Science Fiction Studies

#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

Christopher Palmer

Postmodernism and the Birth of the Author in Philip K. Dick's Valis

In this article I shall discuss Philip K. Dick's Valis, relating this controversial novel to his mature works, both in terms of themes (the question of Dick's abandonment of politics for theology) and in terms of formal qualities. Scott Durham has proposed that we see the later novels as bringing about the death of the author; I shall, in the case of Valis, invert this argument.

1. Individualism and the End of Difference. Carl Freedman, Fredric Jameson, and Eric Rabkin have all written stimulatingly on how Dick's SF reflects, and reflects on, capitalist (or, for Rabkin, industrial) society, and especially on the psychic strains of the transition to post-industrialism. In what follows I shall take a different tack, not because I dissent from this approach (itself varied) but in the hope of keeping open the lines of affinity between Dick's mature SF and the late, "theological" novels.

In his 1973 article on Dick, Angus Taylor comments on the fascination of robots: since they are distinct life-forms, robots may have access to a different kind of knowledge, even of the divine. We wait for them to speak this. Taylor audaciously suggests that even Asimov's robots carry this fascination, and he is right. But in Dick we can find it not merely in the philosophical android in Counter-Clock World and the taxicab that dispenses marital advice in Now Wait for Last Year (Taylor's examples [36]), but also in the "leadies'' that dispassionately debate whether to kill Nicholas St James when he ventures to the surface in The Penultimate Truth (§12). Their curiously disciplined, taut discussion (culminating, however, not in decision but in their elimination at the hands of a third party, also a simulacrum) holds our attention because we can't help feeling that they may know something we don't. This has to do not with robots as human-made things— i.e., foci of a warning of the spreading danger of the mechanical in our civilization—but with the autonomy which they gain when they (appear to) gain "life.'' In this they join animals and androids, gods and freaks.

When the telepathic Martian jackal rejects Barney Mayerson as "unclean,'' unfit to be its prey, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (§13: 183-85), the rejection affects Mayerson with crushing moral force. The verdict even of a mangy scavenger has authority, when the mangy scavenger is an autonomous life form. Even Mr Tagomi, whom many readers would nominate as Dick's most humanly good character, gains additional charisma because his gnomic Fu Manchu English resembles the simplified dialect of aliens (and robots) in SF. He seems both a human and an alien. Being of us, he is bewildered and hurt; being alien, he has transformative power (he can make The Gondoliers into a source of wisdom, for instance [§6:96]).

Dick customarily establishes the humanity of his "ordinary guy'' main character by establishing his or her incompetence (for example, the opening scenes involving Joe Chip in Ubik and Angel Archer in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer), but is never fully satisfied with this. On the one hand, the competence and efficiency of (some) robots and the gnomic compressed wisdom of aliens stand for qualities humans need. On the other hand, even Dick's deities are fallible. This is obvious with the Glimmung, who at one point crashes through ten floors to the basement of the hotel in which his chosen group of intersystem misfits is meeting on Plowman's Planet (Galactic Plot Healer §8:90); but it is true also of Eldritch: the stigmata which signify his power (flesh become steel) are also mutilations, anticipations of the impairment hampering the deities of the late novels. If we tolerate the element of schlock in many of Dick's evil deities and many of his tyrants (Stanton Brose of The Penultimate Truth, ``the ancient sagging mass in the motor-driven chair'' [§13:100]; Hoppy Harrington's phocomelal handicaps in Dr Bloodmoney; Eldritch's stigmata; Willis Gram wallowing ludicrously in his bedsheets as he wields power in Frolix 8), it is because this is the mark of humanness as well as evil.

These suggestions imply that his presentations of the divine (in Palmer Eldritch or Galactic Pot-Healer) and his presentations of the android-mechanical (``Imposter'' or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) are open and investigatory. Aside from such early short stories in parable form as ``Human Is,'' we can't describe the android fictions as simply warning that humans are becoming mechanical, even if Dick himself described them in those terms in his speech on ``The Android and the Human.'' Androids threaten reduction of what makes life valuable, yet promise expansion or redefinition of it, and so do aliens and gods. Nor is this openness an obfuscation of his critique of modern civilization, or a symptom of some yearning for transcendence that is destined to blossom in the late novels. It's a sign of his acceptance of modern civilization as irreversible—just as is the absence of nature from his fiction (in spite of that jackal, and a few short stories set in dank, thick woods). But let us pursue the grimmer aspects both of androids and gods in Dick's SF.

