A couple of years ago, while the mainstream world was posthumously discovering the science fiction works of Philip K. Dick (mostly through a slew of movie adaptations), the Library of America published its first collection of Dick’s work, FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1960S. It added Dick’s legacy to their roster of “America’s best and most significant writing” and solidified his reputation as an underappreciated author. And it quickly went on to become one of LOA’s biggest selling editions.
The third LOA edition, VALIS AND LATER NOVELS, collects four books mostly from a time in Dick’s career when religion and religious revelation went from being of his many secondary themes to a dominant concern in his fiction and his life. As with the previous editions, novelist Jonathan Lethem serves as editor, providing both the detailed chronology and text notes at the end.
A MAZE OF DEATH was actually published in 1970, but is included here because of its foreshadowing of the religious theme. A group of diverse misfits are either summoned or are transferred to the planet Delmak-O. They attempt to survive and colonize on the strange world, until they begin killing each other. The one common denominator among all the characters, however, is a theology of God the “Mentufacturer,” who seems to determine their fate. While this belief is discussed and argued throughout the novel, the nature of reality — Dick’s most celebrated theme — is more central to the narrative.
About four years later, Dick’s life altered dramatically when he experienced what he described as a series of mystical revelations, which he referred to afterward as “the events of 2-3-74.” His first fictional response to these revelations was 1981′s VALIS, possibly the strangest work in his entire canon. It begins with the recounting of protagonist Horselover Fat’s nervous breakdown. But suddenly, Dick intrudes and announces, “I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity.” (Horselover Fat is taken from the root word origins of Philip Dick).
The rest of the novel is a semi-autobiographical journey following Fat and his friends as they seek the meaning of God, religion and the “Vast Active Living Intelligence System” that sent a pink light stream of Gnostic insight into Fat’s brain. It is by turns a funny, infuriating, frightening and wholly unforgettable novel.
That same year, Dick published VALIS’ intended sequel, THE DEVINE INVASION. It is the story of Herb Asher, a loner on an off-world colony whose life is changed by a local alien. That alien turns out to be Yahweh, the God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, who impregnates Asher’s ailing female neighbor. Asher quickly marries the woman and returns to Earth to witness the birth of the child. And as the child grows, he becomes a threat to Earth’s dominant religious establishment.
Later that same year, Dick accepted an agreement from his editor to produce a mainstream and a science fiction novel. He completed the mainstream novel first, and THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER was published shortly after his death in 1982. Based on the life of Bishop Pike, Dick’s friend for several years, it was Dick’s first non-SF work in almost 20 years. It is the story of Bishop Timothy Archer of the Diocese of California, who gives up his comfortable position within the church hierarchy to search for the hidden meaning of some sacred texts of his religion. The events are recalled in the disillusioned, but affectionate first-person narration of Angel Archer, Timothy’s daughter-in-law and one of Dick’s most memorable characters.
Dick began to doubt the significance of the revelations he experienced in what was to become the final months of his life, but he never completely dismissed them. And in these four novels, especially the last three (sometimes referred to as “The VALIS Trilogy”), we experience him struggling to make sense of it and relay it all in fiction. He incorporated the various troupes of science fiction in his efforts, and then dismissed them entirely by the time of TIMOTHY ARCHER. Ironically, this reflects the love/hate relationship he had with science fiction — the genre that made his career, but always seemed somewhat second-rate in his estimation.
Like its two predecessors, VALIS AND LATER NOVELS is essential reading. Dick fans should buy it and retire their dog-eared copies of the original editions. And those who were introduced to his fascinating worlds via LOA should immediately follow up with this final collection.
One final, semi-related observation: If the publication of Dick’s work was your first encounter with the LOA editions, please explore their catalog deeper. You’ll find that in addition to those many authors who were required reading throughout middle and high school, the editors have also included several editions of note to genre fans — in particular, the collected works of such authors like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and H. P. Lovecraft, and anthologies of crime novels from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. They are superb bargains for the money. And think of how impressive you’ll look reading such apparently academic editions of works previously dismissed as trashy paperbacks. —Alan Cranis