Valis by Philip K. Dick
Science Fiction (1981 - 241 pp.)
For two thousand years the single rational element in the world had slumbered. In 1945 it woke up... (112)
In Valis, Philip K. Dick moves away from fabricated quasi-humans and alternate post-World War II reality to tell a story about... a protagonist with his own name having a series of out-of-body experiences, all set against the backdrop of Cold War-era California. The lack of Replicants or arms races is barely noticeable, as Valis is such a twisting story it could only have been written by Dick. It follows Horselover Fat, who is also a fictionalized Philip K. Dick, through failed relationships, a near suicide, and a journey with his friends to discover the meaning of life, all set in the 1970s.
Everything in Valis is rational to a horrifying extent. Fat's girlfriend Gloria is insane because it behooves her to be insane: "Gloria's mind had total control over her body; she was rationally insane." (11) Dick digs back into his The Man in the High Castle-era Sinophilia, using the I Ching as a reference point, as well as Yin and Yang to represent the balance in Fat's world. (239) Dick references Chinese fingertraps throughout, showing how the characters are trapped into their situations by the only events that could logically occur. On Fat's growing realization of his building sanity, "Let it be said that one of the first symptoms of psychosis is that the person feels perhaps he is becoming psychotic. It is another Chinese fingertrap. You cannot think about it without becoming part of it." (17) Dick is Fat, and Fat is Dick, but Dick sees Fat from a third-party bystander's perspective. Fat's version of his psychosis is, understandably, far more favourable to him: "I am illuminated by holy light fired at me from another world. I see what no other man sees." (30) That sentence may be the thesis, if Valis could ever have just one.
If Fat is insane, he certainly has a difficult time of his brief sojourn in a mental institution. Dick portrays mental institutions as places where nothing happens, (54) yet immediately presents the reader with a cruel paradox: prefrontal lobotomies are available only to those patients who consent to them. (57) Given the difficulty of informed consent to psychosurgery, Fat appears to have landed in a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-style situation, in which Ken Kesey describes a draconian mental institution based on his own experiences. Fat is alarmed at nothing, though, and instead sees his institution as a place where he could get better: "Dr. Stone wasn't insane; Stone was a healer. He held down the right job." (65) He doesn't, but it's not because he doesn't try. Dr. Stone and the other staff appear legitimately helpful, though, avoiding a situation like "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether". At least, Dick/Fat leads the reader to believe this.
Media before, in and after Valis are crucial to the reader's experience. The title is taken for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, a device used in a movie, also called Valis, the characters watch. (139-144) Watching Valis, Fat realizes the movie tells the story of his own life, which causes him and his friends to reach out to the movie's makers. Naturally, for Dick at least, this results in Fat likely writing a series of letters to his past self, "All You Zombies"-style. The closest comparison is if, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play-within-a-play starred Hippolyta and Puck. Looking forward, 1990s media has some Valis in it. The disembodied protagonist watching his own life is played up even farther in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow. Fat's visions could easily be an influence on Tool, of Los Angeles alternative metal fame. Fat is able to see using his third eye. (116, 230) When a third self emerges, the mercurial Zebra, everything doubles back on itself: "On some level Fat guessed the truth; he had encountered his past selves and his future selves - two future selves; an early-on one, the three-eyed people, and then Zebra, who is discorporate." (120)
When Fat meets Valis's makers, he comes to understand the true nature of reality. Yes, telling you exactly what Fat discovers would be a spoiler, although it involves a movie producer who calls himself Mother Goose and a virtually omniscient two-year-old named Sophia. These bizarre encounters lead to a series of epigrams about salvation, which rank among Dick's all-time great one-liners. After nearly dying a few times, Fat feels far greater urgency: "You always need the Savior now. Later is always too late." (213) Sophia appears to Fat in a dream that convinces him she is able to use dreams to communicate; in the dream, her description borders on Biblical: "The dark eyes filled with light and life and fire." (215) Tying together the otherworldliness of it all combined with Fat's growing need to uncover life's mysteries, Fat realizes that for all his rationality, he has extremely little control: "The divine intrudes where you least expect it." (228)
Valis is from the Cold War, in both release date and setting, which means the USSR persists. This is fine for the 1970s, but the book opens with a fake dictionary entry for VALIS. The dictionary, of course, is "Great Soviet Dictionary Sixth Edition, 1992". Not to worry - the USSR fell less than a year earlier. In Burning Chrome, William Gibson has communists in the 2300s.
Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 3