Philip K. Dick’s VALIS and The Man Who Fell to Earth and Duncan Jones

Just like we think Bowie knows something
 these people think I know something.
-- Philip K. Dick, Exegesis (283)

When David Bowie took charge of his young son Zowie/Joey/Duncan’s life in the late 1970’s during his Berlin years, his values and priorities were clear to his son. Reflecting on his “fairly unusual upbringing,” Duncan Jones said:

“My dad really thought it was incredibly important that I read. I used to spend an hour or two a night reading — that was the rule at home. As a kid, sometimes I’d get frustrated with it and I wouldn’t want to do it, and one of the ways my dad would lure me back into it was with science-fiction books, which were almost like candy.”

Which sci-fi books did Bowie pass along to his son? Duncan remembers,

 “George Orwell’s Animal Farm, 1984, and then John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes. He introduced me to Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, William Gibson who wrote Neuromancer. In movies, he was the one who showed me 2001 and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. So he really was the kind of guy who introduced me to all the things that excite me in science fiction.”

Duncan’s Homage to Blade Runner 

(and thus to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is based on Philip K. Dick’s [PKD] Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Duncan, as you know, has directed two acclaimed sci-fi movies, Moon and Source Code. Blade Runner and PKD are still favorites of his. On the Manmade Movies website, there’s a post with a link to a letter that PKD wrote when Blade Runner was still being filmed, along with a few of Duncan’s reactions to PKD’s letter:

“Anyone read that beautiful letter Philip K Dick wrote the production team of Blade Runner after he saw the first few shots? Amazing stuff!.  .  . He said BR wasn’t sci-fi — it was “Futurism! Love it. . .”

Duncan is also a great fan of Ridley Scott, the director of Blade Runner, and in 2009 had hoped to make a movie set in a futuristic Berlin, called Mute:

“It’s very much a love letter to Blade Runner. It’s a very different story but trying to create a world that’s as believable and as vibrant as what Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner.”

It was Ridley Scott’s brother, Tony, who encouraged Duncan to drop his PhD studies at Vanderbilt University and go to film school instead. They had gotten to know one another when Duncan hung out on the set of  “The Hunger” television series starring his dad and directed by Tony Scott.

1981 — “VALIS” Within VALIS:  Philip K. Dick’s Homage to

The Man Who Fell to Earth

Back to 1981. Duncan is ten years old, likely too young for Philip K. Dick’s new novel, VALIS. I wonder, though, if he at once saw that the movie described in the book  was inspired by The Man Who Fell to Earth.

In 1981, when Hartford Advocate reviewer John Boonstra said, “the novel reminded me in its style of the film The Man Who Fell to Earth,”  PKD replied:

“You got it. You got it. That’s where the idea came. It’s like Madame Bovary going to see Lucia — I remember that scene so well, how it crystallized all the nebulous things that were floating around in Madame Bovary’s mind. Now, that impressed me enormously.

“I saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and thought it was one of the finest films – not just science-fiction films, but one of the finest films I had ever seen. I thought it was incredibly original, incredibly provocative, rich in ideas, beautiful in texture, glorious in its overall conception. It was enigmatic. In no way is the film VALIS the plot and theme of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but the idea occurred to me that a science-fiction film, if well done, could be as rich a source of knowledge and information as anything we normally derive our knowledge and information from. The film tremendously impressed me; I just loved it. My use of the film VALIS is my homage to The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life to see that.”

And Then There’s PKD’s Exegesis

As he worked on his massive and never completed Exegesis, PKD continued to think about the film. He refers directly to Bowie five times, including the line quoted at the top of the post. On February 3, 1974, PKD had a visonary experience that suggested to him, to oversimplify, that the nature of the universe was a Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS). Exploring his role in this universe of information was his occupation until his death in 1982 and the subject of his last three novels and Exegesis. He believed a new savior might soon appear, not born into this world but “smuggled into our midst unnoticed, to mingle with us as an ordinary human” (p.  398) and references “the Bowie film” as an example of how this could happen.

There’s a very brief scene at the end of The Man Who Fell to Earth when you see into a record shop and find that Thomas Jerome Newton has released an album, The Visitor (Young Americans is also in the frame). Newton’s hope is that if  his wife is still alive, radio waves from broadcasts of the album will reach her. PDK connects this to the hypothesis set forth by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier in The Morning of the Magicians that “superhumans” living anonymously among us would use pop culture to stay in touch with each other.  Such media is universally dispersed, and, more importantly, the receivers of the messages would be untrackable (p. 336).

Later, PKD is seized by the idea that his own writing is “messages smuggled out!”,  an attempt to “contact outside help” — “like Bowie’s LP record. . .to reach his wife” (p. 411).

The messenger need not be conscious that he is relaying information to a specific receiver. PDK speculated that “transterrestrial intelligence” “entered me as information” that he then “distributed” in his stories, and that this was “not just info concerning it, but it itself.” This happens by a collage assemblage of pop culture media in the transmitter’s brain that “once begun” causes the person to seek out “missing parts of the pattern (i.e., it). It even describes itself — e.g. the Bowie flick” (p. 418). The movie VALIS (inspired by “the Bowie flick”) within the novel VALIS illustrates this idea.*

Speculations on Gnosticism pervade PDK’s Exegesis. You may recall from a few posts back that in the mid-1990s, Bowie said he had “started reading books on Gnosticism, a form of early Christianity, an interest I have.” Duncan Jones, by the way, completed the coursework for a doctorate in philosophy before leaving academia to make movies. His areas of interest: applying ethics to sentient machines, mind and AI, and moral philosophy in general.

*I’ve seen variations of Wikipedia’s entry on The Man Who Fell to Earth and the movie within VALIS all over the place:

“The film [MWFTE] was used as one of the key elements of the novel VALIS by Philip K. Dick, with David Bowie appearing in the novel as “Mother Goose” and the film represented by the titular film “VALIS”, although plot elements were changed dramatically, so that the film became something very different in Dick’s novel. The novel also incorporates a – fictional – incident in which Dick visits David Bowie and Brian Eno, who turn out to be harboring a small child who may be the messiah.”

This doesn’t mesh with the novel I read, and I can’t figure out how anyone could associate the fictional Eric Lampton who plays Father Goose (the lead character  in the fictional VALIS movie within the novel) with Bowie/Thomas Jerome Newton, let alone the fictional musician Mini with Brian Eno, except that Lampton is an actor and so is Bowie, and Mini makes music, and so does Eno. Who then is Linda Lampton [Eric’s wife]? No way is she modeled on Angie. And is Duncan then the inspiration for Sophia, the new messiah? I think not.

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