Chapter Eight: Religion And The Demise Of The "Gray Truth"
Philip K. Dick's Our Friends From Frolix 8 (1970)
and Valis (1981)
by Aaron Barlow
God is reborn on Earth. What happens? A goat dies. God, information, and information transfer, sire a girl-child, a returning savior. A disciple seeking more of the blissful information soon kills her. A young woman's death over-shadows the landing of a returning savior. Time begins to fold back to its beginning, and a prophet who has died returns but can save nothing.
These are but a few of the strange things that happen when Philip K. Dick presents a god in his fiction. When he begins to delve beneath what he saw as that illusory surface, "perception" or "the mask," to see how things "really" stand—in his own world as in his fiction. The examples above come from, respectively, The Divine Invasion, VALIS, Our Friends From Frolix 8, and Counter-Clock World. These, with The Cosmic Puppets, Deus Irae, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Eye in the Sky, Galactic Pot-Healer, A Maze of Death, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and Radio Free Albemuth make up Dick's opus, in the novel, on questions concerning the roles of gods and the god-like.
In all of these works, the gods somehow fail. Saviors appear to return to worlds feeling the full brunt of entropy. They return to worlds falling apart or, at least, retreating from the limits of entropy into another chaos, stasis. In each case, the savior appears only to fail to save—if, in fact, he or she even makes the attempt. The older movement remains intact, static.
Nothing changes. Things will always fall apart. History, when it comes to an end, obliterates itself and its end, and returns to process—or is found never to have existed. Apocalypse comes and goes, and nobody notices.
Time and process, in Dick's view of things, do not exist, not as we normally perceive them, at least. They are, perhaps, the greatest of illusions—or the most diabolic of masks. Compared to them, the meager attempts at manipulation by mere humans, be they dictators or wives, amount to little more than nothing.
We cannot be surprised, then, when we discover that Dick's career can easily be seen as a movement toward more direct grapplings with the issues surrounding the idea of a god as manipulator, as the ultimate totalitarian. Dick believed in a concrete god, one constantly involved in human affairs, yet one masking that involvement, allowing only hints about its role to appear. Therefore, apocalypse—the Christian god's promise to believers—becomes an extremely important concept to Dick. Understood in one way, it makes Dick's god the worst type of leader: "I punish you now but, if you do what I ask, I will reward you in the future."
To integrate his own Christian god into his political framework, Dick had to come to terms with the idea of apocalypse, to somehow see it as something less than a totalitarian event. Unable to ignore it, Dick re-interpreted it, making it meaningless in the larger, worldly sense, bringing its significance into the arena of the individual only, and leaving it there. Here again, Dick refuses recognition of the greater world, making only individual relationships—though, this time, with god—significant.
Tandem questions of individuality and the idea of god, of individuals and their gods, come down to consideration of how one should relate to a god of total power, yet one who allows, if not freedom of choice, at least the illusion of it. Intent on holding onto one's identity, should one fight for freedom from the god, even knowing the battle lost? If not, why does individuality exist? Are we merely victims in a cruel game? Have we been created merely to be deceived and bested?
As his life went on, Dick began to find answers to these common religious questions—for himself. Not necessarily for others—to believe he knew and could tell the rest of us would have struck him as too coercive. As egalitarian relationships were crucial to his political vision, they became the base of his religious rhetoric as well. "These are things I want to talk about," he might have said, "possibilities I have discovered. I present them to you, and ask you to give me others, in return."
A novelist, of course, can have no direct dialogue with the reader. So, Dick presented as many possibly alternatives to his own belief as he possibly could, expanding possibility and offering the reader the option considering even ones he has missed. "You should never believe what I say," his later books tell us, "but please consider the options I present."
Though he does present gods and their impact on mankind in some of his early books, Dick's interest in them is obviously speculative. The books are examples of that "what if?" formula of science fiction and not the grapplings with a given that appear later. But, to Dick, the end of man involves more than destruction, as it might in the more common sort of science fiction end-of-the-world vision; it contains questions and possibilities of salvation that have become immediate and as real as only a god can make them.
Dick saw two possible and mutually exclusive fates for humanity: a general, totalitarian apocalypse and personal salvation. As, in his scheme of things, the individual experience is of paramount importance, that other possible end, a general apocalypse, must be proven fraudulent or, at least, unimportant. Dick liked to express this distinction in terms of the eidos kosmos and the koinos kosmos, the world of the individual and the world of the group, connecting the two through the fact of a kosmos but never accepting the dominance of the koinos kosmos, something an apocalypse would necessitate.
Before discussing Dick's mature works expressing his religious vision and its relationship with the mask and individuality, it may be prudent to look at some of the stories and early novels that point the way toward them, the ones that provide the underpinnings for his final great debate.
In 1968, Dick's short story "Not By Its Cover," in which he returns to the wub, the creature of his first published story, appeared in Famous Science Fiction. In it, Dick presents his vision of most "organized" religious thought, and it is not a very complimentary one. In it also, however, Dick provides his first, tentative vision in his fiction of his new own Christian (or neo-Christian) beliefs.
