by Kim Stanley Robinson
Thanks to Frank Bertrand for contributing this essay.
[source: Thrust, No. 31, Fall 1988, pp. 13-15+]
Philip K. Dick went through some terrible times in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even by the standards of his own turbulent life. He endured a famous attack on his house, a divorce and several broken relationships, drug and health problems, gaps of memory loss as long as a week, time spent in a drug rehabilitation center, a move from Northern California to southern California, a suicide attempt, bouts of severe depression, and a peculiar mental event in the spring of 1974.
This event, so central to Valis, marked a watershed in Dick’s life. The psychological disintegration of the previous five years ended, and although the years following were not without their difficulties, it sounds as though Dick was slowly finding his way to his own kind of stability. The people who knew him best at this time, including Tim Powers and James Blaylock, say that he was relatively happy and calm in his last five years, and they speak of him fondly, as a good if unusual friend.
Some people have said that Valis, and the last phases of Dick’s work in general, indicate that Dick was going crazy. I think it is something like the opposite: Valis stands as a monument to a mind that had pulled itself back together, after struggling on the brink.
Now, no one can deny that this book is chock full of bizarre speculations concerning the true nature of reality. But you could say the same about William Blake’s long poems. As in Blake, Dick’s fictional cosmogenies draw from a wide range of sources, in the case of Valis ranging from the relative solidity of Heraclitus’s thoughts about the fundamental questions of metaphysics, to tabloid style tales of interfering super-aliens.
But for much of the book, all of these speculations are held in a frame that labels them “Horselover Fat’s Theories.” We are not free to assume that Philip K. Dick believed them — particulary since we can’t even be sure that Horselover believes in them. If Dick had turned in a few thousand pages of his “Exegesis” to his publishers, and said “here, this is my new novel,” then those who doubt Dick’s sanity in these last years might have more justification. But Dick was not Horselover Fat; Dick created Horselover Fat, shaped him artfully, and put him into a novel in conjunction with the very down-to-Earth character “Phil Dick,” who clearly represents another aspect of the writer’s character. This is not the sort of work that Fat would have been capable of on his own. Only an artist very much on top of things could have created this heartfelt, reasoned ingenious, analytical, comical, and beautifully shaped novel — a fine autobiographical work that contains, in fictional form, not only a portrait of Dick’s mental voyaging, but also a fascinating discussion, on a symbolic level, of the artistic split that existed in him for most of his career, between science fiction and realism.
I want to say immediately that this split between science fiction and realism was not, for Dick, just a matter of genre theory. For him it was a life-and-death kind of thing. He didn’t want to write only for the tiny subculture that science fiction was when he began. Later he wrote, “SF was so looked down upon that it virtually was not there, in the eyes of all America. This was not funny, the derision flet toward SF writers. It made our lives wretched….To select SF writing as a career was an act of self-destruction.” (The Golden Man, p. xxv.) So throughout the 1950s he pursued a two-track career, matching his prodigious SF output with an equally prodigious, but completely unpublished realist effort. He wrote as least eight, and perhaps as many as twelve, of these unpublished mainstream novels. It was a mammoth effort, made in the same years he was publishing nine SF books, and about 70 SF stories. Such energy! But he was trying to avoid “self-destruction,” you see.
When his realist attempt of this period, Humpty Dumpty In Oakland failed to find a publisher, he stopped writing for almost a year. This was an unprecedented gap in his career, a sign that some very serious re-evaluation was going on. This became clear when he started up again, and wrote The Man in the High Castle, a novel that combined all that was best in Dick’s two sides as an artist, and rose to a new level of accomplishment — not only for him, but for American SF in general. Temporarily Dick had solved the problem of the split impulse in him, and what resulted was his most productive and consistently powerful period, in the years 1962-1966. Still, it may be that part of him always thought that at that point he had given up.
I find this idea strange, because looking over the whole of Dick’s work, it is completely obvious that science fiction was his natural element, that science fiction allowed him to find his distinctive artistic voice, in a way that realism never could. And in fact many of his determinedly solemn realist novels exhibit sudden extrusions of the bizarre; Dick had a helpless tropism for the fantastic, and SF was his natural home. It gave him the opportunity, artistically, to become great.
But it may not have felt that way from the inside. And it may have been more a matter of culture, of cultural receptivity, than of pure art. Dick wanted to write for the culture as a whole. And yet he never, so far as he could tell, did. I think this feeling was one source of the many problems that began to clobber him in the late 60s.
l The first time that Dick “split himself” to form two complimentary fictional characters was in reference to precisely this problem. It came near the end of that first phase of his career, in what I call the twin novels of 1959 — Confessions of a Crap Artist and Time Out of Joint. These two books are structurally almost identical: they both deal with a protagonist who lives in the home of his dominating sister, and is generally regarded by his society as a zero. In fact, these are twin portraits of the science fiction writer, written when Dick was getting very discouraged about his career. In Confessions he is seen from the realist point of view — as “real people” would see him — and is hapless Jack Isidore, a tire regroover who is a collector of junk knowledge, who is utterly useless and unimportant in the real world — the crap artist of the title.
