A work utterly unlike any other in science fiction, VALIS is at once autobiography, cosmological speculation, post-1960’s reminiscence, alien-invasion story, and far-ranging inquiry into the nature of God and the divinity of the individual. It can be read as a science-fiction novel or as a classic unreliable-narrator story, and part of the book’s greatness lies in its ability to exist as both at once. Its unreliable narrator displaces his unreliability, and the book’s other characters address Fat (whose name is the English “translation” of the Greek “Philip” and the German “dick”) and Dick as two separate characters until they are reunited in the presence of Sophia. Dick the character presents himself as the rational voice, contrasted with Fat; however, it is Dick who proposes the time-travel solution to Fat’s conundrum, and it is Dick who spends his time studying television commercials for messages from the divine. Finally, it is Dick who is telling a story in which an alienated part of his mind takes the form of a man named Horselover Fat. Horselover Fat’s theorizing is taken directly from a series of experiences Dick himself had in February and March of 1974. Other borrowings from Dick’s novels include the character of Ferris F. Fremount in the Valis film, Fremount being Dick’s name for the Richard Nixon figure who appears in some of Dick’s work from the 1970’s.
VALIS is in a sense a gloss on Dick’s bleak 1970’s novels A Scanner Darkly and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, in which Dick the character explains what Dick the author was doing—which makes the fictionalization of Dick the author’s experiences a disorienting experience for the reader. Layered on top of this, the deranged cosmological speculations and the pulpy three-eyed aliens leave the reader in Fat’s position, which is Dick’s position. The novel continually turns in on itself in this way, rudely interrogating its own assumptions, and somehow in the end salvaging something from the emotional and spiritual wreckage of Horselover Fat. VALIS is an unflinching—and often surprisingly funny—look at Dick’s own struggles with sanity, and it is a tribute to the writer that he created from his pain one of the great religious novels of the century.