Philip K. Dick’s VALIS is one of my favourite books of all time—to the point where I have tattoos inspired by the book on both my forearms—but I don’t know that I’d recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already a big fan of Dick.
I was raised Christian. A lot of the time when people say that, what they mean is, “I endured church until I was old enough to talk my way out of it,” but I was devout right up until my final year of high school. At that point, I had more questions than my church had answers; in fact, I finally decided to leave after a sermon in which the pastor equated Jesus’s instruction to “have faith like a child” with not asking any questions… Sure, because children don’t have a million questions about absolutely everything. Anyway…
I had been a fan of Philip K. Dick for a few years by this time, but I hadn’t yet read VALIS. It’s a good thing I did, though, because if at that time I had discovered something like The God Delusion instead, I probably would have turned into an insufferably militant atheist type instead of … well, whatever I am now.
VALIS describes an experience Dick had in early 1974 which he described as a theophany—think epiphany, but where the new knowledge is being presented by a god. During the event, a pink beam of light struck Dick, providing him with an immense amount of information, giving him intense visual hallucinations, and an experience of xenoglossia (that is, his thoughts were in a language he did not actually know). Along with medical information regarding an undiagnosed birth defect in his son, the data downloaded into his head included details about the true nature of reality which could answer that age-old question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
See, in Dick’s cosmogony—that is, the story of the origin of the universe, which he detailed in eight thousand pages of notes he called his Exegesis, a version of which was published in 2011—the Creator God of Judaism, Christianity, et al, is not the sole god, but is rather a cosmic twin. This Creator was born prematurely and is thus blind and irrational, meaning the universe He created is also irrational. The other twin was born later, perfect and rational, but the universe had already been created with all its flaws. All this second twin could do was intersect with the universe at various points to try and push it towards rationality, and it did this by arriving at various points in history in human form: as Elijah, Jesus, Muhammed, and Siddhartha.
There is a lot more to Dick’s Exegesis than that (like I said, eight thousand pages), and there is a lot more to VALIS too (I haven’t even gotten to the satellite, the film within the book, Dick’s dead twin sister, or the dead friends that feature so prominently in the first half of the book), but that in particular is the part that spoke to me as a post-church, post-high school “adult” trying to make sense of the world.
And it does make a certain sort of sense: it could be said that the God of the Old Testament is an angry, vengeful, jealous, erratic god, while in the New Testament, Jesus is an anti-establishment hippie, preaching love and acceptance. Does this mean I actually believe there are two gods vying for control over our universe in the way Dick described? No, but honestly, it makes as much sense as the Christianity I was raised with.
But this completely bizarre, science fictional interpretation of Christian belief is only part of the picture—it’s only part of the reason why VALIS is tattooed on both my arms. For any fan of Dick’s work, VALIS is a fascinating insight into the man. In VALIS, Dick narrates the story himself—a tool which I associate with Vonnegut, rather than Dick’s other work—and he is also present in the narrative as not one, but two characters. See, in order to make sense of the experience of 1974, Dick splits himself into two personalities: there is Phil, the science fiction writer who tries to view the events through a rational lens, and there is his “friend,” Horselover Fat, the person who received the theophany and who has gone deep down the rabbit hole of trying to piece it all together, penning a massive Exegesis and delving into philosophical and theological texts for anything that resonates with his experience. At times, reading VALIS is almost heartbreaking, watching Dick use this splinter personality to try and decide whether or not he himself has lost his mind—stepping back to detail all the facets of his personality and life that might have influenced or caused the event, whilst simultaneously being unable to deny the (apparent) reality of his epiphany.
Dick approaches himself, the event, and his possible madness from a distance, with a great deal of humour, wit, and pathos. What is perhaps most stunning about the book (okay, second-most stunning after the events that Dick is said to have experienced) is how utterly readable it is—what could have easily been an exercise in self-indulgent navel-gazing is consistently fascinating, often funny, and touching.
A few different images related to VALIS and Dick adorn both my forearms—cosmic foetal twins in Yin Yang formation, the android head of Philip K. Dick, the VALIS satellite, and one of my favourite quotes from the book: “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who wouldn’t be able to see past their faith (or lack thereof) to appreciate the ideas Dick lays out in VALIS, and that’s fine. And I’m sure others might enjoy the book but still think the tattoos are a bit much, but VALIS will always be an important book to me. It came along at the right time and downloaded a massive slab of weird straight into my head, and showed me that there could be so much more to reality itself than I had ever thought possible.
Corey J. White is a writer of science fiction, horror, magical realism, and LIES. He really thinks the best space cat is Seven from his debut book, Killing Gravity, but obviously he’s biased. Find him on Twitter at @cjwhite.