In the science fiction novel Time Out of Joint, the portrait of the SF writer is naturally more sympathetic and proud. Everyone thinks Ragle Gumm is a useless dependent of his sister’s in 1959, making a tenuous living by winning a newspaper’s prediction game, but actually the year is 1998, Ragle is the center of his whole world, and everyone’s fate depends on him! It is the purest sort of wish fulfillment — but also a statement of defiance, and therefore a healthy sign. And so much of it is true, on the symbolic level: “You think it is 1959, and live in cozy isolation as if it were 1929, making fun of the people on the fringe — but actually it is 1998, folks! and the future that you try not to think about is rushing down to knock you flat, with young people who cut their hair weird and talk funny — with war falling in from outer space….” Ragle Gumm was right; Phil Dick was right; his neighbors were wrong. They were ostriches. There are still a lot of them.
Later Dick split the image of the artist once again, in a different way, in The Penultimate Truth. The two protagonists can be taken as two images for himself, and for the function of the SF writer in our society. One Joseph Adams, is a speech-writer for the ruling class, who helps to keep the working class distracted, entertained, and deceived about the true state of things. The other, Nicolas St. James is president of his little underground worker’s enclave, and he escapes to the earth’s surface, learns the true nature of the system, then returns to lead his constituents in the system’s overthrow. These are the two possibilities for the artist in our time, who can help sustain the wrongs of the status quo, or can expose them, and thus help to bring change.
I wonder if these two earlier splits of Dick’s could be matched up: in other words, is realism the work of Nicolas St. James, while science fiction is the work of Joseph Adams? Or vice versa? Either way would be disturbing. But on reflection I have decided it is a false correlation. Adamses and St. Jameses exist in all genres.
Due to his personal problems, and perhaps to the fact that he had given up on realist, therefore on “meaningful,” literature, Dick’s period of integrated strength came to a rough end, and he entered the time of troubles in the late 60s and early 1970s. After that he never again wrote ficition with the same prodigal speed and inventiveness. His gaze as an artist turned more inward, and I think it is safe to say that his writing from 1970 is more and more concerned with self-understanding, which in Dick was, perhaps, always most lucid in the fiction itself. I get the feeling that, unlike the mid-60s when he was churning out books according to a pattern that he had invented and felt very comfortable with, each novel of the 1970s and 80s represents an experiment, a new start, a new struggle for a method that would properly express the tumultuous life within. Naturally his production had to slow.
Another sign of this change in focus is the return towards realims. His novels of this period are set closer and closer to the present day, and to the California that he lived in. Thus when adding a second half to “A. Lincoln, Simulacra,” to make We Can Build You, he derails the narrative as the hero stumbles off into an asylum after a young dark-haired girl; a fitting image of Dick’s departure from SF, into the troubles of the early 1970s. A Maze of Death is a black attempt to “kill off” the cast of characters that had been haunting him since the beginning of his career; surprisingly, this attempt largely succeeded. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said actually resembles the novels in the 1960s in many ways, but this may be because it was begun back then, and it is set in a very near future.
Then A Scanner Darkly takes place in the neighborhoods of the Orange County Dick was living in, and his fiction comes home to roost. He has found a new method, and after that he does not leave a basically realist, Californian setting again — except in The Divine Invasion, which as I will argue is a special case.
Like A Scanner Darkly, Valisystem A (published as Radio Free Albemuth) is set in Orange County, and it is the most explicitly autobiographical novel of Dick’s up to that time. A protagonist based on an aspect of Dick’s character is described by a narrator named “Phil Dick,” in a world where political repression in the name of a religious revival makes life difficult for him.
This curious work is not a preliminary draft for Valis, but is rather an independent novel, in which Dick worked out the methods used to greater effect in the later book. It brought Dick to the point where he could write Valis. He had tried splitting aspects of himself into two different characters, and knew it worked; and the almost realist, almost present-day setting presented no problems — in fact it gave him the invigorating feeling that he could write directly about contemporary America, in the context of his own special kind of SF. He was ready to begin.
The artist splitting himself into two characters is not an entirely new technique. Joyce Cary did it in his first fine autobiographical novel, A House of Children, and in his later introduction to the book, he explains the usefulness of the technique very clearly. The self, seen from within, can be extremely contradictory and multitudinous; any attempt to represent this self faithfully in fiction can quickly become an incomprehensible morass, drowning all other aspects of the book. Sorting out aspects of the writer’s self by creating two characters can be a very satisfactory solution to this problem, adding clarity without over-simplifying.
