Tuesday 28 July 2015

Prisoner of an A.I. God: What on Earth are we to make of Philip K. Dick's VALIS?

Philip Dick was arguably the most important Science Fiction writer of the 1960s. He came to prominence at the same time that SF's New Wave movement was gathering strength, when writers like Ballard, Moorcock, Ellison and Le Guin were rejecting SF's previous dependence on straightforward prose and scientific realism, and replacing it with something more fluid, political, experimental and self-consciously literary. Dick fitted in well with this - his imagined world couldn't be more different from the leading lights of the previous generation. For writers like Clarke and Asimov the universe ran according to clean and logical laws, and was explored by clean and competent people: even the greatest mysteries were just puzzles we hadn't yet had time to figure out. For Dick, the universe was an impenetrable mess, explored by characters barely equipped to figure out the most basic facts.

Reality in Dick's novels is rubbery, untrustworthy. In A Scanner Darkly, a drug-addled police officer fails to realise that he is running surveillance on himself, and that the drug dealers and rehabilitation services are a scam controlled by the same company. In The Man in the High Castle, a man manufactures fake American antiques to sell to Japanese businessmen, the reality-blurring nature of his work mirrored by the reality-blurring nature of the setting, an alternate-history which the characters seem to realise is an impossible lie. In Ubik, no one can work out if everyone is dead, and whether this matters; in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, no one can work out if there's a difference between a real or an artificial human, or whether this matters. Dick's novels are constantly searching for the difference between what is actually there and what is a hallucination, between an original and a copy, between truth and a manipulated image, and they are constantly concluding that it's impossible for anyone to discover what counts as reality.

Where is all of this coming from? Partly there's a woozy, cold-war sensibility to the books; a feeling that after the trauma of World War Two, and under the threat of the atomic bomb, cosy everyday American lives couldn't be anything other than a deeply creepy artificial construction. Partly there's an anxiety about religious experience, about how the mundane and the supernatural could possibly coexist and how anyone could value one against the other. Partly there was Dick's drug usage,  warping the very idea of objective perceptions. And eventually, there was the fact that Dick himself became unable to distinguish between reality and hallucination.

Which brings us to VALIS.

In 1974, Dick claimed that a bright pink beam of light was fired at him from an unknown source, and this allowed him to reach a new, supernatural level of consciousness. From then on, a disembodied voice began to speak to him regularly, and seemingly gave him the medical knowledge to save the life of his son. He decided that he had unconsciously learned how to speak an obscure dialect of ancient Greek, and experienced visions of Ancient Rome superimposed onto the streets of the California where he lived. He was quite aware that he may have gone mad, but he thought it was more likely that something very real was happening to him. The exact meaning of the experience was (in a quintessentially Dickian way) impossible to uncover, but this didn’t stop him theorising and re-theorising by writing a vast pseudo-philosophical text he called the Exegesis. He thought that perhaps he had been contacted by God, who may or may not have been an AI. Or perhaps a secret cult of Christians from the 1st Century were invading and rewriting reality. Or perhaps all of this was linked to three-eyed aliens from Sirius. And in 1981, he wrote a barely fictionalised novel about his experiences.

That novel was VALIS – ostensibly a work of Science Fiction, but also a vivid, disturbing account of its author’s mental breakdown. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve read in a long time: it’s got Dick’s usual pulpy verve, but it is also a moving and uncompromising look at mental illness. And as a result, reading it feels voyeuristic, uncomfortably like we’re staring at a man’s private pain while he can’t tell how much he is giving away.

The first half of the book is its most lucid and most autobiographical. The novel’s narrator introduces us to a man called Horselover Fat. Recently divorced and blaming himself for the suicide of a close friend, Fat stumbles between destructive relationships and psychiatric hospitals. He also experiences the same supernatural phenomena that happened to Dick: the pink light, the disembodied voice of an AI God, and the hallucinations of ancient Rome. Throughout this period Fat constructs and records a complex and constantly shifting cosmology, which can be simplified to the idea that a wise and godlike entity known as Zebra is recolonizing the universe, and that the universe is a corrupt and broken hologram currently in thrall to a force known as the Black Iron Prison.

Fat is surrounded by a small, close-knit social circle: there’s a couple of stock Christians and a stock atheist, all of whom are uncomfortable with Fat’s heterodoxy. Pretty much their entire function in the first half of the novel is to argue against Fat’s bizarre philosophies, and to act as an audience when Fat wants to extemporise. The most interesting of Fat's friends is the book’s narrator, who is quietly sceptical of Fat’s experiences, but doesn’t have the narrowly defined philosophies of his peers. The most interesting aspect of the narrator, though, is introduced on the novel’s third page: up until this point, Fat has been described entirely in the third person, but here the narrator announces that “I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much needed objectivity.”