If androids threaten humans by reducing them to mechanism, deities threaten humans by absorbing them into a unity, a state in which differentiation is cancelled—just as differentiation is cancelled by the mechanical, whose process is routine and whose products are replicas. In the last analysis it doesn't matter whether this divine unity is malign (the steel teeth, prosthetic arm, and dead metal eyes of Palmer Eldritch appearing on everyone) or benign (the cumbersome grace and message-in-a-bottle modesty of the Glimmung, into whose ``mentation'' Joe Fernright refuses to be absorbed at the end of Galactic Pot-Healer).1

Very often and powerfully in Dick's writing, entropic degradation is associated with becoming merged, becoming unified. This happens, for example, in the ``gubble'' passages at the center of Martian Time-Slip, where Manfred sees Arnie, Doreen, and Jack, whom the novel has worked to differentiate in a multitude of humanly important ways, as loathsome in the same way, under the sign of ugly sexuality (§10). As Darko Suvin has observed (171), gubble itself portmanteaus a string of words: rubble, rubbish, crumble, gobble. We can add gabble and garbage. The horrifying passage in Lies, Inc. which superimposes the TV set as a monstrous eye, the fake President Omar Jones who appears in it, and the cyclopean eye of the alien which thrusts itself into Rachmael's reality and which devours itself (eye becomes mouth) only to regrow before one's, well, eyes (§10:128-30)2 works to a similar effect. So it is with A Scanner Darkly: the reduction of social life to oneness (in which we would all have the same phone number and be subject to a single law prescribing the same punishment), the convergence of dopers and cops in their practices and institutional attitudes, the drug rehab facility become drug factory staffed by brain-dead drug addicts.

This recurrent depiction of a failure of differentiation, if it is ``ontological'' in the sense that the concerns expressed in it are taken beyond the point at which they can always be connected with specific social observation, is certainly not a departure from the political. In its grasp of post-industrialism, A Scanner Darkly is Dick's most politically astute novel, and is arguably his most unified—or perhaps we had better say, formally complete. The last 50 pages or so, completing the grim movement of Bob Arctor to Bob/Fred to Bruce, make a determination of the novel such as Dick seldom achieves elsewhere and perhaps seldom attempts. It is also a novel in which, as Durham has described it, the subject is split, perhaps to the point of its ``death.'' Bob Arctor becomes Bob/Fred, himself as police agent surveilling himself as drug addict, unable to summon to mind the two selves, then becomes Bruce, the brain-dead addict, comparable to an insect or a mechanism.

Many of Dick's values are strongly liberal and humanist. He values the little guy who dissents, resists, and persists, if necessary, alone; he values the single humble act, the individual saved (Frank Frink by Tagomi), the broken pot fixed, the embrace of two strangers in the dark and rain-spattered forecourt of a gas station (General Buckmaster and the black man in Flow, My Tears [§27:192-200]). And liberal values, and hopes, are subjected to intense torsion, or distortion, in Dick's novels. Jameson has traced this in Dr Bloodmoney, whose bizarre cast's weird actions he sees as Dick's response to a threatened ``leftist'' belief that good and evil in history can be attached to individuals. Dick values that which is unassimilated—unassimilated into the mechanical and collective, into an oppressive society, into a single godhead, into entropy; but the urgency of assertion and defense of that value leads him to break all traditional definitions of the human individual. Liberal humanism, passed through this sieve, emerges as intuition of the potential value in androids, gods, animals, robots: anywhere and wherever life asserts a distinctness, rather than threatening it. The issue must be fraught with danger: vindication of the human, if it is to be achieved, will only be effective if the human has been profoundly jeopardized. So Hamlet, the great play of character, throws character into thorough doubt: perhaps a person is no more than a series of disjunct actions, or a role, hardly to be differentiated from such ``non-persons'' as ghosts, the mad, and actors. Where the humanist finds character vindicated in the face of threats and doubts, the deconstructionist finds the materials for its dismantling freely at hand.

