Monday 31 October 2011

The Divine Invasion – Philip K. Dick (1981)

The Divine Invasion is Philip K. Dick’s penultimate novel. It is also the second novel in a trilogy based on his 2-3-74 experiences and the concept of VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System). Having come back into Dick’s orbit once again, seeing the Radio Free Albemuth film and reading Sutin’s Divine Invasions (1989), I was ready for some more Dickian tomfoolery.

Dick’s body of work is inconsistent, but on the whole very good to brilliant. He really churned them out at times and on occasions it showed. Conversely Dick took some time writing The Divine Invasion, as revealed in Sutin’s book, however it is slightly disappointing in that it is unfocussed and too theologically heavy. Actually heavy is a good term to use as Dick really wrestled with his religious obsessions, many of them originating from the ontological insights and visions of 2-3-74. The book really strains under the weight of an incredible brain trying to frame its thoughts and experiences into a fairly typical Philip K. Dick narrative.

The Divine Invasion begins on Earth with Manny, a six year old boy and his guardian - Elias, talking about his deceased mother and the “zone of evil that lay over everything”. Manny was conceived on the colony planet of CY30-CY30B, a catchy name that’s for sure. Manny has memory problems and his father - Herb Asher, is in cryonic suspension due to an accident when they arrived on Earth. Herb is mentally stimulated to relive his life, giving him the impression that he’s still alive. In a typical Dick joke poor old Herb is driven to distraction within this cryonic dream-like state because the equipment used to keep him going is picking up transmissions from a nearby radio station that is constantly playing all string versions of Fiddler on the Roof. From here the tale of how and why they’ve all ended up on Earth is retold, giving the reader the impression that they are merely privy to Herb’s cryonic replay. Whether this is the case or not, typically, becomes unclear. Of course being a Philip K. Dick book I’m giving absolutely nothing away here.

Manny is divine in origin and Earth is under the rule of a religious and secular coalition of which Dick portrays as being evil, or at least inferior to the true god. Such concepts actually mirror some of his own experiences and beliefs. The occluded truths of his novels weren’t that far from how he actually viewed reality. Perhaps this is the most interesting aspect of this book, at least if you are familiar with Dick himself. His obsessions are made manifest here, including his infatuation with Linda Ronstadt in the form of singer Linda Fox, who, of course, is not what she seems.

The average reader may be perplexed or put off by the theological ruminations of the principle protagonists. There’s a great deal of dialogue in The Divine Invasion and much of it is about obscure theological notions. The novel really gets bogged down and doesn’t adequately recover. Despite this there is still much to enjoy here, including Herb Asher’s conversation with an air traffic cop (they get around in flying cars of course), in which he argues that he should be let go because the cop himself is not real, and he gets away with it.

The Divine Invasion is probably not the best place to start if you are a Philip K. Dick novice. To seasoned Dick readers it is fascinating, darkly funny and typically ultimately hard to fathom, which is what you want from a Philip K. Dick book really. It’s kind of sad, as Dick died only a few years after he wrote this and one year after it was published. I’m yet to read his last book - The Transmigrations of Timothy Archer (1982), so I don’t know whether he ended on a high note. Had he lived I have no doubt that he would have kept writing, continuing his efforts to shape his religious experiences into great science fiction narratives.


  1. Everyone needs more dickian tomfoolery in their life. And more tomian dickfoolery. Ah, where would we be without dick jokes? And joke dicks?

    I think ‘Radio Free Albemuth’ might be the best introduction to Dick’s later work. It was his first essay at the VALIS universe, but wasn’t published in his lifetime, and was reworked into the VALIS books. It’s not as polished, but fresher and more spontaneous, and a lot truer to the world as we (i.e. all the not-Dicks) know it.

    The VALIS books are amazing, but I get the feeling that by reworking his earlier inspiration, ‘improving’ on it, Dick got a bit lost in the maze of his own cleverness. What is lovely about them, though, is that in the midst of all the weirdness are luminous pools of sanity, humour and sparse beauty.

  2. Have you noticed, by the way, that the 'fake' Dick head in the accompanying photo looks more real than the 'real' photo accompanying your previous Dick post. (Which looks, to me, like a plasticised fairground revolving clown's head with a fake hipster beard, in front of a rear-projected background?)

  3. The 'real' photo does look fake, in the best Dick tradition. The robot head of Dick, which apparently had some functions, was taken on a plane journey and went missing never to be seen again. In fact a book has been written about it:

    Hopefully the link will work.