The third most frightening thing about Philip K Dick’s Valis is that it is largely autobiographical. I realised this halfway through reading the novel when I came across a video recording of a lecture Dick gave to an incredulous audience at a sci-fi festival in Metz in 1977. Expounding on concepts such as orthogonal time, computer-programmed realities, parallel universes, and seemingly parallel selves, Dick clearly shared the fundamental doubt of his alter ego(s) in Valis – namely, what if the world itself is not the real world at all?
The second most frightening thing about the novel, for me at least, is that I have struggled with similar doubts myself. I have suffered from chronic mental illness since childhood and for a long time, one of my worst fears was that reality was not as it seemed, that malign forces were somehow manipulating the very fabric of existence from behind the scenes. It was unnerving to find parallels between my own experiences and Dick’s, especially his eerie suspicion that the mechanism of his bathroom light switch had somehow been changed and whether this suspicion was merely a cognitive distortion or in fact a sign of the artificiality of the phenomenological world.
Valis is a difficult read. It doesn’t contain much in the way of plot, and it ends without any clear resolution. There are fictional elements, but for the most part, the novel is a vehicle for Dick’s attempted explanations and extrapolations of his quasi-religious experiences in the early-to-mid 1970s. The novel is rich in philosophical and theological discourse. It demonstrates the awesome range of Dick’s erudition, blending classical Greek philosophy, Gnostic Christianity, Buddhism, and modern physics. The key theme of Valis is doubt. Dick never seems sure whether or not he is sane, and that is the most frightening thing of all.