What I have called differentiation and variation can by the time of Valis be seen as a splitting: the death of the subject. It is not difficult to see Valis as pursuing the same danger-fraught dialectic of differentiation and unification, this time to the point where liberal humanism is not merely bent and then patched, but broken and then discarded. Does not difference figure as a perfect web of splits: in subjects, narrator, deity? Durham has seen this disintegration not as a defeat (which is my implication, so far) but as the consummation of a process begun in the previous novels. The narrating subject cannot be exempt from the fate of the subjects it has narrated. In seeing this, Dick is appreciating the fate of ``man'' in postmodern civilization. In my final section I shall offer an account of the fate of the narrating subject in Valis; before that, I want to suggest how hazardous and embattled is the novel's postmodern flow and proliferation of textuality.

2. The Healed Infant and the Slain God. A frequent concern of Dick's late fiction is the experience of helplessly watching the suffering of another.3 In Valis, Horselover Fat tries and fails to help Gloria, and then Sherri, two women bound for death in equally inexorable ways (suicide, cancer). In the interval between the two episodes, Fat tries to kill himself. This pattern is unsparingly analyzed: witness and victim are seen as locked in a relationship which can only develop toward sado-masochism. Further, Philip is watching helplessly over Fat as Fat endangers himself by these obsessions. In addition, since Philip and Fat are the same person, his friends watch helplessly over him, powerless to heal what had begun as narrative convenience (``I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity'' [§1:3]), and then blossomed into schizophrenia.

This complicated set of repetitions and mirror images revolves round a simple, pure ethical challenge: the challenge to pity. Can one move from feeling something for others to doing something for others? But if the situation has an archetypal quality (like that of the traveller and the Samaritan by the roadside—not a connection that usually springs to mind when reading postmodern fiction), it also has a certain intransigence as fiction. When someone is dying of cancer, there is not much scope for intrigue or maneuver. Consider, by contrast, a good action in The Man in the High Castle: the Japanese official Tagomi rescues the Jew, Frank Frink, from the Nazis (§14:228-30). Tagomi does not pity Frink when he refuses to sign the form that Reiss puts before him. He does not know him. He despises himself for descending to the Nazis' level in pistolling the assassins sent after Baynes; he also despises Reiss; he enjoys the scandalous violation of his own code involved in his abuse of Reiss. His act of virtue is not pure, but involved with a tangle of disreputable feelings. The shooting which depressed Tagomi rescued Baynes. Tagomi has saved two human beings, in ways that are antagonistic to him but similarly exhilarating to the reader, whose morals—since he or she reads for enjoyment (the enjoyment of reenacting a gunfight, or of being righteously rude to a figure of authority)—are loose but not necessarily mistaken. The Man in the High Castle exploits intrigue and coincidence (for instance, the coincidence that Tagomi comes to possess the jewel that Edfrank made, the sign of Frink's human value) to narrate an incident which cannot easily be schematized.

Paradoxically, the result is a way out of the ontological threat which hangs over the world of the novel, the threat that everything is fake or illusion. That there are certain real things (``wu''-invested) in a world of fakes and deceits is less important than there are certain good actions—in fact, a lot of good actions (by Tagomi, Baynes, Edfrank, the Kasouras, even Childan). In a fashion that is perhaps philosophically impure, the ethical has come to the assistance of the ontological, in a text that is free to exploit the tacky resources of the fictional. Matters are more grimly confined in the area of Valis which we are discussing: cancer is incurable; people who want to kill themselves, do kill themselves; the witness is left, helplessly regarding the sufferer, until he then becomes the sufferer, helplessly regarded by witnesses....

One might claim that what is challenging about the novel is that it combines play with illusions and confrontation with the irreducibly painful: it's a Berkeleyan dialogue populated by Johnsonian stone-kickers. But in fact it does not daringly play with textuality in a world of irreducible non-textuality. It retreats into textuality. At least, I shall now argue that Fat's dealings with the divine, which occupy so much of the novel, should be described as a retreat into textuality.

Consider a vital topic for Horselover Fat: whether the theophany he has experienced is corroborated by something or someone outside himself. The first spectacular corroboration of the entrance of the divine into Fat's world is its diagnosis of the hernia afflicting his infant son. We can say that his son is miraculously cured. This (let us accept) proves that other forces are at work than those acknowledged by the prevailing view of reality. One may be cured by the intervention of a being from outside our prevailing reality. Yet one may also be cured by the action of a competent doctor from inside our prevailing reality—the text recognizes this fact. If ``healing powers are the absolute certain sign of the presence of the divine, then St Joseph Hospital is the best church in town,'' as Kevin retorts to David (§13:196). Yet the text also disregards this fact, reasoning as if the miraculous cure proved that ``normal'' cures (admittedly, these are rare occurrences in the grim circumstances of the novel) were unreal, or less real.

