Book Review: VALIS by Philip K. Dick

VALIS (VALIS Trilogy, #1)VALIS by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Read for the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club.

I gotta tell ya, I’ve read enough PKD on the SF Masterworks imprint list by now (holy sh*t, FOURTEEN PKD books on this list and NOT ONE Lois McMaster Bujold?! Are you people out of your f*cking gourds?!) that I think I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. That is, I hold my nose and prepare to eat my peas. I don’t like peas; never have. But I feel I have an obligation to finish them anyway.

Why do I feel that way? I guess in part it’s because it’s on the list. If I read all the books on the list, I’m a bit of an authority on classic SF, I would say. So in part, it’s for that sense of completion.

But by now, it’s also because I want to make sure my cred is good when I start my active effort to dethrone old Phil. You see, I’ve come to a conclusion: I believe Phil was a fraud. Phil wrote one pretty great book (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and everything else he did was a rehash of either Alfred Bester or William S. Burroughs; often both at once. Sometimes I’ve enjoyed the rehash (see my review of Ubik) and sometimes I really have not (see my review of Now Wait for Last Year.)

Not only that, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that most of what he wrote is not really science fiction, and if it is, the science fiction is a thin veneer that gives him an excuse to navel-gaze endlessly on the nature of time, space, and reality, madness and drug addiction, his cynical view of humanity, his utter contempt for and hatred of women, and his existential horror of death.

And speaking of “out of one’s f*cking gourd,” this book proves just that. If Dick weren’t already accepted as a science fiction writer by the time he wrote it, this book would, at best, be on the shelf next to ERIC VON DANIKEN, Castaneda, Carlos, and Shirley McLain. At worst, it would be dismissed as the demented ravings of a complete lunatic.

I am somewhat of an authority on this. You see, I am a Wiccan and I used to own a metaphysical store. I have read an enormous number of autobiographical accounts of wacky mystical experiences (drug-induced or otherwise.) I have even had some wacky mystical experiences myself (drug-induced or otherwise.) Those experiences have had great personal meaning for me. But they’re not science fiction, and I’m sure you wouldn’t give a flying fig about them.

I am also somewhat familiar with psychotic breaks. My mother is bipolar with periodic psychotic breaks induced by her manic phases, and my husband is a schizophrenic. Much of this book sounds exactly like the stuff my mother scribbles for hours on end in her own journals when she’s in one of those phases.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t nuggets of wisdom in this book, or in the writings of people in psych wards. There really are, and many of these insights are consistent in the insights of mystics throughout the millennia of human history (time and space are illusions and depend greatly on your perception; reality was split into two halves ages ago – choose your preferred polarity – and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be and we’re supposed to break through the illusion to become whole; death exists because the world is controlled by an evil god, but there’s really a good god behind that if we break through the illusion/get off the wheel of incarnation/become enlightened/Ascend/achieve Nirvana/accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Saviour/become One with the Universal All).

I’ve had similar insights in the mystical experiences I’ve sought out (except that I have a different point of view about death and the nature of physical reality; I’m saving that for my next book on Wicca.) Dick does give us some good stuff, in between the crazy.

But there are many more books that can give you that much more clearly. Try the The Rig Veda, the Gnostic Gospels: Including the Gospel of Thomas – The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, The Book of the Law Rumi… or, even Carlos Castanada. Because Dick’s version is as dark and weird as a Rick and Morty cartoon, and as lucid as a bad art film.

Reading this book was like an acid trip. And not even a good acid trip, because it starts with a girl committing suicide. It’s a bad trip, the kind that makes people throw themselves out of windows because they think they can fly.

And blaming it on what might possibly be aliens from Sirius and an ancient satellite with an artificial intelligence called VALIS does not excuse it as science fiction. There was a theory going around in the 80s that Starchildren (who were all the mystically-enlightened people, of course) were descended from aliens from the Pleiades. Eric Von Danikan thought that all ancient civilizations, from Sumer to Egypt to the early Jews, saw aliens, and aliens interfered with our evolution. Lots of people have claimed to be channeling alien intelligences in the New Age Movement, and New Age people even now speak of receiving “downloads” of wisdom (ever since the Matrix.)

And no, you cannot point at PKD and claim he influenced the Matrix with this book. No, if this is science fiction, it’s The Demolished Man yet again. Just like most of Uncle Phil’s other books.

This belongs on the shelf of “weird channeled sh*t” that every metaphysical store has moldering in the back corner; the one where you find old books on the alien origins of humanity and how the Mayan calendar told us we were all going to cease to exist in 2012, and how the Bible’s “manna from heaven” was actually psilocybin mushrooms.

Still… as much as I want to completely hate it, it’s strangely compelling in places, like picking off a scab, or slowing down to watch a car wreck, or staring, horrified, at the crumbling towers of 9/11 again and again.

Don’t read this if you have any questions at all about your mental health, because it just might finish the job. Definitely don’t read it if you’re high.

I think it was brave of Dick to write this. I think he spent his whole life trying to understand this experience, and it’s cool that he was willing to let us look inside his head this way, from a time when he was clearly at his most vulnerable. If you have someone in your life who suffers from psychotic breaks, it may give you some understanding and empathy.

But it is NOT science fiction, so let’s stop pretending PKD is a science fiction writer, okay?

View all my reviews

2 thoughts on “Book Review: VALIS by Philip K. Dick

  1. I love the legend of PKD, and I love all the flickish spinoffs that his work has spawned, but as for the actual work itself… not so much. In fact, most, not all but most, of what I’ve read of his work I regard as vapid and comically amateurish.

    Great post. Truly enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

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