I think a good case can be made that James Joyce did the same thing in Ulysses, and that both Bloom and Dedalus are self-portraits. Dedalus is the young artist from the previous Portrait, while Bloom is the middle-aged, married, midly eccentric, mildly unsuccessful outsider that Joyce could have seen himself as, in later years. Trying to put both these characters into one would have made a hash of them both; and yet Joyce himself was precisely this hash, Bloom/Dedalus walking the streets of Trieste, Zurich, Paris.
The example that Dick himself might have been most aware of, however, is that of Robert Schumann, who wrote musical articles in which two aspects of himself, named Florestan and Eusebius, argued over musical and philosophical issues. Dick was a great fan of the German Romantic composers, and it seems to me very possible that he learned this fact about Schumann in the course of his voracious reading.
And Dick was certainly aware of the writings of Carl Jung; they were one of his major sources of ideas about the structure of the mind. Splitting the self into two parts, if less complex, is still similar to Jung’s own terminology for the various parts of the unconscious mind — a terminology that Dick used constantly.
So — the time was right. Dick’s life was in place, proceeding at a level of calm, of financial security, and of daily happiness that was perhaps unprecedented for him. He had the method of the split character, explored in Valisystem A. He had a new agent, Russell Galen, whose energy and belief in Dick’s work proved galvanic to new efforts on Dick’s part. He had supportive friends in Orange County, who could even serve as models for secondary characters in the new work. And he had a request from an editor at Bantam, Mark Hurst, for some slight revisions in Valisystem A. He had found himself unable for over three years to make these small changes; so he satisfied the editor’s request by writing a whole new book.
But I haven’t yet mentioned the central event: March 1974.
Sometime in early 1974 Dick experienced a pink beam going off like a flashbulb in his head — at least this is one way he described it. He quickly assigned the event mystical values, and spent many hours of the rest of his life trying to make an explanation for the event that would satisfy him, that would take it out of the realm of the unknown or inexplicable. As a highly imaginative man, deeply interested in the nature of reality, and in metaphysical explanations for it, he could come up with a lot of them.
In fact this became a salient characteristic for him as it is for Horselover Fat in the novel. Both of them first develop a highly fanciful theory for the pink beam event, elaborating it in great detail. When the process of elaboration appears to be finished, so that the theory can no longer be “played with” in further elaboration, they move on to another explanation, espoused just as fervently as the one before.
Dick wrote down some of these speculations, which he called his “Exegesis”; apparently these notes run to millions of words. Perhaps excerpts of the “Exegesis” appear (in Valis as Horselover Fat’s own exegesis); on the other hand, Dick may have written new ones to fit the novel better.
We will never know for sure what happened to Dick in 1974, just as we will never know exactly what happened to his house in 1971. Dick loved such mysteries, and would love the fact that they will always remain unsolvable. But because he died of a stroke in 1982, I wonder if the explanation for the events of 1974 is not fairly simple. Dick himself put information right into Valis, in a way that makes me think he might have suspected this all along, despite the Exegesis’s endless search; but he might have been unwilling to admit it directly.
“At the time of these experiences Fat’s blood pressure had gone up to stroke level; his doctor had briefly hospitalized him….His blood pressure had registered 280 over 178.” (p. 104)
Could that sudden, painful flash of pink light have been a precurser to the stroke that killed him? A much more mild stroke, left undiagnosed? This would not explain the host of other strange events that surrounded this central one: but then again strange things were always happening to Dick, he thrived on that sort of reality, and created it around him.
Consider it: a man has a pain in his head and sees lights, and for eight years he writes more than a million words trying to explain what it was; and he writes as narrator of Valis, that at the time his blood pressure was at stroke level; but he never, ever writes down, “I wonder if I had a stroke.” He explores every possibility but that one.
On the other hand, we cannot be sure. And whatever happened in March of 1974, it happened to a man who had been going through years of painful personal chaos; and yet afterwards, it served as a kind of rallying point, an organizational center from which to re-construct a healthy, functioning self. For Dick it became a part of a religious, indeed a Christian conversion. He said this himself many times, never so clearly as in the following:
“In other words, from 1964 on — July [?] 1964 — I was essentially splintered. But due to the pentathol & Xtian fish sign my plural splintered psyches unified into one mind for the first an only time: structured by the Xtian symbolism & conversion experience. My meta-abstraction was more than a loss of amnesia & even more than a unique unifying of all my personalities; it was a realization of the truth and reality of Christ — a true conversion that brought psychological wholeness to a partitioned, splintered mind. In no way has this ended; a transcendent symbol & realization healed me, & by & large I am still healed and still constellate around that conversion realization. The unity gained that day was never totally lost.” (From the Exegesis, published in the PKDS Newsletter, issue 12, October 1986.)