The solution to this contradiction is a shift into textuality, unthreatened by comparison to events in prevailing reality (``the Great Iron Prison''). Fat speaks in koine Greek when he is entirely ignorant of the language; this is as much a transgression of prevailing rules as is the curing of Christopher, but its human usefulness is slight. Fat and his wife receive two letters from Russia, or concerned with Russia, letters whose contents are so frightening that they cannot be divulged to the reader. Fat and his friend see ``Valis.'' Fat's text (the Exegesis, his cosmological speculation) is confirmed by Eric Lampton's text (the SF film ``Valis''). Text speaks to text, both saying, for instance, that we humans have been educated since archaic times by members of an extra-terrestrial race related to Ikhnaton, possessors of a third eye (right in the middle of their foreheads). Finally, in Sonoma, members of the Rhipidon Society (as Kevin, David, Fat, and Philip have named themselves) speak to members of the Friends of God (as Eric, Linda, and Mini call themselves). They exchange a panoply of citations and references to a range of esoteric, not to say nutty, paraknowledge. Both parties ``shoot for the Baroque,'' to borrow the novel's own phrase (§2:13).

But energizing this, as it often seems, Talmudic fascination with the conferring of precise names on nebulous concepts (``Form I of Parmenides,'' ``homoplasmate'') is a postmodernist restlessness. Fat plunges into the flow of theories, terms, citations, accepting, forgetting (never refuting), collaging, stitching. It's not so much a matter of never stepping into the same river twice as of never stepping out of the different river once. An example: in chapter 7 we discover not only that one person has become two in Fat and Philip, but also that Fat himself is re-split (98). Fat and an early Christian named Thomas simultaneously inhabit his self. As the speculation is pursued, attention shifts to Christ (``We are talking about Christ....We are talking about interspecies symbiosis''), and it is determined that Christ and Elijah are the one person (101). Attention quickly shifts to Philip.4 Recounting a dream, he realizes that he (like Thomas/Fat, like Christ/Elijah) is split, simultaneously living as himself and his lost father.

As we read, we lose the propositions in the process. The information that Fat is really Fat/Thomas is given no chance to stagger us because it is replaced by (rather than developing into) the speculations about Christ and about Philip. Corroboration becomes corroboree.

This impulse to exceed what has previously been thought, and so to replace it while seeming to confirm it, operates in several of the ``corroboration scenes.'' When Fat meets the therapist Dr Stone and discovers that he shares many of Fat's thoughts, they exchange information about early Christianity (§4:50-54). Fat introduces Nag Hammadi texts (``Chenoboskion''). This is a new item for us, though familiar to Stone, and is now offered as crucial. Something similar happens when the Rhipidon Society meets the Friends of God: this time the Fibonacci Constant is the startlingly important possession which the two parties share, but which readers have not previously heard of. Nothing is fixed or centered: that is the point conveyed by the exasperated misapprehension of Maurice (another therapist) that Fat has not read Genesis.5 In fact he has read Genesis all too often. If you feel free to discard Genesis's account of creation, why keep to Christianity at all (as Fat persists in doing)? Fat's version of Christianity is so decentered that Maurice falls into the mistaken belief that he is ignorant of it.

This rhapsodic postmodernist restlessness is about to meet its end, even its nemesis. It was always vulnerable. The adventurous syncretism, ranging through Plato, Parmenides, Ikhnaton, Bruno, Paracelsus, the Rosicrucians, Horselover Fat, Eric Lampton, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is an erasure of differences. Each of these colorfully different texts, torn out of historical context, bathed in the warm solvents of esotericism, says the same thing, though, admittedly, what that same thing is changes from speculation to speculation. And this blurring of differentiation should be connected to an underlying literalism of interpretation: the Early Christians, for instance, are found to have had some material way of attaining immortality. This material (from Jim Pike out of John M. Allegro) is what they literally consumed in the Eucharist. But, paradoxically, this material, literal truth exists only in the texts that are cited and interwoven in the novel. Dick's attempts to give humble objects ``thingness,'' phenomenological substance, are not as successful here as they were in the earlier novels: the scene (§12:193) in which Philip secretly confers the sacraments on his son, using hot chocolate and a hot-dog bun, is (in my opinion) unconvincing.

