Sadly, the used bookstores are all closed in Toronto, so my supply of literature is running a little thin. I still had, however, some science fiction books still laying around that I hadn’t touched yet, one of which was VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.
As a big fan of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and, especially, Ubik, I was interested in reading a book that has some notoriety attached to it. VALIS was one of the last works that Dick wrote, after a period where he had an intense religious experience – similar to his other later work, A Scanner Darkly. VALIS is therefore much less of a traditional science fiction novel, being more of an autobiographical account of a man attempting to reconcile his religious experience with extra-terrestrial and gnostic theories.
The book is interesting in that it attempts to somewhat cloak the autobiographical elements by introducing the main character as “Horselover Fat”, though it admits from early on that this is a thinly veiled pseudonym for Dick himself. (Clever linguists will be able to use Greek and German word origins to translate the term). Telling his story in the third person does not serve as a shock reveal, but rather to give the work a sense of disassociation. It’s impossible to tell how much Dick really believed what was in VALIS, but a good deal of it does match up with things that he claimed occoured to him during his religious experience – being struck with unearthly pink light and receiving information that was hypothetically impossible for him to understand. Dick’s later life was marked by a good deal of trauma, including marital issues and a suicide attempt, both of which are touched upon in the novel.
Despite this being more autobiography, or at least autobiographical expression, VALIS does share many similarities with Dick’s other work, touching on themes of the fragile nature of reality, identity and paranoia. No writer I have encountered has mastered the art of paranoia as Philip K. Dick did, with parts of Electric Sheep and Ubik reaching levels of anxiety not to be found in the most frightening of horror fiction when the questions of reality begin to be truly questioned.
Philip K. Dick was also deft at weaving warm humanity in with this cold paranoia, and VALIS may be most interesting as a work where the humanity and vulnerability on display was closest to his own. The actual plot of VALIS is fairly short and sweet, but it is the raw exploration of hurt that makes it so fascinating, even before it begins to leap into religion and science fiction.