Philip K. Dick in Orange County

"He's sixty-two years old and his name is Fred.  Originally, he was a sharp-shooter with the Orange County Minutemen; used to pick off student jeters at Cal State Fullerton."
 --Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

A while back, my friend Christine asked if I would collaborate with her on an art/writing project about the connections between Orange County and acclaimed science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (PKD).  For a masters-level class at CSUF, Christine and classmates had already created a PKD in OC web site and Facebook page.  Being a huge fan of PKD, I eagerly accepted her invitation to be  part of this project.  We are currently planning a big art show/zine release on this topic in May 2015 at Hibbleton Gallery.

PKD is known for his trippy/dystopian stories and novels, many of which have been made into films—like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, etc.  What is less well-known is the fact that he spent the last years of his life living in Orange County.  He had an apartment in Fullerton!  A while back, I visited the special collection on PKD at the CSUF library.  You can check out what I found HERE.

Dick’s last five novels (written roughly between 1970-1982) are set mainly in Orange County, and they offer an insightful and disturbing portrait of an ultra-conservative, paranoid, Nixon-era 1970s OC.  For my contribution to our PKD in OC zine and art show, I have decided to read each of his last novels, and write book reports on them—paying particular attention to their commentary on Orange County (where I grew up and live).  

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

The first novel I’ve just finished reading is called Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.  It was begun when PKD was living in Berkeley, but completed and published when he was in Fullerton.  The book sets up nicely some of the main themes he would explore for the rest of his life.

I’ll start by describing the world of the novel.  The year is 1988 and the U.S. is a totalitarian police state.  Police (pols) and national guard (nats) have set up checkpoints everywhere.  If you want to go anywhere, you have to pass through these checkpoints, and present various forms of ID.  If you don’t have proper ID (that is, if your identity is not stored in the vast databases of the state), you can be sent to a forced labor camp (FLC).  To be “undocumented” is a sure-fire trip to one of these detention centers.

College students live in walled-off underground areas, surrounded by pols and nats.  If a student tries to escape (and spread “treasonous” ideas) he/she is sent to an FLC.  Black people have been sterilized, and are rapidly going extinct.  They still live mostly in urban ghettos, like Watts.

Richard Nixon is worshipped like a God, or a new Messiah, and herein lies a main theme that will permeate all of PKD’s OC novels—the ultraconservative/reactionary policies of Nixon (who was, after all, from Orange County) are taken to their logical conclusion.  The student radicals and African American civil rights leaders have clearly lost in America.  The country has devolved into a paranoid, hyper-policed, and (frankly) dumber place.

The main character of the novel, Jason Taverner, is a super famous talk show host with a weekly viewing audience of 30 million.  In place of social consciousness, the people of PKD’s alternative USA tune into mindless television and celebrity worship.  Sound familiar?

The main “action” of the novel begins when Taverner wakes up one day to find his identity has been totally erased from the government’s vast databases.  This is dangerous because to be without proper ID is a ticket to a forced labor camp.  Jason’s journey to recover his lost identity introduces another of PKD’s major themes—the struggle to maintain one’s identity in an increasingly alienated, repressive, and mechanized world.

The title of the book comes from a nearly lost piece of poetry, which begins each major section of the book.  The poem reads like an elegy to a lost society.  In the worlds of Philip K.Dick, something shattering happened in America between 1968-1970.  Voices of protest and conscience (like MLK and Bobby Kennedy) were silenced and a new order rose to power, represented by Richard Nixon and his homeland Orange County, California.  Dick’s final novels, as we shall see, are a kind of elegy to what was lost in the late 60s, and a cautionary tale about where he saw the country headed.

I don’t want to include any major spoilers here (you should read the book!).  I just want to identify a couple major themes that will resonate throughout Dick’s last novels.  These themes may be stated something like this: The struggle to hold onto one’s true self (identity) while living in a repressive, Nixon-inspired dystopian USA.  Stay tuned for my next book report on A Scanner Darkly!


