Valis is the first book in Philip K. Dick's incomparable final trio of novels (the others being are The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer). This disorienting and bleakly funny work is about a schizophrenic hero named Horselover Fat; the hidden mysteries of Gnostic Christianity; and reality as revealed through a pink laser. Valis is a theological detective story, in which God is both a missing person and the perpetrator of the ultimate crime.
"The fact that what Dick is entertaining us about is reality and madness, time and death, sin and salvation--this has escaped most critics. Nobody notices that we have our own homegrown Borges, and have had him for thirty years."--Ursula K. Le Guin, New Republic
"Written towards the end of his life (published in 1981, a year before his death, though the novel itself takes place in 1978), Valis deals in such classic Dickian themes as "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean your crazy" and alternate realities bleeding into one another. However, though there is brief mention of a crab-like race from Sirius, Valis really isn't science fiction. It's what today is called slipstream, a term that certainly could apply to much of the Dickian oeuvre. Because Dick wasn't interested in the "science" of science fiction, it just happened to be the only genre that provided a home for his peculiar, druggie view of reality. In Valis, Dick writes an autobiographical parable about a crazy man who recovers his identity and perhaps his sanity through a theological discovery, only to lose his sanity again upon a subsequent revelation of the deeper underpinnings of the phenomenological world. In other words, the lesson is that the only way to deal with a crazy reality is to go crazy yourself.
Nor is there much here in the way of plot or characterization, because the novel is less a story than an exposition of crack-pot theology combining various Christian, Buddhist, and biological tenets that explicate Valis, an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. In this respect, it mirrors the hard SF tradition in which characters discourse about physical and technical principles less to advance plot line than to present scientific speculation. But in the Dick worldview, the speculation is about whether there is an ultimate, discernable reality, the subject of the Tractates Cryptica Scriptura, a series of fifty-three interrelated epigrams. The ostensible author of these theological musings is Horselover Fat, whose odd name, in a typical paranoid coding scheme, translates to none other than the ostensible author of the actual book you're reading.
At times the narrator talks about Horselover as if he is an actual person, then switches back to the first person as Philip K. Dick, though they are both one and the same entity. It's not clear whether the narrator (meaning Dick), wants us to believe that Horselover is a delusion or an actual emanation of Dick that other people can see and interact with. For that matter, given that Valis is based on Dick's drug-infused mental breakdown in 1974 (not coincidentally, according to Dickian paranoia, the year of President Richard Nixon's resignation in which Evil personified was secretly overthrown, a quaint notion in today's post-9/11 reality), it's hard to know how much of this Dick might actually have believed himself. Who knows, had he lived, he might have been the next L. Ron Hubbard.
All that notwithstanding, this is a worthy allegory about the search for self and existential significance in an increasingly confusing and seemingly meaningless reality. No less relevant today than it was twenty years ago.
Where are you Phil, now that we really need you to help us figure it all out?"
Copyright © 2001 David Soyka