It is significant that Fat is depressed by ``Valis,'' which might have been expected to elate him (§9:139). If his theories are corroborated, he is faced with the grim prospect of conclusion. It is possible that the God whose presence is being confirmed is dangerous:

When you know this you have penetrated into the innermost core of religion. And the worst part is that the god can thrust himself outward and into the congregation until he becomes them. You worship a god and he pays you back by taking you over. (§11:165-66)

This god who absorbs humans into himself, obliterating difference, is in earlier fictions the Glimmung, Palmer Eldritch, the nameless devouring deity of ``Rautavaara's Case''; here it is identified with Dionysos as an insane god and a god of intoxication, poison.

Further, if the Friends of God are evil, then the corroboration is a trap; the members of the Rhipidon Society may see in this mirror not the truth, but insanity. The original mistaken assumption that our prevailing reality is not just different from that confirmed by Fat's experiences, but deceptive and evil, is now flipped on its head. The dismaying quality of the Friends suggests that it is the alternative reality that is not merely different, but evil and deceptive. It is true that Sophia, the divine infant whom Fat and his friends next meet, is carefully distinguished from Lampton and his friends; but since one of them then kills her (because contact with the god had incurably sickened him), Sophia's goodness is qualified consolation. The process which began with the healing of one child ends with the death of another. Whether Sophia is a god or a machine (§12:178-79) is less important than that, whatever she does, she dies. A being can only be a candidate for godhead in Valis if he or she can be hurt, even killed. The sado-masochism that vitiated humans' will to help or be helped in the rest of the story reappears at the level of the superhuman.

The split between Fat and Philip had been healed by their experiences in Sonoma, in particular by the word of Sophia. After her death, Fat and Philip split again, and Fat wanders the world in search of another avatar. His friends hear news:

`At least he isn't dead,' David said.

Kevin said, `It depends on how you define ``dead.'''

Meanwhile I had been doing fine; my books sold well, now—I had more money to put away than I knew what to do with. In fact we were all doing well. David ran a tobacco shop at the city shopping mall, one of the most elegant malls in Orange County; Kevin's new girlfriend treated him and us gently and with tact, putting up with our gallows sense of humor, especially Kevin's. (§14:206)

The intense poignancy of this passage comes from the fact that the pressure of Fat/Philip's insanity, or idealism, is relaxed. People are living different lives, ordinariness (``one of the most elegant malls in Orange County'') is valued because it is not seen in relation to the sacred, as in the failed passage depicting baptism by hot chocolate.

3. Birth of the Author, Death of the Reader. In the edition of SFS devoted to Philip K. Dick in 1988, John Huntington (in his general discussion) and Scott Durham and Emmanuel Jouanne (in their remarks on the late novels) each highlight formal aspects and problems. Of these writers, the most relevant to my discussion is Durham, because his argument puts the postmodernism of Valis in a different light from that in which I have so far set it. For Durham the late novels express Dick's recognition of the formal implications of the death of the subject he has ``staged'' in his SF: the text, which demonstrates the disintegration of its subjects, can no longer emanate from an authorial subject; recognizing the logic of this, Dick's late novels abolish the author as subject, and SF as a genre is left behind in a shift into ``a liberation-theology'' (186).

A topic such as the death of the subject is best approached relationally, as Durham has seen; in this discursive universe, subject, author, God, and reader circle each other in antagonistic interdependence. ``The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author,'' wrote Barthes, who initiated this topic with an ebullience that has not always been retained. In what follows, I want to modify Durham's account of Valis by looking at the peculiar relation set up between reader and author.

Dick is characteristically a writer who challenges the reader's capacity for belief as well as arousing his or her sympathies. Put under pressure, the reader of The Simulacra (for instance) might ask, ``How can I believe that people in the novel could believe that they were ruled for 70 years by the same unaging young woman, hosting unexciting TV shows?''—and then proceed to ask, ``How could P.K. Dick believe this? Did he give credence to it as part of his fiction, or did he toss it forth, in a kind of irritation with the absurdity of politics and the boundlessness of human credulity?'' In the latter case Dick implicates himself, his readers, and his subjects (that is, the powerless characters in the novel) in varieties of the same shameful credulity. This example is not kind to Dick's achievement, but it does point to something important: readers and characters undergo a similar severe test of their powers of belief in the course of the novel, and readers may note that the author is (to exaggerate only a little) himself embroiled, risking disorientation, if not humiliation. Neither reader nor author is set at aesthetic distance of the sort Suvin and Durham refer to (Durham 179).