In the story, a Martian publishing firm has put out a series of reprints of Earth classics, and has bound a limited edition in wub-fur. Strange things start happening to the words in the books. Changes are made, for example, to the verses of Dryden's translation of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, so that the book now talks of a blissful life after death. After examination of one passage, one of the characters says, "'What is most annoying... is that this quatrain preaches a message diametric to that of the entire book'" (The Stories of Philip K. Dick 5; 176).
Soon, the publishers discover that the wub-fur itself is changing the texts, is alive, still contains the essence of the wubs. Interested, the characters set about discovering what else the wubs have to say, hoping, perhaps, to discover something of value—maybe about life after death. And they find out a great deal.
In the wub-covered version of Paul's letters to the Corinthians, they discover that:
"The passage that begins, 'Behold, I tell you a mystery—' it is set all in caps. And it repeated the lines, 'Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?' ten time straight; ten whole times, all in caps." (Stories 5; 179)
If the wubs do not fear death, have conquered it, what about other life-forms? Another, experimental text had been bound in wub-fur:
"As a matter of fact I've already tried an experiment. I had a one-sentence text printed up, a single line reading: 'The wub, unlike every other living creature, is immortal.'
"I then had it bound in wub-fur; then I read it again. It had been changed. Here." He passes a slim book, handsomely appointed, to Masters. "Read it as it is now."
Masters read aloud: "The wub, like every other living creature, is immortal."
Returning the copy to Snead he said, "Well, all it did was drop out the un; that's not much of a change, two letters."
But from the standpoint of meaning," Snead said, "it constitutes a bombshell." (179-180)
If the wubs are to be believed, every creature lives eternally. Snead is asked what other books he bound in wub-fur:
"The Britannica. It didn't precisely change anything, but it added whole articles. On the soul, on transmigration, on hell, damnation, sin, or immortality; the whole twenty-four volume set became religiously oriented." He glanced up. "Should I go on?"
"Sure," Masters said, listening and meditating simultaneously.
"The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas. It left the text intact, but it periodically inserted the biblical line, 'The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.' Over and over again." (181)
Here, once again, Dick has used his wub to make a point, though not a particularly unusual one, about knowledge and discussion—and literature. Though the wubs have literally changed the texts, their act is analogous to that of the reader—though not to the traditional literary critic. The reader approaches a text from a certain stance or belief and reacts to the text, in part, through that belief, often changing what is read (what the author meant to have read, that is) to suit that particular reader's framework. The critic, as opposed to the wub, tries, or once tried, to see authorial intention, nothing more.
"What can the work do for me?" Dick has one of the characters demand that his casket be covered with wub fur. This man has not heard completely the messages he has read, but he has begun to listen to readers, not writers. Unfortunately, he has now given special credence to those other readers, the wubs, and not to his own readings even of them. He listens too strongly to other readers, ones he now thinks of as competent critics. He believes in their protection, and not in what they have told him. He forgets that the dropped "un," if the wubs are to be believed, indicates eternal life for him, no matter what.
As in the case of the wub in "Beyond Lies the Wub," Dick himself can be identified with this wub—the Dick, that is, of later years, who used his own books, who even changed his own text to try to inform about the "realities" of his beliefs. Though they were in constant flux, books are the focus of an intense exploration by all involved in them, writers, readers, and critics. Dick believed this as surely as do his wubs. If all writers merely re-write one book, Dick was re-writing his to bring it into line with newer and more deeply-felt beliefs. As his career went on, he became, more and more clearly, the wub.
By the time of "Not By Its Cover," Dick had almost completely given up the short story for the more lucrative novel market. One later exception is "Rautavaara's Case," in which an alien group dispatches a robot to revive an earth person who has died in a space accident. They use her body to restore her brain, the flesh literally feeding the mind. In a vision, as brain only (the rest of her has perished), she sees time return to a prior state, restoring her and her companions to their pre-accident state.
Christ appears to her, to them. The aliens see this as her experience of the afterworld; the Earthpersons, belatedly brought in to help out, see it as an hallucination. As an experiment, the aliens replace the human vision of the savior with one of their own. Mercifully, the Earthpersons manage to pull the plug on Rautavaara before things get too out of hand.
The question of the "truth" of the vision is never answered. Perhaps the aliens' savior would have proved another manifestation of Christ. Certainly, Dick's own beliefs were moving in that direction, that God appears differently to each. This story, written after Dick's own visionary experience, makes it clear that his literary thoughts were already following his new personal experiences. His Christian vision was getting stronger, the idea of a savior, of some sort, becoming less threatening.
Often, to the early Dick, the savior had been a rather frightening figure, even when its intentions are good. Sometimes in the earlier stories and novels it, and the god or god-like figure behind it, are evil, as in "Faith of Our Fathers," where an Orwellian "big brother" speaks once more through TV screens. But Chien, the main character sees, through drugs, what Big Brother is—or thinks he does. Sees, that is, one of what Big Brother is. He begins to suspect he has been one of a drugged population. When, supposedly, not drugged (by the drug he had taken, one that counter-acts the original), he "really" sees Big Brother, he "knows" him as a malevolent God—one that calls him slime. It tells him "there are things worse than I" (Stories 5; 219). The alien finally leaves marks on him that continue to bleed. His stigmata.
