PKD flashback: ‘Radio Free Albemuth’ (1985) (Book review)


ooks about an individual being pestered by an authoritarian government are often difficult to read because of their hopeless nature, and a sense that it’s preaching to the choir (me, the reader). There’s also sometimes the problem wherein the author doesn’t make the government antagonistic enough, allowing paths for the hero to rebel that don’t exist in the real world. But Philip K. Dick’s “Radio Free Albemuth” (1985) avoids those traps because it has so many layers. And of course, it’s a PKD book, so it’s easy and fun to read, although in this case he tries out some uncharacteristic approaches.

For one, it’s written in the first person. Part one is from the perspective of an SF author named Philip K. Dick, part two from the perspective of PKD’s friend Nicholas, and a short part three from PKD’s perspective again. For another, there’s not a ton of action in terms of physical movement through scenes or playing out of mission-type strategies by either the good guys or bad guys.

PKD makes a statement not so much about bad individuals in positions of power, but rather about a system that intentionally elevates bad individuals to those positions. I’m sure readers through the years have pictured Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama and now Trump as the equivalent of FFF.

Broadly, “Radio Free Albemuth” reminds me of “A Scanner Darkly” (1977) in that friends are sitting around being paranoid. But this novel features no drug-induced paranoia, and it lacks the humor and free-wheeling vibe. It’s about the supernatural, but it’s PKD’s brand of the supernatural, wherein it’s more tangible and scientifically provable than it is spiritual or ephemeral.

Nicholas receives visions at night from Valis (Vast Active Living Intelligence System), who tells him how things really are in the world, and ultimately, the universe. The authoritarian-versus-individualism political clash in the USA is a minor example of the Valis-versus-Adversary clash that not only takes place throughout the universe, but is in fact the very makeup of the universe.

One way we as readers might guess these aren’t dreams, but rather messages from Valis, is that Nicholas can see and remember numbers and words (it’s not possible to see numerals or letters in a dream state). “Radio Free Albemuth” is ultimately a brilliant stealth bible of PKD’s real-world spiritual beliefs; it essentially features a Book of Phil and a Book of Nicholas. I use a lowercase “b” because this bible is distinct from Christianity — at least until the end.

Also supporting the biblical vibe, this novel was not published during PKD’s life; rather, he wrote it in 1976 and gave the completed manuscript to his friend, Tim Powers, for his private collection. Powers then gave it to Avon Books for mass publication in 1985. It’s a striking parallel to how Jesus’ word went beyond his relatively small audience via publication of observers’ personal accounts and pontifications. (It should be noted, however, that PKD originally intended for “RFA” to be published as a novel. After discussions with his publisher, he scrapped it and reworked the themes into the “VALIS” trilogy.)

In contrast to “A Scanner Darkly,” which is set in the future 1990s even though it illustrates the 1970s drug war, “Radio Free Albemuth” is set in the time of PKD’s writing but – despite some wonderful 1970s elements like the record store and later recording studio that Nicholas works for  — it’s timeless.

At times during my read, I thought of US president Ferris F. Fremont as being a stand-in for Nixon, since Nixon was the president when PKD wrote it. But PKD makes a statement not so much about bad individuals in positions of power, but rather about a system that intentionally elevates bad individuals to those positions. I’m sure readers through the years have pictured Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama and now Trump as the equivalent of FFF.

Somewhat tapping into the shadow government theory, people behind the scenes (here in an organization called FAP, Friends of the American People) prop up the clearly defined governments that we read about in the news and in public-school history books – the ones we’re told are representative of, not adversaries of, the people.

As both a libertarian and a PKD fan, I’ve accepted that PKD was not strictly a libertarian himself. As such, I was struck by the fact that “Radio Free Albemuth” is one of the most libertarian SF novels I’ve ever read. The book is loaded with passages about how Nicholas or Phil wants to be left alone but they deal with regular attacks from FAP. Disloyalty to the government is conflated here with disloyalty to America (even though the government is acting contrary to the founders’ ideals), something that will sound very familiar to people reading “RFA” today, when there’s a prominent amount of flag worship in the country.

Aside from my personal biases, I find the question of whether PKD was libertarian to be fascinating in the abstract. Bizarrely, “Starship Troopers” author Robert A. Heinlein, who hated PKD’s guts (as I recall PKD observing in one of his biographies), is often labeled as a libertarian. Heinlein believed in mandatory military service for all citizens. But apparently he was a “libertarian” because he believed this strong statist military was essential as a protective umbrella for individual rights that could be exercised under its shelter. Regardless of labels, it’s safe to say Heinlein and PKD didn’t see eye to eye (PKD gets in a jab at his fellow author toward the end of “RFA”), and my worldview matches PKD’s much more than Heinlein’s.

I can see some readers finding “RFA” to be too much of Phil and Nicholas sitting around being, for lack of a better word, paranoid (even though it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you). And the book lacks the laughs that come from PKD’s other chronicles of neurotic, sad-sack protagonists. It’s closer to a sober first-hand account of events (amazing though they may be), hence my suspicion that I was reading “books of a bible.”

Some might also be turned off by the novel’s oppressive nature, although the spiritual aspect of Valis counters the police state with hope and love. The final paragraph is striking, though, as PKD thinks he’s pointing to tangible hope – the kids who make up the next generation — and accidentally delivers a downbeat final statement. Ironically, as “Radio Free Albemuth” grows in stature as an SF classic, it also means we in the following generations have failed to advance the baton of individual freedom from PKD’s day.

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