A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly is the first novel that Philip K. Dick wrote while living in Orange County, that is also set in Orange County.  Like Flow My Tears, the Policeman SaidA Scanner Darkly presents a future, dystopian U.S.A., a fascist police state.  Unlike Flow My Tears, in which the police state is overt and obviously repressive (represented by numerous army/police checkpoints and forced labor camps), the police state of A Scanner Darkly is more subtle.  Rather than being overtly oppressed, the characters in A Scanner Darkly are being surveilled and destroyed from within (through drugs, technology, and the occasional secret agent).  For this reason, the world of A Scanner Darkly is much more recognizable and familiar.

The main character of the novel has two personas: Fred (an undercover narcotics officer), and Bob (a drug addict).  Fred the officer is given the assignment to monitor and electronically surveil Bob the doper (aka himself).  The split personality of Fred/Bob reflects a larger schism that has happened in society.  The world of the novel seems evenly divided between two main categories: the straights (conservative establishment) and dopers (liberal subculture).  Because of his position as both a “straight” and a “doper,” Fred/Bob gives us (the reader) insight into both worlds, and into the deeply divided society that the novel portrays.

Before moving to Orange County, Philip K. Dick spent the 1960s living around Berkeley, the heart of “hippie” subculture.  Then, in the early 1970s, Dick moved down to Orange County, the heart of “conservative” reaction to the 1960s social movements.  Through the split personality of Fred/Bob, Dick is also representing the vast cultural divide between 60s Berkeley and 70s OC—two extremes of American society.  

As in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, there is a sense in A Scanner Darkly that the liberal, socially conscious dream of the 1960s has died, and been replaced by something dark and sinister—drugs and paranoia—a society rotting from within.  In the alternate world of Flow My Tears, people turn their brains off with bad TV.  In the alternative world of A Scanner Darkly, people turn their brains off with drugs.  The book laments the early deaths of such 60s icons as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, tragic victims of 60s drug culture.  Whereas, in the 1960s, drugs were seen as liberating and part of a larger social movement, by the 1970s, drugs had replaced social consciousness and become a world unto themselves, a swirling morass of death and despair.

By presenting a cast of main characters who are “dopers,” Dick’s sympathies clearly lie with the subculture, rather than the establishment.  This is represented in a scene in which “Fred” is giving a presentation to a roomful of “straights” at the Anaheim Lions Club.  Fred is supposed to give a canned speech about the “war on drugs.”  As readers, however, we get access to his inner thoughts, Bob’s thoughts, and we see how much he detests his audience: “The straights, he thought, live in their fortified huge apartment complexes guarded by their guards, ready to open fire on any and every doper who scales the wall.”  As Fred struggles to get through his speech, he says actually says, deviating from the scripted speech, “..because this is what gets people on dope…This is why you lurch off and become a doper, this sort of stuff.  This is why you get up and leave.  In disgust.”

As the novel progresses, Bob/Fred struggles to keep his two identities intact, but things ultimately fall apart.  The hypocrisy of his life, like the hypocrisy of the society in which he lives, becomes too much for him to bear.  



Radio Free Albemuth

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.


VALIS

With VALIS, Philip K. Dick began a trilogy of novels that would turn out to be his final work, and arguably his masterpiece—his Divine Comedy, his Brothers Karamazov, his Star Wars.  For this report, I’d like to compare VALIS to those other masterpieces, to (hopefully) shed some light on what he set out to achieve with these, his final (and perhaps greatest) novels.


VALIS and The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy is a three-part epic Italian poem written in the 1300s by a guy named Dante.  The three parts represent the medieval catholic view of the universe.  It is both a work of cosmology (understanding the universe) and a personal quest.  The author himself is the main character.  At the beginning, he finds himself lost, and then descends into hell, where his slow journey of enlightenment begins.  Along the way, he meets a vast array of literary and historical figures who give him insight.