"Faith of Our Fathers" presents the dark side of Dick's vision of the savior, of the leader, even the god. Here, he is the most evil and powerful maker of masks. In this sense, the story has more in common with Dick's presentation of the evil or wayward leader than it does with his growing preoccupation with salvation. Still, it does help make it clear that Dick's movement toward belief and, finally, preoccupation with God was conducted often with tentative steps, with reservation. He knew the dangers of what he was getting into, the dangers of fraud, of the mask.
Where, in "Faith of Our Fathers," Dick presents what he saw as the problems of conflation of religion with the political structure, "The Little Black Box," a slightly earlier but much more optimistic story, shows the dangers a new religion can pose to a political structure. Where the god of "Faith of Our Fathers" has found it necessary to co-opt the political structure from the top, that (if it is, in fact, a god) of "The Little Black Box" works from the bottom, as an antagonist to those in power. The former forces people to believe, through the drugs (and more) that contain "perception." The latter provides a new perception, one that must be experienced to be believed—though belief, here, exists only in the experience itself.
The particular new religion is based on empathy, on the experience of common pain. Through a device called an empathy box, people can experience union with the struggles of Wilbur Mercer, who is attempting to climb a hill, while being stoned. Because they do not know the source of the boxes, or the purposes of this new religion, the authorities try to confiscate and destroy the empathy boxes. They succeed, but instructions for building them from household objects begin appearing.
Though Dick does not deal with the negative possibilities that might be inherent in this new religion, he was certainly aware of them. As he says: "Here, a religion is regarded as a menace to all political systems; therefore it, too, is a kind of political system, perhaps even an ultimate one" (Stories 5; 389). But, because the system is based on empathy and operates in opposition to the prevailing system, it is not possible that it be too bad (unless, of course, the sense of empathy has a fraudulent base, its anti-establishment character hiding its own purpose). Dick continues his discussion of "The Little Black Box":
The concept of caritas (or agape) shows up in my writing as the key to the authentic human. The android, which is the inauthentic human, the mere reflex machine, is unable to experience empathy. In this story it is never clear whether Mercer is an invader from some other world. But he must be; in a sense all religious leaders are... but not from another planet as such." (Stories 5; 389)
The people who have accepted the box, who use it, prove their humanity. Those who refuse to try it, who refuse to experiment, have become as androids.
The question of the source of Mercer becomes moot: all religious leaders, to Dick, are alien, are different from the normal human. They must be. Their source is irrelevant as long as their message helps make human interactions positive—in the sense that what one does in turn improves the lives of others. No matter how hideous its appearance, the aliens' savior in "Rautavaara's Case" might be the same as Jesus—would be, were the message, and the result, the same.
Dick incorporated many of the ideas of "The Little Black Box" into Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Mercer, the savior in both works, is an ambiguous figure. By taking hold of the handles of the box, believers may be coming into contact with god. But Mercer may be an android, an out-and-out fraud, or even a well-meaning existentialist who wants others to see the difficulties of trial—here, the difficulty of climbing a hill while being stoned. Not that it matters, not to Dick, at least.
At one point, while using the box, Rick Deckard comes face to face with Mercer:
"Mercer," Rick said.
"I am your friend," the old man said. "But you must go on as if I did not exist. Can you understand that?" He spread his empty hands.
"No," Rick said. "I can't understand that. I need help."
"How can I save you," the old man said, "if I can't save myself?" He smiled. "Don't you see? There is no salvation."
"Then what's this for?" Rick demanded. "What are you for?"
"To show you," Wilbur Mercer said, "that you aren't alone. I am here with you and always will be. Go and do your task, even though you know it's wrong."
"Why?" Rick said. "Why should I do it? I'll quit my job and emigrate."
The old man said, "You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe." (156; ch. 15)
Mercer, the symbol of empathy, proves that empathy can exist no matter what one does—even if the "one" is a product and not a human being. Though clearly important to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this idea grows more so, as Dick's ideas on religion expand in the novels of the seventies and eighties.
Even in his early days, Dick could see the ironic humor that could be generated by a search for religious truth, a humor that finally manifests itself most explicitly in the attitude of Angel Archer, the narrator of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. This humor is based on realization that any knowledge, no matter how clearly come by, is based on faulty perceptual systems, and so may prove false, no matter how clear the proof seems. It also comes from realization of the obvious point that monumental consequences can arise from trivial actions—even in the religious arena.
In "The Turning Wheel" Dick tries to demonstrate this last point by presenting a society, post atomic war, with technocrats at bottom (large, ugly, white skinned things) and "bards" at top. The world is oriented to the east, not the west of old. Racial differences are involved in the castes, with Caucasians at the bottom, among the technocrats. The wheel is the cosmic plan, the mandala, that man should not deal against, should not interrupt with technology. It is the movement of souls from one life to the next. Up, of course, if the life has been good. Down, otherwise.
