In VALIS We Trust
In Phillip K. Dick’s final novel, Radio Free Albemuth, the protagonist of the story begins to experience a series of visions which he describes as “phosphene graphics.” Through these visions the character is guided in his role as an unwitting pawn in a scheme, coordinated by a benevolent power of extraterestrial origin, to overthrow the fascist government of the United States. As the story unfolds, Dick explores the mental process of a skeptical man who struggles to understand the origin of his visions and the ultimate meaning of them.
It’s a fascinating read, but the most extraordinary aspect is that the story is based in fact. In February 1974, Phillip K. Dick began to undergo a series of experiences similar to those described in Radio Free Albemuth. In one vision he learned that his infant son suffered from a potentially deadly birth defect. To the amazement of his skeptical doctor, tests confirmed the malady. Other visions allowed him to sort out his chaotic finances and eventually led to one of his works being made into a film (Blade Runner).
Of course, it’s easy for the skeptic to dismiss these events as coincidence or the product of an obviously fertile imagination, but Dick was the greatest skeptic of all. Dick’s ponderings on this puzzle appear in various works written during this period (most notably the classic Valis trilogy), as well as in a massive set of journals which he maintained, now known to PKD fans as the Exegesis. In these notebooks, Dick undertakes a systematic dissection of the obvious explanations for the phenomenon, documents his various investigations into his own mental state (schizophrenia was an obvious concern), discusses his extensive research into early Christianity and gnosticism and eventually formulates and ponders upon the implications of the concept that he feels has been revealed to him — Valis.
Dick describes the universe as a vast sea of information, and humans as imperfect or incomplete processors of that information, analogous to a TV: while there are 120 channels available, we can only watch one at a time. Dick coins the term Valis (an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligent System) for an entity which represents not only the information, but the way in which the information is encoded, and the ultimate end to which it is directed. In 1972 he wrote, “Valis is the goal of history.” He speculates that in 1974 something peculiar happened to him which caused him to periodically change channels or to somehow decode reality in a different, and to his mind, better way. This notion has staggering implications with regard not only to the nature of our perception but to the very nature of reality itself. Viewed through this filter how are we to regard dreams, shamanism, religious prophecy, indeed even mental illness?
Like all great ideas, Phillip K. Dick’s concept of Valis is not so notable for the answers that it offers but for the questions that it raises. PKD’s Valis concept may not be a profound truth but it smells like it’s been in the same room with one. The best thing about Dick’s revelations is that they’re wrapped up in some of the most entertaining sci-fi stories ever written. I find that notion profoundly ironic.