Radio Free Albemuth was written in 1976 but only published posthumously in 1985. Even for Philip K Dick, this is a bizarre and partly deranged book. It’s a deeply personal autobiographical attempt for him to make sense of a series of bizarre religious experiences he collectively referred to as “2-3-74”. So if you are only a casual fan of PKD’s books or movies, this is probably not for you. However, if you love his novels and know something of his troubled life, it will provide an absolutely fascinating picture of a man struggling to extract meaning from it all, using every resource his powerful, wide-ranging and increasingly unstable mind can muster. It may be a confounding mess for many, but what a gloriously courageous attempt he makes. For me this book and his later complete rewrite VALIS (1981) provide a window into PKD’s mind that no other books can (other than the massive and unreadable Exegesis of Philip K Dick), and is a moving and profound experience if you go along with it.
The story starts out quite simply. Part one is narrated by none other than Philip K Dick, a struggling science fiction writer and friend of Nicholas Brady, a Berkeley dropout who works at local record store. It is the late 1960s, and the book humorously depicts the growing counter-culture in Berkeley, with its legions of anti-establishment intellectuals roaming the streets and coffee houses on Telegraph Ave. It turns out that this is an alternate history United States where despotic right-winger Ferris F. Freemont has become President after Lyndon B. Johnson (think a sinister amalgam of Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy). He is determined to crush liberals, free speech, and communist conspiracies. There is also a citizens militia of sorts called “Friends of the American People”, which serve to investigate anti-government groups including a (perhaps fictitious) organization called Aramchek dedicated to overthrowing Fremont’s government.
Nick’s career at the record store is going nowhere, though he has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. He begins to receive strange visions that he believes are signals from VALIS, a Vast Active Living Intelligence System. These signals come to him at 3am at night, delivered by a near-earth satellite firing a focused pink laser beam (I’m not joking here) straight to his brain. At first he is not sure what is happening, but gradually he understands that VALIS is a super rational alien collective mind that has chosen him (and a select few others) for a mission to overthrow the fascist dictatorship of President Freemont. This revelation is of course quite disturbing to his wife Rachel, but when VALIS warns him that his infant son Christopher has an inguinal hernia, something that did not show up in any medical exams, they rush him to the hospital and the doctors are shocked to discover his diagnosis was right, and do an emergency surgery to save his son (this actually happened to PKD in real life apparently). This causes their belief in VALIS to grow.
Eventually VALIS grants visions to Nick that he should move to LA and become a record producer for folk musicians. He moves his family to LA and very quickly finds success in his new job. VALIS then reveals that this is all part of his mission to embed secret anti-Fremont subliminal messages in the songs he produces, in order to overthrow the totalitarian regime and bring freedom to the masses, who do not realize they are trapped in the Black Iron Prison that is representative of the evil Roman Empire that persecuted early Christians and has never ended. We also learn that VALIS has made previous attempts to heal the world of its madness, including various early Christian Gnostics, Elijah from the Old Testament, Jesus, etc. However, the Empire has continued to prevail, but VALIS has not given up the struggle. PDK provides dozens of pages explaining the philosophy of VALIS and all the obscure historical clues as to why the world is ailing. He dives way down the rabbit hole into cosmogony and cosmology, explaining how the creator of the universe is irrational and separate from the Logos, or rational mind, that is the ultimate source of wisdom. VALIS has sent homoplasmates to bond with certain chosen humans and impart this secret wisdom. HAVE I LOST YOU YET? ONLY PKD COULD COME UP WITH THIS STUFF, AND HE ACTUALLLY BELIEVES IT TOO.
One day Nick has a vision of a folk singer named Sylvia, and soon after this she shows up at his office, asking for a clerical job. He hires her but convinces her she should be a songwriter instead, and they reveal to each other that they have been having similar dreams from VALIS. Having finally discovered a kindred spirit (which turns out to be part of the Aramchek movement), they seek to put VALIS’s plan into action, recording a hit song with the message “Join the party”, a subliminal appeal to revolution. His relationship with his wife is strained by his friendship with Sylvia (whose real last name turns out to be Aramchek). However, his good buddy Philip K Dick stays true to him despite being skeptical of this craziness. For some reason a lot of this weird 1960s conspiracy stuff and obscure underground societies reminded me of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).
Nick and Sylvia think they have successfully produced the song that will launch their revolution, but the FAPers (Friends of the American People) have actually been spying on them the entire time, and seize both of them along with PKD and throw them into a secret confinement facility outside the justice system. The FAPers reveal that they know about the plot, and that it has been foiled. There are some final events I won’t spoil, but suffice to say that the real PKD was clearly VERY PARANOID about the Republican Party, the FBI and CIA, and right-wingers in general. As everyone knows, they really are out to get us all.
Whether or not you buy into any of PKDs paranoid fantasies or strange religious experiences, it’s undeniable that he wrote this book with searing honesty, pathos for the struggles of his characters (himself, really), and out of a genuine desire to understand what exactly was happening to him with all these visions and hallucinations. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book and its successor VALIS is that PKD separates himself into two characters, Nicholas Brady and PKD in Radio Free Albemuth, and Horselover Fat and PKD in VALIS. This essentially allows him to have an extended dialog with himself, as the Nick and Horselover characters undergo the strange visions and hallucinations, while the PKD characters are separate from this and serve as devil’s advocate. I’ve never seen a clearer fictional depiction of schizophrenia, but the fact that PKD could control the process and explore his own mental breakdown in a fictional narrative is simply incredible and to me was quite moving, particularly in VALIS. You can feel his struggles with sanity, even if you don’t believe in his gonzo religious philosophy. It’s a unique literary experience for any hardcore PKD fan, though it may make no sense whatsoever to most readers.
Film Version (2010): I was surprised to discover a film version of Radio Free Albemuth had been made as a low budget indie production back in 2010 starring Jonanath Scarfe as Nicholas Brady, Katheryn Winnick as his wife Rachel, Shea Whigham as Philip K Dick, and Alanis Morisette as Slyvia Aramchek. With great trepidation but irresistible curiosity I watched it on Netflix. Basically all the dream sequences are laughably bad, and the actors struggle to deliver all of PKD’s bizarre dialog with straight faces, but that is really due to the source material itself. Frankly, I don’t think this book was ever meant to be filmed, and is almost impossible to make convincing. So I don’t blame the filmmakers, but I think this would be impossible to watch except for die-hard PKD fans like myself who’ve read the book already. It seems the producers also have the rights to VALIS as well, but I sincerely hope they don’t try that one. It makes Radio Free Albemuth seem downright conventional. I do give kudos to Shea Whigham for portraying PKD as a smart and somewhat cynical SF writer, but the real PKD was actually a combination of both Nick Brady and SF writer PKD, which makes for a much more complicated and unstable personality.