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January, 2007 : Criticism:

Philip K. Dick's Valis

A Critique and Demystification

Science fiction's relationship to English literature in many ways resembles the situation of an unwanted stepchild in a large, upper-class family. Neither its existence nor its lineage can be denied. Yet, its right to be present, its legitimacy, is subject to active, hostile questioning by those with the most control over academic discourse. All too often, it is shoved out a side door to fend for itself in the wide world while self-appointed guardians of the Academy arbitrarily label it as something less than real literature. This attitude has spread downward through a hierarchical cultural power structure from intellectuals to the general public. Thus, science fiction, despite its popularity and unique ability to critique contemporary life, is almost universally believed to be escapist fluff for adventure-hungry, lowbrow consumers.

One example of this predicament is that of Philip K. Dick and his 1981 novel, Valis. Despite being one of the more prolific novelists and short story writers in American science fiction, despite persistent popularity among science fiction readers, publishers, movie makers, and scholars (those willing to risk the disapproval of their colleagues), despite an unusual ability to analyze Western culture, Dick is routinely ignored in mainstream literary study. If he is mentioned at all, he is associated with the pulp magazines where he first published, and then he is dismissed as a hack. However, a survey of the few journals open to science fiction criticism shows a great appreciation for Dick's abilities as a writer and social critic. In any given issue of Extrapolation or Science-Fiction Studies, Dick's name seems as likely as not to be mentioned on any randomly chosen page. Valis occupies an even more ambiguous position than its author—​ignored by the academic elite and either lauded or deprecated by science fiction critics. Put simply, Valis touches a nerve. More specifically, Valis, as a metanarrative, challenges assumptions about literature, especially its production, that are part of the cultural logic of global capitalism. Thus, a cognitive map of Valis will reveal the work as a critique and demystification of capitalism's perpetuation of literary composition as the privilege of an elite class.


Any attempted examination of a work as wide-ranging and complex as Valis must necessarily limit itself to a manageable set of issues. In this case, those issues have been chosen in an attempt to describe a constellation of related elements linked by their association both to composition studies and to Valis. Existing criticism of Valis will be considered, followed by an examination of Dick's own circumstances as a product of the mystification of composition. The consideration of the material circumstances of Valis's production will then lead to a consideration of composition as critiqued by Valis.


For the purposes of this essay, "composition" will refer to the discipline devoted to the production of texts privileged by the majority of professional academics, the process of literary writing. In addition, it will refer to the practice of creating texts not privileged by the majority of professional academics. The distinction between the two will be maintained by referring to the former as "composition of privileged texts" and to the latter as "composition of non-privileged texts". As noted by Bruce Herzberg, "Writing is a form of social behavior as well as a complex system for manipulating knowledge, and the two functions are inseparable" (115). Thus, a single social activity produces two distinct kinds of texts: privileged and non-privileged. Such a distinction will facilitate a demystification of composition as an activity of the elite.

Criticism and related words will be used to describe the action of an "individual in his real relation to other individuals and groups, in his conflict with a particular class, and, finally, in the resultant web of relationships with the social totality and with nature" (Horkheimer, Critical 210-11). The meaning of criticism will not be limited strictly to a set of arbitrarily determined technical merits (or lack thereof) of Valis. Following Horkheimer's definition, as well as Adorno's idea of constellation, a variety of irreducibly complex historical elements will be considered as interacting with each other to produce Valis.

To conform to common practice in criticism of Valis, "Dick" will refer to Philip K. Dick, the author. The narrator of the story, to avoid confusion, will be referred to as "Phil".

Repression and Composition

The constellation of elements linked to Valis must rightly include composition itself. As a metanarrative, Valis critiques the production of texts in general and its own production in particular. Dick's portrayal of himself as an author and of his narrative as a product of both Horselover Fat and Phil is a result of historical forces in conflict. This conflict is only apparently resolved by a mystification of composition itself as an activity open to members of all classes, yet in practice used as a tool to maintain the system of classes under capitalism. An understanding of this contradiction is critical to an understanding of Valis.

