Last night I finished Radio Free Albemuth and was so overwhelmed by my experience that I can safely say it has brought me my most satisfying experience of PKD.
Since Dick wrote RFA not long after the visionary experiences of early 1974, we are in this novel probably closer to the original fire that burns through everything he wrote after that. Even though Dick probes his experiences far and wide and often erratically in his Exegesis, in RFA he presents a beautifully coherent expression of them in the context of a science fiction story that gives them value and makes the conclusion of the novel so spiritually moving. Indeed, this is the most passionate PKD novel I have read.
The visionary life of Nicholas Brady occurs in an alternate history of the U.S., c. 1978, during the fascist regime of Ferris Fremont, President of the United States and mole for the communists of the U.S.S.R. It would be easy for Nicholas Brady to be sucked into his alternative reality, but the dangers of the fascist state keep him fully engaged with preserving his life, the lives of his friends, and the life of the nation gradually being consumed by fear and hatred. The essence of the novel lies in how these two realities constitute a whole, singular event.
There are two narrators in RFA: Nicholas Brady and a science fiction author named Philip K. Dick. The Dick character listens helplessly to Brady’s experiences but cannot contribute much in the way of understanding. After all, as Brady keeps telling him, he writes science fiction. Dick tries unsuccessfully to look at Brady’s experience from an objective point of view. He accepts but does not understand. In the second part of the novel, Nicholas Brady relates his experiences as a personal narrative.
One night he suddenly finds himself downloading information from what he later learns is a satellite which has been orbiting the earth for centuries. This satellite transfers information to a select few on the earth from humanity’s home star system Albemuth. Brady refers to this entity (God) as Valis, an acronym for vast active living intelligence system. The intent of the information is to counteract the influence of “the adversary,” the dark force that surreptitiously accompanied the human race from Albemuth to the earth and is behind the rise of Ferris Fremont to the presidency.
The agents of the fascist government, called Friends of the American People (FAPers), are omnipresent in all areas of American life and are aware of the satellite, which their underground ally, the Soviet Union, eventually destroys. They are also aware of the subversive plot instigated by Nicholas Brady, who recruits musical talent for a living, and Sadassa Aramchek, a key member of the resistance group Aramchek, named after her mother. Together Brady and Aramchek formulate a plan to introduce to the public subliminal messages through song lyrics in hopes of generating resistance to the government. This plan, however, never has a chance. It has been tracked by FAPers from the its inception and is destroyed. Brady and Aramchek are executed.
Nicholas Brady’s inner experiences constitute a cosmology much greater than what is acted upon in the story. Valis is more than the progenitor God of the human race. It is the cosmic mind, within which the cosmos exists. Brady participates in the cosmic life by receiving the downloaded information from Valis and consciously acting upon it in the greater context of earth’s spiritual history, including the immediate situation of Ferris Fremont’s presidency. His lack of success is less important than the fact that he received the information and demonstrated his understanding through his actions. That was all that was required of him.
In RFA it is easy to see Judeo-Christian influences at work; however, the science fiction element allows us to strip away the constrictions of religious cosmologies, which, because of their historical roots, cannot integrate new visions. It is this balance between known theology and science fiction elements that opens the door for the reader to jump in and celebrate all possibilities.
At the end of RFA, there is hope for the human race. Help is on its way in the form of another satellite from Albemuth, which, however, will take centuries to arrive. Meanwhile, earth will continue with its struggle against the adversary, and eventually Valis will return and restore all human beings blissfully to their root existence.