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It began with a blinding light, a divine revelation from a mysterious intelligence that called itself Valis. Nothing seems quite right and God plays both the missing person and the perpetrator of the ultimate crime.

271 pages, Paperback

First published February 1, 1981

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About the author

Philip K. Dick

1,660 books19.6k followers
Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928 and lived most of his life in California. In 1952, he began writing professionally and proceeded to write numerous novels and short-story collections. He won the Hugo Award for the best novel in 1962 for The Man in the High Castle and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of the year in 1974 for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Philip K. Dick died on March 2, 1982, in Santa Ana, California, of heart failure following a stroke.

In addition to 44 published novels, Dick wrote approximately 121 short stories, most of which appeared in science fiction magazines during his lifetime. Although Dick spent most of his career as a writer in near-poverty, ten of his stories have been adapted into popular films since his death, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, and The Adjustment Bureau. In 2005, Time magazine named Ubik one of the one hundred greatest English-language novels published since 1923. In 2007, Dick became the first science fiction writer to be included in The Library of America series.

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Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,380 reviews12k followers
March 1, 2023

“A question we had to learn to deal with during the dope decade was, How do you break the news to someone that his brains are fried?” So says the first-person narrator in VALIS, Philip K. Dick’s autobiographical novel of spiritual odyssey, a novel where the narrator begins by laying out the major issues he must deal with as he attempts to gain a measure of sanity along with a sense of purpose and the meaning of life: drugs, a desire to help others, the pull of insanity, suicide and death, time and place (Northern California in the 60s), split-identity (the narrator alternately identifies and disidentifies with one Horselover Fat), God and occlusion (he receives otherworldly messages via a beam of pink light prompting him to explore ancient Gnosticism) – all in all a 60s California-style version of the novels of Hermann Hesse, novels like Siddhartha, Damion and Steppenwolf. What a wild ride. For example, here is a list of what I see as the top ten conundrums we are asked to ponder:

One - Theophany
The narrator explains how a theophany is self-disclosure by the divine, in other words, a theophany isn’t something we do; rather, a theophany is something the divine – the God or gods, the higher powers – does to us. The intense pink beam of light experienced by the narrator’s persona Horselover Fat was just such a theophany. But, then, the question invariably arises: how are we to know if we received a true theophany or are suffering from an illusion?

Two - When your theophany goes against the grain of the conventional
One of the most fascinating and hilarious parts of the novel is the narrator’s therapy session with Maurice, a Hasidic Jew. In his session, Horselover Fat contrasts the ‘true’ God, the God of the Gnostics, the God of his pink ray of light, with the ‘flawed’ God of Genesis. Maurice’s reaction to such an esoteric explanation of the universe makes for lively reading, a high point of insight into the rocky spiritual challenges faced by our narrator.

Three - When your discover others share your theophany
Turns out, there are a number of other people who have had a similar theophany from the true Gnostic God. Horselover Fat’s encounter with these men and women challenges his very idea of sanity since he observes just how far zealots will go in their zealotry.

Four – How to deal with your theophany once it starts to wear off
From the novel: “They ought to make it a binding clause that if you find God you get to keep him. For Fat, finding God (if indeed he did find God) became, ultimately, a bummer, a constantly diminishing supply of joy, sinking lower and lower like the contents of a bag of uppers.” Darn, if only God were as readily available as drugs.

Five – When you encounter the many sides of you
As Harry Haller of Hesse’s Steppenwolf experiences the many facets of his personal identity in the Magic Theater, so, in the course this novel, PKD (yes, again, a very autobiographical work) discovers the many sides of PKD. How many versions are there? Feel free to round to the nearest dozen.

Six – The concept of time
Is someone or something playing a board game with time and we humans as mere players? Can time be abolished and transcended? If so, how do we go about it?

Seven – Zebra, that is, pure living intelligence, so called by Horselover Fat
Can an out-of-cosmos intelligence contact humans? This question is related to the possibility of a true theophany.

Eight - The presence of evil in the universe
Is there an answer to Kevin’s pressing question: What about my dead cat? In other words, why do bad things happen to good cats or why is there evil in the world?

Nine – The Exegesis
An exegesis is a critical explanation or interpretation of scripture or a sacred text. VALIS includes many entries from PKD’s thousand page exegesis published as a separate book. The question looms: would PKD have expanded his exegesis to several more thousands of pages had he lived to age 90? My own guess is definitely ‘yes’, since once you start to unravel the mysteries of the universe according to your own schemata, three questions pop up for every answer you offer. Ah, the mysteries of the universe!

Ten – What is VALIS?
Sure, it stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, but where does it fit into the novel? I wouldn’t want to spoil this question by providing an answer. You will have to read it for yourself. Once again, novel reading as a wild magic carpet ride. I recommend you hop on.
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,883 reviews16.6k followers
February 13, 2023
Imagine taking a walk in a bad neighborhood and sitting on a sidewalk bench.

Beside you sits a disheveled homeless person with crazy eyes. Despite your best efforts the two of you strike up a conversation. Slowly, incredulously, you begin to realize that this crazy person is well read. No, this person is educated, well educated and though he goes off on wild tangents and makes seemingly ludicrous claims, his mind is a brilliantly tangled mess, a fecundity of original thought.

And yet all the while the crazy eyes continue to make you uncomfortable.

This is a fitting illustration of reading VALIS by Philip K. Dick. Narrated by the author and yet telling the tale of Horselover Fat (a pseudonym for Dick himself) and yet with allusions that Fat is himself (and a direct reference to David Bowie!) and only written in the third person to make a better story.

VALIS is a theological, philosophical, sociological funhouse ride. Is Dick really a self-medicated schizophrenic? Does he affect this perspective to tell the story? Is the perspective an unguarded glimpse at mental illness; is this a literary affectation for effect?

VALIS may be his best novel or his most unstable, or both, it grips the reader and holds tight and all the while the reader is held like a rubber-necking motorist slowly passing a wreck. But is the wreck real or a cleverly crafted performance art? It all goes towards the brilliance of the book. The cameo appearance by David Bowie was very cool, that conversation can easily be imagined.

Clearly well researched, Dick’s eclectic litany of abstract and unorthodox ideas are reminiscent of Kesey or H.P. Lovecraft. VALIS represents the literary culmination of much of his research that readers can find in the The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. If you don’t like PKD as a writer, don’t bother, but if you like his writing, this one is a must read.

*** 2023 reread -

Imagine the room - a late 70s den or rec room, kitschy posters, albums, paperback books scattered, the detritus of a concluding decade collected in half hazard, neglected design. This is the not the sanctuary of a worldly person, supine here is an intellect not long for this world but who is a canary in a coal mine, here is a sensitive artist who is tuned into the narrow bandwidth of a time and place, his knowing fingers on the pulse of this age in our experience.

The author of books about androids and simulacra has here written one of his most knowing books about dehumanization and the trends in our western civilization away from God.

But! This is, after all, Philip K. Dick and things are not exactly as they seem; the thick leather reins are in fact dry rubber bands and these horses will get out of our control early on and gallop off into a left field of spirituality, gnosticism, and theological speculation.

And aliens, and God, and laser beams filled with astral intelligence, and David Bowie.

Where’s my tin foil hat?

Much of this highlights Phil’s strange 1974 epiphany revolving around a first century connection to our world. Fans who want to venture down that rabbit hole can spend all the time they want with Phil’s Exegesis. One criticism of this work is the lengthy and meandering musings early on about Phil’s unorthodox ideas about God. This may lose many readers, but a true fan will get cozy with Phil’s weirdness, wrapping up in the blanket of his strange theories and just have fun with it.

And this book is fun, I was reminded this time around at how funny this book can be. This is not a comedy, rather Phil’s humor, dry and deadpan as it is, can be seen page after page especially in the later chapters.

Also noteworthy is the tension between Phil and Horselover Fat. Wait, you say, aren’t they the same person?


And that is part of the gonzo charm of this 1981 publication, one of last published in his lifetime (Phil died at age 53 in 1982). It’s wild and postmodern, and chaotic, and thought provoking and … great. But maybe just for fans.

I have decided that A Scanner Darkly is his masterpiece but this one may be my favorite of his.

Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
November 19, 2020
I was prompted to read this after it popped up in a season 4 episode of LOST.

Philip K. Dick - image from FutureConscience

Horselover Fat is both the narrator and a third-person character. He is our everyman through whom we are led in a contemplation of the nature of reality, god and sanity. Was Fat really the recipient of a beam of pink light that contained information from god? Or is he just a psycho who speaks both as himself and as his alter, and more real ego, Philip K. Dick? Is god reincarnated in a two year old child? Was earth once populated by a race of three-eyed beings? Will it be in the future? Is VALIS god or just a machine made by future humans? So much going on in terms of themes, ideas, and nothing much going on in terms of the sort of action one expects in a sci-fi book. Steroids for the imagination.

