I Luvz Me Some RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH

PKDRadio_free_albemuth It’s widely accepted that (a) Philip K. Dick was the greatest novelist to work in the science fiction genre[1] (b) wrote five of the best sci-fi novels ever but (c) nobody can agree which five of his 40+ books those are and (d) was a bugfuck crazy paranoiac and (e) a doper and (f) experienced profound religious visions of a degree that would leave Billy Graham weeping with envy.

Are ya with me so far?

None of which is to say any of that is true or for that matter than any of it is false -- or rather, any of that is factual or any of that is fantasy -- because the mind and/or universe that PKD inhabited does not seem constrained by simply binary yes/no true/false constructs.

It’s entirely possible they’re all true or none of them are true or they are true and un-true simultaneously or even that they are all true and un-true simultaneously but in a manner we can not comprehend.

Still with me?

PKD may have been crazy but he sure wasn’t stupid and he realized telling too many people outside the circle of sci-fi fandom that he was experiencing intense religious revelations from an entity he sometimes referred to as God but more often as VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) was a surefire way to get himself even more good & ignored that he already was in his lowly status as sci-fi writer to he turned his experiences into an autobiographical sci-fi trilogy in which he was no the recipient of these visions but rather just a supporting character in another protagonist’s story.

Are ya still with me?

Dick’s work always touches in some form or another on the quest for ultimate Truth, to know what really is is, to tear away the veils & masks around us and truly know our place in the universe.

It is, by its very nature, a religious quest as well as a psychological and philosophical one.  Dick and his characters are seeking operating instructions from on high, something that will give them sense in what appears to be a senseless universe, something that makes the pain and suffering of everyday existence meaningful and worthwhile.

Radio Free Albemuth is a tangential part of Dick’s unfinished VALIS trilogy (the trilogy consisting of VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and the unfinished book The Owl In Daylight).  Essentially a first draft of VALIS, it also differs considerably from the latter book although remaining a fragmentary part of that “universe”.

You see what I’m getting at re not being able to easily categorize PDK’s work?

The variant of Radio Free Albemuth / VALIS that I’d like to draw your attention to, however, is the long-in-production / finally-released feature film, Radio Free Albemuth, currently available on Netflix.

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Radio Free Albemuth is everything I look for, everything I hope for in not just a sci-fi film but any sort of movie.  It’s actually about something as opposed to senseless / pointless chasing / fighting over a macguffin.

Radio Free Albemuth follows music mogul Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) as he becomes aware of VALIS attempt to communicate with him through an alien[2] satellite orbiting Earth.[3]

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The problem -- or perhaps it would be better to say the reason -- is that Radio Free Albemuth doesn’t take place in this reality but in an alternate one, where President Ferris F. Fremont[4] rules the US of A with an iron fist, sweeping aside Constitutional limitations and fighting a never ending war against a terrorist organization known as Cobra Aramchek, which apparently exists only in his mind.

Fremont and his Gestapo-like thugs, the Friends of the American People (derisively referred to as FAP in a delicious piece of unintentional irony), fear the message coming from VALIS via the satellite, a message that basically pulls back the curtain and reveals that Fremont’s power and authority comes from a false fear, that all people are capable of living in peace with one another, and that wars and hatred are foisted on us by those seeking power for their own ends.

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Brady and his muse / co-conspirator Sylvia (Alanis Morissette) are tracked down and killed by FAP, and Brady’s friend Philip K. Dick (Shea Whigham) is imprisoned as an enemy of the people.  In prison he learns from a fellow inmate, a former pastor now held for subversive ideas, that the ideas Brady and Sylvia received and tried to spread were identical with those of Jesus and the early Christian church, and that while VALIS and the Truth may have suffered a set back, other followers have gotten the message out and the seeds of a rebellion against the authoritarians is starting to grow.

If this sounds like a too-spot-on transliteration of contemporary US politics, guess again; Radio Free Albemuth was written in 1976 and only published posthumously in 1985.  Dick was long gone from the scene before the country was stampeded off in a panic for a war on terror.

The film is well made; inexpensive, but wisely focusing its attention less on spectacle and more on the attempts of human beings to come to terms with an idea that will transform their world…if they can live long enough to implement it.  It’s well cast, and while production and post-production were strung out for nearly a decade, it looks and feels the right scale for the story.

Highly recommended, no matter what your level of reality.

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[1]  Acknowledging that greatest novelist doesn’t mean wrote the best science fiction novel or best writer of science fiction or even best writer of science fiction novels but rather was the best master at the specific art & craft of writing 50-80,000 word stories that we refer to as novel-length format.  Because there’s a lot of truly exception writers vying in this field and although PKD was among the very best, we can’t put him at the absolute pinnacle, so instead we give him a slot near the apex and a qualifier that honors his skill & talent without painting us into a corner quality wise.  ‘Cuz Bradbury and Ellison are duking it out on the short story side and Bester has a lock on the best sci-fi novel ever although his output pales in comparison with Dick’s.

[2]  Implied angelic beings tho never clearly identified as such in the film.

[3]  Dick, in the novel, shifted much of his own experiences away from his character and onto Brady.

[4]  “Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast.” -- Revelation 13:18 (MEV)

 

 

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