Review by Ian Mathers: Valis (1981)


Valis, one of the last books PKD ever wrote, offers an intensely personal (and weird!) look into the complexities of Dick’s mind. His is a mind intent on discovering the true nature of religion and it’s manifestations in the real world. Valis is a theology that attempts to find common ground among the world’s religions by suggesting the existence of a higher power that sends it’s message to Earth through the gods and leaders of the world’s religions. This is just the beginning as Dick offers all sorts of explanations for what we perceive as our surroundings and the universe from information as living plasmate that penetrates every person to an ongoing battle between the forces of good (Valis) and an evil empire that has existed since the beginning of time. If you think this sounds crazy, then you’re right. It is!

Based on personal experiences that happened to Dick in March of 1974, Valis is much more than a science fiction story. It is a complex view of the universe that appears to come from the mind of a deranged mental patient, obsessed with helping victims who can’t help themselves and is intent on killing himself. The twisted part of Valis is that it makes more and more sense as the book goes on, drawing the reader into this insane way of thinking. While there are delusional hallucinations throughout Valis, much of Dick’s world view is derived from ancient wisdom and religious beliefs. He draws many references from pre-Christian mysticism and Greek Gnosticism. Just as is Radio Free Albemuth, the reader often wonders which parts of Valis are Dick’s real-life experiences. Valis is written in Dick’s first person voice as he narrates about Horselover Fat, his alter-ego. His schizophrenia plays a major role in this novel, representing Dick’s lack of faith as he searches for God. Further dissolving the distinction between truth and fiction, Dick discusses his own novels and his writing career as the events unfold.

Divine intervention, extraterrestrial communication and conspiracy theories all serve to lay the foundation for the insane world that is Valis. Journey inside the schizophrenic mind of PKD and Horselover Fat as they attempt to find answers to the questions of human existence, the benevolence of god and the future of the universe. In the end Dick asks the ultimate question, “Truth or fiction?”.



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

I was watching TV the other day in the middle of the afternoon, just flipping around between channels, when I happened to come upon a religious show. I can’t recall which one, and it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that when I turned to that channel, I paused for some nameless and long-forgotten reason. In that time, the evangelist turned towards the viewer and said, “Religion is a glorious affliction of the heart.” I remember thinking this odd, and remarking to myself that you find truth in the strangest places.

This is true of Philip K. Dick’s magnum opus, Valis. Truth, whether found in the oh-so sincere smile of the preacher, or the words of a “simple” science fiction novel, is truth. Of course, in the case of Valis, it is an half-deranged, garbled truth.

Confused? Don’t be. The truths contained in Valis, though potentially profound if approached right, are rather skittish, as truths go. This is because they were written by a madman. Which is not to say PKD was insane when he wrote the book; he may well have been, but we have no way of knowing. Rather, Phil Dick, the character, is insane. After all, only insane people have multiple personalities, right? But is Horselover Fat just a personality? Well then, surely only insane people claim to have living information that God fired into their heads from a satelite named Valis, in the form of pink light? We cannot be sure. This is a novel, after all.

Or is it? Again, we have no way of knowing how much of this PKD himself believed, and how much he made up. Since he is dead, we will never know (theoretically speaking, anyway). Why then, does the contents of Valis seem so much like Divine Truth to the reader?

This is the genius of PKD’s prose; he is an author of such power that he makes us believe the made-up cosmology of someone who admits, quite frankly, that he is mad. And even if he didn’t, the things he, Horselover Fat, thinks are proof enough:

“About this time two new prepositions entered Fat’s mind, due to this particular conversation.

  1. Some of those in power are insane.

  2. And they are right.

By ‘right’ read ‘in touch with reality’… The psychiatrist in charge of treating him for his lunacy had ratified it. Now Fat would never depart from faith. [Dick, 63]”

Dick makes us accept Fat’s claims simply by stating them as fact, and always having other characters (including Phil Dick) variably accept and reject Fat’s claims. Dick uses the old method of the Big Lie – if you give the readers a lie which defies all probability, and is big enough, and they accept it, you can fit in lots of little lies in under it with no complaints. In this case the Big Lie (or is it Truth?) is the central event of the novel – the pink beam of light. By the time the three-eyed aliens from Sirius are introduced, we are so credulous we accept them without hesitation.

Or, at least, some of us will be. It should be noted that the vast majority of people have one of two reactions upon reading Valis. The first occurs when the reader connects with the book – usually in this case the reader has already read some of Dick’s less challenging works, or is deeply into cosmology and such anyway. In this case Valis is understood (as much possible, anyway) and the book remains with the reader long after it is done – such is the impact of many of the deeply disturbing concepts at the core of this novel, dealing with religion, death, human nature, mental illness, the nature of perception, and so on.

The other type of reader generally gets about 5 pages into Valis and then dismisses it as absolute unreadable gibberish. Unfortunately, they seem to be in the majority.

