Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick
Arbor House, 1985, 214 pp.
Philip K. Dick is nothing if not a paranoid genius. Perhaps, in his case, he had the right to be: in the middle of McCarthy’s Red Scare, Dick’s home was raided and torn apart by FBI agents probably looking for a connection between him and the Communist Party. They came back repeatedly to interrogate Philip, and it apparently did no good for an already troubled psyche. Radio Free Albemuth is essentially straight out of this period, a novel full of paranoid government rebellion and a strange brand of Gnostic Christianity that is so bizarre that it feels true.
There are two primary characters of Radio Free Albemuth, a novel that was shelved by Dick after serious re-writes were demanded by his publishers. The first is Nicholas, a man born in Chicago who moved to Berkeley, California at a very young age, much like the writer himself. He works at a record store and receives very clear visions in his dreams that he knows to be messages from God, or from aliens. The other primary protagonist and narrator of the story is Philip K. Dick himself, a science fiction writer based out of Orange County known for the populariy of his novels The Man in the High Castle and Flow Your Tears, The Policeman Said among others. President Ferris F. Fremont is a kind of terrifying amalgam of real-life president Richard Nixon and crazed Senator McCarthy himself. This is the Red Scare in overdrive.
Nicholas and Philip are both harassed throughout the story by government ages trying to connect them to communist sympathizers in the area. Of course, Nicholas and his partner are indeed linked to the party, but do their best to hide it from FBI agents who pretty assuredly know everything. Philip K. Dick goes through similar interrogation and some entrapment, including being seduced by a drugged up agent who tries to convince him after the fact that she is in fact underage and he will be arrested for statuatory rape if he doesn’t come clean. Another character, Sylvia, is introduced in the second half of the book as someone who has a similar connection to the general scheme of things to Nicholas, and becomes his sort of partner-in-crime in the leadup to their final act of rebellion against the fascist state.
The novel as a whole is a perfectly executed criticism of the sort of Stalinist and neo-Fascist bent of the Republican Party of the era. It is brilliantly written with constantly flawless dialogue that never lulls—not for a second. Although this is one of Dick’s lesser known novels, it is also one of his most poignant; there are several scenes over the course of the novel that are extremely memorable for either their dark humor, brilliant political satire, or simple tragedy. While some readers have criticized this novel for not being particularly accessible, and it may be a harder read than some of Philip K. Dick’s more mainstream efforts, it ought to be seen as one of his more essential novels. Radio Free Albemuth seems to imply that alien visitors from outer space are the source of all world religions; prophets are simply people receiving messages from benevolent (but not omnipotent) extraterrestrials who seek to help us cast off our chains. It may be bizarre, but Philip K. Dick’s brilliance is as prevalent here as it ever was.