Radio Free Albemuth // Philip K Dick [thoughts + spoilers]

[Image taken from the film version, obviously]


Apparently this is one of the lesser books by Phil K Dick, probably because it’s semi-autobiographical…which means he can’t go into space or insert too much of the weird shit he usually does because we know reality isn’t really like that…or a reality without drugs anyway.

Reality = no ubik, no Palmer Eldritch, no androids

What he can do, though, is give the characters more believability and grounding than in something like ‘Ubik’. Not that Ubik didn’t have good characters…it did, but Joe Chip had a normal life for about five pages, until the plot kicked in and then his character was formed around that…’Radio Free’ has characters who live a normal life for the entire length of the plot, only sometimes being forced into extreme situations e.g. Nicholas gets arrested and shot in the head. [Spoiler]

Dick puts himself in the story

The secondary or main character of this [depending on reader POV] is a writer called Philip K Dick. He doesn’t try to hide that it’s himself…there’s nothing that’s slightly off, no detail that doesn’t fit…this is Philip K Dick and the only thing I think he’s made up is his best friend, Nicholas.

According to Wikipedia, Nicholas is the other side of Phil K Dick, the part of him that believed he was experiencing visions from ‘Valis’ in the 60’s and 70’s…I forget what the acronym stands for, but the last word is system…Vast Active Lithe Intelligent System?

Basically, Radio Free is about the author splitting himself in two: the rational side versus the spiritual side.

Who’s the winner?

I don’t know…both sides have conviction, but are also open-minded enough to listen to new theories to explain the visions. Example: at one point, Phil tells Nicholas it’s the Soviets doing it all, and because all the pieces seem to fit at that point, Nicholas agrees with him.

Why is there no clear winner?

Because both characters are the author: how can he know which is right and which is insane when he’s split in two?

The first hundred pages or so of the novel are written through the eyes of Phil. It starts like a full biography of someone he knows…we learn about this regular, unassuming guy called Nicholas and his life in Berkeley and how unhappy he is working in a small bookshop and how powerless he is to change anything in his life…

I don’t know if this is made up or not…did Phil K Dick ever work in a bookshop? Did he live in Berkeley?

Perhaps this part of the character is based on someone else he knew…or an earlier version of himself perhaps…it must be as the character of Phil talks about his own partial success in the science fiction world, name-checking The Three Stigmata and the Man in the High Castle among others…

There’s a nice touch near the end, when the FAP [Evil Govt agents, all very young, equivalent to those 60’s Chinese students waving little red books] tell Phil that they’ve written his next few books and they will be pulp propaganda and there’s nothing he can do about it. Phil laughs, saying that people will recognise it’s not him writing them…which makes you think…what were his last few books? Valis? Timothy Archer? This one? Is he saying these books aren’t really him? Or predicting that people will say how different these books are compared to stuff like ‘Ubik’ and ‘Three Stigmata’…?

Sounds like a guy trying to stay three steps ahead of his critics…

The writing is pretty solid, and it flows well, but the novel only really picks up when Nicholas starts talking about his visions.

The guy who sees visions is not crazy

Unlike most movies that have a ‘guy/girl who experiences visions’, Nicholas is normal…he doesn’t spasm or have weird hair or anything that marks him out as nuts…he has a wife, a kid, and a normal house in Berkeley, and later Santa Ana.

It reminded me a little of that Bill Paxton film…’Frailty’…where he gets visions from God that tell him to kill demons in human form…both Nicholas and Bill Paxton are normal, though perhaps Nicholas is a little more open-minded about what’s happening to him…

Also, conviction. This is important. And detail.

The visions Nicholas has are very detailed and this is where the story takes off…I’m pretty sure you can’t make up this level of detail because the brain struggles to be so precise with something that isn’t logical…that’s why a story about a guy being shot that’s written by a guy who has actually been shot is bound to be both more realistic and more detailed and possibly stranger than the same story written by someone who’s only ever played paintball.

This is where the phrase ‘write what you know’ comes from…

This is why science fiction set in space is often strange and unrealistic, because authors have to use their imaginations…but then, it’s also why we’re not sure if it’s truly unrealistic or not as we’ve never been into space or travelled at lightspeed either so the only thing we have to hang onto is theoretical physics…

Okay, astronauts know what it’s like in space, but only within the solar system. You never know, common physics might be flipped on its head as soon as we leave the solar system…a wormhole could be waiting, just past the heliosphere or whatever it’s called…there’s no way to know until we actually do it, right?

