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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Vast? VALIS? What’s the deal, eh?

Fair enough. What is the deal. I knew I would have to do this eventually, so let’s get this behind us.

VALIS is a few things. Primarily the title of a 1981 book by Phillip K. Dick (PKD). Within the book itself, it is an acronym for Vast Active Living Intelligence System - an extraterrestrial intelligence that may or may not be God. I read the book for the first time in the mid-1990s. Around the same time I started using the internet. It seemed a clever ruse to use the acronym as a user name (back then, more often than not it was available) on websites when floating about on this vast active evolving communication system known as the Internet. Ghost in the machine, that kind of deal. Of course a lot of people have that idea now and I couldn’t even use VALIS as a user name on blogspot without adding in some numbers. Humbling.

Up until a few years ago, the best way to explain who PKD was to the uninitiated was to ask if they’d seen or heard of the movie Bladerunner. It came out in 1982, the year coincidentally that Dick died (1928-1982, almost a palindrome for his tombstone). Bladerunner, an excellent film in its own right by Ridley Scott, is loosely based on a PKD novel entitled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Check out Wikipedia sometime and you can find more on all of this than you’d ever want to know. For someone who only lived 54 years, PKD produced a phenomenal amount of published work. Somewhere around 40 novels of his were published (some posthumously) and enough short stories to fill a five volume set. How did he do it you ask? Amphetamines helped a bit (more on that below). He started in the early years (the 1950s) when sci-fi writers were relegated to pulp magazines. In the 60s his novel The Man in the High Tower won him awards. After Bladerunner, he became sort of a pet author for Hollywood. The Schwartzeneggar film Total Recall is based on a short story of his. Two or three other PKD works were the basis for minor films before Spielburg and Cruise collaborated for Minority Report in 2002, closely, but not entirely based on a short story of the same name. The John Woo film Paycheck came out the next year to much less critical acclaim. Upcoming is a Keanu Reaves/Winona Rider film A Scanner Darkly based on one of my favorite PKD novels of the same name. The movie is scheduled for release July 7 this year - coincidentally my 38th birthday. [Also coincidentally, I hear that Harry Potter 7 may be released on 7/7/2007 or 777 - my 39th birthday and a mighty nice stroke of luck as a marketing ploy. I digress. (Boy, do I?) But these pleasant occurrences are much nicer than what happened on 7/7/05 - the London subway bombings. My b-day seems to have become something of an eventful date in recent years and that has me a bit concerned.]

I’ve heard that the Matrix films were influenced by PKD and I can see that, but maybe it’s just become trendy to claim that connection. Personally, if Dick wrote the screenplays, I think the second Matrix would have started with Neo waking up in a psyche ward back in the reality he thought was the matrix being told he had a psychotic break with reality and that trinity, morpheus and all those guys weren’t real. And then you’d spend the next two films jumping back and forth confused, along with Neo, about whether he’s insane or the world is. That’s a bit more Dickish in my book and would have made a much better sequel IMHO instead of turning Matrix 2 and 3 into special effects vehicles with interminably long fight sequences.

Again, I digress. Where was I? Ah, yes. Mr. PKD. Well, VALIS is a mind-bender. One of his last works and part of a trilogy of religiously oriented stories. VALIS is somewhat autobiographical (exactly how much we don’t know). The main character is Horselover Fat (Phillip is from the greek for Horselover, "dick" in German is "fat"). Trust me, it gets weirder from there. This guy has an epiphany when he gets hit in the eye with a pink laser beam and freaks out, hallucinating strange images then spending some time living a divided existence, partially living in modern-day California while simultaneously living as a first-century Christian. Horselover and his friends end up on a religious quest and discover the existence of a satellite of alien origin circling the planet and sending messages to Horselover and others from VALIS, a powerful extra-terrestrial intelligence that might be God or might be what inspired the concept of God in ancient humans. Have I lost you yet? Now you see why I wish we still had PKD around to work on punching up the screenplays for Matrix sequels.

If you found that brief plot synopsis freaky, don’t forget I said this book was something of an autobiographical work. Dick allegedly had some similar hallucinatory experiences. That may not surprise you if you know he spent a lot of time in Berkely in the 60s and experimented with taking massive doses of vitamins and other pharmaceuticals and sustained much of his writing career by abusing amphetamines. During at least one of his hallucinatory experiences he was provided with detailed information about a medical condition one of his kids had. He got it checked out and doctors confirmed the condition existed even though Dick had no discernable means of knowing it was present. Hmmmm.... Whenever you feel yourself a bit too well tethered to this earth, pick up some PKD and give him a read. (Or better yet, try out his autobiography.)

So this little ole place of mine here is named in tribute to Mr. Phillip K Dick and in homage to the concept that we really don’t grasp as much about this thing called reality as we think we do. That’s significant to me given my personality type. Under Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTJ (again, you could look it up on Wikipedia). For folks like me (and we’re fairly rare), ideas and concepts are as important, if not more so, than sensory experience. To quote from one source "[INTJs] are the supreme pragmatists, who see reality as something which is quite arbitrary and made up. Thus it can be used as a tool – or ignored. Reality is quite malleable and can be changed, conquered, or brought to heel. Reality is a crucible for the refining of ideas, and in this sense, INTJs are the most theoretical of all the types." (See Please Understand Me, by Kiersey and Bates – an interesting book with a really lame title.) Phillip Dick, or what was left of his brain after he fried it for years on miscellaneous pharmaceuticals, had to have been an INTJ.
So you’re all invited to drop by for a visit now and then if you want your envelop stretched. We all need to step out of our comfort zones every once in a while and try out an idea we just can’t imagine is true. Expand your mental horizons. Get a little paranoid. Get a little mystical. Actually, I can’t guarantee that I can blow your mind on a regular basis. I guess my humility (and lack of a history of drug abuse) is why I named this "Not So Vast..." instead of sticking strictly to the VALIS nomenclature. But I do hope this can be a place of original thoughts and unique perspectives. Try and do your part and remember that there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy Horatio... or Horselover... or whatever your name is.


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4:33 AM, October 30, 2006  

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