If we define the topic as the relation between the reader's, the character's, and the author's willingness to believe, then the matter is very different in Valis. In Valis the text does not offer the reader the incredible as already labelled incredible—zany or horrifying, extreme or bizarre. The incredible is offered as ordinary, as reportage. Is not this the frisson worked by this novel? Anyone reading a novel such as Ubik has to accept that the novel offers something visionary and phantasmagoric. Whether one then emphasizes the novel's treatment of the deliquescence of commodity in late capitalism, or, with George Slusser, one then emphasizes its rendition of ``historicity'' in relation to an open, Emersonian event horizon, one has to pay attention to that explicit inventiveness which constitutes the shimmering portal (proportioned no doubt to Fibonacci's Constant) through which any reader gains entrance to that novel and others like it. Valis is different.

In Valis, the von Dänikenesque notion of intelligent aliens educating stumbling Terrans is inserted into a quotidian Orange County setting. The narrative is concerned with the discovery and understanding of the phenomenon—the acknowledging of it, we might say. But here what is shocking for the reader is the author's admission that he believes in Valis, or rather, Philip K. Dick's admission that he believes in it. This is a literary effect, not dependent on the knowledge that many of the incidents to be found in Valis and Radio Free Albemuth are recounted and analyzed as events in Dick's life in his Exegesis and in many interviews. It is also an effect that denies textuality, because it reduces the fiction to a screen through which we look at Dick's belief in the existence of Valis.

The story (the series of illuminations or visitations, and the series of ruminations on them in which the group of friends engage) gets itself told, while the ``truth'' of Valis is left in quotation marks, and responsibility for it is placed on the shoulders of the suffering, split-off Horselover Fat. Fat, for his part, plunges into the hectic flow of speculation which was characterized above as a retreat into textuality, and which comes to its grim upshot in Sonoma. But the possibility that is allowed to grow, to vary, and to permute while this suspension and postponement is in place, is best defined neither as the possibility that Fat is right nor as the fact that Philip and Fat are one person, but rather as the possibility that Philip K. Dick believes in Valis.

By this somewhat shocking or embarrassing tactic, the novel defeats our attempt to defend ourselves by saying that it is only a novel. In our world, the boundaries between art and life, fiction and information, have been erased in ironic fulfillment of the ambition of the avant garde, so that (for instance) it is possible to treat the News as fiction or entertainment. Dick circumvents the process by reversing it. This novel denies its fictionality, but without allowing us to recapture it for fiction by labelling the denial as a sign of its realism. The focus is not on reportage and/or ordinariness, as in traditional realist fiction, but on the way the author offers his belief to validate the extraordinary (Valis) that is set amid the Orange County quotidian. Jouanne proposes that in the late novels Dick does not merely write about simulacra but makes a simulacrum—a fake (the whole fiction) presented as reality (228). But it's the manner in which the novel is presented as a not-fake that is disconcerting. To do what Jouanne describes is indeed to follow the modernist road: in response to the ever-increasing, insidious, and tentacular capture of art by commodity, one makes a progessively more spikily artful and sophisticatedly fake-ish work of art. Dick is doing the reverse: it is the literalism that breaks through the reader's weariness with contemporary hyperreality and with art's attempts to exceed it.

Yet the excitement of realizing that this is not a (mere, dismissible, ``creative'') novel, and hence (no matter how ingenious the author is and how thoroughly he or she shreds the Subject) difficult to distinguish from the TV News, is chastened by the realization of what this means to Philip K. Dick. And, indeed, what it means about meaning. Maurice the therapist intuited that ``Fat had no concept of enjoyment; he understood only meaning'' (§6:72); the irony of Valis is that Fat's quest for meaning, into which Philip and Fat/Philip's friends are swept, finds only sameness (one meaning in all the eclectic variety). Valis offers itself as something of vast temporal and metaphysical dimensions; in the end, it is a local event that the author believes in, validated in a striking way by that return of Authority. Valis happened, or it did happen to Fat and his friends in Orange County; the primary experience which the novel allows the reader is that of reading about this phenomenon and (if my argument holds) coming to terms with Dick's belief in it.

To put the matter more simply, the reader may close Valis thinking, ``What do I do next?'' This response is appropriate and natural, rather than naïve and inappropriate, as it would be with most texts whose dealings with textuality were comparably complex. It is a response that marks how thoroughly the novel expresses a moment of collision: collision between ethical seriousness and a postmodernist sense of the textuality of meaning.