Science fiction in general is full of unrealism, I think. You look up the contemporary writers now and they’re all doing fantasy…which is basically shorthand for writing out their daydreams.

Science fiction writers just seem to be writing a load of theoretical wank. But what do you expect from people who list their hobbies as drinking tea and walking the dog?

Where are the writers who have lived some kind of a life? The counter-culture types? Where are the people like Heinlein and Dick and Delaney?

The terror of Ferris Fremont

The regime of Fremont is so subtle in this novel that we never even see the guy. In a film, he’d be the final bad guy, waiting on top of his death ray to argue his case and then get pushed off or blown up by the protag…or inflated and then blown up…the main point is: he would detail his plan, laugh like a nut then be thwarted. He would not survive the tale.

The bad guys in this story [the FAP agents] are ordinary people, just like Phil and Nicholas. They’re young and they also have conviction and cunning and righteousness and, honestly, I’d like to see each and every one of them slaughtered.

They’re not evil, they’re just so far along the wrong side there’s no coming back.

The same way the girl…Vivian Kaplan…just shoots all the people having visions instead of interning them, there’s a complete lack of tolerance and compassion for something that is the complete opposite of them.

This is a problem with the world in general.

The anger just builds so high that the quickest way to release it is to stop listening and shoot the ‘alien’. That’s why Vivian Kaplan is so detestable. She’s cunning, she’s holding all the cards, there’s nothing you can say to get out of her grip because the hand is enforced by the Government itself.

The Government is the hand, actually.

She does not need to listen to anything because she believes just as strongly as you that her position is right and she has the police on her side, you don’t.

Has it ever been easier to shoot people in the head and get away with it than in ‘Radio Free Albemuth’?

I doubt it.

Valis is religion is Jesus.

The direction I hoped Dick really wouldn’t go…towards the end, Nicholas talks to another girl who has visions and she reveals that the aliens from Albemuth have visited Earth before and it’s implied that Jesus and God were a part of this…

This kind of thinking crops up in Star Trek a lot too…

The arrogance of humans to believe they are the focus of everything in the universe…that advanced beings from Albemuth would look out for them in this way…okay, humans did come from the same planet originally [according to Nicholas], but…it all seems so human-centric…

Why can’t Valis be part of an alien network that has only just encountered humans/Earth and is now trying to help them out?

Religion doesn’t need to be pushed into this…does it?

What else?

‘Radio Free’ is at its best around the hundred page mark, when Valis is believed to be an alien satellite, part of a vast network, that is out there waiting for humans to be civilised enough to find it.

When it tips towards spiritualism and humans being central to everything, I lose interest a little.

That’s natural, I guess…most writers hit a wall eventually, and if they want to write a bigger picture they have to bring in the idea of God. A similar thing happened in ‘Childhood’s End’…the aliens clearly weren’t enough, so the plot had to accelerate into some spiritual form of evolution that just isn’t interesting at all because humans don’t have the imagination to come up with the requisite detail to paint it out, not even Clarke…swirly portals and erratic disco lighting seem to be the limit, going by most Hollywood movies.

I don’t get it…

Isn’t it better when the aliens are advanced but still ignorant of why the universe is what it is, just like humans?

Isn’t it better that we explore this alien culture and the nearby stars first?

Isn’t the Universe interesting enough as it is?

One more thing, half-related…

A few nights ago, I woke up and heard my girlfriend speaking in a man’s voice. Not just her putting on a man’s voice, it was different, stranger…like there was a whole different person inside her head, speaking out.

My girlfriend couldn’t remember a word of it. She said it was either me carrying the voice out of my own dream and into the real world, or she was actually possessed by an alien. She’s very open-minded about this kind of thing.

I’m not sure what to think.

If anyone told me this story, I’d put it down to hallucination or dream-spillage…so I can’t go back on that just because I’m sure it really happened. The whole idea behind hallucinations is that they feel real, so that’s what it probably was.

But the optimistic part of me, the clown side of my brain…that’s telling me this is it, the real thing…what people wait their entire lives for…either myself or my girlfriend has been hijacked by Valis, and pretty soon we’re both gonna be heading back to Albemuth to meet aliens that aren’t psychopaths and don’t think socialism is a dirty word.

After thinking about it a little more, it was probably dream spillage.


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