Composition's role in the university has become one of keeping the lower classes out of higher education (the dreaded freshman comp. course), cranking out middle-class, white collar workers, and passing members of the higher class on up to elite levels of education, including literary training in writing classes (thereby distinguished from non-privileged composition). Composition now is alienated from the very texts it produces. The texts are either non-privileged workplace communications and popular entertainment or officially sanctioned literary writing. Williams explains, further, that any products of composition produced in this system that can be interpreted as perpetuating the status quo are absorbed into the privileged category of literature:

Of course the definition of an object of knowledge that is perceived in certain ways becomes hopelessly confused within any dominant paradigm with the object about which the knowledge is to be gained. This is clear now in some uses of the term "Literature", which is, after all, in its most common general sense, not often produced by literary departments but is still held in some way to be possessed and defended by them. (Williams 193, emphasis his)

Once a text is labeled "literary" (either literature or writing about literature), it becomes the property of literature departments, depriving its creator of the product of labor. As will be shown, Dick's class membership, to a large degree, determined the course of his writing career as a producer of non-privileged texts and determined the content of his three gnostic novels, particularly Valis.

The Repression of Science Fiction

Although science fiction is uniquely capable of critiquing the mystifications of the status quo (Freedman 30), it is almost universally dismissed by the literary establishment. Instead, it functions as an indicator (though not a filter to the degree that composition as a discipline is) of class affiliation. That is, students who fail composition and others who seem to fail life (in the sense of not rising in class affiliation) learn to blame themselves for a lack of ability or poor work ethic. However, as Herzberg points out, "Equal opportunity appears to reconcile the contradiction between individual development and social reproduction—​but only if the structure of society is benign" (102).

The structure, though, is not benign; it is oppressive, but the oppression is hidden so that effect is mistaken for cause. "Giving citizens more education does not change the nature of work or the structure of the economy. Indeed, it appears that the nature of the economy determines the effects of education" (Herzberg 104). Likewise, writing and (to a lesser degree) reading science fiction is associated, in the dominant culture, with social misfits who are assumed to have failed at life. In fact, science fiction writers (and readers) perceive, sometimes unconsciously, that something is fundamentally wrong with society. Additionally, since science fiction contains an inherent critique of reality (Hunt 65)—​a social construct—​it becomes a threat to the mystifications of the status quo, accounting for its marginal status in English departments where almost every other genre seems to be approved. Consequently, Gary Westfall observes that "of all forms of once-neglected literature that now receive significant scholarly attention, science fiction has attracted and continues to attract the most academic resistance" (2).

In such an oppressive atmosphere, Dick's persistent themes of a malevolent force (the blind god of Valis) in control of the totality (Hunt 69) take on a horrifyingly realistic form. Yet hope is never wholly absent. Even after the death of Sophia (Wisdom) and the re-disintegration of Phil's personality, Fat continues his pathetic search for a savior. Likewise, even after years of marginalization by the upper-class guardians of literature "the industrious science fiction community consisting of dedicated readers who embody and maintain the traditions of the genre, carry on their own painstaking research, and express their own views concerning the quality and stature of its authors" (Westfahl 2).

Existing Criticism of Valis

Another element in the constellation being mapped here is the state of criticism of Valis. Not surprisingly, the mystification associated with science fiction has generally prevented close examination of the novel. Even among those scholars who work with science fiction, only a few hardy souls have published work about Valis. Doubtless, Dick's well-known personal difficulties and antagonistic attitude toward his chief defenders (especially Fredric Jameson and Stanislaw Lem) discouraged attention before his death. Still, since 1982, besides being turned into an opera (Stenshoel), Valis has received limited attention.

Of the criticism that has been published, the tendency has been away from a critical theoretical approach. In general, Valis is considered as an ahistorical artifact of literature in a marginalized genre or as an expression of Dick's mystical experience. While Valis is certainly a work of science fiction, and Dick certainly did claim to have had some sort of transcendental experience in 1974, these sorts of approaches miss the convergence of multiple historical forces that produced Valis.

