I prefer Radio Free Albemuth over VALIS, which I’m only making that comparison because they cover a similar story… I prefer a lot of Dick’s books over VALIS.
He wrote this one first in 1976, and when his publisher wanted to make some changes Dick instead rewrote it as an entirely new book which was published as VALIS in 1981. Radio Free Albemuth itself wasn’t published until 1985 several years after he died. The story from Radio Free Albemuth shows up in VALIS briefly, altered and in a much more tripped-out fashion, as a movie that Dick and his friends go see.
The book starts out narrated by Dick himself before switching to the point of view of his friend Nicholas Brady and then switching back to Dick’s POV at the end. It implies Dick and Nicholas are one and the same, just like Dick and Horselover Fat in VALIS, although that’s never revealed to be the case here. Rather Brady serves as a what if? version of Dick if he had left Berkeley sooner and had a different career. Some autobiographical details, like the burglary of Dick’s house (which he was convinced was orchestrated by the police or FBI) make their way into the story, but Brady inherits many of the other events from Dick’s life, such as being alerted to his son’s undiagnosed hernia by VALIS’s pink light.
The overall plot involves the effort of Brady, guided by VALIS, to stand up to the tyrannical rule of the U.S. president Ferris F. Fremont. Brady plans to sneak subliminal messages about Fremont’s ties to the Communist party into an album released by his record company, although I’m not sure how that would topple a totalitarian government that kills and imprisons with impunity. The middle section of the book told from Brady’s POV is the least interesting as it deals with the long-winded theology about VALIS which is a satellite that is also God… I think. One day I will read Dick’s 1000-page Exegesis and his VALIS theories may all make sense.
In the end Brady and Sadassa Silvia (who had also been contacted by VALIS) are both killed by Ferris F. Fremont’s stooges. After the U.S. destroys the VALIS satellite the opposition doesn’t stand much of a chance. The government lets Dick live imprisoned in a labor camp, and in a clever turn of events, at least from a meta point of view, they release agitprop books they’ve written under his name.
The low-budget 2010 movie, with some really low-budget special effects, most likely would only appeal to fans of the book. It’s very faithful, including all the elements that were probably silly even by the standards of the 1970s, although I do like Shea Whigham’s low-key portrayal of PKD.
Cast of characters
- Nicholas Brady – an aimless resident of Berkeley turned record executive in Southern California
- Rachel – Nicholas’s wife
- Phil Dick – the part-time narrator as himself
- Ferris F. Fremont – the president. A Nixon stand-in, although in this case Fremont is a sleeper for the Communist party
- Vivian Kaplan – a young FAPer (Friends of the American People) Dick gets involved with
- Sadassa Silvia – a young woman also contacted by VALIS who works with Nicholas to put subliminal messages in the albums put out by Progressive Records. Played by Alanis Morissette in the movie.