Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Philip K. Dick: The Divine Invasion (1981)

Edition: Voyager, 1996 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1297

Religious experience of one form or another makes its way into most of Dick's novels. In The Man in the High Castle, for instance, there is the use of the I Ching, both in the story and by Dick as he constructed it, and even in the generally secular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the need to care for a pet is described in a way that recalls the religious impulse. In later novels, religious ideas become more central, particularly in VALIS and The Divine Invasion. While Deus Irae (his collaboration with Roger Zelazny) is a fairly straightforward story of a quest to find the divine, these novels are still hard to categorise in any way other than weird.

The story of The Divine Invasion is one that some people might consider blasphemous to incorporate into the standard clich├ęs of science fiction so important to Dick's style: it is blatantly and openly a retelling of the central story of Christianity, the Incarnation, within the genre. A zone of evil has forced the god Yah to leave Earth, to travel to the distant human colony of Fomalhaut. There, he impregnates a virgin, whose illness with MS provides an excuse for her and her husband to travel back to Earth - something not normally permitted for colonists - for treatment.

Up to this point, the narrative is reasonably coherent. The few unusual features are explained by the set up: the narrator is reliving the experience in a dream while in suspended animation - interrupted by the life support machinery malfunctioning, picking up a radio broadcast of Fiddler on the Roof (a typical Dick touch). But the, from the birth of the child, the narrative dissolves into a series of alternate realities, orchestrated by divine (or quasi-divine: some disclaim actual deity) beings with an interest in the outcome of the divine invasion.

Parts of this half of the novel cannot be described as vintage Philip K. Dick. Indeed, some chapters could be skipped, improving the reading experience. (Unfortunately, it's hard to know which chapters to leave out without reading them.) This is partly because the series of alternate realities makes the background feel inconsistent, and partle because Dick doesn't integrate his ideas as well as he usually manages to. Even so, just like with everything he wrote, there are lots of interesting ideas here, allied to a quirky take on religion which may amuse or may offend. It should be noted that it is clearly not Dick's intention to offend, at least not just for the sake of causing a sensation. While irony plays an important part in all Dick's writing and tends to blur his intentions, he seems to have seriously wanted to write about two aspects of religious experience: the way that science fictional ideas can feed into religious ones, as seen in the way some people think about corn circles or UFOs; and in the tension between organised religious institutions and personal religious experience.

As it stands, The Divine Invasion is not a great novel, but for those interested in Philip K. Dick, a fascinating guide to the stranger areas in the author's mind. Like VALIS, it reads as though it were written during an extended LSD flashback. Like VALIS, it pushes at the boundaries of the science fiction genre. Any fan of Dick should read both novels. Anyone new to the author should not start with them (though they are likely to begin with the best known writing, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Man in the High Castle rather than The Divine Invasion), particularly if they haver any strong religious convictions.

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