Review by Ian Mathers: Radio Free Albemuth (1985)


Radio Free Albemuth is a precursor to Dick’s Valis trilogy. Since RFA was written in the first person using Dick’s own voice, this book blurs the lines between fiction and reality. Like The Man In The High Castle, RFA is not set in the future but in a twisted version of modern America. It takes us to Berkeley, CA in the 60’s to the time when Dick was just starting his career. The story follows the life of Nick, a fictitious (we think) friend of Dick’s who becomes increasingly obsessed with extra-terrestrial voices and visions he experiences. In an ultra-conservative America where thought police knock on people’s doors, communications with the super-natural can lead to exile, even death. Nick, a record company executive who signs young acts finds himself increasingly disconnected with reality and must find a way to bring his message to the masses, without the government discovering his goal. A scary tale that speaks volumes about modern society and our own ideas of patriotism and conformity, Radio Free Albemuth is a fascinating look into the mind and life of Philip K. Dick.



Warning: Reading the review below may give away the story if you haven’t read it.

I must confess: Earlier, when I wrote my review of Valis for this very same site, I was wrong. Don’t worry, much of what I said still holds; Valis is still an amazing piece of work, and… well, the rest is in the other review. I won’t waste your time rehashing it here.

The part I got wrong is that Valis is not Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece. He didn’t manage to fit that into a single volume, unfortunately. And it’s not the whole of the Valis Trilogy (consisting of Valis, The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer), althought it is a superb set of novels which you really should read. No, PKD’s ultimate magnum opus is the combination of Valis and Radio Free Albemuth.

Radio Free Albemuth, I hear you saying, what? Why, I’ve never even heard of it! It’s certainly not even one of his classic novels! This man is completely mad! I may be, but I stand by my claim. No other author, to my knowledge, has tried reworking his greatest novel years later, and gotten it published. And this is what Dick managed, albeit posthumously, with Albemuth.

For it and Valis, you see, are mutant twin siblings. And while this novel lacks the huge volume of ideas gushing from almost every page of Valis, it makes up for that by the fact that Dick’s writing, technically speaking, got better and better as the years went on, and this being his last book, it’s very noticeable. Albemuth is a serious reworking of the themes and characters in Valis, and it just reads better than the latter. It also represents the shifts in viewpoint he underwent in his life, and quite viciously skewers certain aspects of himself and his job.

Dick’s problem, you see, was that he was not, as according to the back of my edition of Albemuth (which I got for christmas; thanks dad!), “our century’s greatest prankster-prophet”. He couldn’t see the future anymore than the rest of us, though he sure had some cool ideas as to what could happen. But as for prankster… Dick was an Absurdist, in the literary sense. He pointed out the things that were wrong, that were absurd, in an effort to get them changed. Unlike satirists, however, Absurdists have no definite answer. But he was not a prankster; that implies a frivolity and an apathy inconsistent with PKD’s life and body of work. As I said, Dick had a problem: He always cared.

And so Albemuth is a book written out of, or into, deep despair. The sorrow of a man reaching the end of his life (whether he was aware of it or not) and finding that nothing has changed. The Black Iron Prison has not lifted; the Empire, truly, Never Ended. While Valis is ultimately a supremely hopeful book, this one is not. It ends with Phil Dick, old and broken by the State, watching, hoping, as the kids are passed the torch. The final chapter, with its images of the passing of a legacy, are supremely fit for Dick’s last work, whether or not he intended it that way. Dick realizes that the concerns of Nick Brady, of other worlds and Valis, are not good enough. If you realize that Brady symbolizes not just Horselover Fat but the whole of Valis, and Phil Dick the author himself, not just a character, the scene begins to have more meaning.

And, given that Brady is partly Dick, how are we to react when Brady asks Phil, “why can’t you write about normal people, the way other authors do… Instead, when your books open, there is this misfit holding down some miserable low job, and he takes drugs and his girlfriend is in a mental institution but he still loves her”. Dick, the character, reacts with rage, but does not have any concrete arguments. This incident, combined with the one where the government agent informs they will be publishing books in his name, show a deep streak of cynicisim on the part of Dick towards his life’s work. This was no doubt engendered by the failure of his realist novels. Dick is told that as he gets older, “his” novels will get mellower, the way the public expects them to. This is one of many gently surreal moments involving Dick’s work. Perhaps the best is when Brady says if he can’t get his message out subliminally in records, maybe Dick could write about it? In a book where Dick is writing about it, of course…

I have not as yet, however, made clear the strong connection to Valis. If you have read that novel, you know that at the middle of the book Phil, Horselover, and Kevin go to a movie called Valis. This is where they see what they have been theorizing about on the screen, and it starts off the second half of the book in high weirdness.

Dick has taken two of the characters from the book, Nicholas Brady and Ferris F. Fremount (FFF – a rather obvious tip off to 666 if you count), and written a novel about them. Much of what happens in Valis happens here, but to Brady rather than Dick. It is slightly bizarre, in fact, to see a bunch of things happen to Nick that Dick claimed happened to himself in real life. This may represent the real PKD’s desire to distance himself from his claims earlier in life to all that weirdness. Events in Valis (the book) are very closely echoed, but not the events of the movie. There Brady wins, and becomes President. Here, the events of the novel Valis are altered, viewed throught the lens of the new perspective time gives a person, and Brady winds up dead, with Phil a work gang prisoner, “writing” books for the government. And the message gets out.

Just barely.

Just a little pinprick of hope shining through the night of America, the worst of all possible worlds, represented in the novel. Instead of religion being the answer, Dick retreats to a vision of humans as an alien race helped by a satelitte from a far off star. A change in Dick’s worldview as he grew older, a retreat from religion? Maybe the government was writing his books for him by this time? It may be, but on the other hand the character who first suggests that Valis may be God is Phil Dick. And if the government was writing this book, they must be pretty screwed up.

Radio Free Albemuth may not have the tide of ideas that Valis has, and it has nothing as spectacular as the Phil Dick/Horselover Fat disappearing act. But as an older, possibly wiser cynic (a cynic is an idealist whose ideals have been crushed), Dick wrote one of the most affecting books he ever wrote. The long middle section with Brady as narrator loses some of this, but is still superb. The beginning and end, where Phil narrates, rival the best writing of his career. It is still a melancholy book, however, as if Dick knew his time was soon up.

“The kids continued to stare at us. At the two political prisoners, old men to them, worn and dirty and defeated, eating their lunches now, in silence. The transistor radio continued to play. Even more loudly. And, in the wind, I could hear others starting up everywhere. By the kids, I thought. The kids.”

Radio Free Albemuth, page 214, by Philip K. Dick

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