In general, Dickian criticism has concentrated on his more popular novels: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, The Man in the High Castle, and Time Out of Joint. Criticism of his short stories shows a wider variety of titles, though considering his large body of work this is hardly surprising. Still, only a few critics have applied critical theoretical thought to Dick's work. Stanislaw Lem has continued to critique Dick's work despite Dick's animosity toward him, calling Dick "visionary" (Lem passim). Fredric Jameson has written about Time Out of Joint, though not Valis.

Other critics have been intrigued by Dick's treatment of commodification, Americanism, irony, and humanness. Andrew P. Hoberek has considered his treatment of work and masculinity, while Kenneth Krabbenhoft has surveyed his use of madness and compared it to Cervantes. Many others have written about Dick's use of robots, androids, and cyborgs. While this sort of work certainly deepens understanding of Valis, it also misses the dialectical relationships of elements connected to the novel, thereby perpetuating the very mystification that Valis critiques.

Another difficulty in criticism of Valis is the religious content of the novel, which has attracted probably the most critical attention. Dick's religious influences are discussed along with his own metaphysical opinions and spiritual practices. Combined with their attention to the book as a metanarrative, many have concluded that the book is about the nature of reality, as if Valis were a type of gospel tract. True, Dick did believe much of what he put in the mouth of Horselover Fat, including parts of his own "Tractates" in Valis as if they were an appendix written by Fat and edited down to size by Phil. Perhaps this extensive metaphysical theorizing is what prompted Carl Freedman to dismiss the work as "pretentiously tedious" (165). Yet the metaphysical content is only one element of a larger whole—​the constellation described here.

Of those who have done critical work on Valis, Darko Suvin has done the most to map a constellation around the work. Although he limits himself to more technical considerations, mostly unfavorable, than historical processes, still he argues that we can learn much from Valis, particularly as a parable (Suvin 375). Suvin's use of the word "parable" echoes Dick's own language in Valis and illustrates the approach of this essay—​that the narrative of Valis is a word picture expressing a deeper truth. In this case, though, the truth is not a moral lesson but a demystification of the contradictions that produced the book.

The Author Himself

Another element to map is Philip K. Dick himself. He is the author who experienced the forces mapped so far that influenced him to produce Valis and make himself the protagonist, Fat, the narrator, Phil, and (possibly) Kevin and David as well (Galbreath 119). Dick could have written something like Jurassic Park instead. He could have written screenplays for soap operas. He could have written romance novels. Instead he wrote Valis, the result of a complex interrelationship of historical forces acting up to and during its production. Dick's own experience with alienation and oppression makes him an element in this constellation.

In Education for Critical Consciousness, Paulo Freire describes education as "an act of love, and thus an act of courage. It cannot fear the analysis of reality or, under pain of revealing itself as a farce, avoid creative discussion" (38). But the mystification of composition in universities largely prevents the analysis of reality and creative discussion. Instead, schooling serves as a societal gatekeeper, allowing only enough social class advancement to occur to encourage the misplaced hopes of the lower classes. Philip K. Dick was not one of the few (as Stephen King was later) to move through the system and become a fabulously wealthy, famous author. Instead, he was stopped cold by the University of California. Brian M. Stableford places Dick at UC Berkeley for a year, also noting that Dick managed a record store to pay his bills while attending the university (337). Dick, though, claimed to have only attended classes for two months before dropping out ("To Federal Bureau of Investigation" 202). Patricia Bizzell observes that:

...the academic community possesses much more power than its incoming students do, especially if they display culturally determined 'otherness' of social class, race, or gender. Our social positions allow us to influence students' intellectual habits, values, and future lives and livelihoods to a much greater degree than they can influence ours. In such unequal circumstances, students may have a strong tendency either to conform totally to community expectations or to withdraw from the community entirely. (58-59)

Instead of finding class advancement, Dick withdrew from the university system to work as a retail manager—​a low wage/status, lower-middle class job. His fiction naturally came to exemplify the failures of the then emerging global capitalist system:

If few of us have anything to tell Dick about alienation, reification, and commercialization, on the contrary all of us can learn a lot from him about their effects in pain and bewilderment on normal Americans... (Suvin 394)

Dick's fiction is critically interesting because Dick, in his alienation and marginalization, did not wholly accept the mystifications of capitalism.