I have argued that in Valis Philip K. Dick presses his sense of the threat to differentiation to extreme lengths: outwardly different people echo each other's experiences—or delusions; diverse texts and speculations are found to mean the same thing; human beings and aliens are found to suffer from similar disabilities. This takes the threat to differentiation frighteningly further than it is taken in earlier novels where, for instance, a deity (perhaps ambiguous, but nonetheless able to be defined) threatens to absorb a person (able to be seen as an individual, albeit an individual whose sense of identity is shaky). We can say that in Valis Philip K. Dick reproduces the threat to differentiation at the level of the text. In doing this, he follows the logic of postmodernism.

The result is not, however, an elegant vindication of the logic of postmodernism. It's the record of a painful blockage. The ethical problems which the novel straightforwardly poses, such as how one helps those who need but refuse help, are not solved. The therapist Maurice is given to saying ``And I mean this'' as a way of underlining his instructions. His phrase is a reminder that meaning has an ethical dimension, and Valis clearly has an ethical dimension, if it exists at all. The achievement of Valis is to suggest how painful it can be when pursuit of the ethical collides with the proliferating textuality of meaning. The novel suggests that if the postmodern condition poses a difficulty for its subjects (readers, characters, authors, and deities alike), then this is that difficulty.


1. In Valis, God, or beings with preternatural powers from another time or space, can save, heal, or help, but can also control and absorb (§9:134, §11:166); the child Sophia is seen both as deity and as android (a computer terminal, an AI system, §12:178-79).

2. See the image of a decayed eye through which an insect forces its way in the gubble passage (Martian Time Slip §10:150), or the notion of the scanner or camera as an eye, or an ``I,'' in A Scanner Darkly (§14:230, §15:244).

3. For example: various episodes in Scanner, such as the conversation between Donna and Mike (§14:233-37); Herb and Rybys in The Divine Invasion and in ``Chains of Air, Web of Aether'' (the Herb character is called Leo); Angel Archer and almost everyone in The Transmigration.

4. This is just after the passage Huntington discusses as a specimen of Dick's habit of self-contradiction (156). The Valis passage is §7:101.

5. ```You've never read the Bible,' Maurice said with incredulity. `You know what I want you to do? And I mean this. I want you to go home and study the Bible. I want you to read Genesis over twice; you hear me? Two times. Carefully. And I want you to write an outline of the main ideas and events in it, in descending order of importance. And when you show up next week I want to see that list.' He obviously was genuinely angry'' (§6.77).


Dick, Philip K. ``The Android & the Human.'' Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd. Ed. Bruce Gillespie. Melbourne, 1975.

—————. Clans of the Alphane Moon. NY: Ace, 1964.

—————. Counter-Clock World. NY: Berkley, 1967 (later printing, N2568, n.d.).

—————. The Divine Invasion. NY: Timescape, 1981.

—————. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Bladerunner). 1968. London:Grafton, 1972.

—————. Dr Bloodmoney Or How We Got Along after the Bomb. 1965. London: Arrow, 1977.

—————. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. 1974. NY: DAW, 1974.

—————. Galactic Pot Healer. 1969. London: Panther, 1987.

—————. I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon. 1985. London: Grafton, 1988 (for ``Chains of Air, Web of Aether'' and ``Rautavaara's Case'').

—————. Lies, Inc. 1984. London: Panther, 1985 (the passage cited does not appear in The Unteleported Man, 1966).

—————. The Man in the High Castle. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

—————. Martian Time-Slip. 1964. London: NEL, 1977.

—————. Now Wait for Last Year. 1966. NY; MacFadden, 1968.

—————. Our Friends from Frolix 8. 1970. London: Panther, 1976.

—————. The Penultimate Truth. 1964. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

—————. Radio Free Albemuth. 1985. London: Grafton, 1987.

—————. Second Variety. Los Angeles: Underwood/Miller, 1987 (for ``Imposter'' and ``Human Is'').

—————. A Scanner Darkly. 1977. London: Panther, 1978.

—————. The Simulacra. NY: Ace, 1964.

—————. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. 1965. NY: MacFadden, 1966.

—————. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. 1982. London: Grafton, 1983.

—————. Ubik. 1969. London: Rapp & Whiting, 1970.

—————. Valis. NY: Bantam, 1980.


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