The bards do use remnants of the technology developed before the war, but they will not repair anything, calling in the technos to do so only when they must. So, their machines are falling apart. One that still works shows future lives, shows the bard Sung-wu that, in his next incarnation, he will be a fly, an eater of dead flesh, on some horrid world. It shows he will die soon of a plague.
Sung-wu thinks of his fate as the result of an illicit liaison of his past. He tries to atone, but the machine vision never changes, leaving no time, he decides, for proper atonement before his death. He soon finds himself sent to investigate Cauc (techno) unrest in Detroit (a backwater, a mysterious area). He finds it, but is deterred from reporting his findings by a present of techno-made penicillin, a drug that can forestall the death and the after-life he has foreseen for himself.
The irony of the story is that Sung-wu may have actually condemned himself by acceptance of the drug, not by his earlier love affair—he has believed in a mask that purports to show god and afterlife, but has betrayed it. Like the others of his caste, he is a fool, for he worries too much about future lives, and not enough about the present one. Would he live his belief by ignoring its promises, by concentrating on doing the right thing, by his belief system, in the present life, the future would take care of itself.
The technos are beginning to pull themselves up from the degrading state the war left them in, are developing fertilizers, are finding here-and-now ways of relieving their misery. The bards, however, while utilizing techno ability, especially that left over from before the war, try to ignore anything that might make current life better.
The bards are those who make a system of belief so powerful that even those who operate their system believe it—as does Sung-wu. Like many contemporary fundamentalists—Christian, Moslem, Hindu or, though it has not happened so dramatically yet, Buddhist—they believe in a mask, but not to the extent of denying contradictions that might, used appropriately, make the masks more believable to others.
Both viewing technology as "good" and denying it have their dangers. The concentration on technology made the war before the action within the world before the time of the story incredibly destructive. Concentration on the next world makes the one of the story equally so, though on an individual, not universal, basis.
Many of the early stories show an almost whimsical attitude toward problems later to become quite serious for Dick, demonstrating that his later works were not results of some sudden change in belief. "The Builder," for example, shows a man constructing a large wooden boat with a small cabin atop. He know not why he works on it, only that he must. Finally, of course, the rain starts falling.
In another, "Upon the Dull Earth," a girl tries too hard to commune with the spirit world, and becomes lost to it. She wants to return, and her lover tries to help. Finally those of the spirit world try to send her back, with the result that every person, one at a time, turns into her, crying for help. Egotistical desire becomes the end not merely of two lives, but of every human life.
In these and many other stories, Dick plays with theological and metaphysical questions that later become quite serious to him. In "A Present for Pat," he even has a man bring a god back to Earth from Ganymede, a present for his wife. The god disrupts things on Earth.
He has come there for a purpose, has not been brought, as the man who carried him believes. It turns out that the god is looking for another being from his plane of existence. When he finds that being, the two leave, never caring about the disruption they have caused. These are gods at their worst, with an attitude much like that of one of the demiurges in The Cosmic Puppets. Humans do not matter; they are to gods as ants are to humans. Expendable, replaceable: there are many more where that one came from.
Another story of this whimsical, but sometimes rather macabre, sort, is "Prominent Author." It contains a rather peculiar explanation for the "great silence" some Christians see as having come between man and God since biblical times. This story is referred to in the later The Crack in Space as "real" history, and the "Jiffi-scuttler," something of a teleportation device also central to the novel, first appears here.
There, however, the similarities end. The novel is concerned with solely secular problems; the story, on the other hand, "explains" how the Old Testament was written—and removes God from any sort of continuing interactive role with mankind.
Henry Ellis is utilizing a new device, the Jiffi-scuttler, to get to and from work. His company has developed it, passing people to and fro through another continuum, and he is one of the first to test it out. It allows him to traverse great distances via a few quick steps through a "tunnel."
One day, Ellis finds a tear in the tunnel, and looks through. Beyond, he sees tiny people, and watches them. What he does not realize, at first, is that they can see him—as a great face in the sky. He also does not realize that their time is faster than his, in correspondence with their tiny size.
He watches them on several occasions, and thinks they must be some non-Terran beings. They eventually hand him a piece of paper "so incredibly small he could scarcely see it. A square of white at the end of a microscopic pole" (Stories 2; 384). There is something that might be writing on it, but much too small for him to make out.
At work, he magnifies it, then gives it to a linguistics machine for translation:
Questions. They were asking him questions. God, it was getting complicated. He read the questions intently, his lips moving. What was he getting himself into. They were expecting answers. He had taken the paper, gone off with it. Probably they would be waiting for him, on his way home. (Stories; 385)
Another machine gives answers. They are translated, put onto a small piece of paper, and Ellis gives this to the waiting people—a different bunch, of course, than those who had given him the questions.
This process goes on for some time, until Ellis' superiors get wind of it, and investigate. Miller, his boss, then calls Ellis into his office:
"Your missive," Miller stated, "which you foisted on our Linguistics Machine, was not a non-Terran script. It was not from Centaurus VI. It was not from any non-Terran system. It was ancient Hebrew. And there's only one place you could have got it, Ellis. So don't try to kid me."