=============================SOME QUOTES

P 10
One of God’s great mercies is that he keeps us perpetually occluded.

P 20 – [possible relation to LOST notions – Faraday saying that the light falls differently on the island]
God, he told us, had fired a beam of pink light directly at him, at his head, his eyes; Fat had been temporarily blinded and his head had ached for days. It was easy, he said, to describe the beam of pink light; it’s exactly what you get as a phosphene after-image when a flashbulb has gone off in your face. Fat was spiritually haunted by that color. Sometimes it showed up on a TV screen. He lived for that light, that one particular color.

However, he could never really find it again. Nothing could generate that color for light but God. In other words, normal light did not contain that color. One time Fat studied a color chart, a chart of the visible spectrum. The color was absent. He had seen a color which no one can see; it lay off the end.

P 46
“You know what Eliade says about the dream-time of the Australian Bushmen? He says that anthropologists are wrong in assuming that the dream-time is time in the past. Eliade says it is another kind of time going on right now, which the Bushmen break through and into, the age of the heroes and their deeds.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,109 followers
May 14, 2017
Update 5/13/17:
I had to dive back into VALIS because certain tales continue to resonate with me... and this one is still one of the very most important.

Who knows? Maybe I am just a crazy as PKD because I'm obsessed with the perception of reality, holographic universes, the edict of "As Above, So Below", and the nature of consciousness.

Or maybe I'm just a naturally curious person that happens to be heavily stimulated by PKD's intelligence, his humility, his sincerity, and his travails.

Any way that I look at it, however, I am still in awe of this man's writing. This one more than all his other novels, in fact, for the way he bleeds all over the page with his personal experiences, his deep searching, and his willingness to look practically everywhere for an answer.

So beautiful. Of course, after all these years, I can now see this as the capstone to the great pyramid of his other works and words. From Ubik and the nature of reality, to Galactic Pot-Healer for both the genetic regression and memory, and even to The Man in the High Castle for the alternate dimension mystery... for which all four of his last novels tie so well together.

I disagree with the blurb, of course. It wasn't a trilogy.

There were four, with The Divine Invasion exploring the return of Elijiah and how Sophia and the Logos reworks reality and the Earth, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer for the exploration of immortality in the form of a mystical mushroom and Pike (otherwise the most down-to-earth and charming of the tied-in-books), and Radio Free Albemuth which has the closest ties to VALIS out of the entire bunch since it IS the story of Brady from the movie VALIS and his troubles with president Faris F. Freemont in the police state that was the Black Iron Prison. :)

All of these diverse novels sprang, fully formed, from the brainchild that was VALIS. So rich a novel!


It's easily one of my favorites of all time. :)

Old Review:

This book has everything except plot. I still love the fraking hell out of it. As a mind experiment gone horribly, horribly awry, I felt myself slipping into PKD's mindset and taking every point seriously, as you could just tell that he was. It felt like the ramblings of a man who had gone through something he couldn't explain and did his damned awful best to figure it out, but that includes religious horror, classical Greek authors, a ton of philosophy, and a life that is falling apart.
I've since read his Exegesis, or at least the edited parts of it, but I was personally horrified by his own accounting of the Exegesis that he was currently writing at the time of, and within, this novel. A million words. Ten novel's worth. All densely populated with thought experiments, rationalizations, religious thought, humor, self-deprecation, and so much more.

Knowing what I know now hasn't diminished my respect for this novel, just given it more dimension. At the time I first read it, I honestly thought that PKD had specifically picked this highly intellectual, spooky, crazy method to tell a story in a novel, while using himself as a split personality as a foil. I thought it was Brilliant. I know now that he just took out a lot of his salient points from the exegesis and made a slapped together novel. That being said, it still doesn't deplete the depth and the density of this great novel.

I shook myself after reading it the first time and sat around dazed for a day. If I'm going to rank my favorite novels by the effects they had upon me, by their lasting effects upon my life, then I'm going to slap this one up near the very top. It still gives me shivers, and it made me feel small in a huge world of thought.

I've since read all of the authors that he name-dropped, and have explored the catacombs, and can rebut and argue with PKD now; but first I had to be bitch-slapped by this great man before I could get back up and try again.

It was NOT an easy read, but it was a fairly short novel. It was also a heart-wrenching piece to get through, as well. More than all of this, it was also an extremely rewarding piece of fiction, if you're willing to put the effort into not only it, but into PKD's thoughts and your own growth as a person.
Profile Image for RandomAnthony.
394 reviews110 followers
July 5, 2012
If someone were to make the “You seem to like Philip K. Dick, and I want to maybe give him a shot, but I don't know where to start because he's written dozens of novels” statement my instantaneous response would be, “NOT Valis!” Then I would add I've only read five or six of PKD's novels and I'm giddy with the prospect of reading further into his catalog. But no, no, don't start with Valis, or else you may never pick up another PKD book and you'd miss out on his masterpieces.

PKD wrote Valis late in life. From what I can tell, it's one of his most autobiographical and, in turn, over-the-top works. PKD's life was, ahem, rather interesting, and this novel, unfortunately, will read weird if you don't know the author's backstory. It'll read weird anyway. What appear (and could very well be) the near-incoherent ramblings of an intelligent, well-read writer recovering from decades of drug-use and mental illness comprise significant chunks of the text. The narrator and his, uh, alternative personality, along with a couple friends, bounce around conspiracy-esque theories of reality and spirituality and eventually act on them when they see an art film they think includes clues to how select others perceive reality in similar ways. The novel's strength and traction emerge in the narrator's meditation on pain, sadness, and psychological health. These passages are near-brilliant. The former crazyass passages are bold-printed, at least in the edition I procured from the library, and when I saw one coming I readied my skimming skills. Valis shines in bursts, but I can understand avoiding the book because you have to wade through so much mud to find the gems. Fans only. Fans with good skimming abilities or a lot of patience.
Profile Image for Warwick.
844 reviews14.6k followers
February 3, 2019

Philip K Dick's life is divided into two parts by the crippling, yet weirdly productive, breakdown he underwent in February and March of 1974. He was in a bad way at the time. His wife and child had left him, he was strung-out and exhausted, and coming off pain medication from a wisdom tooth extraction. In this delicate state, he opened the door to a delivery girl who was wearing a gold pendant of the Christian ichthys symbol; as it caught the sun, Dick experienced a beam of pink light shooting information directly into his brain. Over the next couple of months, he came to believe that real time had ceased in 70 CE, that the Roman Empire was temporally superimposed over contemporary California, that he was ‘really’ a first-century Christian called Thomas with three eyes, and that life on earth was being directed by a ‘Vast Active Living Intelligence System’ orbiting Formalhaut.

This was not the first book he wrote after the experiences of ‘2–3–74’ (as he called it), but it is the novel in which he addresses what happened to him, how it should be analysed, and what if anything it means.

There is something odd about the way some people write about this book and about Dick's breakdown in general – as though the jury's out on whether it was a breakdown or a real mystical revelation. Did he really receive a message from god, or was he just sick? fans ask. ‘Was Philip K. Dick a madman or a mystic?’ I find this horribly coy, in fact I think it's irresponsible. A choice between mental breakdown and the reality of three-eyed secret Christians from the star system Sirius living among us is no choice at all. Philip K Dick had a fridge clinking with amphetamine bottles and he was, as he later put it: ‘at the trough of my life, at the point where I saw nothing but inexplicable suffering.’ It is not surprising that something snapped.

Which puts this book in an interesting light – I would hardly class it with works of neo-mysticism like those of Hesse or Castaneda, but rather with books about people struggling with mental disorder. Some sections call to mind One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or The Bell Jar. But the book I thought of most while I was reading it was something else – an obscure novel by Evelyn Waugh, of all people, called The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. In this underrated gem, Waugh tells the story of an episode of psychotic paranoia he experienced while on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol: the novel becomes a sort of psychodrama in which Waugh battles with his own mind for authority over the evidence of his senses. In the end, the rational Waugh wins out and the hallucinations cease.