Given his position as a member of an excluded class critiquing the system that excluded him, Dick's writing logically manifested in a genre that was (at that time) completely excluded—​science fiction. By 1952, Dick had begun publishing science fiction with "Beyond Lies the Wub" (Stableford 337). This is not an indication of Dick's having miraculously escaped the grasp of capitalism. To the contrary, Dick's position as a science fiction writer was merely another manifestation of the occupations open to his class. He could write all he wanted, but could only publish science fiction. If he wanted to stop writing, he could resume work in occupations associated with his class. "In an important sense, however, Dick was a white-collar worker, driven, like any technician or executive or secretary or salesperson [sic], to sell his mental labor to the highest bidder" (Hoberek 376, emphasis his). Small wonder, then, that he wrote prolifically:

Dick saw SF magazine editors and publishers accept between four to 20 short stories and one to four novels per year, every year of his career except two. That comes to about 35 novels and 100 short stories. Besides, during his lifetime, he saw works of his published ten times in book-club editions, which added to reissues between 1976 and 1979 in the prestigious Gregg Press reprint series, brings the number of such editions of his works to 27. A preliminary conclusion can be drawn at this point: it does not appear, on the basic level of the ability to get published, that Dick suffered from any degree of ostracism on the part of editors or publishers… (Durham 131,132)

While Durham is certainly correct about Dick's ability to get published, he overlooks the fact that all of this publishing activity and popularity with editors and publishers occurred strictly within a literary ghetto, science fiction.

Dick's success at selling his stories to publishers necessarily suggests their own success at selling Dick's stories to their readers:

Editors would never have continued publishing him at all, let alone so extensively, if his books didn't sell. And the awards he was put in for likewise suggest a widespread acclaim. He was nominated six times for the Hugo, and won it in 1962. He took the John W. Campbell award in 1975, and was guest of honor in 1972 in Vancouver, where he was even invited to give his speech a second time at the University of British Columbia. (Durham 132)

Dick's readers (despite their numbers) were not, and are not, generally members of the dominant class. They are those whose experience of alienation and oppression under capitalism lead them to find an apparent resolution to the conflicts in their lives, as described by Horkheimer (Critical 204), through science fiction.

That Dick's financial woes remained throughout his life demonstrates his continued membership in a marginalized class. Valis itself is a product drafted in only 12 days in response to Dick's desperate need for cash in the early 1980s. In a letter to his ex-wife Tessa, Dick explained the material circumstances that resulted in the first draft of Valis, then titled Valisystem A:

I have paid the tax people, since I left you, $4,040, which is a lot of money and of which $1,200 is borrowed, so I am heavily in debt. I had to pay them this sum, since I received a ten day seizure notice and was given exactly ten days to pay them in (the tenth of September). I still owe the state people over $500, but they have given me until December 5. I had to go down there—​I got a 'notice to appear' from them—​and have gone through several unpleasant experiences with both federal and state tax people in being required to go down there in person and try to deal with them. When you are forced to raise over $4,000, it is almost impossible to raise any more money for anything; nonetheless I have paid Nancy her support money, and I have paid you what my attorney said to pay, as well as my paying my own bills and such bills as the phone company bill. Also I had to pay my attorney $500, which didn't help my pocketbook. Meanwhile Sherri was in the process of leaving me, and I have had to see a therapist—​here in Santa Ana, a private one who requires $30 cash each time I see him—​twice a week. On the positive side, I have been able to write the rough draft of VALISYSTEM A and send it off. That I could write an entire novel under these circumstances is amazing, I think.... I am not satisfied with the draft of VALISYSTEM A and I wrote it in 12 days, but of course on the final I will make it into something. (Dick "To Tessa Dick" 341,342, emphasis his)

Valis is not art for art's sake. In the circumstances of its production, it demystifies composition as a class membership enforcement tool and literature as the product of a long, solitary process by an upper-class author.

Dick's first-hand knowledge of the failures of capitalism became the content of his science fiction, created within a community of similarly marginalized science fiction readers. As Friere explains, "Knowledge is not extended from those who consider that they know to those who consider that they do not know. Knowledge is built up in the relations between human beings and the world, relations of transformation, and perfects itself in the critical problematization of these relations" (Freire, Education 109, emphasis his). By reading Valis, the alienated members of the lower classes participate in a building (though latent) critique of capitalism. Valis's metaphysical ideas then serve a utopian function in an interrogation of the existing class system and its hidden conflicts.