In VALIS, Philip K. Dick (the main character in his novel) begins his journey in the throes of grief, loss, and suffering.  His marriage is ending and he attempts suicide.  At the same time, he has a divine vision which compels him on a journey of understanding and healing.  VALIS, like the Divine Comedy, is a work of cosmology, an attempt to understand the universe.  Dick draws on science, religion, philosophy, and art to form his own understudying of the cosmos, which he calls his “tractate” or “exegesis”.  Along his journey, he “meets” (through reading and discussion) a vast array of literary, philosophical, theological, and artistic figures, which I listed in a PREVIOUS POST.  VALIS is also a journey of healing.  PKD is sick, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, existentially.  His journey, like Dante’s, is both personal and cosmic.


VALIS and The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov is a 19th century Russian epic novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  It follows a family of four brothers, each on their own journey to understand themselves and the world.  It is a passionate quest for enlightenment, full of suffering, loss, and occasional grace.  Each of the four Karamazov brothers represents a different philosophical outlook, and each may be seen as aspects of Dostoyevsky himself.  There is Ivan (the atheist), Alyosha (the monk/mystic), Dmitri (the sensualist), and Smerdyakov (the deranged bastard).  Through the interplay of these different perspectives, Dostoyevsky seeks to, in the words of the New Testament, “work out his own salvation with fear and trembling.”


Like The Brothers Karamazov, much of the “action” of VALIS consists of PKD discussing theories of knowledge and the universe with his friends—characters who mirror the four Karamazov brothers in interesting ways.  There is Kevin, the skeptic.  Kevin is always sarcastically making fun of, and picking apart, PKD’s religious theories.  Kevin is Ivan.  There is David, PKD’s catholic friend, who sees the world though the lens of Christian faith.  David is Alyosha.  There is the twin persona of Philip K. Dick and his alter-ego Horselover Fat.  Philip is rational, while Horselover is deranged.  These two could be compared to Dmitri and Smerdyakov.  Dmitri’s quest, like Philip’s, is to overcome/transcend his mentally ill alter ego, to achieve harmony and peace.  Like Dostoyevsky, Philip K. Dick personifies aspects of himself through his characters, to work out his own salvation/enlightenment.


VALIS and Star Wars

Around the same time VALIS was published, another work of science fiction was taking America by storm—Star Wars.  In writing his science fiction epic, George Lucas drew upon the mythological ideas of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which sought to draw lines between archetypes of world mythology.  Lucas used these archetypes to create his own hero's journey—the journey of Luke Skywalker.  Luke begins his journey in ordinary circumstances, but he is ultimately drawn into a vast and ancient cosmic battle between the forces of evil (represented by the Galactic Empire and the dark side of the Force), and the forces of good (represented by the Rebel Alliance and the light side of the Force).  Luke meets guides and companions who help him on his journey.


Like Star WarsVALIS begins in ordinary circumstances—suburban Orange County.  However, the author eventually learns that there is a vast/ancient cosmic war going on, which he is drawn into.  While living in Fullerton, he has a vision of the ancient Roman Empire superimposed on 1970s southern California.  Repeated throughout the novel is the line “The Empire never ended.”  Philip/Horselover learns that the forces of evil/empire still exist, and are now personified by Richard Nixon and an oppressive American police state.  The author sees himself as part of a small cadre of resistance against this evil empire.


VALIS, being a dense work, full of literary references, welcomes comparisons with many works of literature.  I hope, by making a few of these comparisons myself, I have shed some light on what the author was trying to do with this work.
The Divine Invasion

The Divine Invasion, the middle novel in Philip K. Dick’s VALIS trilogy, is set in the future, maybe a century or so after the events of VALIS.  The novel beings on a distant planet, a human colony in the CY30-CY30B star system.  Herb Asher, a main character, lives and works alone in a dome on this mostly inhospitable planet.  He is like a cell phone tower operator, transmitting information across the galaxy.  It is suggested that the reason he is living in this outpost is because there was a war on Earth and he chose this exile over being drafted.


Herb’s exile is made bearable by the fact that he gets to transmit and listen to non-stop music, especially his favorite pop superstar, Linda Fox (aka The Fox).  The action of the novel begins when Herb starts getting disruptions in his transmissions, and learns that another being is living in exile on the mountain where his dome rests…Yahweh (aka God).

