Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is a phenomenon. Though he's been dead since 1982, his books keep selling, his cult keeps growing, Hollywood keeps making movies of his short stories and novels.
And I'm still trying to figure out why this is so.
True, Dick's novel THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (1964) is absolutely one of a kind and will turn your mind into a pretzel. A MAZE OF DEATH (1970) has a twisted grimness that is all its own.
PKD has a really good feel for the gritty down-to-earth realities of life. He's also good on those little moments that suddenly become overpoweringly Significant.
But the people he writes about are so average, so dull, that they can be boring to read a whole book about.
Even when Dick's writing about himself.
I've bogged down in half a dozen of his other novels, and there's a couple I've forgotten completely.
VALIS (1981) is one of those where I bogged down after a couple chapters and then forgot about it. I got through it this time in a few days, with no problem. It's definitely different and often interesting, but not exactly stunning. Except maybe in the amount of work PKD had to do to get it written.
It was Dick's attempt to explain the vision (or breakdown) he had in early 1974, when he thought he was contacted by God. Or at least by a Vast Active Living Intelligence System.
Over the next five years, Dick reportedly wrote some 5,000 pages trying to explain what happened to him, what it meant, what he thought it revealed. Among other things, this supposedly alien intelligence identified a life-threatening health problem with PKD's son.
More than 1,100 pages of these writings were published a few years back as PKD's EXEGESIS. It's an amazing pile of work. But awfully tough to get through.
VALIS tries to novelize some of PKD's experience. One problem is, he doesn't show what happened to him until he's 50 pages into the book. And even when he gets to it, he just barely describes it. He finds other, more human ways to lay out his story. But this central experience is underneath everything else. If you don't know about it before starting the book, the story's kind of a mess.
First PKD comes to a personal crisis: His wife leaves him and takes their young son, then two close women friends die even though he tried to help them. First PKD tries to commit suicide. Then the blinding pink light of VALIS touches him and starts pouring vast amounts of information into his brain.
The rest of the book is a search for God, or at least for what VALIS is or means.
PKD, his alter-ego, and a small group of friends eventually find A New Savior living in northern California. She turns out to be a stunningly intelligent, frightfully verbal 2-year-old girl.
The first thing she does is immediately cure PKD's schizophrenia. His alter-ego -- who has been the star of the book and whom PKD has had long conversations with alone and when surrounded by his friends -- immediately disappears.
Then the girl tells them in absolutely Biblical cadences some of what they want to know. She is by far the sharpest person in the book.
Naturally, this divine creature can not be permitted to live -- and she dies in a stupid off-stage accident.
The rest of the book is a search for another Savior. PKD's alter-ego reappears and starts traveling the world searching for the next Messiah -- first in Europe, then Russia, Asia, finally into the Pacific islands. The new Messiah who will heal the world is out there somewhere -- VALIS has told them so.
Twenty pages of PKD's EXEGESIS is tacked onto the end of the book, to lay out the basic thought structure beneath the novel's heavy religious theory.
Most of the people in the novel are nuts. They even discuss this. PKD himself can barely handle the stress of walking out of his own yard. He blacks out during plane flights. Too stressful.
The book will hold your attention, parts of it are kind of drily funny, and it's unlike any other novel you've ever read. It's as direct and basic as PKD could make a complex subject. It's better than staring at the TV for a few hours, I guess, but that doesn't mean it's going to be a pleasant experience. I'll be reading more by PKD, but I'm hoping for a little more entertainment along with his message.
Just make sure you don't pay too much for it.