My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Radio Free Albemuth is another fine Philip K Dick novel, written in 1976, but published in 1985 after his death. It’s a precursor to VALIS, and as such, centers around VALIS, an alien God-like entity.
This book is certainly post-modern. One sure sign is Dick writes himself into the book as one of the characters. “Phil Dick” is a sci fi writer in Berkeley who has written Man In a High Castle and other “real” works of Dick, and yet while the author uses this pseudo-Dick as a character, he steps away far enough to make him seem three dimensional and real. The other main character in the book is Dick’s friend, Nicholas Brady, a record store clerk in Berkeley who starts dreaming odd dreams and hearing voices and seeing visions which seem to emanate from an alien satellite, later to be called VALIS by Nicholas. This satellite has an AI operator who is beaming things into Nick’s mind, convincing him that it is controlled by this alien entity with God-like powers originating from the planet Albemuth and that there is a minor “invasion” of earth by these alien beings — but they are the good guys. They’re trying to protect society from Ferris F. Fremont (666), the president of the US who killed his way to power after the Lyndon Johnson administration. He’s a not too thinly veiled marriage of McCarthy and Nixon. Fremont is forever going on about the evils of Aramcheck, a group of people sponsored by the USSR to overthrow the US. He’s also established a police state with the help of the “Friends of the American People” (FAPers). There are even rumored concentration camps in Nebraska!
So Nicholas is experiencing odd things and telling everything to Phil. VALIS instructs Brady to move down to Orange County, where he gets a job as an executive at a major record label. Phil moves down shortly after just to keep up with things going on in Brady’s life, which seems somewhat hard to believe, but he is a sci fi writer, right? 😉
VALIS helps Nicholas out from time to time. In one instance, Nicholas is given information that his child is sick and needs to be hospitalized for surgery immediately. Without being able to explain why to his wife or doctor, he is proven right and the child’s life is saved. Another time, he expects to receive a mysterious letter, which he does, and he decodes a message in it. This is part of a FAP frame up and VALIS saved him in how he goes about handling it.
At times, though, the book gets confusing. It’s when Phil and Nicholas are theorizing about VALIS. Is is reincarnation? Is it God? Is it an alien satellite? Is it an alternate reality? Is it something else? Thoughts wander and you can get bogged down at places in the book, but not enough to throw you off.
One important development in the book is when VALIS gives Brady a dream that he would meet Sadassa Silvia, a character who claims that Ferris Fremont is actually a communist covert agent recruited by Sadassa’s mother when Fremont was still a teenager. Siliva is actually named Armachek, but changed her name to get away from Fremont. Apparently, she too is in contact with VALIS. The thing that made it hard for me to believe this sequence was believable is quite simple though. Brady was born in 1928. These events take place in 1974, after he’s been grown and a family man for years. Silvia is a college girl, quite young, but Brady falls for her and she ultimately seems to known all there is to know about VALIS and fills in the gaps for Brady (and the reader). But why would such a young girl know everything? And especially since Nicholas had been receiving messages for decades? That didn’t make sense to me.
Eventually, Nicholas and Silvia hatch a plot, engineered by VALIS, to produce records with subliminal political messages in them, alerting the public to the fact that Fremont was a “Red,” and therefore not to be trusted. This part of the plot seemed a little weak to me too, but I think the author backed himself into a corner here and this was the only way out.
Nicholas and Silvia are found out by the FAPers and are executed. Brady’s record label is destroyed. The VALIS satellite is blown up, after it was found in outer space by a Russian scientist. FAP confronts Dick and tells him that his books are going to be ghost written for him now with proper political messages about following benevolent leaders thrown in, and for his refusal to fall into line, he’s sent to a forced labor camp. The ending of the book can be read a couple of ways. In one sense, it’s rather sad, because Nicholas and Silvia are dead and the record’s been destroyed. Fremont is still in power and Dick’s life is ruined. However, while Dick is taking a work break one day, he hears a radio some kids are holding in a parking lot next door and it’s playing the subliminal song Brady was hoping to get out. Another record company produced it and it got played, so we’re left with a small hope that the future generation will see what’s going on in society and there will be a revolution, I guess? So I suppose you could say it ends on a slightly positive note.
In case you don’t know this, this book is highly autobiographical for Dick. He experienced a number of things both Dick and Brady experience in this book during the 1970s and went through many of the same theories, especially relating to Christianity. If you’ve read about his life at all, you’ll recognize many of these scenes are straight out of his life. Like I said, post-modern. It’s got to be hard to tie something like that up with a final type of ending, though, when you’re living it while you write about it. And I think that difficulty is displayed here, with Dick jumping around from theory theory, ultimately settling on a large bee-like alien God-like entity which seeks constant communication with everything in the universe. Was that ultimately Dick’s view of God? This book is not hard to read; it’s a quick read. It’s entertaining. It’s got intrigue and mystery and your typical Dickian themes of identity and reality (and alternate realities). I haven’t yet read VALIS and I suppose there’s a lot of overlap, but I do recommend this book for both Dick fans and just interested sci fi fans, as well as those who might enjoy speculative fiction.