"Hebrew!" Ellis exclaimed, startled. He turned white as a sheet. "Good Lord. The other continuum—the fourth dimension. Time, of course." He trembled. "And the expanding universe. That would explain their size. And it explains why a new group, a new generation—" ....
"I don't think I did any harm, did I?" Ellis was suddenly terribly nervous. "They seemed pleased, even grateful. Gosh, I'm sure I didn't cause any trouble."
Miller shrieked in insane rage. For a time he danced around the room. Finally he threw something down on his desk, directly in front of Ellis. "No trouble. No, none. Look at this. I got it from the Ancient Artifacts Archives."
"What is it?"
"Look at it! I compared one of your question sheets to this. The same. Exactly the same. All your sheets, questions and answers, every one of them's in here." (Stories; 391)
Is there any truth in what the machine, through Ellis, told the ancient Jews? Was it merely repeating, as a closed loop, the Judeo-Christian tradition that, according to the story, Ellis had begun? Or was the machine providing some real answers? Ellis, of course, is no god. But could he, through a machine, be the instrument of one?
Though these questions were probably not important to Dick at the time he wrote "Prominent Author," they later, these become exactly the questions Dick considers. He discards simplistic causal relationships as masks themselves, and tries to see behind them, to discover what truth they may conceal. After all, causation, if it exists, can also be a tool.
In many of Dick's novels, a cataclysmic war has passed. Though not often—until the later novels—explicitly apocalyptic, parallels with the apocalypse are drawn, though the event is almost always portrayed as a failure. As apocalypse represented, for Dick, the major problem in resolving man/god relationships, the early presentations can be seen as his rejection of the Christian vision. Not yet a Christian, in fact rather than in name, he could reject apocalypse and show how it, if "true," demeans human individuality. Later, however, he had to do something more.
Toward the end of Our Friends From Frolix 8 (1970), after the "dead"—millions of zombie-like humans freed from internment camps—have risen, while the "savior" is greeting the world, Nick Appleton, who has been computer-selected as the archetypal "Old Man"—meaning "common man"—tries to recite a poem to his young lover. She doesn't want to hear it: it's "before Bob Dylan" (245; ch. 24). Only three lines of the never-named poem are quoted. Yet that poem, William Butler Yeats's "The Song of the Happy Shepherd," provides a crucial clue to Dick's new vision of apocalypse, one developed as a Christian, not merely as a participant in a predominantly Christian culture.
Dick has changed the focus of the poem, moving it from the nostalgia of Yeats's shepherd into the realm of apocalyptic vision. The two kinds of truth expressed in the poem, however, remain. As Frank Hughes Murphy says, one is:
spurious and one valid... ; one is the "Gray Truth" which is now the world's toy and which seems to be what the "starry men" seek in their optic glass. Theirs is an undesirable pursuit because it is a fruitless one: " ...there is no truth/Saving in thine own heart." The men of science have gone astray because "dead is all their human truth." This "human truth" is the second and really the only kind, for Gray truth is illusory; and the human truth can be found only within the self. (12)
This human truth/gray truth distinction is particularly important to Dick, even to his attitude toward science fiction. To Dick, the distinction is between history, and truth of the world, and the history, or truth of the individual. The first, he tries to show, is false, the second, true. Thus, even John's vision in Apocalypse can be true only insofar as it relates to the individual.
Counter-Clock World (1967), which pre-dates Our Friends From Frolix 8 only slightly, begins with a quote from St. Augustine: "Place there is none; we go backward and forward, and there is no place" (5). And so it is, literally, in the novel. In the late 1980's time reaches its limit and retreats back to its source, something like a yo-yo. People, though their thoughts still move "forward," find themselves desiring, for example, to ingest excrement, an act eventually forcing themselves to relieve themselves, through their mouths, of disgusting "food."
New businesses have arisen—one of which is dedicated to the rescuing of the dead, who are, by degrees, finding themselves alive in their graves.
One of these businesses brings back a man who had led a large religious movement, who may have predicted the change in time, who possibly died prepared to come back. A struggle over possession of him, as he tries to regain his bearings, ensues, and he is killed, perhaps not saved because his one possible rescuer decides to retrieve his own wife instead—acting as Dick would have all act, for the good of those immediately surrounding one and not for some ideal or god. The novel ends as it begins, with people digging up the newly un-dead.
Even discounting the calamitous wars whose aftermaths are the focus of so much of his work, Counter-Clock World is not Dick's earliest presentation of the non-apocalypse, though it is more explicit than any that went before. There are hints of it in some of the short stories, in Solar Lottery (where a savior is expected, by a small group of fanatics, to come back to life), and, more importantly, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (where the returning Palmer Eldritch is more Satan than savior).
In Counter-Clock World the emphasis on personal mystical experience as an opposition to apocalypse is negligible—Dick had not yet had his own mystical vision when he wrote it—though the individual is clearly portrayed as ultimately more important than the apocalypse. There is not yet, however, the fanatic emphasis on personal salvation presented in the later works. Instead, nostalgia for the external savior prevails.
