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Philip K. Dick
Orion Millennium, 271 pages

Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928. While attending UC at Berkeley, he dropped out rather than take ROTC training. He went on to write some 36 novels and 5 short story collections. He won the 1962 Hugo for The Man in the High Castle and the 1974 John W. Campbell Award for Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. He died of heart failure caused by a stroke in 1982.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Minority Report
SF Site Review: Now Wait For Last Year
SF Site Review: Dr. Bloodmoney
SF Site Review: Beyond Lies the Wub and The Father-Thing
SF Site Review: Second Variety
SF Site Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Martian Time-Slip and A Scanner Darkly
SF Site Reading List: Philip K. Dick

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

As edition number 43 in the SF Masterworks series, the noteworthy collection of classic reprints by London-based Gollancz, Valis joins (for those who are counting) such other Philip K. Dick gems as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (#4), Martian Time-Slip (#13), A Scanner Darkly (#20), Ubik (#26), Dr. Bloodmoney (#32), Now Wait for Last Year (#36) and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (#46). No doubt at some point Dick's classic The Man in the High Castle is slated to join them. Given his prodigious, if at times uneven, output marked by a distinct vision, it's perhaps not surprising that Dick is so far the most frequently cited author in the series. Among these essential cited works, Valis is certainly required reading for anyone interested in PKD (as fans often refer to him).

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

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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