Criticism of Valis too often focuses on Dick's tendency to believe his own manifest content, for example, Suvin (393). However, the issue is not that Fat buys into a goofy gnosticism. Neither is the issue that Dick believed it himself, though he did (Dick "To Mr. Peters" 36 and Lethem 2). The issue with the metaphysics in Valis is Dick's use of the dynamic between author and reader (Walters 224) to partially demystify (now global) capitalism. Horkheimer declares this function to be the true function of the theorist: "If, however, the theoretician and his specific object are seen as forming a dynamic unity with the oppressed class, so that his presentation of societal contradictions is not merely an expression of the concrete historical situation but also a force within it to stimulate change, then his real function emerges" (Critical 215).

Considering the circumstances of Valis's production, the importance of the cast off, of junk and trash, becomes more than a part of the cognitive estrangement of the novel. Rejected items represent a hope (in Bloch's sense) for the Other, for something so radically different that it is rejected because it cannot be integrated into the present system but simultaneously is the means to the destruction of alienation. Dick's own condition of being cast off from the Academy, in dynamic interplay with his exposure to Christianity and a variety of gnostic sects coalesced around a repeating trope that appears in Valis, and other works, as junk (72).

Dick, then, becomes important in understanding Valis's demystification of composition under capitalism. His importance is not due to a precritical notion of the artistic personality. It is due to his material circumstances, which determined Valis's genre and content, as well as its critique of capitalism.

The Critique Within Valis

Up to this point, the constellation of elements connected to Valis has been external to the events of the narrative itself. However, some elements within the narrative can help complete an analysis of the work. For the most part, these elements are narrative examples of elements previously mapped. They reappear inside the narrative, again serving a demystifying function, particularly of composition and privilege. Regardless of Valis's rapid production, it is seen as one of Dick's more important novels (Galbreath 115). Indeed, Valis's rapid production critiques the upper class mystification of novelistic composition as a slow, painstaking process, thereby reserving it as a social act for those who have the financial means to devote long periods of time to the composition of literature.

As Jean Baudrillard observes, science fiction is usually "an extravagant projection of, but qualitatively not different from, the real world of production" (309, emphasis his). However, Valis takes the opposite approach, describing a realistic world that is qualitatively estranged. Time travel and aliens may not exist, but then again, neither does Horselover Fat, except as a projection of Phil's anguished mind. So, too, may be Kevin and David (Galbreath 119). Dick's radical approach, ironically, proves to be more realistic than realism as such. To echo Adorno, to become increasingly realistic is to abandon the literary posture of realism (Notes 32). As Horkheimer puts it, "...myth is already enlightenment; and enlightenment reverts to mythology" (Dialectic xvi). Fat's wacky myth really does bring enlightenment, but not the enlightenment manifested in the narrative.

This feature of Valis was also found by Jameson in Time Out of Joint, who explained, "I should also note that the very structure of the novel articulates the position of Eisenhower's America in the world itself, and is thereby to be read as a kind of distorted form of cognitive mapping, an unconscious and figurative projection of some more 'realistic' account of our situation..." (Jameson 521-22). Valis, too, is itself a kind of cognitive mapping, a constellation, not of Eisenhower's America, but of the America of the 1980s—​a time of increasingly global capitalism and the New Age movement. The task of a critic of Valis, then, is to map a constellation of global capital manifested in the life of a financially strapped, mentally disturbed, self-educated writer infatuated with pop religion. This is what Suvin suggests when he writes, "My question is, then, whether the peculiar do-it-yourself theological focus and argumentation of the remaining novels [Valis, The Divine Invasion, and Transmigration] may be read in terms of literary theory as well as of theological tradition—​as a parable of collective earthly matters" (375).

