on March 10, 2004
I'm told this novel intersects with Philip K. Dick's biography in some interesting ways, but as someone who knows little about the man but has enjoyed a number of his novels and stories ("The Man in the High Castle" is one of my favourite novels in any genre), I found "Valis" to be an engaging work in its own right. Dick's themes here are the nature of religious faith, the pitiless contradictions of a universe supposedly designed by a deity, and the nonetheless remarkable consistency of religious revelations throughout all time. There are any number of plausible explanations for all of this: God exists and has manifested in numerous forms; religious faith is entirely unjustified, but is a more or less constant aspect of human nature; space-time does not exist, we are devolved aliens, and "God" is a satellite broadcasting laser-driven epiphanies and inspiring subliminally affecting films (and novels?). Lovers of SF will enjoy this immensely, but so will lovers of good literature, and those interested in the philosophy and psychology of religion. If, like me, you happen to enjoy all three then you're in for quite a treat. Of course, it's the nature of the material that "Valis" can offer no final answers, but it's the way Dick raises the questions that makes it such an appealing novel. There is a tenderness and humanity to the characters - quite an achievement given the "way out" nature of the material. With its insoluble theological-philosophical themes, drug-culture setting, and interestingly unreliable narrative viewpoint, I'm sure "Valis" would be right at home on the Literary Studies curricula of any number of liberal arts colleges. Not before time, too. Hollywood is so far the only "institution" that has caught on to the tantalizing genius of Philip K. Dick. It's about time the rest of them caught up.
on January 20, 2004
Valis is the product of a few things: Dick's 1974 hallucinatory experiences, his belief that whetever the eye sees is reality on some level, and his own zany brand of writing.
The book is a mix of Dick's Gnostic philosophies, his interpretations of his 1974 experiences, autobiography, and a fictional story of schizophrenically-projected Horselover Fat (projected by none other than "Phil" who has written himself into the story ala 'Radio Free Albemuth'). So it's not really a fictional novel, it's not really an autobiography and it's not really a philosphical treastise.
However, it makes for a pretty good read, it would certainly make an odd member of anyone's book collection. In reading Valis tempting to say that Dick's mind was fried but by the end of the book it's clear it wasn't. He might have been on the wrong track in trying to explain what he saw in 1974, but from a spiritual viewpoint he's come up with some very novel and interesting ideas (and ideas were always Dick's forte). Valis is a tripped-out book but it isn't any worse than say 'Counter Clock World' or 'Flow My Tears' on the fried-brain meter.
In conclusion if you're a PKD fan, don't stay away from this one, welcome it with open arms and I'd suggest reading 'Radio Free Albemuth' and 'The Shifting Realities of Phillip K. Dick' edited by Lawrence Sutin before picking up this one.
on August 31, 2003
Before this, he had written about a robot-hunter who suspects he may be a robot himself and a world in which people age in reverse, but Valis is the point where Philip K. Dick really got weird. Based on a supposed experience of the author himself, Valis is the story of Horselover Fat, a man who God (or some being of the sort) contacted using a pinkish ray of light. Fat is a 60s burnout trying to survive in the 70s and this encounter encourages him to write an exegesis, explaining the workings of the universe which apparently include a race of three-eyed creatures and an elaborate system of holograms. Fat is egged on by a group of friends including the Catholic David, the cynical Kevin, the cancer-ridden Sherri and a science fiction named Philip K. Dick, who freely admits he is also Horselover Fat (It will almost make sense after you have read it). Valis is part postmodern experiment, part philosophical treatise and even part science-fiction novel. For people who like their literature inventive, pensive and consciously bizarre (and that is how most Dick fans like their literature), Valis is sure to be a winner.
on April 12, 2003
I love works of art that divide people into two groups like some kind of Zoroastrian razor.
A lot has been said about this book in the reviews.
I think this is mind-altering writing. Really. You cannot read this book *and enjoy it* without having your attitude shifted.
Dick writes in such a way that there is always an elliptical dialectic between what is "real" in the context of the fictional reality and what is not real. In the end none of it is real, because it's just a science fiction book, or is it? The book's overtly autobiographical theme (the two main characters are "Phil" a science fiction writer and "Horselover Fat", which is a pseudonym which literally denotes the meaning of the names "Philip" and "Dick") adds a rather usettling third element to the dynamic. I find it dizzying to think that Dick's obsession with secret codes and subliminal messages and secret signs and societies may have led him to conceive of this book as a calling to an imagined elect out there who would read this book and have "anamnesis" triggered in their minds in much the same way Fat's was triggered by a fish sign on a prescription delivery woman's necklace. The tractate at the end of the book lies there like some kind of chunk of radioactive matter, somehow totally separate from any sense of fiction one could have had from the story itself. As if Dick really did write his own personal exegesis that he had wanted published but could not unless he made it into sci fi.
One of my private little delights is how Dick uses names in his stories....Eric Lampton? Ha Ha! Its so obvious and stupid but still its great.