Dick is doing something similar in VALIS, but the trajectory plays out differently. Taking a more radical approach to the warring impulses in his mind, he splits himself up into two separate characters for the purposes of the novel: ‘Philip Dick’, the rational author and narrator of VALIS, and Horselover Fat, the subject of the hallucinations. Horselover Fat suffers a kind of breakdown, and interprets it as an all-embracing religious experience; ‘Philip Dick’ argues with him and tries to keep him grounded in reality. So Fat is free to expatiate on his own proliferating theology – stuff like this:

The primordial source of all our religions lies with the ancestors of the Dogon tribe, who got their cosmogony and cosmology directly from the three-eyed invaders who visited long ago. The three-eyed invaders are mute and deaf and telepathic, could not breathe our atmosphere, had the elongated misshapen skull of Ikhnaton and emanated from a planet in the star-system Sirius. Although they had no hands, but had, instead, pincer claws such as a crab has, they were great builders. They covertly influence our history toward a fruitful end.

…and ‘Dick’ is free to comment – as he does after this passage—

By now Fat had totally lost touch with reality.

There is something quite witty in this interplay, in the constant switching between grandiose theorising and immediate deflation. It's also reassuring. The structure tells you that he understands how mad his theories are, and is dealing with them accordingly.

The problem is that it can't hold. As readers, we know they are the same person because he tells us so right at the beginning, explaining it as a device ‘to gain much-needed objectivity’. Occasionally, the narrator will slip up, and write things like: ‘Bob and I—I mean, Bob and Horselover Fat…’. And as the book goes on, in a kind of bravura smudging of identities, the psychosis begins to seep from one character to the other. The supposedly sane Dick finds himself believing Horselover Fat's theories. The separation between them breaks down. ‘You're not crazy, you know,’ Dick says to Fat eventually (as I was screaming, yes! he is!). Every other character gets sucked into Fat's orbit:

We were no longer friends comforting and propping up a deranged member; we were collectively in deep trouble. A total reversal had taken place: instead of mollifying Fat we now had to turn to him for advice. Fat was our link with that entity, VALIS or Zebra, which appeared to have power over all of us…

The author is literally going mad before our eyes. This process culminates in an extraordinary scene where the two personalities finally merge – but by then, it is far from clear what we are supposed to conclude from this. Dick and his friends see it as the return of his sanity – just as the real-life Dick, after the pink beam experience, felt that he had been crazy all his life and was now made sane. From the outside it looks like precisely the opposite. We can see that Dick's issues were not ‘fortean’, or ‘paranormal’, but medical.

That makes VALIS a more moving book than I was expecting. And deceptively well written: there are enough clues in here to demonstrate that Dick understood perfectly well that it could be mental illness. But the novel is carefully constructed to allow you no vantage point from which to make objective conclusions about how Dick really feels – it's written, as it were, between mutually reflecting mirrors, never settling on any one interpretation of the author, but bouncing back and forth forever between different ‘hoax-like fluctuations of what used to be reality’.
Profile Image for Jaidee.
607 reviews1,205 followers
March 25, 2020
2.5 "time I will not get back but what is time anyway" stars !!

Fourth Most Fun Review Written in 2019 Award

Well this was quite the experience....

Was this

1. self-indulgent onanism
2. a search for meaning in the throes of micropsychosis
3. a genius exploration of technology within the realms of christian mysticism
4. self-indulgent onanism
5. an emotionally and spiritually empty book with some intellectual vigor
6. a roundtable discussion with Phillip K Dick, Paulo Coelho, David Mitchell and Umberto Eco that
Monty Python crashes halfway through
7. a book that Jaidee is glad he read but also knows that he won't continue the series
8. a sci-fi masterpiece to a sizable minority of readers
9. semi-sensical pretentious prattle
10. self-indulgent onanism

The correct answer is..... don't look into the pink light

Profile Image for Stuart.
722 reviews269 followers
November 18, 2015
VALIS: Reconciling human suffering with divine purpose
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
It’s often said that “one must suffer for one’s art.” They must have been referring to Philip K. Dick. He slaved away in relative obscurity and poverty at a typewriter for decades, churning out a prodigious flow of low-paid Ace and Berkeley paperbacks (sometimes fueled by amphetamines), went through five marriages, battled with depression, mental illness and suicide attempts, all culminating in a bizarre religious experience in 1974, and struggled to come to grips with this for the next eight years until his death in 1982 from a stroke at age 54. And yet it wasn’t until VALIS (1981) and the posthumous Radio Free Albemuth (1985) that he addressed these experiences directly in fictional form.

So if you want to get inside the mind of PDK, Radio Free Albemuth and VALIS are as close as you can safely get unless you are a real masochist and dare to tackle his huge volume of ramblings on his personal religious, hallucinatory, and visionary experiences in Feb/Mar 1974 (which he called “2-3-74”). They weigh in at a hefty 8,000 hand-written pages, which Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem have somehow wrestled down to a “slim” 944 pages in The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. So if you think VALIS is incoherent and somewhat unhinged, I would say, “No, this is the Cliff Notes version!”

Let’s be upfront about VALIS. This is not really a SF novel, nor is it a traditional narrative at all. This book is a brutally honest, oftentimes darkly humorous, painful exploration of PKD trying to come to grips with some bizarre religious/hallucinatory experiences in 1974 during a particularly troubled period in his life. These experiences culminated in him being struck by a pink laser beam from an artificial living satellite (VALIS: Vast Active Living Intelligence System) orbiting the star Sirius, and was imparted a brief connection with a “transcendentally rational mind” that told him his infant son was suffering from an inguinal hernia and needed immediate surgery to save his life (which turned out to be true). He also experienced moments when ancient Rome superimposed itself on 1974 California and he became Thomas, an early Christian being persecuted by the Romans, when he suddenly understood and spoke Koine Greek (called xenoglossia), and saw visions of Jesus Christ’s imminent return to the world.

And before you say he obviously took too much LSD over the years, keep in mind this all happened AFTER he had given up amphetamines and dried out. Plus, if this is just a drug-induced trip, then PDK must be the most erudite and deeply-read philosopher-junkie of all time. His explorations cover Christian Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Zen Buddhism, the Old and New Testaments, Greek philosophers (Plato, Aristotle, and earlier thinkers), Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Wagner’s opera Parsifal, and various musicians and writers of the time. AND HE ACTUALLY TRIES TO CONNECT ALL THE DOTS BETWEEN. If that doesn’t prove he was losing his mind, what does???

There isn’t much point in describing the plot of VALIS. It is the rambling and bizarre religious and philosophical discussions of the characters as they struggle to try to understand why human beings must suffer and inflict hurt on themselves and those around them. If there is a divine being, a creator, why does it allow people to do this to themselves? This is hilariously summed up by PKD’s cynical friend Kevin, whose cat ran into the street and was run over by a car. Kevin repeatedly says that if he ever has an opportunity to confront the creator after death, he plans to whip out the body of his dead cat from his coat and demand, “Why did my cat have to die?”

The best parts of the book are the talks between narrator Philip K. Dick, his alter-ego Horselover Fat (Philip in Greek means “fond of horses” and “dick” is German for “fat”) his friend Kevin (modeled after writer KW Jeter), and Catholic friend David (modeled after writer Tim Powers). They are all very supportive of Fat after he first loses a close friend Gloria to suicide, another self-destructive friend Sherri to cancer, and his wife Beth who leaves him and takes his infant son Christopher.

Apparently Fat is irresistibly drawn to helping others, hopeless cases in particular, and then gets dragged down by their various psychoses. It is after Gloria’s suicide that PKD’s personality first cracks and gives rise to Horselover Fat, who is crushed by Gloria’s suicide and is then subject to all the bizarre hallucinations, visions, and pink lasers. PKD is his friend and confidant, who can view Fat’s travails and mental struggles from a safe distance, and watch him toil away fruitlessly at his Exegesis each night, pining away for the women in his life who keep causing him grief and guilt for being unable to save them. There is a very powerful moment toward the end of the book when this schizophrenic gulf seems to have finally been healed after 8 years of struggle, only to relapse once more after a moment of divine salvation is inexplicably snatched away again.

So what does VALIS all add up to? Does any of this crazy, deranged, home-brewed philosophic mish-mash make any sense without mind-altering drugs? BEATS THE HELL OUTTA ME. But what a wild and brilliantly-twisted mind it takes to try to make any sense of such a convoluted, frustrating, lonely and often despairing life story. The pink laser is just the trigger for a whole host of other thoughts on the underlying reality that is forever occluded to us mere mortals except for brief bursts of pure information from VALIS. To give a sense of PKD’s Exegesis, here are some sample passages:(Excerpts from Tractates Cryptica Scriptura, appendix to VALIS)

No.14: The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.”

“No.30: The phenomenal world does not exist; it is a hypostasis of the information processed by the Mind.”

“No.38: From loss and grief the Mind has become deranged. Therefore we, as parts of the universe, the Brain, are partly deranged.”