The latent level of Valis has already been partly illuminated through a constellation of external elements, though many more could be included. Turning to the narrative, the critic finds "the violence that image and concept thereby do to one another" where "words vibrate with emotion while keeping quiet about what has moved them" (Adorno, Notes 7). Dick's own belief about his work was that he was engaged in a critique of the human (Walters 222), but he was also compelled by necessity to produce a marketable novel in a hurry to meet his financial needs. His class membership—​determining his education, associations, and aspirations—​also determined his genre and subject matter (largely autobiography) as well as his style (hasty) and extent of revision. So, too, in the narrative, Fat is beset by money problems, especially stemming from his suicide attempt and time in a mental hospital.

Although Valis possesses the generic tendency toward science fiction, it also contains features of the detective story. Instead of solving a crime, though, Fat believes he is discovering the secrets of existence. Phil is trying to find out why Fat seems determined to destroy himself, and the Rhipidon Society is trying to find out what the Lamptons are really doing. This element becomes important as Dick mixes the cognitive estrangement of science fiction with the attempt at discovery across the two genres. The existence of a mystery, as Bloch points out, suggests a veiled misdeed (258). Stilling notes that, "At the end of the first conversation [with Dr. Stone] Fat had revealed his deepest intellectual concern, one also central to the Gnostics: 'Could the universe' (which for Fat is Mind) 'possibly be irrational?'" (95). The misdeeds, though, are not the metaphysical questions of Valis; they are the systemic injustices that cause Gloria's suicide, resulting in Phil's projection of Fat—​oppression, alienation and hopelessness in lower-class America in the 1980s.

The critical perspective now provides a connection to Dick's tendency to find hints of the divine in the detritus of capitalism. Again, it is a utopian trope chosen from Dick's position in a class of seemingly disposable/interchangeable white collar laborers. Suvin notes its existence (386-87) but seems to view the phenomenon as a failure of Dick's creative powers. Galbreath connects the divine trash to Dick's other novels and to science fiction in general (as a perceived trash genre), but then leaves it at that (123). Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, though, notes the irony of Dick's attempts to "find transcendence in the dumpster, always running the risk that it was he who threw it in there in the first place" (326). For Fat, though, the dumpster is the only place to look. Given capital's constant need to expand and the globalization of capitalism in the 1980s, there is simply nowhere else to seek utopia. Thus, also, Fat's obsession with obscure (discarded) products of composition, the Nag Hammadi texts and gnostic heretics. This is why Fat's global search for a reborn Sophia comes up bust. Only that which capitalism cannot use, and so casts off, escapes the system. She will not show up at the sites of religious tourism.

Since it is useless to the status quo, trash is metaphorically dead. Interestingly, Adorno asserts that "there is something profoundly contradictory in every utopia, namely, that it cannot be conceived at all without the elimination of death; this is inherent in the very thought" (in Bloch 10). For Fat, Phil, Kevin, and David, the elimination of death occurs in the context of Christian and gnostic thinking—​resurrection instead of immortality. Fat seeks to escape death by seeking both death and salvation in the garbage. The Valis satellite transforms into a beer can in the road (Dick, Valis 149) and the wealthy Lamptons are the unknowing opposition to Valis/Sophia (wisdom personified and the key to gnostic salvation).

In Fat's circumstances (New Agey California) this utopian impulse can only be expressed in terms of discarded religions. The more popular versions are still in the grip of capitalism. In a copy of the Christian rite of baptism, then, metaphorical death by rejection is followed by metaphorical resurrection through the collective—​Phil's fragmented psyche. Though Fat was destroyed/reintegrated into Phil by Sophia, he reappears following her death at the hands of the Lamptons. This resurrection is essential to Fat's utopian impulse. In Adorno's words, "...for death is nothing other than the power of that which merely is just as, on the other hand, it is also the attempt to go beyond it." (Bloch 10, emphasis his).

The metaphysics of Valis are an example of a true thing determining itself "via the false thing, or via that which makes itself falsely known" (Adorno in Bloch 12). As such, Fat's and Dick's "Tractates" are not a problem to be avoided; they are the novel's greatest strength as they are incomprehensible to the status quo. Indeed, "If it [Critical Theory] did not take refuge in utopian fantasy, it would be reduced to the formalistic fighting of sham battles" (Horkheimer, Critical 211).