Dick would like to believe, to accept the possible assistance from outside. But he cannot. The last chapter of the novel is preceded by another passage from St. Augustine: "Thou calledst, and shoutedst and burstest my deafness. Thou did touch me, and I burned for Thy peace" (148; ch. 21). But nothing of the sort happens. There is fire, yes, but it destroys any possibility of a general salvation. Yet, even here, a personal apocalyptic decisions appears: in the choice of saving the wife and not the savior.
Our Friends From Frolix 8 provides a clearer picture of what was becoming Dick's central thesis: God cannot save; only the individual, acting on the assumption that he or she is less worthy than those around that individual, can achieve salvation. In the novel three classes of humans appear, the Old Men, the New Men, and the Unusuals. The Old Men are the unevolved; the New Men have an organ on their brains allowing them types of thought not possible to Old Men or Unusuals; the Unusuals are those with effective ESP. Though they compete, the New Men and the Unusuals run earth. The Old Men are doomed to subservience.
They have but one hope: Thors Provoni. Years before, Provoni had stolen an advanced space-ship and set out for help. His followers have organized an Old Man underground, to prepare for the revolution his return will spark.
Parallels with the Christian apocalyptic vision, as we have seen, are explicit within Our Friends From Frolix 8. When Eric Cordon, the Old Man leader on Earth, is to be captured and killed, the plan for doing so is named "Operation Barabbas" (81; ch. 8). Later, a youth, hearing that Provoni is actually returning, quotes: "The veil of the tent is rent, and the heavens shall roll up like a scroll" (128; ch. 15). The first half of his quote could come either from Matthew 27.51 or Luke 23.45, with a tense change from past to present. In both cases, it is associated with the death of Christ on the cross. The second half is from Isiah 34.4, from a vision of the return of an indignant God.
Significantly, this is not the first instance of the use of the line from Isiah in a Dick novel. It appears in the early The Man Who Japed in connection with the "japing" (or satiric alteration) of a statue of the founder of the current (to the novel) world moral system. Here, the use of the phrase is clearly ironic, for it heralds the destruction of that Calvinistic system—through satire, though, not through the return of a god.
Though Dick was aware of the importance of apocalyptic visions early on, his changing attitude toward them brings them a new significance in the later novels. In The Man Who Japed he still held the idea that man himself can change things for the better, can bring about an earthly millennium. Later, he has changed his belief in the competence of man. He still believes man can change things, but now the "things" are only himself.
Many of Dick's characters, however, still believe in the idea of external salvation, of a god or other savior that can help. The creator or savior can set things right, even if man cannot. Thors Provoni, putative savior of Our Friends From Frolix 8, thinks, as he is returning, about his own god-like alien saviors: "The fathers.... Yes, that's what they are, our friends from Frolix 8. As if I managed to contact the Urvater, the primordial Father who built the eidos kosmos" (151; ch. 17). He is naive, Dick shows, as naive as those who believe man, himself, can save mankind. But the image of external salvation goes on.
After the incarcerated millions have been released, an action sparked by news of Provoni's impending return, the man who ordered that release, who had also ordered Cordon's death, thinks, "Nobody's risen from the dead in 2100 years; they're not to start now" (188; ch. 19). He is right, but in a way he does not understand.
It turns out that Thors Provoni is no Old Man, but a combination New Man and Unusual. All have been fooled. Certainly, he is no savior. When he returns, his "friend" destroys both New Men and Unusuals by turning them into idiots, by destroying their talents. Humanity is reduced to what it was, to Old Man status—all, that is, but Thors Provoni.
The Old Men are liberated, at least. If Thors Provoni, now superior to all other men, allows it.
The book ends with a secretary giving a statue, a faddish representation of God, to one of the damaged. He thanks her. She, confused, asks:
"For giving me God."
"Okay," she said. And stoically resumed her typing. While Horace Denfeld played endlessly with the plastic statuette. With the vastness of God. (261; ch. 26)
And this after the so-called apocalypse.
Denfeld, of course, is one of the damned, the destroyed. This is also after that computer-chosen archetypal Old Man Nick Appleton has reacted to the new situation. One of the ex-New Men has asked him if Thors Provoni is a nice man:
Nick said, "He is a man who did what had to be done. No, he isn't a nice man—he's a mean man. But he wanted to help."
"Is that good, to help?"
"Most people think so," Nick said. (274; ch. 27)
Radio Free Albemuth (1985), the first book of the VALIS trilogy (which some like to see as a quartet, including The Transmigration of Timothy Archer within it), though last published, is the most accessible of the three. In many ways, it covers the same ground as does VALIS (1981), but without inclusion of the passages from Dick's exegesis of his 1974 "religious experience" found in the other work and without the frantic discussions of theological possibilities found in VALIS.
Like VALIS, it contains, as a character, one Phil Dick. Unlike in VALIS, however, the character around which the action revolves is not portrayed as actually a part of this Phil Dick. Nicholas Brady is no immediate "translation" of Phil Dick, as Horselover Fat is, both in name ("Horselover" is the ancient Greek meaning of "Philip"; "Dick" means "fat" in Russian) and in being. Even so, many of Brady's experiences are taken directly from Dick's own past. Included among them are time working in a record store and one of Dick's own mystical experiences.
