every possible explanation for a universe in
which different planes of reality exist. He looks to the
pre-Socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides
for explanations.  He considers Jung's theory of
archetypes.  Or does the Buddhist critique of reality
hold the answer?  He explores the connection between
the split in reality and the Yin and Yang of Taoism.  He
draws on hermetic alchemists, Apollonius of Tyana,
Gnosticism, Asklepios, Richard Wagner, the story of
the Grail.  He looks to Elijah.  He looks to Christ.   
He looks everywhere, with intensity and anxiety.  

But our narrator also stares into the television set,
searching for coded messages from a higher power
amidst commercials and cartoons.  One day, a friend
takes him to a motion picture that seems to present
images connected to Horselover Fat's visions, and this
opens up new theories and possibilities.  When Dick,
Fat and their friends meet up with the rock star who
made the movie, they believe that they have finally
arrived at the brink of an explanation—indeed, at the
explanation to end all explanations.  Or maybe they've
just finally met people even crazier than Philip K. Dick.

Eventually Dick offers possible sci-fi solutions to his
enigma.  The visions may have come from aliens.  Or
maybe from a new microwave technology that zaps
your brain instead of the baked potato you plan on
eating for dinner.  But the reader can see that Dick is
hardly satisfied with these options.  He’s not looking
for aliens; he's looking for the meaning of life.

There are many strange things about
VALIS, but one
of the strangest is the new-found brilliance to Dick's
prose.  For all his creativity, Dick often wrote in a
cartoonish, pulp-fiction manner—his biographer
Lawrence Sutin describes it as a "slapdash quality" and
notes that it prevents many critics from considering Dick
in the same category as Kafka, Calvino and other writers
who dealt with similar themes.  Even Dick's  most
famous works from the 1960s and 1970s are filled with
clumsy passages that seem churned out to meet a
deadline, not lay the groundwork for a posthumous
literary reputation.  As a result, you typically read this
author for his imaginative daring not stylish descriptions
or clever dialogue or poetic metaphors.  But in
Dick actually starts writing at a dazzlingly high level.  
The coarse pulp-fiction author disappears completely
from view and instead we have an edgy prose stylist
whose work can stand comparison with Pynchon and
Heller and Vonnegut and Kesey and all those other
renegade who redefined American fiction in the 1960s
and 1970s.  

So, if I can borrow Jonathan Lethem's pun, you really
don't know dick about Dick until you've read VALIS.  
I believe it is his finest novel, and the starting point for
any reader who wants to see how close sci-fi can get to
avant-garde fiction.  But the fact that Dick wasn't trying
to conduct an experiment in writing, but was grappling
with his own demons and—this is no glib exaggeration
—the very meaning of his own life, gives these pages a
pathos and power that few other avant-garde novels
possess.  In short, it all comes together here although,
sad to say, it had to come apart for Mr. Dick in order
for that to happen.

Published:  February 21, 2013

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture.
His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
By Philip K. Dick
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

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