Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K Dick
Cover design by Heidi North
Published by Vintage Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
When Philip K Dick died of a stroke in 1982, he left behind a number of manuscripts in various states of completion. Among them was a finished novel that showed numerous commonalities with his published novel VALIS, in particular the titular entity which is equated by the principal characters with God.
However, there are major differences; most obviously, the story of Ferris F Fremont's tyrannical presidency that was only a film in the background of VALIS is gritty reality in this novel. One can wonder whether Dick wrote this novel only to draw a conclusion very similar to Robert A. Heinlein's conclusion about the planned but unwritten novellas about Nehemiah Scudder and the early resistance against him: namely, that it was unbearably grim. Nobody would want to trudge through a story in which the protagonists fought a valiant rearguard battle against the encroachments of creeping tyranny only to reach a downer ending in which just the faintest hope remained that freedom was not forgotten, that a future generation would rise up and succeed where their elders had failed.
As in VALIS, Philip K Dick explicitly writes himself into the novel as a character, and actually makes it work. Given how many writers' author-avatar figures, even those given very different names, end up reading like the worst sort of Mary-Sue wish fulfillment, this is surprising, particularly given that Dick the author has his fictional self explicitly mention several of his best-known novels, as well as his relationships with other well-known figures in the sf field, such that there is no way to miss that this is an authorial self-insertion.
Part of this may well be the fact that Dick the character does not spend the first chapter introducing himself to the reader, but instead starts right out talking about his friend Nicholas Brady, and about Brady's various travails in his search to find a place for himself after flunking out of ROTC at UC-Berkeley. An alert reader will note that Nicholas Brady's fictional biography matches Philip K Dick's actual biography at several key points. In particular, the paranormal experiences that Philip K Dick the author underwent in the Primary World are ascribed not to Phil Dick the character, but to Nicholas Brady.
By removing the most obviously extraordinary experiences from his explicit author-avatar character and giving them to this second character, Dick the author avoids the problem of the author-avatar character who gets all the cool stuff. Phil Dick the character is a successful sf writer, but that's it. He explicitly doesn't get the interesting paranormal experiences, and at the end this lack is a source of profound sadness. Furthermore, having such an explicit author-avatar character standing front and center to play Watson to Nicholas Brady's Holmes actually may well help to soft-pedal the degree to which Brady is also an author avatar.
Even as Phil Dick the character is observing his friend Nicholas Brady struggling through several sanity-shaking paranormal experiences, trouble is rising hundreds of miles away in southern California. It would be easy to consider Ferris F Fremont to be a roman a clef figure for Richard M. Nixon. Their names have the same prosody, both men come from the same part of California (Placentia is the next town over from Yorba Linda), and Fremont is described as having pendulous jowls, one of Nixon's most prominent physical characteristics. However, Fremont's obsession with Communist infiltration is more reminiscent of the notorious Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy. Fremont also is described as having two sons, whereas Nixon had two daughters and McCarthy adopted an infant daughter shortly before his death.
From the beginning of his rise to power, Fremont fulminates against subversive activity, which he sees as having worked its way into every aspect of American society via a mysterious shadowy organization known as Aramchek. As he moves from the Senate to the White House, he initiates a program known as Mission Checkup to examine what he refers to as the "moral health" of America. He will uproot the forces of evil that he blames for domestic opposition to the Vietnam War, at which time he will be able to prosecute it to victory. In support of it the government recruits "Friends of the American People," often called FAPers by those who consider Fremont's activities jingoism of the worst sort. Officially the FAP are non-uniformed assistants in Mission Checkup, but unofficially there's a strong hint that they engage in dirty tricks, including breaking into people's houses and planting drugs or other incriminating materials.
And then Phil Dick the character is approached by these FAP agents, who request that he sign a notarized statement attesting to the political loyalty of Nicholas Brady and his wife. On the surface it might seem pretty innocuous, just helping a friend out -- until the FAPers bring their so-called voluntary information kit, containing instructions for drafting such a statement and various model statements. It becomes clear that this kit is a method for luring people into incriminating themselves, which shows the alert reader that the Fifth Amendment has been effectively rendered null and void.
From this point on everything's downhill. The point of view shifts to Nicholas Brady, whose visions of VALIS become progressively more intense, feeding him a plan to defeat President Fremont by producing a record with hidden messages through his company, Progressive Records. Like a binary weapon, what he produces contains only half of the information payload, and another company with no connection to Progressive will produce the record that contains the other half of the weapon that will bring down Fremont.
Brady receives more visions, discovering in the course of them that Fremont is in fact a communist sleeper agent, recruited as a teen to the Communist Party of the USA by the mother of the very singer Brady has signed to do his half of the record that will bring down the Fremont Administration. Furthermore, her actual family name is Aramchek -- the name of Fremont's shadowy conspiracy with its tendrils in every aspect of American society. In the course of these revelations he also learns that VALIS is an ancient spacecraft in orbit sent from Albemuth, which is supposed to be the true name of the star we call Fomalhaut, and the name Aramchek is tied with this guiding intelligence as well.
Just as Brady's learning this wonderful history of humanity's guardians, the Soviets announce the discovery of a satellite in orbit, one that cannot be accounted for by any terrestrial space program. The USSR is going to send up a satellite of its own to photograph this satellite, and Brady knows at once that their real intent is to destroy it, which will have the effect of cutting off the link with the higher civilization of Albemuth.
At this point, things fall apart. Brady and Dick are found out and their entire effort against Fremont is busted. Phil Dick the character gets the point of view back for the last few chapters, recounting how Brady was summarily executed, the policy for dealing with anyone touched by the Aramchek lifeform. Dick is sentenced to a lengthy period of corrective labor, but to hide what's happened to him from the general public and sf fandom in particular, books will continue to come out in his name, produced by ghostwriters skilled in counterfeiting his style but inserting the approved political messages.
At the end there's a tiny hint that all is not lost -- a completely different band from another label ended up recording the song Brady's Progressive Records was getting ready to produce. Although Fremont's regime is trying to track down and destroy every copy of that illegal pressing, at least some records have gotten into the hands of dj's and are getting air time -- and the kids are liking it. Maybe it will take another generation, but Fremont's tyranny is not the last word in American history.
But it's a very tiny glimmer of hope for such a relentlessly grim novel in which every effort of free men is crushed. To be sure, it is now a world in which humanity knows it is not alone, but that could just lead to governmental tyranny doubling down on its control of the people, under the guise of needing strength and a united front against the aliens Out There.
Not to mention that Radio Free Albemuth is an extremely short novel, particularly in today's market. When it was originally written, in the mid-1970's, it was still possible to market novels in the 60K-80K range, but as paperback prices have gone up, people want to feel they're getting their money's worth, and heft is one of the surest measures of substantiality for many readers.
Overall, it's an interesting book, but primarily of interest to people who are already fans of Philip K Dick, or people who are looking at the history of American dystopianism, and particularly of novels dealing specifically with the fall of the American Republic to a tyrant.
Review posted October 9, 2015.
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