In addition, Radio Free Albemuth is set in a world of political realities quite different from our own, from those, also, of VALIS. Radio Free Albemuth's "reality" is an "alternate reality" of the sort found in The Man in the High Castle.
Ferris F. Fremont, who shares some characteristics and background with Richard Nixon, is president of the United States. He has demolished all political opposition through infiltration and spying, making the American system into the one-party kind. Fervent youth groups, modeled on those of Nazi Germany, begin keeping tabs on people—and those not conforming to the new norm are placed in work camps.
Though overtly anti-Soviet, Fremont, we discover, has long been a Communist agent:
One asks, Why should such disparate groups as the Soviet Union and the U.S. intelligence community back the same man? I am no political theoretician, but Nicholas one time said, "They both like figureheads who are corrupt. So they can govern from behind. The Soviets and the fuzz, they're all for shadow governments. They always will be, because basically each of them is the man with the gun. The pistol to the head."
No one had put a pistol to Ferris Fremont's head. He was the pistol itself, pointed at our head. Pointed at the people who had elected him. Behind him stood all the cops in the world, the left-wing cops in Russia, the right-wing cops in the United States. Cops are cops. There are only divisions of rank, into greater and lesser. The top cop is probably never seen. (18-19; ch. 4)
The political background against which the novel's action takes place, then, is as clearly totalitarian as in any other Dick work. Just as clearly, however, this is the story of one man's wrestling with a religious vision that leads him down paths he would never, otherwise, have taken.
The connection between the religious struggle of the foreground and the political struggle that eventually merges with it is hinted at early in the book:
I do not... propose to write about how Ferris Fremont got to power. I propose to write about his downfall. The former story is known, but I doubt if anyone understands the way he was defeated. I intend to write about Nicholas Brady, and about Nicholas Brady's friends. (19; ch. 4)
Significantly, Dick merely juxtaposes two statements of intention in this passage. He does not say that anything Brady does leads to Fremont's downfall. Were he to do otherwise, were he to make a direct connection, he would be placing a political purpose on Brady's actions, making appear that Brady acts from political, and not personal, motives. As Dick had long rejected political motivation as a viable spark for human action, he can only make political results contiguous with the personal.
Even so, it turns out that the source of Brady's religious visions has a political purpose of its own: the restoration of individual prerogative. Thus, it must fight Fremont. As a force outside individual human interactions and needs, it is not constrained by them. Also, it acts within the human world not to establish its own control but to be of service to others in need. It acts, perhaps, as a greater version of Eric Sweetscent's willingness of care for his wife in Now Wait for Last Year.
Through its human agents, those who, like Brady, have experienced "visions" provided by the external actor, this force manages to use the media of the United States in a way that might lead to the beginnings of doubt about Fremont. Instead of a human being offering salvation to mankind, as Allen Purcell does in The Man Who Japed, Dick now allows that role to external gods—or god-like forces. For humans to do so themselves is too presumptive, even when they act as subtly as Purcell does.
Those who are, in fact, equal, Dick believed, should never attempt to rise above that equality. Such attempts, given the weaknesses of equality, must lead to coercion if they are to succeed. But the outside actor, the god, has no such restraints. Still, the god, too, must remember to respect the individuality of the humans—or the integrity and individuality of each human might be compromised and their ability to accept the god on a purposive and positive basis lost.
Thus Dick's belief that his own god desired no general apocalypse or salvation. The individual must make his or her own decision based within their own personality and not on external forces. The external savior is impotent if the individual rejects him or her. The apocalypse passes without changing anything—unless it occurs within the individual.
By VALIS Dick's vision of the savior had devolved slightly. That is, the savior no longer comes to man, offering himself or herself to man. Man, if desiring a savior, must seek that savior. But that savior is elusive, purposely so, for easy salvation would be none at all. At the end of VALIS, he or she is the object of a search that may well cover a thousand islands. Yet the searcher, faced with knowledge of probable futility, keeps searching. Even though he knows that his quest might well become meaningless as soon (if ever) as it becomes successful.
The seeker is Horselover Fat. He knows the futility of what he is doing for he has found god once, has been healed once. But the healing does not do him any good in the long run, for the savior is killed. There is no reason to expect it will, in the future, for Fat has not learned that the kingdom of heaven lies within each individual. The savior, like the apocalypse, is, to Dick, a part of each of us, though often unrealized.
It is hard to define VALIS, to encapsulate it. Perhaps it is not even science fiction. Most of its action takes place in a "real" past, a past that is, at least, as "real" as that of any "mainstream" fiction. But VALIS is certainly framed as science fiction: the quote preceding the novel is dated 1992, well over a decade beyond the novel's composition. Still, nothing in it is far beyond the realm of our everyday existence—unless a god can be considered beyond that realm, unless a god is only an aspect of science fiction.
God, as presented, may be a satellite controlled by first-century Christians (if time, the time of the intervening 1900 years, is an illusion, as the narrator, Phil Dick, claims it could be). The thing is, this god may as well not be that—the issue is never settled. God, in fact, may not even be important. Not to salvation, at least. And the idea of what is VALIS—itself an acronym for "Vast Active Living Intelligence System"—also remains unsettled.