When the Roman empire defeated the last of the Jewish rebels in the Siege of Masada in 74 C.E., Yahweh was driven from his mountain home in Israel to this distant planet in the CY30-CY30B star system, Fomalhaut (aka Alebemuth).  Ever since 74 C.E., God has not ruled the Earth.  Instead, the ancient Adversary, Belial (aka Satan) has ruled.  The inhabitants of Earth are mostly unaware of this.  In Herb’s day, the most powerful entities on Earth are the Christian-Islamic Church and the Scientific Legate (both corrupt institutions).  Most humans believe they are followers of God, but in fact they are living under the domain of Belial.  This situation, that the earth is under the dominion of an invisible “evil empire” (which may in fact be a hologram) is a main theme in the VALIS trilogy.

The Fortress of Masada in Israel.

Meanwhile, back on his distant alien planet, Yahweh is hatching a plan to re-take the earth and free it from its oppression.  Like the biblical story of the Exodus, Yahweh appears to his servant Herb in the form of a fire and a voice.  Instead of a burning bush, Herb’s electronic instruments burst into flame, and God tells Herb that he will be an instrument of liberation.  Herb is told to visit the nearby dome of a dying woman named Rhybys, who (it turns out) is miraculously pregnant (though she is a virgin).  The plan is for Herb, Ryhbys, and their friend Elias (aka the prophet Elijah) to smuggle this special child to Earth.  The child’s name is Emmanuel.


Thus, the action of the novel begins, a cosmic struggle for the salvation of the Earth and (as it turns out) the entire universe.  The novel blends science, religion, philosophy, and mythology to create a story that is both ancient and futuristic, cosmic and personal.  Who will win the epic battle?  Will Emmanuel succeed in saving the world from the clutches of Belial and his evil empire?  You’ll have to read the book to find out!

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

The final three novels Philp K. Dick completed make up what is known as the VALIS trilogy.  It's not a trilogy in the conventional sense (like Lord of the Rings).  That is, it does not tell a linear story with a set cast of characters.  Each novel has a totally different setting and totally different characters (with the possible exception of God).  Rather, the novels form a trilogy in a more abstract, thematic sense.  Basically, what unites them is the idea of a spiritual quest, of characters struggling to understand the nature of reality, themselves, and God. 

In the first two novels (VALIS and The Divine Invasion), this spiritual quest involves science fiction conventions--space travel, virtual reality, etc.  The final novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, however, is not science fiction in the conventional sense.  It is set squarely in the real world (more specifically, California in the year 1980), and yet it deals with the same themes of the previous two novels--the theme of spiritual searching amidst ordinary life.  In fact, as I will argue in this little report, this is the novel's main theme--the struggle to reconcile the life of the mind/spirit with ordinary, day-to-day existence in late 20th century America.


The novel tells the story of a well-known episcopal bishop named Timothy Archer (based on the real-life bishop James Pike), who became famous in the 1960s for his radical views and social activism.  He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama.  He was a friend of Bobby Kennedy (who, were it not for his assassination in 1968, might have gotten elected president instead of Richard Nixon, and history would be different).  Bishop Archer supported the ordination of women, and many other "progressive" causes.


But the 1960s are over, and things have gotten darker in America.  The year is 1980, John Lennon has just been assassinated, and Bishop Archer is beginning to have doubts about his faith and the state of the world.  These doubts are exacerbated by the recent discovery of ancient, pre-Christian documents found in the Dead Sea Desert, known as the Zadokite documents.  Like the famous Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls, these new documents seem to shed light on, and call into question, certain aspects of orthodox Christianity.


The Zadokite documents, which were written over a century before Christ, contain many of the famous "I am" sayings of Jesus: I am the Resurrection, I am the bread of life, I am the vine, etc.  For bishop Archer, these ancient writings call into question the divinity of Jesus, and show him to be a follower of a much older Jewish sect, not an originator.  The followers of this ancient sect, the Zadokites, believed that by eating certain mushrooms, they were eating the spirit of God.  What the documents essentially demonstrate is that Christianity is based on an ancient Jewish mushroom cult.


