Thanks to Frank Bertrand and Patrick Clark for contibuting this article to Read some of his own essays at Frank Views.

Is The Eye In Sky The Author's?:
An examination of Philip K. Dick's Radio Free Albemuth

by Steve Sneyd

[source: Terrible Work, #1, Spring 1993, pp. 33-35; Plymouth, UK]

A fast-moving political thriller, a lament for America's liberal ideals that blends the elegiac with the bitterly angry, a coruscating novel of ideas that burrows deep into the roots of human history, the nature of the divine, and ultimately of reality itself - Radio Free Albemuth is all these. It is also one of Dick's weaker, more flawed works, despite its eminent readability and the non-stop interplay of daring heresies and believable human action. This may seem harsh, but it must be remembered that so towering is Dick's achievement in, to quote Moorcock "quietly producing serious fiction in a popular form" that even lesser parts of the Dickian canon would, in most cases, be regarded as career-crowning achievements if written by more limited or self-limited SF writers.

Before discussing the nature of the book's strengths - and its, to my mind, weaknesses, it is necessary to give a brief summary of the content, though such summary can only be a pale parody of a plot that twists and crackles like an electric eel.

The book has two narrators - a point to which I shall return - but as they exist in contact with each other almost throughout, there is no point in subdividing the events between the two viewpoints. Those events begin in Berkeley, California, traditional home of radical ideas and anti-Establishment action focused on the famous University. Nicholas Bradley, in that city, is sunk into a cosy run as a record store clerk.

In parallel with the darkening of the American political scene, the wave of assassinations of leading politicians beginning with John F. Kennedy, the deepening involvement in Vietnam and the steady rise towards power of the demagogic Nixon clone Ferris F. Fremont, the apathetic, neutralised Bradley begins to have increasingly curious "visions". Eventually, these lead him to escape his rut, move to Orange County, south of Los Angeles and the heartbeat of right wing ideas. There he becomes a key executive with the power to hire new artists, at a folk music company, Progressive Records. The "visions" prove their credibility by warning him that his young son is on the verge of death from a strangulated hernia, a fact missed by the doctors, but permitting emergency surgery in time to save his life, reconciling Nicholas' wife Rachel to a phenomenon she had hitherto belittled and regarded as a form of insanity. Meanwhile, Fremont, having achieved the Presidency on a wave of anti-Communist, anti-dissent populism, established a network of loyalty checkers, the FAPS (Friends of the American People), who increasingly begin to funtion as a secret police, demanding self-incriminating loyalty statements, reports on friends, and the like, moving on to drug-planting, buggings, break-ins etc. The source of Bradley's visions, which he has named VALIS for Vast Active Living Intelligent System, enables him to outwit a FAP attempt to incriminate him as a Communist agent, and also conveys information as to the vital importance of a girl he has never heard of, Sylvia Sadassa. When at length she comes to Progressive Records for a job, Bradley arranges that she be hired. A cancer-victim in recession, she turns out to have evidence that Fremont, in his youth, was recruited as a Communist Party "sleeper", and Bradley plans to release this information via subliminal messages on records.

Meanwhile, the Soviets announce that they have detected an alien satellite broadcasting from near Earth space. Nicholas and Sylvia realise that this is the Valis-source and are unsurprised when a supposed accident to a Soviet investigatory mission also destroys Valis, leaving the conspirators bereft of further guidance. Before the subliminally-messaged record can be released, Nicholas and Sylvia are arrested and killed without trial (it has also become clear by now that Sylvia's original cancer was toxin-induced by FAP agents because of Freemont's suspicion that she knew something).


But the ending is one of hope - the other narrator, working in the forced labour camp to which he has been sent, hears a rock record whose lyrics convey the message that Fremont was a Communist Party member, in semi-coherent but detectable form, and realises that Valis' back-up plan had, after all, worked, despite the satellite's destruction and that freedom in America, and ultimately Earth, still had a chance, albeit a slim one.

This is a extremely bare bones account, basically, of the ‘surface events’ - so wherein lie the tremendous strengths, and the notable flaws?

One of the greatest strengths lies in the pervasive presence of one of Dick's most consistent characteristics as a writer - his fascination with the exploration of the nature of man's relations with God. If the Church of England finds its task cut out to contain or comprehend the theological speculations of the likes of the Bishop of Durham, then it would be left utterly giddy if it ever attempted to tackle the pinwheeling myriad of heresies spun off, as casually as a bonfire sheds sparks, by Episcopalian (American branch of the Church of England) believer Dick.