VALIS, its religio-philosophical discussions aside, is the tale of a disaffected person. He, Horselover Fat, has lost his reason for being. His story is told by character Philip Dick, who admits he is also Horselover Fat, but who differentiates the two, bringing them together as one being only once—immediately after their meeting with the doomed savior.
Fat, after a couple of suicide attempts, replaces his lost reason-for-being with a communication with god, a communication his friends take as imagined. When character-Dick, who has not believed Fat, is reunited with Fat, it is only for that one brief moment when they both do believe in what Fat has experienced. When their savior is killed, character-Dick lapses back into skepticism, and the two are again split.
The girl who would be their savior seems to be their last chance, in her life, and in her death. She is both Christ and the Anti-Christ, "666" (143; ch. 9). She is the return foretold in Revelation. Character-Dick and Fat had sought her, had found her through a coincidence that neither believes has a chance of having been chance. That is, they think they must have been meant to find her. Yet she tells them to go away. Yet she is killed.
Fat, consoled by the idea that a savior never dies but, like a phonograph record, is playable many times, takes off on his search soon after, to find god in his or her next incarnation, the next playing. His belief never falters, as character-Dick's does. And so Fat leaves his other self behind. At the end of the book, he is off to Micronesia, for his search still leads him. Leaving neither character with the possibility of discovering the savior within them.
Because he so passionately desires a savior beyond his own being, Fat loses all possibility for personal salvation. He has no confidence in belief; he has fallen victim to the need for external reinforcement. He cannot trust himself. And lacking that, no salvation can come to him.
Character-Dick is caught in a similar dilemma. Unity of being is as impossible to him as it is to Fat. Though he knows that salvation is only possible in a recalling to the personal, a denying of the external, he cannot bring Fat back to him. God, he thinks he knows, is manifested only by internal events, but he cannot quite accept that fact, the only thing that would bring Fat back to him.
The Divine Invasion (1981) contains another quote from Yeats's "Song of the Happy Shepherd." God, one of the characters in this novel, knows the poem, though he is damaged and not cognizant of his full being—a state that allows him to interact with humans on a less than ideal level, where assistance itself is the reward. The damaged god can be helped by others—and accepts their assistance.
Also in this novel is a "Beside-Helper" (118; ch. 10) who offers assistance to the dead before they are to pass over the bridge of judgement. The Beside-Helper offers to exchange his own bill or particulars, the items upon which the individual will be judged, for that of each passing dead. The Beside-Helper is the last mercy offered a human, for the bill of particulars offered is blank. Most people, however, reject the exchange:
on the basis that they are sure they are innocent. To receive the help the person must go with the pessimistic assumption that he is guilty, even though his own assessment of himself is one of innocence. The truly innocent need no Beside-Helper, just as they physically healthy need no physician. In a situation of this kind the optimistic assumption is perilous. (120; ch. 10)
The essence of salvation, the personal apocalypse, to Dick, is willingness to accept just such outside assistance. It is recognition that something better, something beyond human beings, does exist, something offering salvation only for the pleasure acceptance entails and not for any other return.
At the end of the novel this Beside-Helper manifests itself to Herb Asher as a popular singer named Linda Fox. Faith in her causes the death of Asher's personal demon, that which might lead him astray, that which, at the time, has the rather ironic form of a lamb.
Asher does not change as a result of his redemption. He has not even repented his sins. His acceptance of Linda Fox is enough. He is saved.
Before his salvation Asher has been the husband of the mother of God, has been the beloved of God, and a confidant of the prophet Elijah. None of that, however, and nothing else external, can bring about his own salvation. Salvation comes only from within, from acceptance.
This, too, is the lesson God himself, reborn yet damaged, freshly returned to Earth, learns. Even when he defeats Belial, he defeats him only for his own being, not for the beings he has created. To defeat Belial totally, God would have to destroy all life—or allow life to defeat Belial severally. In terms of mankind God is impotent—unless accepted by the individual as the Beside-Helper. Only such acceptance destroys each Belial.
Dick saw the idea of common apocalypse not only as a contradiction with his political vision but as an affront to human dignity, struggle, and possibility. In apocalypse, salvation and damnation are general, not personal, and the compact of the individual with God is denigrated to non-existence.
If we, each of us, on the other hand, can reach God via a personal understanding, then general apocalypse is useless and redundant. If it happens, Dick believed, the peace we have made with God is shown to be fraudulent and meaningless.
To Dick, this cannot be. The general apocalypse is a horrible parody of the personal decision each individual must make vis-a-vis God. The universal standards upon which an apocalypse must stand turn religion into tyranny.
By rejecting apocalypse, Dick rejects that tyranny. After that rejection, he is free to accept God, and does so, ridding himself of the terrible loneliness of the isolated individual. Though he was never completely confident in his religious beliefs—the constant questioning in the last four novels shows that—Dick had, when he wrote them, come as close as he ever would to an end to his quest, to answers to the questions that plagued him, that had shown up in his writing, since youth.