Hear VALIS, an Opera Based on Philip K. Dick’s Metaphysical Novel


Image by Pete Wesch, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Philip K. Dick died in 1982. His dis­tinc­tive, some say vision­ary brand of psy­cho­log­i­cal sci-fi lit­er­a­ture, how­ev­er, has lived on, prov­ing its endurance in part by tak­ing new forms. Blade Run­ner, Rid­ley Scot­t’s huge­ly influ­en­tial adap­ta­tion of Dick­’s Do Androids Dream of Elec­tric Sheep?, pre­miered just three months after the author’s depar­ture. More films fol­lowed over the years, includ­ing Paul Ver­ho­even’s Total Recall (an adap­ta­tion of “We Can Remem­ber It for You Whole­sale”), Steven Spiel­berg’s Minor­i­ty Report, Richard Lin­klater’s A Scan­ner Dark­ly, and many oth­ers.

Dick­’s work has also pro­vid­ed the basis for radio dra­mas, tele­vi­sion shows (most recent­ly Net­flix’s The Man in the High Cas­tle, with an ambi­tious anthol­o­gy series com­ing to Chan­nel 4 this spring), and stage pro­duc­tions.

Typ­i­cal­ly, these adap­ta­tions use the sto­ries and nov­els in which Dick wrote the set­ting, plot, and char­ac­ters with rel­a­tive straight­for­ward­ness. Oth­er, lat­er works found him plung­ing as deep into phi­los­o­phy and auto­bi­og­ra­phy as into sci­ence fic­tion. The change hap­pened around the time he saw a mys­te­ri­ous pink light and met God in 1974, or claimed to, and it pro­duced a final set of nov­els known as the VALIS tril­o­gy.

The frac­tured tale of an autho­r­i­al alter-ego named Horselover Fat, VALIS (short for “Vast Active Liv­ing Intel­li­gence Sys­tem”), the first book in the tril­o­gy, involves an alien space probe, Water­gate, the Mes­si­ah, lasers, and a range of ref­er­ences to reli­gions like Chris­tian­i­ty, Gnos­ti­cism, Bud­dhism, Gnos­ti­cism, Zoroas­tri­an­ism, and the Red Cross Broth­er­hood; phi­los­o­phy from the ancient Greeks to Pla­to, Pas­cal, and Schopen­hauer; and cul­tur­al fig­ures like Han­del, Wag­n­er, Goethe, and Frank Zap­pa. It would take an ambi­tious mind indeed to adapt such a thing: specif­i­cal­ly, it took the mind of Tod Machover, com­pos­er and direc­tor of MIT’s Media Lab, who turned it into an opera in 1987.

“We live in a world that is becom­ing in fact more and more frag­ment­ed, more and more com­plex,” says Machover on the rel­e­vance of VALIS at an inter­view at the Philip K. Dick Fan Site. “You don’t have to have a pink light expe­ri­ence to real­ize that there is too much infor­ma­tion to not only be aware of but to make any kind of sense out of.” He describes this “incred­i­ble feel­ing of the world being not only too com­plex for any one per­son to make sense out of but also dan­ger­ous­ly com­plex, to the point where peo­ple will not only not under­stand each oth­er but end up hat­ing each oth­er and being absolute­ly crushed under the bur­den of just try­ing to make sense with how much there is to know.”

In his VALIS opera, which pre­miered at Paris’ Cen­tre Georges Pom­pi­dou with instal­la­tions cre­at­ed by video artist Cather­ine Ikam, Machover tried to get that feel­ing artis­ti­cal­ly across, and you can hear it free on Spo­ti­fy. (If you don’t have Spo­ti­fy’s soft­ware, you can down­load it here. There’s a Youtube ver­sion right above.) Back then in the 80s, he says, it “seemed like through our media and com­mu­ni­ca­tions there’d be a kind of facile way of con­nect­ing peo­ple, a sort of pas­siv­i­ty and turn­ing on your cable TV and see­ing what’s going on today in Tokyo or in Europe and you sort of feel like you can take all this stuff in. But in fact I think what we’re see­ing now is exact­ly what Dick pre­dict­ed, which is that it ain’t that easy.” And it sure has­n’t got any eas­i­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Philip K. Dick Takes You Inside His Life-Chang­ing Mys­ti­cal Expe­ri­ence

Hear 6 Clas­sic Philip K. Dick Sto­ries Adapt­ed as Vin­tage Radio Plays

Philip K. Dick Makes Off-the-Wall Pre­dic­tions for the Future: Mars Colonies, Alien Virus­es & More (1981)

The Penul­ti­mate Truth About Philip K. Dick: Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Mys­te­ri­ous Uni­verse of PKD

33 Sci-Fi Sto­ries by Philip K. Dick as Free Audio Books & Free eBooks

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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