V A L I S
by Philip K. Dick
Reviewed by Frank Thomas Smith
“VALIS (acronym of Vast Active Living Intelligence System from an American film:) A perturbation in the reality field in which a spontaneous self-monitoring negentropic vortex is formed, tending progressively to subsume and incorporate its environment into arrangements of information. Characterized by by quasi-consciousness, purpose, intelligence, growth and an armillary coherence.
Great Soviet Dictionary
Sixth Edition, 1992”
After that discouraging definition, I advise the reader to ignore it and enjoy the book. If, however, you are expecting the usual Philip K. Dick science-fiction novel, you will be surprised and either disappointed or excited by VALIS – for it is not your usual sci-fi novel. I, in what might be called an untoward gush of enthusiasm, call it one of the most important American books of the twentieth century and certainly the most original one.
The main character is called Horselover Fat. What a crazy name! Even Fat at times is convinced that he is crazy and we are inclined to agree with him, at least until we learn the secret of the name near the end of the book. Dick keeps you wondering, but since the book was first published in 1981 and this review is uninterested in suspense, I will reveal the secret prematurely: In Greek Philip means lover of horses; in German Dick means Fat. Therefore Horselover Fat is none other than Philip K. Dick. So Dick is the narrator and he is also one of the characters, as is Fat. Not surprisingly, it is sometimes not easy to keep track of who is who when the narrator (Dick) describes the doings of Fat (also Dick) as though he were a different person.
Sounds strange, but Philip/Horselover is quite serious. In fact, he claimed that the VALIS trilogy [*] was inspired by a mystical experience he had in March 1974, which he described as “an invasion of my mind by a transcendentally rational mind.”
VALIS is essentially an investigation of Gnostic Christianity in science-fiction disguise. Horselover Fat has had visions in which he has experienced God, but he is not sure whether the experience was the result of his own sick mind, if it was information fired into his mind by extraterrestrial beings, or, almost as a last resort, really God. Whichever it was, Fat is determined to find Him again, whoever and wherever He might or might not be.
Three friends join him in his quest. David is a Catholic and, although dutifully shocked at Fat´s lack of orthodoxy, remains loyal; Kevin is, at first, a skeptic; and, of course, Philip himself. One possibility, they think, is that some kind of space gadget is orbiting the earth and assisting them in their quest. Eventually they are led to a married couple of rock/pop musicians, who turn out to be nuts, although they are caring for a two-year-old child who is Sophia, the spirit of wisdom, or the Messiah, or Yahweh, or all three – a trinity, as it were.
Drawing directly from Platonism and Gnosticism, Dick writes in his “Exegesis”: "We appear to be memory coils (DNA carriers capable of experience) in a computer-like thinking system which, although we have correctly recorded and stored thousands of years of experiential information, and each of us possesses somewhat different deposits from all the other life forms, there is a malfunction—a failure—of memory retrieval"
Who is guilty of this failure? We, God (who could be insane) or Satan?
Or, foreseeing Star Wars, the Empire?
Once, when Fat is interned in a mental institution, he pins instructions on the bulletin board:
Ex Deo nascimur, in Jesu morimur, per spiritum sanctum reviviscimus.
Another inmate asks him what it means. “From God we are born,” Fat translates, “in Jesus we die, by the Holy Spirit we live again.”
After internment, Fat must undergo therapy because he may still be suicidal. His therapist is Maurice, six-foot-four with muscles who fought against Syria in the Israeli paratroopers. His method is to bully Fat into wanting to save himself instead of everyone else. At one point Marice suddenly asks Fat sternly, “Do you believe in God”
At first Fat is cautious, aware that too much Godtalk could put him right back in the loony bin. “In a sense,” he says. But he can't leave it there. “I have my own concept of God, based on my own … thoughts.”
“Is this a sensitive subject with you?” Maurice says.
“No,” Fat says.
“Do you believe man is created in God's image?” Maurice says.
“Yes,” Fat says.
Maurice, raising his voice, shouts, “Then isn't it an offense against God to ice yourself? Did you ever think of that?”
“I thought of that,” Fat says. “I thought of that a lot.”
“Well? And what did you decide? Let me tell you what it says in Genesis, in case you've forgotten. Then God said, Let us make man in our image and likeness to rule the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all--”
“Okay,” Fat breaks in, “but that's the creator deity, not the true God.”
“What?” Maurice says.
Fat says, “That's Yaldaboath. Sometimes called Samael, the blind God. He's deranged.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Maurice said.
“Yaldaboath is a monster spawned by Sophia who fell from the Pleroma...”
This hilariously serious conversation continues for several pages and finally ends with: “The universe is what you make it,” Maurice says. “It's your responsibility to do something life-promoting with it, not life-destructive.”
“That's the existential position,” Fat says. “Based on the concept that We are what we do, rather than, We are what we think. It finds its first expression in Goethe's Faust, Part One, where Faust says, 'Nein, Im Anfang war die Tat.' 'In the beginning was the deed.' From this, all existentialism comes.”
Maurice stares at him as if he were a bug.
Finally, after finding Sophia, who confirms Fat's visions were real, Philip Dick realizes that he and Horselover Fat are one and the same, so he is cured. But Sophia dies in a laser accident, so Fat/Dick must find her again in a future incarnation. If you survive VALIS and are still sane, you will be interested in the rest of the trilogy:
[*] Book Two: The Divine Invasion, Book Three: The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.
Philip K. Dick as born in Chicago in 1929 and lived most of his life in California. He began writing professionally in 1952 and went on to write 36 novels and five short story collections. Several of his stories have been made into successful movies. He was one of America's foremost science-fiction writers. He died in March 1982.