In Radio Free Albemuth, as Bradley and his friend and co-narrator attemmpt, stage by stage, to peel layers of meaning off the Valis visions and find the core, dialogue that probes deep into the core of Faith abounds - yet never boringly or inaccessibly, for it always takes a coherent place in the relentless onthrust of the plot. Characterisation, though low-key, is another strength - tiny touches make people briefly glimpsed come alive: Dick, as so often, achieves the economy of truthful "people picturing" we normally expect to be all but limited to the ‘private eye’ novel. Places too are conveyed with the elegant completeness - not a word wasted - appropriate to a writer who refers familiarly to Ockham's Razor: real and visionary locations alike share this strength.

The book is genuinely moving in many places - a scene where, after the destruction of Valis, Nicholas' sick cat, deprived of its healing strength, dies under anaesthetic, struck very closely home to me since we also, to intrude a personal note, lost a much loved cat during an operation, but the ability to convey sentiment truly, without the all-too-common American writers' fault of tipping over into sentimentality, is a strength never to be ignored. Sure-fire plotting, swift action, and, alongside constantly credible dialogue, a complete absence of the "loose ends" of which Dick, like Chandler, a writer whom he resembles in certain ways despite the difference of genre, and who also focused his work on California, was so often accused by critics who lacked the ability to concentrate, add to the solidity of this novel.

And yet - and yet - as said before, to me a minor, or at least less major Dickian story.

Other Dick novels have not dated. This one, despite the unfairness of judging a work of many years ago by today's hindsight, has. It was not as far as I know published when written, too strong meat politically for his publisher perhaps, and so first emerged in 1987 (as a Grafton original) and this can in no way be blamed on Dick. But the failure of political insight - luck and particularly Watergate may have been very much on "freedom"s' side, but Nixonian (ie Fremontian) America never got beyond a fairly amateurish level of police state activity against its citizens, the Vietnam entanglement, no matter how messily, was endured by, mainly, the anti-war activists' pressure, and the USA despite its many flaws does remain, at least within its own borders as distinct from action in overseas "dependencies", a land of mostly free speech. Thus, Dick's dystopian view, his implication that only extra-terrestial guidance could keep America from slavery, rings false when extrapolated from a point as close to current reality as the Nixonian "imperial Presidency".

There is another flaw. And it is not the multilayered inconsistencies in the descriptions and analyses of Valis - for these quite clearly work, and work well, as part of the learning process Bradley, in a sense a representative of mankind, undergoes in understanding the nature of a major external entity - slowly as the "scales are lifted from his eyes", they are lifted in the way that we too would react, faced by the same awesomely expanding experience.

No, the flaw that most troubles me is the question of narrator, which I almost teasingly mentioned early on then swiftly sequed away from to other aspects.

There are two narrators - Nicholas Bradley himself for the core "central sequences" of gaining understanding of Valis' nature and purpose, and for the first and last sections of the book, Philip K. Dick. Yes, the author himself. There is a doppelganger element in his relationship as close-friend and confidant of Bradley, since Dick himself worked in a record store before becoming able to earn a living as a writer. But, that question of how genuinely separate the two characters are aside, the credibility problem that this gives the book gradually becomes acute. Events occur that are real aspects of Dick's life - books he wrote, a break in, possibly a US government inspired action, in which his files are "trashed", takes place as we know it did. Yet he also enters a non-existent conspiracy against a president who never was, and ends up in a labour camp that never existed.

Perhaps Dick chose to intrude himself to deliberately set the reader pondering the relation between creator and created at a fictional and literary level as well as a religious one. Perhaps he is subliminally asking us to ponder the irony of Dick as confidant to a Bradley undergoing mental intrusion, suffering, finally martyrdom, at the hands of forces which, ultimately, Dick, not Fremont or Valis, controls. But if the "talking eye" of Valis aka Radio Free Albemuth in the sky is ultimately Dick himself as a kind of detached yet involved preacher from on high, the multilayered ironies this concept unleashes, to me, do not strengthen the story. Instead, depriving its events of their "free will", it lessens and indeed almost cheapens them, and in the process undermines the key messages about freedom in creative tension with interdependence and guidance.

Read it - but as one step on the mighty ladder of Dick's works, by no means at the pinnacular rung.