“No.39: Out of itself the Brain has constructed a physician to heal it. This subform of the Macro-Brain is not deranged; it moves through the Brain, as a phagocyte moves through the cardiovascular system of an animal, healing the derangement of the Brain in section after section. We know of its arrival here; we know it as Asklepios for the Greeks and as the Essenes for the Jews; as the Therapeutae for the Egyptians; as Jesus for the Christians.”

“No.48: ON OUR NATURE. It is proper to say: we appear to be memory coils (DNA carriers capable of experience) in a computer-like thinking system which, although we have correctly recorded and stored thousands of years of experiental information, and each of us possesses somewhat different deposits from all the other life forms, there is a malfunction—a failure—of memory retrieval. There lies the trouble in our particular subcircuit. "Salvation" through gnosis—more properly anamnesis (the loss of amnesia)—although it has individual significance for each of us—a quantum leap in perception, identity, cognition, understanding, world- and self-experience, including immortality—it has greater and further importance for the system as a whole, inasmuch as these memories are data needed by it and valuable to it, to its overall functioning.
Profile Image for Brett C.
805 reviews181 followers
May 2, 2021
This was not exactly a tough read but required focus. There isn't much of a plot but it seems to be another semi-autobiobraphical account of PKD, similar to 'A Scanner Darkly'. This story is loaded with religious, spiritual, gnosticism, and other bizarre revelations. The overlying issue of mental illness is reflected in the main character and his cognitive processing. At points I was asking myself "Where is this going?" and then other point were clear and precise.

I read this very quickly and I felt that helped tie everything together. Throughout and at the end I was still trying to figure out "What am I supposed to get out of this?" and that question still remains.

I would not make this your first PKD attempt because it might completely turn you away from his other works. I would recommend this after you've read earlier works such as 'The Man In the High Castle' and 'Ubik'. Thanks!
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,678 reviews5,255 followers
August 4, 2018
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I/he looked in the mirror to find the face of God. We are all created in God's image, or so we've been taught, I/he thought. But I/he saw no God there; instead there was fallibility, weakness, hypocrisy, despair, and longing. A desire and a need to fool oneself, to compartmentalize so that one part can hide from the other. Where is this so-called God, I/he thought. Perhaps God is disguised somehow, in the background... or camouflaged in the foreground, a Zebra hidden in plain sight.

I/he looked in the mirror a second time, and saw all of our selves - all of us throughout time, some weak and some strong, but most somewhere in-between. We looked at our reflections. Are we an aspect of God? But God doesn't die, and this body certainly will, I/he thought mournfully.

All of us looked in the mirror a third time; God looked back upon us. Information was sent; the message was received. That message: We are all one and so We will never truly die. God is not bound by space or time; God exists to unify. The Empire will fall; God's Kingdom shall triumph. God lives through all things, in all of the weak things and in all of the strong, in everything in-between; even in us, thought Us.

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3.5 stars rounded up to 4, because I love Dick.
Profile Image for Ron.
394 reviews97 followers
December 22, 2020
VALIS: Vast Active Living Intelligence System

Mind-bending? Oh yeah. Out there? Way out. But does it make you think about what you've read? You bet.

Horselover Fat (this really is the character's name) is taken to the psychiatric hospital after failing to correctly commit suicide. Fat has screwed up a lot to this point in life, or so it is described. Those psychedelic drugs of the 60’s didn’t help. His reasoning for attempting to off himself? Failing to keep a friend from doing the same. PS. His wife may have even nudged him along. Or maybe the real reason is because Fat thinks he’s losing his mind. You see, just a short time before the hospital and all that, in 1974, he had experienced a transmission sent directly from God, by way of a laser beam. To his friends (and select doctors), he described this beam as a brilliant bright blinding pink light, unlike any other color in existence. Within that beam was shot a whole lot of information. Was he now to share it with the world, search for the next Savior, or simply accept he was nuts? Hmmm...he'll continue working on his Tractates Cryptica Scriptura, the Codex deciphering just what he saw.

I'd try saying more, but my explanation would become woeful and confoundingly stupid, so let Dick do it if he may. I found the narrative to be a dense jigsaw puzzle of a read, especially through the first half, and obviously it’s not without its share of fun. It was also a ride - you don’t often encounter thoughts such as these, and PKD can be such a great change of pace. The narrator would be none other than Philip K. Dick himself (while also being a character and friend of Horselover Fat. Maybe even more). The closer this group of four friends come to making sense of Fat’s encounter and finding sense of Valis, the more the questions in my head piled up. But hey, it’s only book one of three.
Profile Image for Susan Budd.
Author 6 books225 followers
March 1, 2020
Long ago I formulated a theory I call “Bibliophilic Serendipity.” Certain books come to me at the right time. If they’re read too soon, when I don’t need them yet, they don’t have any effect on me. But once in a while they come at the right time.

Although I read science fiction in my teens, I had largely given it up by the time I went to college to study philosophy. I only returned to science fiction a few years ago. I discovered Philip K. Dick in 2017. I read The Cosmic Puppets and I was instantly addicted. I wanted to read Valis immediately because it is about his mystical visions, but I thought I needed to better acquaint myself with Dick first. So I hatched a plan of reading his early work before moving on to his middle period and then finally the famed Valis trilogy.

I completed all the 1950s novels and moved on to the 60s, but I was disappointed by Dr. Futurity and Vulcan’s Hammer, so I decided to scrap my plan of reading in chronological order and go directly to Valis. Little did I realize that this is exactly what was supposed to happen. I am in the middle of a project and if it were not for my theory of Bibliophilic Serendipity I would be astounded that Valis is exactly in line with my project.

My project is time travel. Not science fiction time travel, but science-fact time travel. Science fiction time travel is useful for exploring the philosophical and moral implications of time travel as well as the logical paradoxes it would generate. Science-fact time travel is purely theoretical. (Except for the unavoidable time traveling we all do as we move moment-by-moment from the present to the future.)

The approach scientists take to time travel is to talk about black holes and time dilation and other such astronomical phenomena. It’s purely theoretical because anyone going into a black hole would be crushed to the size of an atom. And there’s no point in traveling backwards or forwards in time if you don’t arrive alive.

I have been working on my time travel project for several months now and I have come to the conclusion that if I want to travel back in time, I’m going to have to accept limitations. This is profoundly disappointing, but it is what it is. So far, my plan is proceeding nicely.

I intended to call my time-traveling technique “Lessons in Time Travel.” By another instance of serendipity (which I suppose I will have to call Cinephilic Serendipity), the phrase “Lessons in Time Travel” was used in the television series Legion. The protagonist of that series wants to go to the past to right some wrongs. This is also my motivation for traveling into the past. It’s probably most people’s reason for wanting to travel to the past.

Unfortunately, this is not possible with my time travel technique. But I’ll take what I can get.

Before leaving the subject of science fiction, I want to make mention of one other science fiction story involving time travel: Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time. In that story, the main character travels to the past by creating a setting that resembles 1896 and then convincing himself that he really is in 1896. However, a single anachronism returns him to the present. This is where my time travel technique comes into play.

Evoking the past as Matheson’s character does is indeed the first step in my time travel technique. But that only takes the mind into the past. Not the body. The body remains in the present. Which means the body must interact with the present and the present will necessarily be chock full of anachronisms. Thus, to successfully dwell in the past, the mind must find a way to make peace with the anachronisms. This is the key to successful time travel. The past is only superimposed upon the present. The mind must be able to interact with the present while remaining apart from it.

Having discovered what must be done, I next had to figure out how it could be done. This is a painstaking process requiring patience, dedication, and hard work. But it is well worth it. I have been working on it all summer. It has been exhausting work, so I decided to give myself a little break and read a book I had long been looking forward to reading: Valis. This is when the Bibliophilic Serendipity happened.

Fat told me another feature of his encounter with God: all of a sudden the landscape of California, USA, 1974 ebbed out and the landscape of Rome of the first century C.E. ebbed in. He experienced a superimposition of the two for a while ...” (39).

This is exactly the technique I discovered: the superimposition of the past onto the present. Of course, Dick (or Fat) didn’t discover it as a technique for time travel. For him, it was spontaneously caused by God. Or insanity. But this is it! The only possible way to travel into the past! Since schizophrenia is neither voluntary nor desirable, my technique is (as far as I know) the only way to successfully travel into the past.

Naturally this is a long-term project and success in the initial stages doesn’t mean there won’t be snags along the way. But it is a promising beginning.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,117 reviews1,878 followers
January 30, 2012
I semi-regularly freak out over my own consistency on goodreads. What do I do about reading a novel that is contained in a book with multiple novels, what cover do I choose, what about books that I read multiple times, do I keep the original date that I read it or update it to the newest date? So many stupid things to waste my time worrying about when there are so many other stupid things I could be wasting my time worrying about.