In the midst of these discoveries, bishop Archer is also dealing with the suicide of his son, and the physical and mental deterioration of his lover, Kirsten.  Due to these personal and spiritual crises, Timothy Archer finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his position as a spiritual leader.  How can he preach and counsel his congregation when he is so full of pain and doubt?

Timothy Archer, like most of PKD's characters, is a complex and sympathetic protagonist.  His is likeable and highly educated.  He quotes Plato, Dante, and Shakespeare as readily as he quotes the Bible.  He is a man who has cultivated his intellectual/spiritual life to a very high degree.  He is a genuine and passionate seeker after knowledge, truth, and wisdom.  And yet, as the novel progresses, his world (both inner and outer) begins to crumble.

The narrator of the novel, Angel Archer (widow of the bishop's dead son Jeff) provides a nice contrast to Timothy.  Unlike the bishop, she leads a rather ordinary life, first as a clerk in a law office, then as manager of a record store.  Unlike the bishop, she is not religious.  She is, at heart, a realist--quick to point out and make fun of high-minded bullshit.  Which is not to say that she is uneducated.  On the contrary, she has an English degree from Berkeley, and is totally at home shooting the shit with the bishop about philosophy, literature, even theology.  The difference is that she is a skeptic, and seems more in tune with reality than the bishop who, in his time of crisis, turns to a quack spirit medium, and actually believes that his dead son is trying to reach him from the afterlife.  The title of the novel comes from the idea of transmigration of souls, which refers to the spirits of the dead transferring to the living.  It is actually a common belief in many world cultures, just not in the west so much.

For the narrator Angel Archer, the bishop's problem is that there is a gap between his intellectual/spiritual life and his ordinary existence.  Angel, who is not a Christian, sees this fusing of the spirit and body as an essential part of human life.  In biblical terms, this is called incarnation--making the word flesh.  For Angel, any idea, however grand, remains meaningless until it finds expression in real life.  When Tim is spiraling out of control, Angel sees herself as a grounding force, bringing him back to reality.

This idea of incarnation, or fusing of idea and reality, is perhaps best represented by an episode in Angel's life when these two worlds (spirit and body) collided and she was, in effect, "born again" (not in the evangelical sense).  What happened was she had a really bad toothache and could not sleep.  She stayed up all night, reading the entirety of Dante's Divine Comedy and drinking cheap bourbon, waiting for the dentist's office to open in the morning.  She describes the experience in this way:

"I read Dante's Commedia, from Inferno through Paradiso, until at last I arrived in the three colored rings of light...and the time was nine A.M. and I could get into my fucking car and shoot out into traffic and Dr. Davidson's office, crying and cursing the whole way, with no breakfast, not even coffee, and stinking of sweat and bourbon, a sorry mess indeed, much gaped at by the dentist's receptionist...So for me in a certain unusual way--for certain unusual reasons--books and reality are fused, they join through one incident, one night of my life: my intellectual life and my practical life came together."


This fusing of the intellect and practical life, of seeing and experiencing the ideas of literature embodied in real, messy, painful life--that is the great theme and insight of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer.  This theme is evident throughout the novels of Philip K. Dick, but it reaches its clearest expression in the VALIS trilogy.  These deeply personal, weird, tormented books were, I think, a way for Philip K. Dick, the literary artist/intellectual, to fuse his own pain, his intense and vast intellectual pursuits, and his day-to-day life together--to incarnate spirituality from amidst the garbage, pain, and fragments of late 20th century America.  Like Angel reading Dante, ascending to the heights of heaven while still suffering like a sonofabitch--that is the magic and poetry of Philip K. Dick's art.

3 comments:

  1. Very good views. Hope you're going to the Ap 28 PKD IN OC event at UCI, then the 2-day, 29 & 30, at CSUF.
    See you there?

    ReplyDelete