Valis – Book Review

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Review by: Eleni Papanou

Wow! That’s how I’ll start my review on this book. Philip Dick uses the vehicle of fiction to understand the meaning behind his spiritual experience. I have had a similar experience, and much of what is revealed in Valis runs parallel to what happened to me, which is why I personally resonated with the story.

What drew me in was Dick’s use of first and third person in the narration. The reason for the switch was so that the narrator could be more objective about his spiritual experience. However, this split in narration evolves into something greater, which I won’t mention here. Dick’s decision to use two points of view is eventually made very clear. I couldn’t see this story being told any other way.

Valis is filled with introspection, madness, and spiritual insight, all effectively seasoned with humor. Dick never takes himself too seriously and always makes it seem as if he’s open to every explanation that he muses over. My personal favorites in this book were the movie sequence, the banter between Phil and his friends about the meaning behind it and their subsequent meeting of Sophia, which I won’t go into here as I don’t want to give it away. During the reading of the book, I was noticing similarities between Dick and Robert Anton Wilson, and I was pleasantly surprised when Dick mentioned Wilson’s book, Cosmic Trigger!

Valis is not an easy book to read, and the plot is thin, but if you’re looking for something with philosophical and spiritual depth, you’ll enjoy it.

What makes this book visionary fiction? I only have to use some of Dick’s own words to demonstrate why:

“You carry in you now the voice and authority of Widsom; you are, therefore, Wisdom, even when you forget it.”

I’ve written a blog post about how Valis resonated with my own kundalini awakening. Click here if you’d like to read it.

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6 Responses to Valis – Book Review

  1. Vic Smith says:

    Thanks for the review, Eleni. I confess to never having read Philip Dick to date because he seemed too "far out" to show on my radar. Will now give him a try. Got through RA Wilson but found him a tough read.

    Nevertheless, your post gave me an opening to pass along a tidbit about VF in general (btw Dick is not categorized as VF and he ought to be–another one). Came across a title on Amazon the other day, Visionary Fictions: Apocalyptic Writing from Blake to the Modern Age [Paperback] by Brown Univ. Professor Edward J. Ahearn (2011). Again haven't read it yet (its pricey even in paperback), but its premise from the Amazon book description got me churning on the old question we've worked over in several discussions here: What is Visionary Fiction? Here is the full description, its relevance to Philip Dick and VF in general obvious IMO:

    "Visionary" writers, says Edward Ahearn in this original book, seek a personal way to explode the normal experience of the "real," using prophetic visions, fantastic tales, insane rantings, surrealistic dreams, and drug- or sex-induced dislocations in their work. Their fiction expresses rebellion against all the values of Western civilization—personal, sexual, familial, religious, moral, societal, and political. Yet even though they are anti-realistic, they do react to specific aspects of modern reality, such as the recurring promise and failure of social revolution. Ahearn, who finds this form at once exhilarating, immensely disturbing, vital, and subversive, explores the work of a wide variety of authors who have contributed to the genre from the late eighteenth century to the present day.

    Beginning with the appearance of visionary writing in the work of William Blake, Ahearn traces the development of the form in texts by widely scattered authors writing in French, German, and English. He includes Novalis, Lautréamont, Breton, William Burroughs, and contemporary feminists Monique Wittig and Jamaica Kincaid, among others. Quoting liberally from these authors, Ahearn summarizes the works and places them in context. General readers, as well as those who have studied these authors, will find this book an extraordinarily interesting tour of this little recognized and frequently misunderstood genre.

    Could get quite a bit more lively in the VF tent if we invite Ahearn's folks in. Will report back once I've read it.

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  2. Admin - Eleni says:

    Great find! I put the book on my wish list. As a visionary author, I can connect to a lot of what’s in the quote—aside of the drug induced part;) Many of my visions ended up in Unison. And I’m about as rebellious as you can get when it comes to the dogma of western civ!

    Writers like Wilson and Dick definitely fit into the VF category. I’ve been a big fan of Wilson for years. He had a brilliant mind and held nothing sacred. His writing never ceased to entertain me and it delighted me to see Dick was a fan as well. I highly recommend some of his interviews. You can youtube them. If you go to Barnes & Noble, Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy is listed under VF/metaphysical fiction. I see it as fitting the mold perfectly.

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    • Vic Smith says:

      I plan to get and read Ahearn's book sooner rather than later, although my reading list is long and time short. Am curious what an "academic" has to say about VF; I suspect the tradition, if not the name, is well longer than suspected.

      Am enjoying sharing your visions in UNISON. An irony: I am a long time member of Unity Church (Fillmore), which I joined and remained in for its position against dogmatism, which your city of Unity seems to embody.

      Even though a child of the '60s, I too missed the drug phase (fortunately too chicken to mess with my own mind) although I was fascinated by the trips of others (my first wife had been a member of Timothy Leary's League of Spiritual Discovery): what of what they experienced was a valid alternate reality? Might say I have been trying to reach some of those same places through meditation–so far good enough. Philip Dick might provide something of what I missed.

      I once had RA Wilson and Colin Wilson mixed together (btw I have and read Illuminatus Trilogy) and I think the latter also deserves a bow from VFers. I read The Outsiders at a critical point in my youth and it gave me permission to come out of the closet with pride as an outsider rather than clumsily continue to try to follow the crowd. Religion and the Rebel is another gem. And his many works on the occult and extraterrestrial phenomena are a bottomless treasure chest for VF writers who prefer to put good science rather than fantasy into their paranormal scenes.

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      • Admin - Eleni says:

        I never had it that easy as I always felt like an alien in this world. I still do; however, it doesn't bother me anymore. I celebrate the rebel in me. It's interesting, and I must thank you, that you brought up Colin Wilson as I recall being intrigued by The Mind Parasites. I've been trying to remember the name of the book, as well as who wrote it, for the longest time.

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  3. Vic Smith says:

    Interesting that The Mind Parasites was born out of a war of words between Colin Wilson and August Derleth over HP Lovecraft's quality as a writer. (I consider all three to be early English/American visionary fiction authors, although not exclusively.)

    Here's the story as told in the Wikipedia article on Colin Wilson:

    In The Strength to Dream (1961) Wilson attacked H. P. Lovecraft as "sick" and as "a bad writer" who had "rejected reality" — but he grudgingly praised Lovecraft's story "The Shadow Out of Time" as capable science-fiction. August Derleth, incensed by Wilson's treatment of Lovecraft in The Strength to Dream, then dared Wilson to write what became The Mind Parasites — to expound his philosophical ideas in the guise of fiction. In the preface to The Mind Parasites, Wilson concedes that Lovecraft, "[f]ar more than Hemingway or Faulkner, or even Kafka, is a symbol of the outsider-artist in the 20th century" and asks: "what would have happened if Lovecraft had possessed a private income – enough, say, to allow him to spend his winters in Italy and his summers in Greece or Switzerland?" answering that in his [Wilson's] opinion "[h]e would undoubtedly have produced less, but what he did produce would have been highly polished, without the pulp magazine cliches that disfigure so much of his work. And he would have given free rein to his love of curious and remote erudition, so that his work would have been, in some respect, closer to that of Anatole France or the contemporary Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges"

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  4. schillingklaus says:

    I consider the rigorous rejection of reality as paramount for decent speculative fiction, so Lovecraft did the right thing, as opposed to Wilson.

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