For my own peace of mind, I'll state here that I read this book first in May of 2001, and then again in about October 2001, and then a third time this past week, January 2012. No one gives a shit about this, but it seems important that I make this all clear. The third time reading Valis though, is not as an individual novel, but as part of the Library of America Philip K. Dick collection, called something like Valis and other Later Novels, which is a lie, because it also contains The Maze of Death, which is a novel from the mid-1960's and firmly planted in Dick's more sci-fi period, but it does contain a bit of the same themes that Dick returned to in his later 'crazy' novels.

Publicly, let me say I'm sorry Karen. I should have never recommended this novel to you. I love it, but I can see how it would be tedious to you. At least I see it now. If it makes you feel any better, maybe Philip K. Dick really did have a visionary experience and had the mysteries of the universe opened up to him, and if that is the case then time is a total illusion and you didn't really waste anytime at all reading the book, and soon the prison of our reality will be broken and we will all return to the true world where time and space don't exist. What is a few days of slogging through a book you didn't enjoy when a timeless eternity awaits?

I don't know what to say about this book. It's a brilliant piece of insanity? It's a remarkable fictionalized auto-biography of the authors descent into insanity? It's amazing to me that he had the lucidity to see himself in the manner he does in this book and be able to write this book and still be in the grip of the problems he seemed to have had. He's so critical of himself and is calling bullshit about his own far-out theories, but still he was chugging along with his Exegesis and trying to grapple with the ideas his character Horselover Fat (Philip Dick) is trapped by.

At the time I read Valis for the first time I was trapped in some of the same thought patterns that Horselover Fat is. I never thought I was contacted by a God-like entity, but my brain was fried on pre-Socratic cosmology. Whenever I want to tie my brain in knots I still return to trying to figure out what Parmenides could have meant in his "Poem". On one hand it's nonsense, the One, nothing changes, nothing moves, there is only the One, but on the other hand what does he really mean? He is the person who Plato writes as besting Socrates not once, but twice (can the Eleatic Stranger be anyone other than him, or one of his students?). The figure of Parmenides shuts down the young Socrates in Parmenides and again shows him that he is wrong in the Eleatic trilogy of dialogues that in the chronology of Socrates 'life' (life being here literary life, it's open to debate if any of the encounters with Socrates really happened or how they happened or if they are merely a literary device for Plato), come right before what make up the Pre-Trial, Trial and Death of Socrates. If you've read most of the big Plato dialogues you know that Socrates pretty much always wins, even when he is sentenced to die or actually drinks the hemlock, he still wins the philosophical arguments, he's always the wise 'foolish' type who through a few innocent questions tears down whole systems of thought and replaces them with his own. In his encounters with the philosopher from Elea though he is put up against the ropes and his own tricks are used against him. It's like Plato is saying at the base of your philosophy you were wrong, you were wrong when you started, and you were wrong at the end, and for your errors you are now sentenced to die, you corrupted the youth, not through what the Athenians tried you for, but for not getting what Parmenides meant.

Add to Parmenides the cosmologies hinted at by Heraclitus, and more explicitly stated in the fragments of Empedocles and you get a very different view of the world then the dominant views that would take old in the 'mainstream' post-Socratic / Judea-Christian worldview. There were hold outs, Gnostic views and whatnot but they were generally snuffed out through orthodoxy to a relatively child-like and reassuring creation story that a majority of Americans still believe today. Look at Empedocles for example, this whole cosmology is based on the conflict between two poles, creation and destruction. Something coming together and something pulling everything apart. It's vague on details that we'd call scientific today, but it reads a whole lot like the big bang, with two forces, say gravity (through matter and the stars, light) playing against the repellent energy of dark matter. Everything gets destroyed at some point only to give birth to something new.

I'm not saying the ancients knew more then we did, or that they were necessarily right or even that there was some grand conspiracy to 'cover-up' the truth or anything. It's just that when you start to see the ideas of the universe that were out there, we picked one of the dumber ones to believe in for a few thousand years. Might as well put the planet on the back of some fucking turtles.

When you start thinking too much about some of the things the Pre-Socratics wrote you open yourself up to some very weird avenues of thoughts. To gerry-rig reality to fit into some of these 'theoretical' ideas you start calling an awful lot of things into question, and they can be fun little games to play in your head, but if you took them too far they are liable to drive you completely insane.

I wasn't insane, I was just stuck in ideas of Idealism and the themes of this book were the type of things that I enjoyed amusing myself with, for quite a bit of grad school one point oh, I enjoyed sketching out what Parmenides could have meant more than I enjoyed actually doing the work I should have been doing, and got myself so confused with the ideas I was thinking about I couldn't even begin to write a simple paper about Parmenides for a class I was taking dealing solely with him and his appearance in Plato. I wasn't insane, but I was shut down (the Pre-Socratics weren't the only people giving my brain trouble, Deleuze and Levinas were also influencing me to play thought games that were making me totally unproductive).

Shouldn't I be talking about the book though? No, but I guess I should Parts of the book deal with things like this. They are about the idea that the world we know is a corrupt version of Reality that we are imprisoned in. Philip K. Dick's crazy alter-ego, Horselover Fat is tuned into the 'real' state of the world when Valis, an entity not of this world, beams a pink light into his brain and reveals itself to him. The book is about what happens after you gain this kind of knowledge, and alone know the 'truth' about the world. It's about more than this, too. There are a lot of themes going on, and while I give this book five stars, if I'm honest about the overall structure of the book there are weak spots and loose ends that need tying up. There are corners Dick writes himself into that have no satisfying way out of. But for me at the time I first read this, it was like being turned on to a new author that was working on some of the same things that had been running through my head for the past year or so. I read it now as a fascinating picture of the author himself, and I'm in awe by the honesty in the book.

Two more Philip K. Dick books to go and then I'll try to tackle the Exegesis.
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews806 followers
May 5, 2016
“Fat conceives of the universe as a living organism into which a toxic particle has come. The toxic particle, made of heavy metal, has embedded itself in the universe-organism and is poisoning it. The universe-organism dispatches a phagocyte. The phagocyte is Christ. It surrounds the toxic metal particle – the Black Iron Prison – and begins to destroy it.”

Nope! No idea what that means. I haven’t a clue! And there are plenty more where that came from. A couple of years ago I made a start on VALIS, expecting more fun time craziness from PKD. I gave up on it after about 50 pages, more craziness than I bargained for, not much in the way of fun. VALIS, however, is generally well regarded, here on Goodreads the positive reviews far outweigh the negatives.

VALIS tells the story of Horselover Fat (OK, that’s pretty LOL) who is hit by a mysterious pink beam of light which is packed with all kinds of info*. This starts Fat off on a spiritual quest to find the meaning of life, the truth behind reality. Joined by a few friends, they embark on a journey which will lead them to revelations, wisdom, rock stars, the Messiah and other ineffable things. Horselover assumes it was God who shot the pink beam at him, the beam is a data transmission which, among other things, showed him how to save his son from a terminal illness.

The most interesting thing about Horselover Fat is that he is PKD, except when he isn’t!
“But that’s you. “Philip” means “Horselover” in Greek, lover of horses. “Fat” is the German translation of “Dick”. So you’ve translated your name.”

PKD wrote himself into VALIS as a major character. Sometimes the narrative is in the third person when it focuses on Horselover Fat, sometimes it is in the first person when PKD himself is in the narrative, interacting with the other characters, including Horselover. It makes perfect sense when you consider that both Horselover Fat and poor PKD are insane.

Much of VALIS is PKD or Horselover Fat musing about reality, insanity, God etc. The first half of the book has very little in the way of plot, just pages and pages of philosophical musing, rambling and profound dialogue. At the risk of losing all my cred, I have to say this book was a terrible slog for me. However, this time I was determined to stay the course and finish the damn thing; because every now and then I see this book mentioned in sci-fi discussion forums, and if I don’t finish it this time I would be tempted to start on it again sometime in the future, and this must not happen! I don’t ever want to read this book again. I would love to reread Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch etc. someday, but not this. I just love the 60s PKDs, weird but always entertaining. VALIS, on the other hand, does not read like a narrative half the time. I appreciate that most of my GR friends like it very much. Fair enough, whatever you guys are smoking, gimme some!

Highly recommended for people who have been hit by a pink beam.
* VALIS has been described as “semi-autobiographical” as PKD believed he was hit by a pink beam of light in 1974 on two occasions. The beam also informed him of his son’s hitherto undetected illness which was then treated before it could become terminal.

I did not mention the Gnostic aspect of VALIS because I have zero knowledge of Gnosticism. You may want to look for more knowledgeable reviews than this.

