Phillip K. Dick’s VALIS is awesome. So is the relatively unknown Phillip K. Dick – just last week Cracked.com ran an article about how Dick is the brains behind the entire modern science fiction genre, despite dying almost thirty years ago underappreciated and impoverished.
It probably doesn’t crack the top ten of my favorite stories from this series. Yet no other book in the series has left me as dumbfounded as VALIS. By the end, I couldn’t help but shake my head and say “wow.” Unlike some of my other favorites in this series, I will be coming back to VALIS at a later date, just because there is so much to unravel that I couldn’t possibly have picked up on all of it the first time around.*
* Sounds like a certain TV show that I am particularly fond of.
After this review, I will finally be caught up with all the Lost books I have already finished. I saved this book for last, because I knew I was going to have to go back and pull out some quotes and re-read key passages.
I am going to do my best to hit on what I think are the key points in the book as it relates to Lost, but I highly recommend reading this book on your own. In my own humble opinion, it is the single most important book to understanding Lost.
Reading all these books after the series ended has its pros and cons. One of the pros is that I can look back at the whole series and retrospectively determine which books help unravel the mysteries of Lost rather than prospectively trying to guess how each book relates to the show. VALIS appeared in season four of Lost and it seemed important at the time. However, it wasn’t until season six that it started to look extremely vital to understanding the Island.
VALIS appeared in the season four episode Eggtown. In this episode, Locke and Sawyer were holding Ben prisoner in his own house. Locke gave Ben his own copy of VALIS for reading material, to which Ben replied that he already read it. Locke told Ben that he should read it again because he might pick up something he missed the first time. Later, in Not in Portland, Ben was in fact reading it again.
Locke came right out and said that we should read VALIS. If that is not a hint to the importance of VALIS in Lost, I don’t know what is.
I’ll begin this review with two caveats. First, the book doesn’t really lend itself to a standard summary, since most of it consists of rambling conversations about the nature of humanity. The second is that I certainly don’t understand the entire novel. That’s not too surprising though: Dick was insane. Not making any comment on my own sanity, but my mind doesn’t work the same way as Dick’s. At some point, I will have to read it again.
Dick starts the book in first person after he starts seeing weird visions (in reality, he actually was a bit messed up upstairs, so much of the stuff in the book probably was true, insofar as he believed them to be true). Early on, he introduces another character, Horselover Fat, so he could write with objectivity about the things that were happening to him.
Fat/Dick’s nervous breakdown begins after his friend Gloria commits suicide. Dick and Fat join their friend Kevin in a theological and philosophical debate about the nature of life. They engage in spirited discussions early in the book, many of which focus on gnostic Christianity and ancient Greek philosophy. These conversations usually ramble and touch on all aspects of religion and philosophy in an attempt to gain a grasp on the nature of life.
Then Fat/Dick has a revelation (as he did in real life). Something communicates with him via a bright pink light. He calls this pink light by varying names – living information, God, the plasmate – before settling on Zebra for shorthand. Zebra was sending signals from an alien satellite that controlled everybody on Earth through holograms.
Dick copes with this for a while before stumbling upon an obscure science fiction movie titled VALIS, short for Vast Active Living Intelligence System. The movie was made by a rock star named Eric Lampton. In the movie, the main character experiences a vision that is nearly the same vision that Dick had. Dick decides to seek out Lampton.
Lampton is part of a small group of humans that are aware that VALIS is controlling humans. The group turns Dick on to a two-year old named Sophia (Greek for wisdom, a Google search tells me). Sophia is a bit stand-offish, but eventually confirms that Dick/Fat/Lampton’s theories about VALIS are correct.
Dick intersperses lines from his Tractates: Cryptica Scriptura throughout the book. The lines are an excerpt from his Exegesis, in which he describes the visions that were sent to him by VALIS. These are reprinted in the book’s Appendix.
A few of these lines that seem to apply to Lost:
1. One Mind there is; but under it two principles contend.
3. He causes things to look different so it would appear time has passed.
5. One by one he draws us out of the world.
9. He lived long ago, but he is still alive.
12. The greatest secret…is that: we are moving backward in time.
14. The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.
22. I term the Immortal one a plasmate, because it is a form of energy; it is living information. It replicates itself – not through information or in information – but as information.
30. The phenomenal world does not exist; it is hypostasis of the information processed by the Mind.
43. These are the two principles, the dark (the Empire) and the light (the plasmate). In the end, Mind will give victory to the latter. Each of us will die or survive according to which he aligns himself and his efforts with. Each of us contains a component of each. Eventually one or the other component will triumph in each human.
So yeah, do with that what you will. I doubt I could add anything by explaining the context of those lines (and some of those I quoted aren’t even in the story itself). I think they stand alone as thoughts you can incorporate to the Lost universe. And by now, you should want to read VALIS on your own.
All those fun quotes aside, the real reason VALIS is in Lost is because the Island is the Vast Active Living Intelligence System. The most common question that fans have about Lost, even after the season finale, is some variation of “what is the Island?” Well, this book has your answer.
The best example of this came four episodes after VALIS appeared, when we learned about Michael’s post-Island experiences in Meet Kevin Johnson. The entire episode’s theme was that the Island wasn’t done with Michael yet. In particular, I’m thinking of the scene in which Tom Friendly stops a suicidal Michael in the alley. His words:
“I got some bad news for you, amigo. You can’t kill yourself. The Island won’t let you!…No matter how bad you want to, no matter how many different ways you try, it won’t happen.”
Michael couldn’t kill himself because the Island is VALIS. The Island sends out information and obviously exerts a fair amount of control over people. Heck, you could even make the argument that the Island controls everyone and the Oceanic survivors are among the few people (like Lampton’s group) that are aware of it. I’m not sure I’d buy the argument, but I think you could make a very compelling case.
We saw similar situations throughout the series, ranging from the general (everything that happened in the Oceanic survivors’ past led them to the Island) to the specific (e.g. Jack come to the realization that the Oceanic Six needed to go back). And it’s probably not a coincidence that a bright, pinkish light flashed each time Sawyer’s group bounced through time in season five.*
* Coincidentally, they landed in 1974, the same year that Dick first had his epiphany.
In the months after Lost ended, many postulated some variation of the “Island is the main character” theory. Most notably, Doc Jensen on EW thought of the Island as the series’ main character. If this book is any indication, they may be on to something. At the least, the Island/VALIS can be understood as an important character in the series, rather than just a setting.
Go read this book. You won’t understand most of it, but you’ll thank me anyway.
For more of my book reviews, return to my Literature of Lost series.