Radio Free Albemuth is generally considered an oddity in the Philip K. Dick canon. Initially entitled Valisystem A, it was Dick's first attempt at transforming his religious experiences into a novel. When he sent it in to a publisher they returned it with a request for minor revisions; instead he scrapped the whole thing and started from scratch, resulting in the masterful Valis. Valisystem A was essentially forgotten until three years after his death, when it was published under the title it's known by today. There is disagreement among the grand assembly of Dickheads over the relative quality of many of his lesser-known books, but perhaps none is so controversial as RFA. Some think it is a minor footnote in the grander story of Valis (Jonathan Lethem, who left it out of the third Library of America novel in favor of A Maze of Death,* is in this camp); but others-- myself among them-- think it's an overlooked masterpiece, a powerful fusion of theological exploration and science-fictional storytelling.
John Alan Simon, the writer, producer, and director of the recent independent film adaptation of Radio Free Albemuth, clearly falls into the latter camp, as evidenced by his ardently faithful adaptation. It's obviously a labor of love, as underscored by the story of the film's production: Simon has been working on the adaptation for over 15 years. The screenplay hews closely to the novel in both structure and content-- something that no other PKD adaptation has done except A Scanner Darkly. The story is all there: Nicholas Brady, a PKD stand-in, is contacted by a semi-divine alien satellite that hopes to rescue humankind from the ontological injustice underlying not only a growing fascism in the United States, but all human suffering everywhere. His friend, the science fiction author Philip K. Dick, is gradually pulled into Brady's understanding of the world and his attempts at revolutionary action-- an action that cannot be judged in worldly terms of success or failure. The film transcribes the story with painstaking care.
That's not to say there isn't some creative interpretation going on, but the film handles that interpretation smartly. This is especially evident in the numerous dream sequences: the dreams of PKD stand-in Nicholas Brady are a central aspect of the novel (and of Dick's real-life religious experiences), and the film captures the otherworldly quality of those dreams brilliantly. (The bemused look on the face of Jonathan Scarfe, playing Brady, as he receives a computerized message from an alternate-universe "Portuguese States of America" is a particular high point). The film uses an awful lot of computer effects for a movie without a car chase, and those effects pay off-- they are an otherworldly intrusion, just like the alien-divine messages they represent. There's a slightly different look to each dream, including a couple fully-animated sequences. Some are extremely polished; others are deliberately more sketchy, but there's a powerful aesthetic driving all of these sequences. It's clear that a lot of thought went into the look of Brady's visions, which are, after all, the backbone of this story.
There's also a strong emphasis placed on the novel's political message. It gives a sinister illustriation of an America gradually transforming into a police state that reminded me of Southland Tales.** In this context, those contacted by the alien satellite from Albemuth become not just religious visionaries, but revolutionaries as well. Collectively known as "Aramchek," they become the victims of brutal political repression. The falsity of the distinction between politics and religion is a recurring theme in the story. Near the novel's end, the narrator (Philip K. Dick himself, albeit a fictional version thereof) discusses this idea in dialogue closely reproduced in the film:
"[Aramchek believes] that we shouldn't give our loyalty to human rulers. That there is a supreme father in the sky, above the stars, who guides us. Our loyalty should be to him and him alone."
"That's not a political idea," Leon said with disgust. "I thought Aramcheck was a political organization, subversive."
"But that's a religious idea. That's the basis of religion. They have been talking about that for five thousand years."
I had to admit that he was right. "Well," I said, "that's Aramchek, an organization guided by the supreme heavenly father."
This political theology-- in essence, a form of Christian anarchism-- is at the heart of Radio Free Albemuth, and the film highlights these concepts brilliantly. That's an element that was significantly diluted in the transition from Albemuth to Valis: bringing the story out of an alternate-universe police state and into something more closely resembling the real world reduces the urgency of this political theology. Simon also holds the film rights to Valis, which goes further down the theological rabbit hole, and has written a screenplay for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which depicts a particularly unpleasant police state. In this context, Radio Free Albemuth may end up occupying the central territory in a sort of trilogy exploring the breadth of Dick's philosophy and theology. The film is currently in search of a distributor, but when it becomes more widely available, it's definitely worth seeking out.
*Admittedly an overlooked masterpiece in its own right, and an excellent fusion of SF and theology.
**I should probably note that I mean this comparison as a compliment, since not everyone is kindly disposed to that film. See also my comparison of Sunshine to Event Horizon.