“The universe is irrational because the mind behind it is irrational.”
As is this entire book.

“The cat which you see playing in the yard is the cat which played three hundred years ago.”

"Time equals what the ancients called ‘astral determinism.’ The purpose of the mysteries was to free the initiate from astral determinism, which roughly equals fate."

Say what?

I go to the movies to get away for a little while from all this nutso garbage that Fat here lays on us.
This I can get behind.
Profile Image for Theo Logos.
708 reviews113 followers
May 4, 2023
What he did not know then is that it is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.

In 1974, PKD had an encounter — a theophany — that transformed and dominated the remaining years of his life. Was his encounter with God? With an alien intelligence system? With both? Or was he just a nutter? Valis is his autobiographical science fiction novel in which he attempted to sort that all out.

God is either powerless, stupid, or he doesn’t give a shit. Or all three.

PKD commenced by offering himself as the ultimate unreliable narrator, twinning himself into dissociative identities — Phil, and his alter ego, Horselover Fat. The story proceeds from the mundane — Horselover Fat’s despair over suicidal friends he was unable to save, bloviating, naval-gazing conversations about God, the Universe, and Everything among Fat and his circle of friends — to the absolutely bizarre — time juxtaposed over two millennia, mad, Demiurge god, contact from alien intelligence systems, glam rock gurus, and toddler messiah. All of this swims in a soup of ambiguous madness, dark humor, and gnostic theology.

The godhead is impaired. Some primordial crisis occurred in it which we do not understand.

All PKD’s best novels explore the nature of reality, madness, and the self. “What is real?”and “Who (or what) am I really?” were questions that he posed over and over again. Valis has no ultimate answers to those questions. But in its autobiographical reveal of Dick’s own psyche, it shows why he was so obsessed with those questions that he could spin them into amazing art.

But underneath all the names there is only one immortal man, and we are that man

The Empire never ended
Profile Image for nostalgebraist.
Author 4 books457 followers
September 10, 2013
Philip K. Dick had a series of hallucinations in 1974 which presented themselves as encounters with the divine, specifically with a gnostic version of the divine. From that point until the end of his life, his mind was the setting for an elaborate conflict between his basically rational nature and the intense, undismissable sense that he had received a true mystical epiphany. This novel is a fictionalized elaboration and exploration of that conflict, one which is faithful to the content of Dick's actual delusions down to a great number of specific details.

I'm fascinated by this kind of stuff -- I mean, by delusionally insane people who can successfully articulate the content of their delusions, and in whom there is some sort of inner conflict. So if I praise this book as a work of fiction, I may be committing the intentional fallacy. Who knows if I would have found it as impressive if I hadn't known about Dick's history? How much of its sense of weight and reality comes from the fact that it is autobiographical, and not from the words on the page? But I don't really think it matters. Read in light of Dick's condition -- which is how the vast majority of its readers will read it -- it's a hell of a book.

This is only the second Dick book I've read, but given how much I've enjoyed those two books and how important he seems to be to many people, I want to say there's a certain special quality to Dick, one difficult to articulate, that makes him much more emotionally resonant than he sounds from a thumbnail sketch of his work. In that sketch, actually, he doesn't sound very good: a bunch of trippy stoner nonsense combined with a pulp style. Is that inaccurate? In one sense, not really. Dick's writing is pulpy, and he's part of the druggie canon for a reason.

But there's a basic emotional force to his writing that isn't captured in that description. I don't know how to put it except that I feel like his books are capable of conveying something like a religious feeling to non-religious readers. (How many religious fans does Dick have, incidentally?) His books are driven by their bizarre concepts; unlike Borges, he doesn't leave out characterization entirely, but his characters are often flat -- many of the secondary characters in VALIS take on exactly the same stock role in every conversation -- and their emotions are driven by the plot in straightforward, unsurprising ways. This, however, feels right: the situations Dick invents are so exceptional that one feels they would reduce all of us to stock types. In the face of something like divine revelation, the details of character fade into the background.

There is a deadpan, regular-guy tone to this book that is very likable, especially in combination with the bizarre subject matter. In the face of God -- Dick says -- we're all "regular." The fine distinctions that are the bread and butter of "serious literature" are simply invisible on the relevant scale. Which is to say that to call Dick a "pulp writer" is both accurate and very misleading. He writes pulp about the gnostic Godhead and it's beautiful and sad, and I couldn't imagine the same effect coming across with any other kind of writing.
Profile Image for J. Kent Messum.
Author 5 books234 followers
September 4, 2019
Hailed as a existential masterpiece by some, or panned as a taxing testament of non-stop drivel by others, VALIS is one of Phillip K. Dick's most renowned works, and one that mirrors the author's life experience rather closely. There are many aspects of this book worthy of five stars. Conversely, there are other parts that hover around the one or two star mark. So on average, VALIS is getting three stars; which deserves more explanation.

VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) is a speculative work from one of science fiction's greatest names and left-field thinkers; an attempt to outline, explore, and ultimately define Phillip's own religious/transcendental/otherworldly experiences that somewhat transformed him in his later years. Using a fictional character named Horselover Fat, PKD recounts an encounter with a beam of super-intelligent 'Pink Light' that unexpectedly struck him in the seventies; imparting vast amounts of information, wisdom, and ongoing hallucinations, much of which Phillip spent years trying to unpack and digest.

PKD stars in his own story, acting as a sane counterbalance to his character of Horselover Fat who is gradually growing insane due to his encounter with the pink beam. Through this mechanism and a supporting cast of characters, PKD tumbles down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the meaning/origins of his paranormal experiences; theorizing the nature of the Universe and how it selectively communicates with lifeforms scattered throughout it. The ideas are constantly evolving throughout the book, concepts that are potentially much larger than the human brain's capacity to decode. To say they are fascinating would be an understatement, and although the depth of them might be further than the average person is willing to plunge into and pursue, Phillip dives down nonetheless. It is obvious the pressure at some of those depths had a consequential effect.

On the flip side, reading the rantings/ravings/introspection of a madman is not quite as engaging as you might think. In fact, many parts of the novel leaves a lot to be desired. The insight of an individual questioning their divine encounter and growing crazed as a result, absorbing as it might be, does not often translate well to the page and sometimes treads dangerously close to coming off incoherent or poorly executed. The "plot", for lack of a better word, moves at an absolute snail's pace and mostly consists of people sitting around discussing/challenging ideas of God or The Divine. Although several concepts in the book bear repeating, the sheer repetition within the pages becomes downright nauseating. If I ever hear the goddamn words "The empire never ended" one more time, I'm apt to punch whoever says them in the face.

Philip K. Dick often reminds me of Stephen King. Both hold high office in the fiction world, both are not the greatest writers, but both are excellent storytellers. Good writing and good storytelling are not the same thing (countless examples exist between popular fiction and literary fiction). Just because someone is a skilled writer doesn't mean they can tell a story worth shit, and vice versa. Like King, the sheer imagination of PKD is something to behold.

But the writing in VALIS is hit and miss, and the ideas are both intriguing and questionable. In no way is the work a "masterpiece" or a "failure", but instead something that resides between the two; a novel that unearths and dissects the big questions with some truly fascinating theories, but in a manner that can be an awful strain on the reader's attention at times. There are definitely diamonds in the dirt here, but you're going to have to dig around for them.

I suspect some people will want to wash their hands of this book, while others will never want to wash their hands again.
Profile Image for Tao.
Author 56 books2,215 followers
July 23, 2020
“People suffering nervous breakdowns often do a lot of research, to find explanations for what they are undergoing.”

“The mentally disturbed do not employ the Principle of Scientific Parsimony: the most simple theory to explain a given set of facts.”

“‘The mustard seed,’ I said. ‘That grows into a tree so large that birds can roost in it.’”

“You hear the sound of a beer can so automatically you see a beer can.”

“I don’t know what to think. Maybe I am not require to think anything, or to have faith, or to have madness; maybe all I need to do—all is asked of me—is to wait. To wait and to stay awake.”
Profile Image for Patrick.G.P.
163 reviews96 followers
January 3, 2022
Valis is a difficult and uncomfortable book to read. It is an intimate description of what might be a life-altering religious experience, which shifts the very notion of reality for the protagonist. Or it might all be sheer insanity brought on by grief, narcotics, and several suicide attempts. PKD tried to filter his experience through his alter ego, Horselover Fat, who tries to make sense of everything through an exegesis he writes, which corresponds with the ideas of Gnostic Christianity and occult thinkers.

