Valis (1981) by Philip K Dick
Old favourites: A year of Rob Doyle’s most-loved books
Philip K Dick won the admiration of writers beyond his genre, including Roberto Bolaño and Martin Amis. Photograph: Philippe Hupp/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Imagine you woke up one morning and found everything was as it seemed. A reality TV star controlled the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Life on Earth was presided over by omniscient tech corporations whose ambitions rivalled that of God. Citizens hooked on licit and illicit drugs shared their every thought in a global contest for followers and likes, and chose their sexual partners via handheld devices. Meanwhile, economic, political and meteorological systems were all winding down. Everything felt tacky and eschatological at once.
That’s right, the first decades of the 21st century were written by a troubled science-fiction novelist who died in 1982. Philip K Dick has won the admiration of writers beyond his genre, including Roberto Bolaño, Martin Amis and Emmanuel Carrère (who wrote a biography titled I Am Alive and You Are Dead).
I can no longer read his novels, the part of my brain that could follow twisty science fiction plots having long since burned out. However, there was a time when PKD’s work invaded my dreams, in which shards of my exploded psyche pursued one another across looping timelines and unstable dimensions.
Working in a 1960s US west coast milieu of countercultural paranoia and political unrest, Dick churned out novels on a steady diet of amphetamines. In his final decade, he appears to have gone insane. Obsessed with a shattering metaphysical revelation, he wrote a massive exegesis detailing a rogue gnostic theology. One of his final novels, Valis presents itself as a fictional treatment of this cosmological meltdown. Its protagonist, Horselover Fat, stands in for Dick himself – or perhaps not, seeing as the narrator is named Phil, writes sci-fi novels, and shares Horselover’s concern that the Roman Empire never ended and we are trapped in a holographic “Black Iron Prison”.
Dick’s disintegrating universe is bleak and psychotic, but perhaps we should think twice before attempting to escape. As he once warned: “If you find this world bad, you should see some of the others.”