I keep imagining this book as a film; some kind of cross-breed between The Man Who Fell To Earth (I recall this movie specifically in the way I imagine the film Valis from the book to have been presented) and The Dead Zone, which unfortunately in terms of comparison were based on books very much unlike VALIS. Maybe Stanley Kubric could have handled it very well, with access to the kind of significant budget that a film like that would take to do with success. Stanley Kubric is dead, alas.
Some movies kind of daze you for a while afterwords, and reality kind of feels a little different. Valis is one of those books that have that same effect, if you end up enjoying it.
*Its also crushingly depressing, as any suicidal rumination will tend to be.
on January 28, 2003
The first time I tried to read this, I made it to about page fifteen before giving up. I couldn't get past the fact that there were two characters (Dick and Fat) inhabiting the same body. Okay, I could understand that there was one guy with another guy living inside his head, but the other characters talked to both of them!
I picked it up a year later after experimenting with some mind altering substances, and what can I say? This book changed my life. This is the ultimate exploration of schizophrenia, not multiple personality disorder, but split personality disorder, the theme that dominates most of Dick's great works (Scanner Darkly, Flow my Tears).
This book is about identity, the ultimate philosophical question. Not the identity of the main character, but identity in general, what is it?
This is Dick's most important work, even though I found Palmer Eldritch and High Tower to be better overall fiction. As has been noted, this is almost a religious treatise, although the religion it describes is unique to Dick. The numbered notes scattered throughout the book and collected in the end are amazing enough to buy this book solely for the purpose of analyzing them. For example, his idea that we're all moving backward in time except for men like St. Paul is fascinating, and explains why Paul would have such a unique view of God that so few can seem to relate to.
Also, his Black Iron Prison concept is DEAD ON, and we are living in it, my friend. The Roman empire still exists, it's called the USA, and another term for it would rightly be the Fourth Reich.
Read Radio Free Albemuth first to warm up to the general concepts framed in a more conventional novel, then read VALIS to blow yourself away.
on December 21, 2002
This book comes from the later stages of PKD's career, when he probably didn't even care about making his books accessible to the masses. That's something that up-and-comers have to do, and by this point PKD was surely trying to sort out his own personal philosophies in narrative form. You can see the websites for several different PKD fan clubs for speculation on what was going through his mind when he wrote this one. Here we have musings on religious visions, spiritual quests, and arcane ancient Greek and Gnostic Christian philosophies. Obviously one would also suspect experimentation in the arts of mind expansion, though in real life (if such a thing exists) PKD hated to be branded in that way. These are all played out by the typically off-center characters and curveball speculative plotlines of classic PKD.
This book can be quite frustrating at times, with long philosophical passages that are merely a mishmash of ideas PKD had come across in his personal studies, and that lead to philosophy overload but with little direction or grand overall insight to be found. Plus you have to wonder if this book is a literal or merely mental autobiography, or not an autobiography at all but one of PKD's subversive storytelling techniques, designed to warp the reader's mind. This book is told in both first and third person by the same character, a schizophrenic with two personalities that operate simultaneously and even interact with each other (a feature of several PKD stories). Here one of the two selves is the increasingly insane Horselover Fat and the other is his sane alter ego, who happens to be the author PKD himself. Ultimately, the mass philosophical confusion of this novel morphs into sheer fascination, albeit in a pretty cluttered way.
Note that the make-believe movie seen by the characters in this book was expanded by PKD into another novel - *Radio Free Albemuth* - which was not published during his lifetime. A story within a story within a quasi-mental-autobiography, as it were.
on July 13, 2002
I believe that this is the third time that I've read this book. It isn't that I find it that hard to understand, it is just that it is so dense with meaning that I feel compelled to glean it over and over to see if I missed anything.
The basic premise of the book is that a transcedent God (or Vast Acive Living Intelligence System) not only exists, but periodically "breaks through" into our own material world "the Black Iron Prison." If we are receptive, or desperate enough, it makes itself known (i.e. grants "gnosis"- the knowlege of the true state of things.) I consider Dick to be an expert on Gnosis, afterall, it actually happened to him. You see this story is semi-autobiographical. Considering the hell that the protagonist, Horselover Fat, goes through in his interactions with a totally incompetent mental health bureaucracy, and a completely dysfunctional social and family life, you hope that it isn't too close to his actual life. Still, it was no doubt this living hell (coupled with his drug abuse) that led to his epiphany. This is somewhat like true shamanic inititiation- the ordeal either kills you, or you break through the veil of this prison world into the "real" world beyond.
Actually, it is the ideas imbedded in this novel that are it's true worth. These are best expressed in _The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings_ by the same publisher.
One other thing, if you watch the film _The Matrix_ and then read this book, you get the inexcapable feeling that the "world behind the world" plot line is straight out of P.K.D....
on June 27, 2002
You'll be able to tell from the other reviews here that this novel is one of those that people will either love or hate. I can appreciate and understand that. It is one of those books. Having said that, I think that if it's read with the reader forewarned that this is not a conventional sci-fi novel, then there is a greater chance of enjoyment.
I read this many years ago having borrowed the entire Valis trilogy from a friend thinking - "Philip K. Dick, yeah, he writes science fiction, therefore this must be science fiction". It is, no doubt about it, but it's quite unlike any other sci-fi I've read. The first time I read this, it was an effort and for the most part I didn't enjoy it much. I didn't really think that it was sci-fi then, and felt cheated.