Fitting into the first group, I fail to see the problem. The book starts out with a fairly straight-forward account of Horelover Fat’s friend Gloria, bent on committing suicide, and Fat’s (and Dick’s) ruminations thereof. As a matter of fact, very little that is strange happens in Valis until halfway through the book, with the exception of Fat’s religious experience and dementia. And we can easily dismiss that. It is interesting that Dick chooses to write the novel from the perspective of a person who splits and recombines personalities, lending the whole thing a rather rough, unworked feel. A whole essay could, and has, been written about it. In the QPB club edition of the whole Valis Trilogy, as a matter of fact, Kim Stanley Robinson provides an excellant essay comparing Phil Dick and Horselover Fat to PKD the realist writer and PKD the sf writer.

Another thing which helps this feeling of reality refered to earlier is this realist mode in which the novel is written until Chapter 9, halfway through the book, when Kevin (apparantly based on K.W. Jeter, a friend of PKD) invites Phil and Horselover to the movies. This choice of PKD’s to write in a completely realist tone for the first half and discount all weirdness within as his own (ie the narrator’s) madness is a masterstroke; if he had started the book off with all of the assorted bizzareness that occurs later, we would not be drawn in nearly as much. As it is we believe the book as deeply as we can any fictional work. At this point, then, they see the movie “Valis”, and the metaphysical shit hits the fan.

Chaos erupts, but not physical chaos. Very little happens physically for most of the book, actually, with most of the action being driven by talk and Fat’s Tractate. The reader is forced to believe even more deeply in the Tractate due to the fact that, apparantly, it is real. If we had not been slowly drawn in since Page One of the novel, we, through Phil Dick, might just assume that Eric Lampton is doing too many drugs – he is a rock star, after all. Now some bizarre, science fiction elements are introduced – Mini’s Synchronity Music, the existence of Sophia (Alien? Robot? God? Trained child? As mad as her parents?), and so on.

The novel seems about to end on a downbeat tone – Sophia dies. There is no hope for Mankind. Etc, etc. Then Phil splits in two again – not a good sign. But then the novel reverts; Phil remembers Sophia’s ultimate messsage: We are the gods. All of humankind. Is this a statement of PKD’s own philosophy? Is he trying, desperately, to smuggle in some Truth, to sneak it by the Church and State of the modern world (the parallel between this and Herb Asher, Rybys, and Elias’ attempts to get to Earth in The Divine Invasion is deliberate)?

But all this is unimportant. Valis is a novel loaded down with so much hidden portent and symbolic significance one could argue the meaning and intent behind it for years without conclusion. What matters is that PKD has produced possibly his greatest work, a book where even the throwaway bits, like Fat’s Russian letters (page 105 in the QPB edition) seem like purposeful enigmas rather than sloppiness. To paraphrase Ursala K. LeGuin, what Dick is entertaining us with here is death and madness, religion and Truth. And, even though the book is quite clearly about the beliefs of a madman, PKD does put several truths in there, mostly about religion. Dick said in an interview shortly before Valis was published that two types of people would hate the book; non-Christians, who wouldn’t like all the religious imagery and content, and Christians, who would find it heretical. And it is; one of the things PKD focuses on is the age-old question of why God lets bad things happen. PKD’s answer – based on Plato’s idea that “there is a streak of the irrational in the World Soul” – is quite ingenious. To say any more would be to rob the novel of one of its chief delights, Fat’s Tractate.

If what PKD was aiming for was to distill his experience with that pink beam of light, his theophany, his conversation with God, into book form, he may have come as close as humanly possible. The mad outpouring of ideas, the hallucinatory tide of experiences at the core of the novel can be quite dreamlike in places, especially when the reader willingly submerges themselves, suspending disbelief. Still, shining throughout it all is the unmistakable humantity of Dick and his characters, especially his dual selves.

And humanity is godlike, remember?

“Religion is a glorious affliction of the heart.”


Agree or disagree? Add a comment below.

2 thoughts on “Review by Ian Mathers: Valis (1981)

  1. Great review. Just finished Valis and was blown away by it. I thought the structure was brilliant, I was led in with a wonderful false sense of security, with introductions to characters I thought I could place and an understanding of where the work was going. …how wrong I was. I was struck a little way in with terms and religious references that unfortunately went over my head, I noted these down but was determined to plough on through. …So glad I did.
    Looks as though I fall in to the bracket of those who are left with thoughts still churning away after reading.
    Previous to this I had read ‘Androids..’ – I look forward to getting in to his short stories… but I may just have to wait for the dust to settle from Valis before I open myself up again to Mr.PKD and his incredulous abilities of shaking up my worldly perceptions all over again.

  2. The above comment is better than the preceding review.

    How tiresome to read “Mad” in reference to P K Dick’s work – the world is mad because people don’t ask the questions found in PKD’s VALIS.

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