Fat's battle for his sanity fails, as does Phil's. At the end of the book, Phil is again projecting Fat, who is again searching for the new incarnation of Sophia. Kevin and David still may, or may not, be real. "Phil's arguable less-deranged state rounds out the archetypal monomythic pattern: the Hero returns to his starting point but is not quite the same person as he was" (Walters 227). Although Phil has experienced gnostic truth, he is still materially defined by the status quo. He is still a lower-middle class worker in need of cash, composing non-privileged texts in a marginalized genre. Phil's alienation and helplessness are illustrative of Dick's.

Another internal element to consider is Dick's style, which Suvin describes as a "perhaps willed, lack of focusing in the novel as it develops: a lot of mutually incompatible speculations, repetitive info dumping, repetitive fixations of Fat's (such as the needless detour on his relation to Sherri for a chapter and a half), or simply bits of sloppy writing—​the noise in the channel" (384-85). Externally, Dick's style is a product of his class's oppressed condition. Internally, however, this style can be considered as an example of science fiction's tendency to challenge cultural assumptions, the idea of style being one of them (Freedman 35). The shock of Dick's allegedly poor style becomes another estrangement of Valis. Since the story is set in then-contemporary California and is presented in a mostly realistic fashion, the estrangement of Dick's prose helps to maintain Valis's generic tendency as science fiction.

The greatest shock to the reader's system, however, is the cobbled-together gnosticism of Fat—​a halting, imperfect glimpse of unalienated existence (amusingly, occupied by aliens). The point here is not that the reader should embrace Fat's cult. The point is the utopian function of science fiction as well as the cognitive estrangement produced by the tiny cult. "In Valis the text does not offer the reader the incredible as already labeled incredible—​zany or horrifying, extreme or bizarre. The incredible is offered as ordinary, as reportage" (Palmer 338). Therein lies its ability to critique the social construct assumed to be reality (Durham 137).

Dick's own belief in Valis is no secret and Valis's 12-day production may partly explain its own importance in the book—​Dick needed material in a hurry. Then again, Dick is a pioneer of the science fiction metanarrative (Malmgren 23). His use of Phil, Fat, Kevin, and David to critique reality under capitalism may not be the end of his query in Valis. Dick is also using Valis to critique his own belief in Valis. Dick's explanation of his personal experience shows striking similarities to Fat's:

What you say about me perhaps developing a "metaphysic...that will cause a cultural turnaround..." This remark fascinated me, inasmuch as for the last ten months I have been researching constantly certain old, obscure metaphysical and theological doctrines (e.g. Philo, the NeoPlatonists [sic] such as Plotinus, Avicenna, etc.), on the trail of a fascinating idea which I encountered while experimenting with the ortho-molecular vitamin formula (which is to improve neural firing): I really haven't talked much about it yet, since it's such a wild notion—​I've got over a thousand dollars worth of research books on their way here, to study to see if I may be right. My idea: The Logos (which in one form or other goes far, far back, perhaps even to Sumer) was/is a bioplasmic life form moving in a retrograde direction through time; i.e. from the future to the past, carrying with it an enormous organizing potential, as well as information of all sorts not yet available to us. In history it appears every so often, in a mysterious and even capricious way, since the principles which govern it are so radically different from ours. My theory is that when this enormously potent bioplasmic life form coheres at a high ergic level, it is capable of infusing persons and even groups almost in a sort of intoxifying form. This might explain the ancient accounts of 'being possessed by the god,' whether the god is Apollo or Dionysus or even the Christian god, that is, the Holy Spirit. In present-day terms it might account for paranormal powers and so-called UFO experiences, taking the form of involuntary holograms. (Dick, "To Mr. Peters" 36)

Later on, Dick adds "concentrated meditation" to the vitamins as a causal factor in his transcendental experience (Dick, "To Robert Ornstein" 128).

