PKD flashback: ‘The Divine Invasion’ (1981) (Book review)

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n “The Divine Invasion” (written in 1980, published in 1981), Philip K. Dick is done apologizing for being obsessed with religion, his search for God, and his quest to cogently spell out the nature of the supernatural as beamed to him via a pink laser in 1974. Both drafts of “VALIS” – “Radio Free Albemuth” and “VALIS” itself – tiptoe into the subject, but in “The Divine Invasion,” things really start to happen.

The book starts in unappealing fashion as Dick slightly reworks “Chains of Air, Web of Aether,” one of his most boring short pieces. Herb Asher is content as a radio relay operator on the barren colony planet CY30-CY30B, daydreaming about pop music star Linda Fox, a.k.a. “The Fox.” In the next dome over, Rybys Rommey is dying of multiple sclerosis. In vintage Dickian fashion, they get married – even though there’s never much sense that they like each other.

“The Divine Invasion” gradually, deceptively gets better, to the point where I ended up liking it a lot. I know this book is loathed by some readers, but I suspect my very limited knowledge of Biblical Scripture allows me to be fascinated by things that would be rote to others.

As Dick chronicles the Second Coming on Earth, he taps into some of his trademark SF trickery – such as Herb remembering part of this narrative in cryo-sleep and directly experiencing other parts – but for a good reason: The two main supernatural characters – Emmanuel and Zina, both little kids – can manipulate space and time.

“The Divine Invasion” could’ve played as a parody of the Bible, or at least a parody of Biblical apologetics. However, it doesn’t come off that way, especially if you’ve read Dick’s whole catalog up to this point, because he’s clearly so invested in this material.

What’s so fun about “The Divine Invasion” – even though, like “RFA” and “VALIS,” it’s more sober than humorous – is that PKD reincarnates not just God (Emmanuel) and Satan (a smelly baby goat) but tons of Biblical figures. Rybys stands in for the Virgin Mary, Herb for Joseph, Herb’s audio store partner Elias Tate for Elijah, Zina for the female half of God (while Emmanuel is the male half) … and there are many more examples, cribbed from both the Old and New Testaments.

The weaving of religion-based world building with a straightforward (if complex) narrative makes “The Divine Invasion” read like one of those parts of the Bible that my Christian friends will tell me is actually a good read, not a stodgy old text.

The central drama sounds undramatic: Emmanuel, slightly brain-damaged in an accident, must remember that he’s God. Once he does, the Second Coming can unfold and Earth can perhaps be saved from the evils that rule it (currently represented by a pact between Communists and the Christian-Islamic Church). And, arguably, it does play out in a rather dull way, as Zina keeps teasing him and toying with him until he eventually remembers.

One could also argue that the lack of a final battle makes “The Divine Invasion” all build-up and no payoff. What’s more, “Radio Free Albemuth” does chronicle a big showdown, so in a way this is an indulgent spiritual (in both senses of the word) prequel. (When this book was published, though, “RFA” had not been published, and PKD had no reason to think it ever would be. Also, “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer” – the last book PKD wrote — was still to come.)

Meanwhile, Herb’s arc is familiar to PKD readers, especially those who celebrate his non-SF catalog: Herb gets caught up in his obsession with The Fox, who draws his attention away from Rybys, whom he barely pretends to care about. Say what you will about PKD being married and divorced so many times, but he wasn’t shy about illustrating the inner workings of his mind that led to his unfaithfulness. Nor was he necessarily proud of his behavior; like many of his protagonists, Herb is somewhat pathetic, someone who reacts (and begrudgingly, at that) more so than acts.

The characters’ movements along their arcs provide some momentum, but what really gets me turning the pages of “The Divine Invasion” are the religious debates that play out between the various players (all of whom, as noted, are themselves Biblical stand-ins). For example, Dick doesn’t take it as a given that God/Emmanuel is good. The staple atheist argument that God lets evil happen, and therefore is not as good as he pretends to be, is addressed.

“The Divine Invasion” could’ve played as a parody of the Bible, or at least a parody of Biblical apologetics. After all, Dick breaks down the Biblical story and puts it back together again, and – while surprisingly engrossing – it’s undeniably convoluted and contradictory. In a way, it stands as an argument that the Bible (like “The Divine Invasion”) is a work of fiction written by human(s) with wild imaginations.

However, it doesn’t come off that way, especially if you’ve read Dick’s whole catalog up to this point, because the author is clearly so invested in this material. He’s passionate about exploring his mind to unearth the full knowledge delivered by that beam of pink light. A case could be made that Dick is at his craziest here, but in “The Divine Invasion,” he doesn’t leave narrative threads unfinished, and he doesn’t throw out ideas without fully exploring them – common problems of his earlier work. He’s focused; he cares; he’s thorough. As such, I became absorbed by a topic that at first blush I have little interest in.

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