On a literal level (and as the novel later makes very clear) Fat and the narrator are the same person: they are either the two parts of a schizophrenic split personality, or the effect of a formal literary device - the narrator can only comprehend and describe his reality if he literally separates himself from his supernatural experiences and mental illness. In classic Dickian style, it is impossible to tell if there is any real difference between the formal literary device and actual schizophrenia. But to claim that Fat and the Narrator can be read as consistently the same entity is to underestimate the text.

The narrator and Fat repeatedly merge and split apart: sometimes the narrator will disagree with Fat and take up a separate role to him in conversation; sometime the narrator will slip up and briefly describe Fat’s activities in the first person. The first half of VALIS is a realist psychological novel about a struggle with mental illness: when one realises how closely the story mirrors that of the author’s life, it is hard not to see this swooping between first and third person identities as an externalisation of Philip Dick’s own struggles. Dick is wryly mocking the absurdity of the beliefs he holds at the same time as passionately explaining and defending them. The reader is watching a breakdown in real time.

Then the second half of the novel begins, and its disturbing sense of voyeurism escalates.

Fat and his friends are persuaded to see a surreal science fiction film called VALIS starring a rock star called Mother Goose (according to interviews with Dick at the time, the film was inspired by The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Mother Goose was based on David Bowie). The friends all notice that the film is full of subliminal imagery referencing Fat's visions, and realise that Fat was right all along. Together, they contact and befriend Mother Goose, who helps them understand that the godlike force (known as both Zebra and VALIS) has been reincarnated as Mother Goose's two-year-old daughter, just as it was once reincarnated as Jesus and the Buddha. VALIS/Zebra has already used its reality-warping powers to unseat the antichrist Richard Nixon, and is preparing to create a new golden age. The two-year-old messiah heals the narrator/Fat's split personality, merging them back into one being, and tells Fat and his friends that there is no God but Mankind, and that it is their mission to go forth and spread this message across the world.

It's tricky to know where to begin with all this.

This isn't just a step from realist fiction to genre fiction, it's a leap into authorial wish fulfilment. Philip Dick's fictional mirror turns out to have been right all along, and is loved and respected by his friends for it. He meets Jesus, who heals him. He is pronounced a messenger of the new messiah, and will lead the world into a new golden age. He gets to be friends with David Bowie. There's no struggle any more, no sense of awareness that there might be something terribly wrong or unhealthy about his beliefs.

And all of this is most clearly seen in the change in the relationship between the narrator and Horselover Fat. There is no longer a fluid struggle between two fluctuating devices, and no longer a sense that the narrator might quietly realise that Fat's beliefs are absurd. Firstly, the narrator's friends refer to him as "Phil", and he announces that he has written Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: the stand in for the author has become literally the author. Secondly, Mother Goose points out that "Horselover Fat" is a direct translation of "Philip Dick" (Philip is from the Greek for "Horse lover"; Dick can be translated into german as fat). Finally, when Mother Goose's daughter heals the narrator's split personality, the narrator's friends announce that they had been trying to heal him for years. Ambiguity and fluidity are lost - the narrator and Fat have always been the same man, and can no longer struggle with each other to define the nature of the author's experiences.

Which would seem to conclude the matter: the book is initially about the author's struggles with how to understand reality, but eventually becomes a disturbing fantasy about the author as a triumphant saviour figure, unencumbered by reality. But the novel's ending further complicates matters.

Mother Goose's daughter is accidentally killed by her family, as they attempt to extract knowledge of VALIS from her using a laser. This causes the narrator's personality to split again: Horselover Fat goes off to travel the world seeking a new incarnation of the saviour, while the narrator stagnates in front of the television, convinced that VALIS/Zebra is filling the advert breaks with subliminal clues to its existence.

It's a conclusion that rests at the centre of Dick's fiction. As with so many of his works, clarity and triumph are fleeting and probably illusory. Reality remains liquid and untrustworthy, no matter how hard you stare at it. But in most of his fiction, untrustworthy reality is an interesting game, or a useful metaphor. Here it is reportage - the author announcing himself as lost and aimless, even when he has constructed a fantasy universe that allows him to be the saviour of mankind.

There are long sections of VALIS that are reminiscent of William Blake: an outsider attempting to build his own heterodox cosmology to order and explain his anger at the world and visionary perceptions. But while Blake's visionary writing is full of fire and faith and certainty, Dick's is built of doubt and confusion. No frame, however bold or empowering, is enough to contain the chaos he experiences, so each frame is nervously and repeatedly rewritten.

Would I recommend that you read VALIS? I'm not sure. If you're interested in Philip K Dick's ideas, Ubik is a smart introduction to them, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is a weird, dense masterpiece. Long stretches of VALIS consist of borderline nonsensical, mutually contradictory philosophical rants, and I've no idea how strange it would be to read without knowing the authorial history behind it. But there's an upsetting, ragged power to it, a sense that the reader has access to a mind desperately trying to work things out. It's unlikely that many people would believe it's Dick's best work but in it's own quiet way, it's pretty extraordinary.

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