Interestingly, Fat's and Dick's experiments with gnosticism in the early 1980s show a notable similarity to the beliefs of Scientology, a cult founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard only a few years before Valis's publication. Fat's developing belief system shows all the circular reasoning of cultic thought, not surprising considering Valis's setting. "If Fat is right that the illusory world of everyday experience is the creation of an irrational god, then everyone in touch with reality is by definition insane and only the person who experiences a theophany is sane" (Galbreath 122). The more Fat's psychosis is exposed, the more it is proved to Fat to be truth. Not only does Valis subvert reality, but Fat himself subverts reality, requiring Phil to project him as Horselover Fat rather than accept the subversion into himself.


Science fiction, despite its popularity and unique ability to critique contemporary life, is usually marginalized because it critiques the capitalist assumptions of the status quo. Valis, as a science fiction metanarrative, thoroughly challenges assumptions about literature, especially its production, and about the system that produces it. Thus, a cognitive map of the composition of and composition in Valis reveals the work as a critique and demystification of capitalism's perpetuation of artistic composition as the privilege of an elite class. Dick's material conditions, a consequence of this system, determined the course of his writing career and the content of Valis. Its position, as science fiction, in the capitalistic system parallels that of composition in the Academy, of Dick in society, and of Fat in the novel. Although Valis has received little critical attention, its critique of the status quo should be more appreciated for its demystifying potential.

Works Referenced

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Bizzell, Patricia. "Marxist Ideas in Composition Studies." Contending with Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age. Ed. Patricia Harkin, and John Schilb. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1991. 52-68.

Bloch, Ernst. The Utopian Function of Art and Literature. Trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg. Cambridge: MIT P, 1988.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. "The Wife's Story." Science-Fiction Studies. 72.24 (July 1997): 324- 330.

Dick, Philip K. "To Federal Bureau of Investigation." The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick. Vol.4. Novato, CA: Underwood-Miller, 1993. 202.

---. "To Mr. Peters." January 28, 1975. The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick. Vol.4. Novato, CA: Underwood-Miller, 1993. 35-37.

---. "To Robert Ornstein." The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick. Vol.4. Novato, CA: Underwood-Miller, 1993. 128.

---. "To Tessa Dick." The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick. Vol.4. Novato, CA: Underwood-Miller, 1993. 341,342.

---. Valis. First Vintage Books Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

Durham, Scott. "P.K. Dick: From the Death of the Subject to at Theology of Late Capitalism." Science-Fiction Studies. 45.15 (July 1988): 173-186.

Freedman, Carl Howard. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 2000.

Freire, Paulo. Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: The Seabury Press, 1973.

Galbreath, Robert. "Salvation-Knowledge: Ironic Gnosticism in Valis and The Flight to Lucifer." Science Fiction Dialogues. Ed. Gary Wolfe. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1982. 115-132.

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Hunt, Robert. "Visionary States and the Search for Transcendence in Science Fiction." Bridges to Science Fiction. Ed. George E. Slusser, et al. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980. 64-77.

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Lem, Stanislaw. "Philip K. Dick: A Visionary among the Charlatans." Trans. Robert Abernathy. Science-Fiction Studies 5.2 (1975): 20 Jul 2004.

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Palmer, Christopher. "Postmodernism and the Birth of the Author in Philip K. Dick’s Valis." Science-Fiction Studies. 55.18 (November 1991): 330-342.

Stableford, Brian M. "Philip K. Dick." Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day. Ed. E.F. Bleiler, et al. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. 337-343.

Stenshoel, Peter. "Interview with Tod Machover." 6 Jul 2004.

Stilling, Roger J. "Mystical Healing: Reading Philip K. Dick's Valis and The Divine Invasion as Metapsychoanalytic Novels." South Atlantic Review. 56.2 (May 1991): 91-106.

Suvin, Darko. "Goodbye and Hello: Differentiating Within the Later P.K. Dick." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 43.4 (Winter 2002): 368-397.

Walters, F. Scott. "The Final Trilogy of Philip K. Dick." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 38.3 (Fall 1997): 222-235.

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Copyright © 2007, Scott R. Lawson. All Rights Reserved.

About Scott Lawson

Scott Lawson lives in a rural area in Missouri. He teaches English for a living but dreams of world domination.


Jan 9, 11:52 by IROSF
A thread to discuss this challenging book, or Scott Lawson's critical analysis.

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