Saturday, January 31, 2015

Radio Free Albemuth: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress entitled Philip K. Dick in Orange County, in which I read each of the novels that acclaimed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, and write book reports about them.  This is part of a larger project that will become an art exhibit/zine release in May 2015 at Hibbleton Gallery.

In 1974, while living in Fullerton, Philip K. Dick had a religious experience that would inform the last four novels of his life.  This experience, which cartoonist Robert Crumb documented in a comic entitled “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick,” involved a random delivery girl arriving at his door.  The woman was wearing a gold Christian fish necklace.  When Dick looked at the necklace, a beam of pink light shot into his mind and gave him visions and messages—specifically that his young son had a birth defect and needed immediate surgery.  This proved correct, and Dick believed the beam of pink light was a revelation from God, or something like God.

The first novel he wrote following this experience was called Radio Free Albemuth.  Like his previous two novels (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and A Scanner Darkly), Radio Free Albemuth is set in an alternate/dystopian U.S.A. that bears a striking resemblance to the conservative, reactionary Nixon-era U.S.A that Dick inhabited.  His experience of living in Orange County, birthplace of Richard Nixon, gave him plenty of ideas and inspiration for the novel.

In Radio Free Albemuth, America is ruled by a fascist tyrant (masquerading as a conservative Republican) named Ferris F. Fremont.  The letter “F” is the sixth letter of the alphabet, so the numerical equivalent of his initials F.F.F. is 666, the number of the beast from the biblical book of Revelation.  Fremont’s career closely resembles that of Richard Nixon.  The novel describes  “the budding career of the junior senator form California, Ferris. F. Fremont, who had issued forth in 1952 from Orange County, far to the south of us, an area so reactionary that to us in Berkeley it seemed a phantom land, made of the mists of dire nightmare, where apparitions spawned that were as terrible as they were real.”  

Fremont, like Nixon, had rose to power as an anti-communist crusader.  Following the deaths of such 1960s liberal icons as Bobby Kennedy and MLK, Fremont’s rise (like Nixon’s) signaled the end of the socially conscious 60s dream of a more open society.  The USA, under Fremont (like Nixon), had spiraled into paranoia, scandal, disillusionment, and increased police and military.  The country had curved in onto itself, and was rotting from the inside.

The two main characters are Philip K. Dick (yes, the author is a character), and his friend Nick Brady.  At the beginning of the story, Nick operates a small record store called University Music on Telegraph in Berkeley, where Phil sometimes buys music.  One day, Nick starts getting these strange visionary and auditory revelations, which compel him to move down to Orange County, the belly of the beast, so to speak—the birthplace of Fremont (Nixon).  While living in Orange County (Placentia, in particular), Nick continues getting messages from the mysterious/divine spark of light, which he calls VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System.  Nick discusses these visions with his sci-fi writer friend, Philip K Dick, and the two speculate about the origin, content, and meaning of these strange messages.  They believe they come from outer space, from an ancient, distant star, a star called Albemuth.

Nick’s visions are of the ancient Roman empire in the first century, around the year 70 A.D. when Rome destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and both Jews and Christians were scattered and persecuted.  Nick’s visions and messages tell him that the empire never ended, that there is an ancient, cosmic conflict going on basically between the forces of light and good, the interstellar communication network of the universe, and the forces of darkness, evil, and tyranny, represented by empires like Rome, and now the United States.  Nick’s visions urge him onto a spiritual quest to subvert the empire through rock music.  

Personally, coming from a religious background myself, I was greatly moved by Dick’s mystical understanding of God and religion.  He sees it as a vast, intergalactic mind, communicating across time and space, connecting all living things.  Valis is what some people have called God.  And the few rag-tag people on earth who are able to receive his messages form a small, persecuted minority who bravely stand up against the forces of tyranny and oppression.  They may not see the empire fall in their lifetime, but their spirit lives on, out among the stars, and occasionally glimpsed in the creative productions of the counter-culture—in science fiction stories, rock music, and in love between human beings.

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