There are several troubling notions regarding the idea of identity and the nature of reality throughout Valis, and the fact that it is an autobiographical novel makes for a deeply distressing reading experience. The novel reminded me a lot of William Burroughs’ work; the constant paranoia, the strange symbolic structures, and the anti-establishment ideas that run through the book. But whereas Burroughs is fully committed to these ideas, PKD constantly questions them, and even comments on the sheer madness of his conclusions.

Valis is an incredible book; it is sad, funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking at the same time. The novel works as an introduction to esoteric ideas, as several people have pointed out, but also an intimate look at the nature of identity and how we experience and shape reality around us. Particularly through grief and love, it shows how far the human mind is willing to go to make sense of these concepts.
Profile Image for Maureen.
213 reviews191 followers
March 13, 2012
VALIS stands for vast active living intelligence system. it is also a trigger to my crazy. i am a perfect breeding ground for it: i read a lot of gnostic texts in university, and struggled against tipping points when i read the book within franny and zooey "the way of the pilgrim" and when i saw mike leigh's film, "naked" and it made me think many crazy things, like chernobyl means wormwood, and the disaster was the third trumpet.

when i first read VALIS, i embraced it. i could feel it insinuating itself into how i thought; my regular, relatively logical self slipping into the hub in my mind where reason and faith collide, bend back and forth in their struggle to exist in my susceptible brain. and every subsequent complete or near-attempt to read it is the same, i start to slip, and think i cannot accept but neither can i live without, believing in something very like VALIS. the last few times i've tried to re-read it, i've stopped reading. i feel its serpentine, and usually somebody who knows better says, "why are you reading that again? that book makes you crazy!" and i realize they're right, and i'm better off not going down this road again.

and yet for all that, remembering VALIS makes me happy. from a safe distance, and attempted atheism, i can recall i enjoyed being horselover fat talking to friends about pre-socratics and gnosticism, death and life, coincidence and fate, about miracles in pink lights, and magical-pseudo david bowie, the man who fell to earth. if you're somebody who can read about these things without succumbing to them, i heartily recommend this book. if you find them crazy-making, consider this a warning.

greg's review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... actually helped me figure out how to articulate this. thanks, greg!

Profile Image for Malum.
2,296 reviews131 followers
May 20, 2018
It's almost unfortunate that Valis is so popular. Many people will be curious about Dick's writing, find out that this is one of his best books, read a little bit of it, and then throw it down and never read another Dick book. This very scenario almost happened to me. I read (and loved) Voices from the Street, but stayed far away from Dick's sci-fi for a long time after putting Valis down in confusion.

Trying to read this book as your first (or even second) Dick book is like skipping right to the last boss before you know how to play the game. It's like taking a 500 level class when you haven't stepped foot in a 101 level classroom.

In Valis, you will read the ravings of a genius and a madman. You will step into the mouth of insanity and discover that maybe you are a little insane, too. Your world will be flipped upside down and your brains will be stomped in by a big cartoon boot. Valis will either change you or let you know that you aren't ready to be changed yet.

Before you read Valis, read a handful of other Dick books. Then read a little about Dick's life. Then read some basic information on Gnosticism. This might seem like a lot of work just to read a novel, but believe me when I tell you that this is a book you have to prepare yourself for.
Profile Image for Lena.
1,152 reviews255 followers
June 30, 2018

So said the Lord.

Like with A Scanner Darkly I just sat back and let the crazy flow through me.

Unlike A Scanner Darkly there was no epic emotional payoff at the end.

The ending was abrupt and the afterward was just more crazy. Hell, it sounded like it wasn’t even PKD that wrote it.

This was all food for thought and food for a straight jacket.

The Empire Never Ended.
Profile Image for David.
497 reviews70 followers
September 17, 2023
My 32nd PKD novel. 3.5 overall.

If you ever decide (as I did) to take on PKD's bibliography - at least all of his SF titles - you will eventually find yourself facing the VALIS trilogy. I left it for last because in advance, honestly, it sat in my future imbued with a sense of dread. 

Apparently there are many - huge fans of the author among them - who won't even seriously consider tackling the trilogy. It may just seem too daunting. Or too weird, or suspected of being not all that literary; just a bunch of over-the-top, pseudo-religious / ontological gobbledygook. 

I have 'The Divine Invasion' and 'The Transmigration of Timothy Archer' ahead of me so I can't yet speak of those. But I know that many who have attempted the initial 'VALIS' have soon thrown up their hands in defeat. 

So I opened that door with a mild sort of trepidation. 

The good news is... I needn't have been all that concerned. As it turns out, the novel isn't all that impenetrable - I got through it rather quickly. Rooted (at least, from what we know) in autobiography, 'VALIS' largely reads as a memoir, with more than a fair amount of lively (if often offbeat) dialogue to keep it afloat as a narrative. Occasionally, it's quite amusing.

The main 'stumbling block' along the way may be the periodic excerpts from PKD's 'Exegesis'. These are meant to enhance / 'clarify' the plot but they can certainly give the reader pause. 

A little more good news is that the first half of the book is rather accessible. To me, it even has more of a propulsive thrust. Concentrating as it does on the Dick alter ego of Horselover Fat and his attempts to get clean of drugs, it's already more successful than all of 'A Scanner Darkly'. I found it reasonably compelling. 

Then comes the bad news... the second half of 'VALIS' is an undisciplined unraveling. Overall, the novel begins to implode. It barrels forward in its quest for spiritual enlightenment - but in such a haphazard way that the second half should really be prefaced with an 'Enter At Your Own Risk' sign. Contradictions commence with wild abandon and the novel's unique logic - even on its own terms - seems thwarted at just about every turn. (That will not bode well for a satisfying conclusion.) 

In PKD's defense... not for a minute did I doubt his intelligence. There's some rather heady stuff in the latter half. To sit more comfortably with The Initiated, you would do yourself a favor if you were (as PKD was) more intimately acquainted with the full language of religious (at any rate, spiritual) discourse. 

I'm also completely sympathetic with (and immensely intrigued by) the real-life, inadequately explained experiences that inspired Dick's final works. But my main difficulty with 'VALIS' is the manner in which the author wrestled with that inspiration. It reads as half-serious, half-arbitrary. 

It also immediately puts 'Radio Free Albemuth' - PKD's 'first draft' of 'VALIS' - in a better light. Though not as ideologically ambitious as 'VALIS' (and barely recognizable as a first draft), 'RFA' shows itself as the better book: 

Profile Image for Sara.
175 reviews40 followers
August 22, 2008
I hesitate to say this book disappointed me because it actually delighted me in a number of ways - its inventive first person/third person narrative voice, its delving into Gnostic philosophy, the funereal humor especially at play among the Rhipidon Society members. Phillip K. Dick gives his readers plenty to chew on, as usual, and the pseudo-autobiographical tone is intriguing. However, in this case I found his plot on the thin side.

Now, I like idea-driven novels. I require no literary equivalent of car chases and explosions to keep me interested. I relish the mind games Phillip K. Dick plays with his reader and himself in exploring Horselover Fat's descent into (a perfectly sane, as it turns out) insanity. Perhaps what I missed in this novel, then, is not the dearth of plot, although I still stand by that assessment - it is thin the way an Aldous Huxley plot can be thin - built to convey philosophy and little else. And the plot-heavier portions of the novel, toward the end especially, seem only modestly thought-out, almost tacked on when the author realized he was almost done with his book and hadn't really told much of a story. That opinion notwithstanding, what I missed most was being taken into one of Phillip K. Dick's wonderfully crafted future worlds full of excellent detail - new powers-that-be, new slang, new drugs, old hangups.

So perhaps a foiled expectation has disappointed me more than anything the author did or did not do, but I won't rate this book any higher than I already have. Expectations or no, I found VALIS far less compelling than I am used to finding Phillip K. Dick's novels. I think this, perversely, has to do with the fact that it purports to depict events from the author's own mental life. That should be fascinating, but in the case of VALIS it's like listening to someone describe a half-remembered dream in confused generalities that function as detail. You wish he would just stop. You've already gotten the idea as well as you ever will, but the description goes on. The nature of dreams is that they cannot be described well. Especially half-remembered ones. Dreams are experiential events. And so is Horselover Fat's insanity. So is faith. And so are human relationships, for that matter. Not that we shouldn't attempt to describe these things, but if one does so in the form of a novel, it is kinder to the reader to provide her some tangibles along with the intangibles, some details to sink her teeth into while she ponders the deeper meanings of all of the philosophy. Communicating through metaphor? Perhaps that's what I'm getting at. Otherwise, write a treatise, an essay, something meant to educate and not necessarily entertain. Phillip K. Dick usually excels in this department.

All of this said, I will still surely read The Divine Invasion.

