Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

I’ve always asked two questions when reading science fiction books.  First, why did the author write it?  Second, why do I want to read it?  The easy answers are usually the author wanted to tell an entertaining story and make some money, and I want to be blown away by an exciting new science fictional idea.  Now that might be true for Neuromancer and Dune, but not for books like Stranger in a Stranger Land or, in this case Radio Free Albemuth.  When science fiction writers write about about religion I can’t help but wonder if they believe their own fiction, or want us to.

Radio_free_albemuth

I actually prefer science fiction with an agenda.  Fun fictional adventures are great for being entertaining, but I love science fiction novels with vision.  During the 1950s I think Heinlein had an agenda for his juvenile books – he wanted to jump start manned space exploration.  Heinlein’s books after 1960 have another intent which I never cared for.  I think Philip K. Dick spent his entire career exploring the same ideas – he wanted to understand what is man and why are we here.

Throughout Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick defends himself against his reputation as a drug writer, which he blames Harlan Ellison for starting in Dangerous Visions.  But he doesn’t defend himself from his reputation for paranoia and imagining endless crazed explanations for the reality around him.  PKD couldn’t let epistemology and ontology alone – it was two bones he would gnaw at his whole life.  So when I read something like Radio Free Albemuth I must ask:  Did PKD believe in the Gnostic ideas discussed in the book?  If Gnosticism had been the theme of only one book I would have said no, because it does lend itself well to a weird entertaining science fiction plot.  But Dick spent too many books exploring the idea.

If you haven’t read anything biographical about Philip K. Dick and read Radio Free Albemuth it would be easy to dismiss it as a wild idea for a science fiction novel, but Dick had experienced many visions in February and March of 1974 which he could never stop trying to explain, so he wrote several novels about them, and a journal called The Exegesis.  Now people with mental problems will fixate on such ideas, and explore them endlessly trying to make some kind of sense of the confusion they live in.  I can’t help but feel that PKD was mentally ill, but he had the outlet of writing to explore his obsessions, so do we just ignore his ideas as wild science fictional stories, or explore them along with Phil?  Or do we consider his books meta fiction and consider them a study in madness?

John C. Lilly, noted scientist who studied dolphins, went off the deep in when he began using sensory deprivation tanks and hallucinogenic drugs, and wrote a book, Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, which led to experiences like those found in a Philip K. Dick novel.  If you push the mind, either through physical defect of the brain, stress, deprivation or with drugs, you get to some very far out places.  To me it’s easy enough to write those places off as hallucinations, but I think we should psychoanalyze these communiqués from the deepest part of our minds.  Philip K. Dick was exploring the same territory as saints, mystics, yogis and madmen.

Gnosticism tells us this universe is crazy, but there’s a hidden reality that does make sense.  In Christian Gnosticism Christ was the teacher of this hidden knowledge.  I think PKD really wanted to believe in the hidden knowledge.  I think this world tormented him, and he was desperate to find a rational truth.  This is no different from many religious teachings.  People have a hard time accepting this reality – in fact most are ready to reject it.

Radio Free Albemuth is about two men living in an alternative America ruled by a police state.  They are Nicholas Brady and Philip K. Dick.  Radio Free Albemuth was written before VALIS, but published after Dick’s death.  In VALIS, Phil is the narrator, but the other character is Horselover Fat, which is a weird translation of his own name.  Both books were inspired by the same real world experiences.  Both books deal with hidden knowledge, and Dick’s particular view of Gnosticism.  To me, Radio Free Albemuth has a more traditional story structure, and it’s the book that was made into a movie, which seems to confirm it had the better story structure.  But most people consider VALIS the masterpiece version, and it’s the version collected in the Library of America edition.

I can’t explore the ultimate details of the story without giving away the plot, but let’s just say it’s very hard to tell the science fiction from Christianity in this novel.  Imagine if God talked to you with technology, would you think it’s God or an alien?  Philip K. Dick felt his mystical experiences were real, and wanted to believe they were clues to hidden knowledge, or did he?  In the end, we have to ask, does Phil believe his own far out ideas?  But isn’t that like asking if Christians really believe in Heaven and salvation?  I’d like to think Phil was always just examining these ideas, like the blind figure of justice holding the scales, weighing the issues, but what I like and what really happened is probably unknowable.

Up to now I’ve been exploring how and why PKD wrote Radio Free Albemuth, but I haven’t asked we we should read it.  Should we just be amused by the wild craziness?  I worry that crazy people will find satisfying proof in this book for their own mad ideas, but we can do nothing about that.  How is Radio Free Albemuth any different than Harold Camping predicting the arrival of the rapture on May 21, 2011?  If you call the book just entertainment, it’s not the same thing at all.  But if we accept the idea that Philip K. Dick considered it a legitimate philosophical exploration, we have to wonder if Phil was a crazy prophet too.

I’m afraid that any exploration on metaphysics has to be analyzed as a kind of madness.  And I think most people will just chuckle and say ideas like those PKD explores is just crazy stuff.  Something to be laughed at.  Sadly though, a large percentage of our population will say no, metaphysics is real.  But I say, hey, we need to study people who believe in hidden knowledge and see how such beliefs affect our world and history.  Maybe PKD was saying, I’m mad, and here’s how my madness works, you better study me, but I tend to doubt that.  I tend to think poor Phil worried some of his hallucinations were real.  I say that because I know too many people people who believe their hallucinations are real too.

I’m not sure PKD is a sci-fi writer, but a psy-fi writer.

JWH – 6/22/11

7 Responses

  1. I’d never even heard of this PKD novel.

    • It was published after his death, so it might be one that PKD didn’t want people to know about. There were many of these novels, mostly non SF books written early in his career that he could sell at the time. Some of them are very good. They are about ordinary life in the 1950s.

  2. I’m not familiar with this book, either. But in general, although I like science fiction with a message, I read it for the story. If you want to write a philosophical tract, then write one. Fiction is fiction first, whatever else it is. And too much preaching ruins a story (even when I agree with the message, but especially if not).

    I don’t care much – at all? – about Dick’s private life. I don’t care why he wrote his books. I don’t care about his mental problems (except as I’d care about anyone’s problems). At most, I’d be interested in a brief introduction to a story. But otherwise, all I care about is what he writes on the page of a book.

    • So Bill, you never read biographies of your favorite writers? For Twain, Kerouac, Fitzgerald and Dick I’ve read many biographies on each. Their lives are as fascinating as their fiction. I’ve even gone to visit PKD’s grave site in Colorado.

      Some philosophical points are better made in fiction by creating a dramatic context. Heinlein’s later books were all about his ideas, but they were ruined because he didn’t dramatize them properly – as are most SF novels about ideas. But all great fiction is also philosophical.

      • No, Jim. I don’t read biographies at all, in fact – or not as a general rule. But that’s just personal preference, I know. I won’t think less of you for reading biographies. :)

  3. [...] Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick [...]

  4. RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH was Dick’s first attempt to depict his own 1974 hallucinatory experiences in novel form and in manuscript form was titled VALISYSTEM A. Dick’s agent read it and offered some comments which apparently inspired Dick to write a whole new version of the book, which was published as VALIS. Both books feature much autobiographical material, (as is true of many writers), but they are both fiction, and they are entirely different from one another. Of the two, I much prefer RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH, as it is a fast-paced, complex, and tense story of an individual in conflict with a tyrannical government.

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