It has become a Christmas tradition of mine to read a Philip K Dick novel, so this year it was Radio Free Albemuth, a book that is in many ways an autobiography in novel form. PKD himself appears as the narrator in the first and third sections (and a key character in the second section), with the events of the book mirroring his own personal experiences in 1974.
In that year he experienced a series of strange visions, initially probably the result of medication but increasingly less likely as the series went on. In the book, one of the main characters similarly has visions and tries to work out what they mean and what is causing them, cycling through options such as religious experiences and aliens as new visions come to him.
As in many of Philip K Dick’s books, the science fiction is gently in the background, occasionally playing a key role in the plot but never really what the book is about. The same applies to the authoritarian government and plots to overthrow it. This part of the book features heavily on the cover of many editions, making the book sound far more like an action thriller than the reality. However, the book is about paranoia and trust – how do you react to apparently impossible events in your life and how do your friendships cope when put under strain by an authoritarian government?
The label “science fiction” has probably deprived the book of the plaudits from literary circles it would have otherwise won, for the playful self-referential role of author as narrator is written in a way that rivals much lauded authors such as Primo Levi.
At one point the narrator (a thinly disguised version of the author) talks about a book he has written (using the genuine title of a PKD novel), which in turn is about an imaginary alternative history, and a second book (again a genuine PKD novel) that is about a hallucinating character similar to the narrator’s best friend in this novel. At another point the narrator is criticised by his best friend in words that could just as well be addressed to the real Philip K Dick,
Sorry, Phil, but – well, why can’t you write about normal people, the way other authors do? Normal people with normal interests who do normal things. Instead, when your books open, there is this misfit holding some miserable low job, and he takes drugs and his girlfriend is in a mental institution but he still loves her…
The book itself did not get published during PKD’s lifetime as requests for major changes from the publishers saw Dick sideline the text and instead use it as a basis for the first part of his three-volume Valis trilogy. The text was published after his death. Unlike many books which are not published during an author’s lifetime because they simply were not very good, this one is an enjoyable read – as long as you aren’t expecting a fast moving science fiction thriller.