Profile Image for Melki.
6,047 reviews2,391 followers
June 17, 2011
I know Philip K. Dick is a revered pillar of the science fiction community, but I truly despised this book. Self-indulgent, and packed with religious claptrappery, it was a chore to read. Female characters existed solely as a source of aggravation. Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, in chapter 12, the main character/author forces his son to take part in a bizarre communion ritual...lovely. You don't even want to know what happens to the savior/child in chapter 13. If I want to read about child abuse and misogyny, I'll muddle through the Bible.
Profile Image for Aerin.
149 reviews542 followers
February 6, 2018
(Original review date: 29 April 2009)

One of the tasks of being human is to find a satisfactory answer to why we live in such an ostensibly cold and uncaring universe. Horrible things happen for no reason. Goodness is often rewarded with suffering, cruelty with success. Tragedy can strike at any time and there is nothing we can do about it. And even if we find an acceptable explanation for this chaos - through science or philosophy or religion - we then are tasked with trying to reconcile ourselves to all of it. Valis is Philip K. Dick's attempt to do both. It is a work of pure insanity. It is also a work of genius.

Valis can be read at least four ways:

1) as a nonfiction first-person account of Philip K. Dick's psychotic break from reality,

2) as a science fiction novel about intelligent pink laser beams from outer space,

3) as a religious/philosophical tract incorporating Gnostic, Taoist, Christian, and Buddhist tenets, or

4) as an allegory of the logical insanity brought on by living in an irrational, indifferent universe.

One can certainly read it from only one of these perspectives, and the story would work. However, the book is all of these things, at the same time, and these multiple layers are what make it so endlessly puzzling and fascinating.

I started the book looking at it only from perspective #1. It seemed obvious to me that this was meant to be semi-autobiographical. After all, the narrator's name is Phil Dick. He's a famous science fiction writer - he mentions his other books, The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The other main character is named Horselover Fat, who is also Philip (Greek for "lover of horses") Dick (German for "fat"). The book describes how two women that he loved died: one of suicide, one of cancer. Dick/Fat could do nothing to save them; in his grief and rage toward a God who would create this irrational, apathetic universe, his personality splits and he completely loses touch with reality. Fat hallucinates that God speaks to him via a pink laser from outer space beamed directly at his head, imparting secret mystical information. He begins writing a cryptic screed filled with the laser's deranged revelations.

The problem with reading the book this way is that, about halfway through, other characters appear who share Fat's worldview, who have also been visited by the laser of God (aka VALIS, for Vast Active Living Intelligence System). Pretty soon, Fat, Dick, and his/their friends are meeting the two-year-old Savior girl - a human toddler who speaks like a prophet, claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus, and verifies that the universe is run by an ancient artificial intelligence system. At this point, it's pretty clear that the book is not meant to be an accurate account of Philip K. Dick's life.

Moving on to position #2 seems to make sense. OK, lasers, satellites, AI, I guess this is just science fiction. But the book makes far too many earnest references to various scriptures to be a simple sci-fi story. Clearly, Dick is trying to say something about the universe as a whole. It just doesn't read like trivial fiction.

Position #3, then. Dick is using sci-fi as a means of propagating his own personal theology. If this were the case, he'd clearly be certifiable. The philosophical and religious claims made by Horselover Fat are contradictory and delusional: We are still living in the Roman Empire and the year is 100AD - we only think it is later because a mad god has deceived us into believing in a construct called "time". Jesus was a "computer virus" sent by the true god to "fix" the mad world created by the mad god - only it didn't work because the mad world killed him. Ditto all the other Christ figures in history. Or alternatively, human beings are all gods - we created the world as a game for ourselves, and eliminated our memories and our godlike powers before we started to play - otherwise we'd just cheat our way out of it. This goes on and on, and none of it makes sense. If anyone actually believed this stuff, they'd have to be utterly insane, or on large amounts of reality-warping drugs, or both.

That leaves position #4: that Valis is an allegory about the human response to meaninglessness, powerlessness, hopelessness, and death. I think all the other perspectives are accurate, too. #4 is just the most comprehensive. Dick has lost two women who meant a great deal to him. Both times he tried to save them. Both times he failed. These women had done nothing wrong. They did not deserve to suffer and to die. If the universe is run by a god, he must be cruel, indifferent, powerless, or insane. Stricken by grief, plagued by this meaninglessness, Dick's personality splits and Horselover Fat appears. The pink laser reveals itself to Fat, and he believes that he is cured - that the world makes sense, that the world will be healed. There IS meaning, there IS a god, and there IS an explanation for why random tragedy exists. He has a purpose - to find the savior, who will lift the delusion of time, who will bring these two women back, who will right all the wrongs that have ever been.

And Fat does meet the Savior, in the form of this child. Immediately upon seeing her, he is healed - Dick and Fat merge back into a single, whole personality. She assures him that what he has been told by VALIS is true, and that she is there to bring about the redemption of the universe. She will destroy the mad god who has been ruling it for so long.

And then... she dies. In yet another inexplicable, meaningless accident. The savior is suddenly gone, and with her everything Dick has pinned his hopes upon. Horselover Fat immediately reappears, and there is still no meaning. There is no more refuge in religion. There is nothing that will save us from the essential tragedy of existence. The book ends on this same note: Fat is still out looking for the Savior's next incarnation; Dick is still at home, looking for subliminal messages in TV shows and ancient scripture. But he/they are still alive, still searching. He/they are no longer actively trying to destroy him/themself. That's something, right? Acceptance?

I don't know. I don't have any more answers than this book does. My favorite passage sums it up. Fat's friend Kevin has spent the entire book furious about the death of his cat, who was killed by a car while running across the street. This represents to Kevin everything that is wrong with the universe, the meaningless tragedy of it all. He can't wait to meet God on judgment day and demand an explanation for why his cat had to die. And finally, when they meet Sophia, the toddler christ, he gets his chance:

"What'd she say?" I said.

Kevin, inhaling deeply and gripping the steering wheel tight, said, "She said that MY DEAD CAT . . ." He paused, raising his voice. "MY DEAD CAT WAS STUPID."

I had to laugh. David likewise. No one had thought to give Kevin that answer before. The cat saw the car and ran into it, not the other way around; it had ploughed directly into the right front wheel of the car, like a bowling ball.

"She said," Kevin said, "that the universe has very strict rules, and that that species of cat, the kind that runs headfirst into moving cars, isn't around any more."

"Well," I said, "pragmatically speaking, she's right."...

"But," Kevin continued, "I said to her, 'Why didn't God make my cat smart?'... My cat was STUPID because GOD MADE IT STUPID. So it was GOD's fault, not my cat's fault."

Even the Savior has no answer to that.
Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,929 reviews386 followers
February 17, 2015
Well, that was weird. If literature is a way for us to commune with the minds of others, I guess those others don’t necessarily need to be sane. In fact, Philip K. Dick (and his alter ego, Horselover Fat) are both pretty up front about the fact that he/they are not mentally well.

Despite his mental illness and years of drug use, Dick can write! VALIS seems to be his dissertation on his mental illness and it is a pretty lucid and rational analysis of his own state. It kept me reading for 271 pages despite the fact that hardly anything actually happens. A vast portion of the book happens only in the author’s head, thinking about his theories about nature of the world, religion, and life and musing on his personal visions. He reveals himself as a philosopher and a student of religion who has obsessively studied more texts that I ever knew existed.

Many people call this the master work of PKD. I still don’t know how I feel about that—it is certainly his manifesto. I find it interesting that he was repeatedly advised to “give up dope and stop trying to help other people.” I’ve never had the dope issue, but I do remember avoiding my own troubles by poking my nose into other people’s business—and like PKD’s therapists, I do not recommend this line of avoidance. Despite the fact that it is easier than tackling you own issues and gives you a feeling of virtue for “helping” others. Much better to tackle your problems head on and let others do the same.

I will take with me this truth from page 80: “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.”
Profile Image for Nate D.
1,595 reviews1,027 followers
January 16, 2018
Religion is a form of schizophrenia.

Consider: an attempt to make absolute sense of the world, fitting its endless random details into a coherent overall pattern. Which am I describing? It's no surprise that religious delusion figures so prominently on psychiatric wards -- they're categorically made for eachother. Beside the psychiatric ward in this novel, see also Anne Quin's The Unmapped Country, which I finished immediately before this, or pretty much any other example.

As a novel, this fits reasonably into the fictionalized-personal-account-of-mental-health-struggles tradition, but it's also much more layered than most -- post-modern sci-fi memoir and paranoid theoretical discourse. I especially appreciate how the author/narrator warns us about his own madness, first compartmentalizing it in a sub-character but later getting taken over entirely by its own counter-theories.

Or perhaps this is much better: Schizophrenia is a form of religion.
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