When I was in college, I did a “binge read” of Philip K. Dick.
A “binge read” involved taking an author and, for a semester, reading as much of his work as I could get my hands on. One semester I did a binge read of Larry Niven. The next semester was Orson Scott Card. And then there was the semester that I did a binge read of PKD.
I don’t know how I settled on PKD. Niven was easy — I wanted to read Ringworld, it made sense to read all of his other Known Space work, and it made sense to go on from there. (I also had the vague idea that I could write a Man-Kzin Wars story.) Orson Scott Card — I had read Card’s Foundation story “The Originist,” I wanted to read Ender’s Game, and it made sense to keep going.
I think I saw a PKD book in Barnes & Noble in Charlottesville. Yes, I think that was it — I was intrigued by the cover copy on Vintage’s edition of VALIS. But it wasn’t VALIS I read first. No, that honor went to The Man in the High Castle, and I read it because I had read Robert Harris’ Fatherland and I wanted to read another World War II alternate history.
I don’t remember what I thought of The Man in the High Castle at the time, but I liked it enough to give VALIS a try. (It also inspired a Grendel Tales outline — an Elseworlds-esque tale of SS Sturmbannführer Hunter Rose in Nazi-occupied Manhattan. I wonder what I did with that outline.)
My path through Philip K. Dick went through the mystical stuff from the end of his life, then through the pulp sci-fi of the 60s, with the short story collections coming as I could get them. I don’t know how many books I read that semester, at least a dozen, maybe even twenty. I don’t recommend reading that much PKD in that compressed a timeframe; it will do things to your mind.
Not long after I read the misnamed VALIS Trilogy I read Radio Free Albemuth.
Albemuth, when I read it, was very familiar, though at the time I didn’t know why. Albemuth, published posthumously, was Dick’s early draft of VALIS. It contains some of the same ideas — that there’s a entity out in space that’s trying to contact humans and awaken them to reality — and some of the same characters (both novels, for instance, have Dick as a major character), but it works with them in a very different way than VALIS. If VALIS is a semi-autobiographical novel set in the real world, Albemuth is a dystopian novel that has more in common in 1984 and V for Vendetta than it does with autobiography.
The core of the stories Albemuth and VALIS is an experience that Dick called “2-3-74.” One day, in February 1974, a woman knocked on his door and, when he went to answer it, he felt a pink laser light strike him in the head. After this experience, Dick began to write something we call “the Exegesis,” a long, rambling philosophical discource that attempted to make sense of the universe — and what the pink light was that led him to these philosophical explorations. Dick, as a science fiction writer, came up with a science-fictional explanation — there was an alien intelligence in deep space, the Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and it was trying to get through to someone on Earth so that people would know that they were trapped in a Black Iron Prison and that they could achieve awareness and enlightenment.
Albemuth treats that experience within a dystopian setting while VALIS treats that experience autobiographically as Dick’s stand-in Horselover Fat tries to make sense of the 2-3-74 experience. And if I remember correctly, there’s a point in VALIS where the characters go to a movie that’s based on Albemuth, tying the two works together.
A few years ago a film adaptation of Radio Free Albemuth was produced. Alanis Morissette stars as Sylvia, along with Jonathan Scarfe as Nick Brady (the story’s protagonist) and Shea Whigham as Philip K. Dick (a record store clerk).
Albemuth has more in common with Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta than it does with previous PKD film adaptations which have tended toward big-budget action spectaculars. Albemuth is a story in which paranoid President Ferris F. Fremont is trying to stamp out the resistence to his four-term governance, a resistance that may have something to do with VALIS. It’s a story of ideas, of despair, of resistance, and ultimately even of hope.
The film has made the circuit at festivals, but it has yet to see wide release.
To bring the film to a wider audience, The producers have launched a Kickstarter to fund a self-distribution of the film. “Despite great reviews and enthusiastic response at screenings, traditional companies simply haven’t offered us the kind of distribution that would connect to the audience we believe is out there for Radio Free Albemuth. That’s why we’re going the self-distribution (DIY) route and reaching out to you on Kickstarter.”
It’s a tough road to climb, but everything about this film has been a tough road. They put it this way on the Kickstarter page: “This one’s personal. A passion project. Labor of love by John Alan Simon and the team of actors and filmmakers that’s taken years to realize. All the performers worked for guild minimum scale. None of the producers or the director have taken any fees — not even reimbursement for the film rights cost of the novel.” They put a lot of love into this film to make something that was true to the ideas of PKD’s work, and it would be a shame if this film stayed on the shelf and was little seen.
And no, I haven’t seen the film. Just a fan of Philip K. Dick. Because I want to see the film, I made a contribution to the Kickstarter. I hope you will, too.