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.


RELATED REVIEWS
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
VALIS is
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
VALIS.  He
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
in
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
VALIS and
Dick's long unpublished first novel
Gather Yourselves
Together
, 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
Wittgenstein's
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
VALIS,
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
VALIS
By Philip K. Dick
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other
parties.
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works published
since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental  works of mystery
& suspense

Fractious Fiction
Radical and unconventional
works of fiction