Then I got to the last few chapters and it all began to gell for me. The exegesis which is liberally littered throughout the main body of the novel was re-printed at the end, and it all made sense to me there, when it hadn't in the piecemeal form.
Subsequently reading about PKD and the problems he faced from 1974 onwards just makes this book even more special. Once you realise that it's semi-autobiographical it almost becomes something different. This actually prompted me to read Valis again, and this time it completely blew me away.
I've read it again since that, and I think it was the most enjoyable yet. The only problem(??) then was having to continue on to read the Divine Invasion and the Transmigration of Timothy Archer, which complete the trilogy.
It's not a good place to start if you've not read PKD before, but it is one of his best (IMO). His dark wit shines through at times, and so do the moments of dark depression. It comes across to me as a work of love, and also a catharsis. Valis was certainly something that obsessed PKD for many years. I understand why, I almost find myself looking for signs of Valis sometimes, especially after a particularly unlikely coincidence or synchronous event.
All that said I'd just like to re-iterate that this is not a conventional sci-fi novel. It can be read on many different levels, but be prepared to jump into the deep end of the philosophical pool. Otherwise, stay down the shallow end and read Harry Potter or Dr. Who novels instead.
on June 2, 2002
I have reviewed this novel already, but here I am reviewing it again, and rating it the same. Why would I do this? - well, it's because I have just reread 'Valis'. In the time since my last reading of the novel I guess I have changed, I have learned more about myself and more about Philip Dick. But this novel is still mightily intriguing despite the pages of obscure philosophising which, to use another reviewer's expression, I just don't get. But then I have said that before - admitted it - and speculated that the novel like the universe itself may not be knowable at any specified level of detail.
I admire the works of Philip Dick. I like this novel, but I do not think that it is his masterwork and wouldn't recommend it as a first read of the author - it is too complex, has too many shifts of perspective. But, for the reviewer who saw it a amateurish with unacceptable shifts from first to third person - I guess they just didn't get the fact that Philip, the author himself, is a character and even more important is his alter ego, Horselover Fat. Philip gets 'cured' of Horselover, but before the end of the novel Horselover is back, suddenly reappearing ever so gently, as if he had never really gone.
When we read a novel like 'A Passage to India' (Forster) we are often left with a key outstanding puzzle. In 'A Passage to India' we ask if the alleged assault did take place in the caves on the ill-fated expedition into the Indian hills. For the reasons of a novel, one question is enough to generate a whole world of incidents and speculations. And at the end, we may still be no closer to a definitive answer (I read somewhere that Forster himself claimed that he did not really know the answer - perhaps, perhaps not).
Of course life is not like that. We are all enmeshed in a Universe of the inexplicable - things we have to rationalise so that we can get on with our lives. It seems to me that Philip Dick, while concentrating on key issues for himself - such as what is real, and how can we separate reality from fantasy or misperception - immerses his writing with many of life's mysteries. Consequently I expect from his writing a fair degree of chaos - not answers, but questions. And I also expect that the speculations of my mind as I read his works are probably different to any other reader. I recommend that you explore the works of Philip Dick - he is not a labour to read - and take yourself on your own journey of discovery. Philip Dick was certainly a great guide even if he had far more questions than answers. And, ultimately all answers must come from within ourselves - it is we who have to make conclusions and assimilate points of view.
on July 2, 2001
I consider myself a Dick fan. I really enjoyed Electric Sheep, Martian Time-Slip, A Scanner Darkly, Man in the High Castle, Crap Artist, etc. Those books actually had plot and setting, and Dick was great at creating alternate worlds.
Not so much here. The vast majority takes place in Horselover Fat's (Philip Dick's) drug-addled mind. He ruminates endlessly on a bizarre theological system that throws together every major religion, sixties anti-establishment fervor, and whacked-out science fiction. He adds little but three-eyed aliens and mind-controlling satellites... cool ideas, but not enough to hold up an entire book. (I first read about the mind-controlling satellite in Radio Free Albemuth anyways, and that book actually has plot and setting). Then again, Phil has always borrowed heavily. The Mercer cult in Electric Sheep was taken straight from Camus' Myth of Sisyphus.
This book is most interesting as a slide into madness, especially in light of the fact that Dick actually seemed to believe that Valis was beaming information at him (see The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of by Thomas Disch). Dick was coming off meth addiction, and hallucinations are common, but he refused to see these images as internally created. All I got from this book was a drug-addled, isolated mind attempting to make sense of its own madness. Anyone who's had a bad trip on acid has been here before. I would recommend Crap Artist more, as there the idiot savant is actually trying to cope with the external world, whereas in Valis we get primarily the abstract madness in isolation. The only character who made sense to me was Kevin, and even he bought into the Valis cult at the end.
The fact that Dick actually believed this stuff was a little scary; it made me feel like I was reading L. Ron's Dianetics. If you are interesting in seeing just how weird Dick can get, or find religious rumination to be interesting, you'll probably get a lot more out of this book.