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Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

Radio_free_albemuthHere's a book that's been sitting on my To Be Read pile for more than two decades. Dick wrote Radio Free Albemuth in 1976, after his religious epiphany, but it wasn't published until 1985, three years after his death. According to what I've read about it, his publisher requested changes, but instead he set it aside and reworked the material into his next two novels, Valis and The Divine Invasion (neither of which I've read yet).

It's a fascinating book. Dick himself is a character in it, but instead of the one who starts getting messages from Valis (the Vast Active Living Intelligence System), it's another character, Dick's friend Nicholas Brady, who shares some biographical details with the real life Dick (for example working in a record shop in Berkeley). The novel is set in an alternate history where LBJ was succeeded not by Nixon but by a Nixonian figure named Ferris F. Fremont, who has established a repressive anticommunist dictatorship in America. Everybody lives in fear of the secret police, who are called FAP (Friends of the American People) and are continually trying to trap the characters into informing on each other. Brady starts receiving dream messages from a mysterious entity called Valis, and he tells Dick about them. They develop theories about what Valis might be -- perhaps people from the future, or an alternate reality, or an alien artificial intelligence. Whatever it is, Brady is convinced it is an aspect of God that's trying to reach out to humans after communication was destroyed by an evil deity.

The mixture of paranoid political dystopia, gnostic religion, and science fictional extrapolation gives the book a heady charge. There's also an interesting structural element in that the first half is from the Dick character's point of view, the second half is from Brady's point of view, and then there's a brief coda from Dick's point of view again. The structure implies that the characters are two sides of a coin, perhaps -- dual personalities in a symbiotic relationship. The tone is both downbeat and ecstatic. It's reminiscent of A Scanner Darkly in the way that the tightening noose of paranoia and repression seems to strangle all hope from the narrative before a tiny sign of possible salvation is discovered. Perhaps it resembles A Scanner Darkly too in the way that the two protagonists seem to be two sides of a split personality.

The politics of the novel are particularly fascinating seen from the far side of the Dubya years. It's a reminder of the American fascism that had bubbled to the surface under Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, but Dick didn't really live to see the Reagan revolution that consolidated the Bircher paranoia into a political coalition that didn't require dictatorship to impose itself on the American political system. In most ways, what really happened is a lot weirder than what Dick feared, but his insight into the true relationship between the USA and the USSR, the Stalinists and the anticommunists, makes poetic (or religious) sense of the Cold War in ways that political analysis can't. Dick couldn't know that the Cold War was about to become history, but his vision feels prophetic nonetheless.

On a religious level it feels a lot like Ubik in the way that the theories about what Brady is really experiencing in his visions of Valis keep shifting and changing like a live thing struggling to get free from your grip. Dick (the character) even makes a joke about it when Brady complains that he was saying something different just a minute ago. He says that ideas are like planes at LA Airport: there's a new one landing every five minutes. It's a fever dream of a novel that feels metafictional due to the appearance of the author as a character. Dick is swallowing his own tail, like the worm ouroboros.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 14th, 2014 05:54 pm (UTC)
you know there is a movie?
May. 14th, 2014 06:01 pm (UTC)
Yes, I heard about it a while back (maybe from Lucius Shepard), and David Hartwell recently posted on Facebook that he'd just seen it in New York. I'm hoping that means it's actually going to get a theatrical release. David liked it (said it was very faithful to the book), and I think Lucius did too.

Hm, just noticed that Alanis Morissette plays "Sylvia," which must be Sadassa Silvia, who is African-American in the book.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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