We who are uncomfortable with religious explanations for events in this world must still admit that we cannot categorically state that we know for sure that these explanations are false. And what do they mean for those who do believe? It is certain that something that Dick was always saying in his novels is true “reality” is a human construct, it happens as much inside our heads as out. Bearing that in mind, when we try to figure out what happened to Dick in early 1974, we have to remember that from his point of view, the abiding explanation was this: He was healed. Healed by conversion.
Whatever happened to him, he turned it to use. And one of the byproducts of turning it to use was this fine novel about psychological healing, good and evil, and the ultimate nature of reality.
Yes, this book is also about good and evil, at least in part, for what drives Horselover Fat crazy, in the opening chapters, is not pure theological speculation, but rather a direct confrontation with the meaningless death of a friend, caused in part by the stupidity, the thoughtlessness, the evil arrogance of the drug rehabilitation program to which she had gone for help. Horselover has the courage to confront the existence of evil and arbitrary death more directly than most of us, and his friend’s suicide is the last in a long sequence of agonizing tragedies that “drive him over the edge” — that give him, to be more precise, a desperate need for an explanation that will somehow justify them. It’s important to remember this, to see that under Horselover’s comic extravaganzas there is a real dignity, that he is in his own way grappling with hard, hard facts.
Valis begins as a relatively straightforward realist novel. Horselover Fat has a lot of exotic theories to explain his pink beam experience, but his friends, including the narrator “Phil Dick,” Kevin and David (these last based on K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, respectively), are free to conclude that the whole thing is a private mental problem of Fat’s own. The main interest of the first part of the book lies in this realist study of a strange and unstable mind, and in the obvious way that the two characters Fat and “Dick” are aspects of the writer himself. This is obvious in everything from their names to the initial confessions of the narrator. “I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity.” (p. 11) Dick has divided his autobiographical character into the two extremes that his work has always revealed; on the one hand the flamboyant science fiction thinker, with reality breakdown as his dominant theme; on the other hand the hard-headed realist observer of contemporary America.
The novel makes a sudden jump, however, in Chapter Nine, when Fat and his friends go see a movie in which Fat’s transcendental experience is replayed and given a very odd explanation. This event marks a generic discontinuity, as Fredric Jameson calls it; from here on we are in a science fiction novel.
The movie they see is an odd mix; it is Dick’s earlier attempt at this material, Valisystem A, added to Horselover’s pink beam experience and some elements of his explanations — all seen as if it were the Nicolas Roeg movie The Man Who Fell to Earth. The three parts are mixed in almost equal proportions, making for a very strange result indeed.
During the science fiction part of the novel Horselover Fat and “Phil Dick” fuse and become one character; this can represent not only the re-integration Dick experienced after 1974, but also the way his complete commitment to science fiction in 1961 brought him to a higher level as an artist. Once again, we are on the level of symbolic truth: “Phil Dick” is made whole by an infant god — an alien — a machine — a genius child — take your pick; any way you choose (for the text leaves us room to interpret the young girl in a number of different ways), “Phil Dick” has been made whole by something out of science fiction. Something in that genre has enabled him to perceive himself as a single, coherent personality. This is a perfect ending for his career.
The message that the child God gives the group of visitors is, to my mind, a repudiation of Horselover’s supernatural speculations. “Man is holy, and the true god, the living god, is man himself. You will have no gods but yourselves; the days in which you believed in other gods end now, they end forever.” This is highly convincing to the down-to-earth, humanistic “Phil Dick”; he says, “What had the little girl told us? That human beings should now give up the worship of all dieties except mankind itself. This did not seem irrational to me. Whether it had been said by a child or whether it had come from the Britannica, it would have struck me as sound.” (pp. 198, 213)
It is strange and contradictory: within the confines of a science fiction situation, Dick is a whole personality, and in full agreement with the basic tenets of a fairly empirical humanism. But back in the realism of realism, in Orange County, the parts of the personality split up again; Horselover reappears and continues his quest for a metaphysical explanation; while “Phil Dick” carries on in his apartment in Santa Ana. Yet I think this is right, this is accurate. When in the realm of science fiction Dick knew himself, he had found his territory and was a whole artist. In the realm of realism (and perhaps in the realm of the real) he was always divided, always searching.
For me, the most moving pages in the book have to do with this search — the central search, for a life worth living. Philip K. Dick in his last years had reached a balance, it was a good life compared to the chaos of the decade before; but it was a bit circumscribed — it was not, in the end, all he would have wanted. Re-read the poignant, painful passage starting “I have had dreams of another place myself,” on pp. 113-117 — this final paragraph. Suddenly you have the writer’s voice speaking directly to you, jumping right off the page, as clearly as it ever did in all the whole body of work. And then you know that he knew where he was.