Like most of Philip K. Dick’s novels, the main characters around which the story of Valis revolves are engaging, sympathetic, and mirrors of the social and psychological complexities faced by mankind. Unlike his other novels, however, the main characters in Valis are actually PKD himself. This results in the occasional switch from first and third person narrative, and several instances in which the author and the author surrogate interact with one another.
Valis (the name assigned by the main characters to their vision of God) is less of a novel than it is a fictionalized account of PKD’s own spiritual journey. Because of this, a good portion of the middle becomes bogged down with in depth descriptions of PKD’s theological views and theories. Anyone not well versed in Gnosticism and Metaphysical Theory will be tempted to skim several pages of text at a time, and might even debate whether finishing the book is worth the trouble. This will be especially true of readers who are only familiar with his early science fiction work and not prepared for a crash course in PKD’s exegesis. In some ways, Valis could be considered PKD’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, except the focus of this road trip isn’t the American Dream, but the True Nature of God.
Above all else, PKD is a master storyteller, and this is what saves Valis from being a stuffy and unintelligible pseudo-memoir about a spiritual journey. The uncertainty of the narrator’s true identity (both to the reader and the narrator), as well as the sympathetic nature of his plight and the conspiracy-drenched plot twists reminiscent of Robert Anton Wilson (whom PKD mentions in the book) will keep you interested enough to struggle through the denser passages. But you also find yourself riveted as you gain closer insight into the mind of one of the greatest science fiction authors of the last century.
Valis is a perfect snapshot of a time not so long ago, when there existed a movement of authors that eagerly blended the lines between science-fiction and spiritualism. It was a time when optimism regarding mankind’s future potential was almost intoxicating, and the experimental expansion of the mind and spirit were deemed as important as technological advancements. Looking back, it may seem a bit naive and fanciful, but it was also full of hope and wonder, two traits that seem to be lacking more and more with today’s sci-fi authors.
Reviewed by S. Michael Wilson