Book Review – The Divine Invasion by Philip K Dick
I first read The Divine Invasion a little over ten years ago, and I haven’t thought about it for a decade. I know this for sure because there’s a review of mine on Amazon.com dated Feb 9, 2000. I didn’t much like it then, and while I’ve probably qualified my dislike on the second reading, I still feel this to be a failure of a novel.
The first 40 or 50 pages are quite interesting. On the barren planet in the CY30-CY30B star system, Herb Asher lives alone in a dome with only a host of ‘Clems’ (the native species) as company. There’s another colonist, Rybys Rommey, in an adjacent dome, but she seems to be suffering from multiple sclerosis. In my opinion, the narrative is best when it focuses on the trials of Herb Asher, a typical PKD everyman trying to figure out whether he’s alive or dead, married or unmarried, on Earth on in cryogenic suspension. We are told that in fact Herb is in cryogenic suspension, which seems to cast doubt over the veracity of his entire narrative, but in true PKD fashion this is never fully established. During this early section, we are introduced to Elias Tate, a ‘Wild Beggar’ who tells Herb and Rybys that they will be married and that Rybys will bear the son of God. There’s some discussion about the local God – Yah (meaning ‘God’) – who may be responsible for various unexplained phenomena, such as a pink beam of light that assails Herb. PKD expanded much of this early section from his short story “Chains of Air, Web of Aether” and it’s possibly the best part of the book.
This narrative thread folds up and is replaced by a later narrative on Earth which concerns the fate of Rybys’ son Manny. This seems to take place about ten years after Herb Asher’s initial narrative, by which time Manny, the son of God, has successfully been returned to Earth through clandestine means. The description of the return itself is reasonable, if formulaic and harking back to PKD’s work of at least two and possibly three decades before. We are introduced to two new characters, Cardinal Fulton Statler Harms, Chief Prelate of the Christian-Islamic Church on Earth, and Nicholas Bulkowsky, Procurator Maximus of the Scientific Legate. These two are supposed to represent the powermongers on Earth, which is said to be a fallen world ruled not by the true God but by an inferior god. You can see that PKD is trying to provide an insight into the Black Iron Prison that is Earth in similar fashion to his novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. But it doesn’t work – the characters are cardboard cutouts and PKD isn’t really interested in them anyway, so they are relegated to the sidelines in the cosmic battle that is to follow.
Where The Divine Invasion really gets bogged down, much to the detriment of the narrative flow, is in the seemingly endless discussions between the boy Manny or Emmanuel and his friend Zina. I’d hazard a guess and say that these discussions take up at least a third of the pages in this book, which is far too much for what is essentially a series of talk-fests on the nature of the divine. By 1980, when PKD was writing The Divine Invasion, he probably knew more about religion than all but a handful of people in the world. He obviously has an immense breadth and depth of religious knowledge that simply bewilders and befuddles mere mortals such as myself (an atheist to boot). But this isn’t good fiction. Herb Asher’s narrative grinds to a halt under this barrage, as we come to see that Manny and Zina are basically pulling the strings that control the whole universe, and that poor Herb is just a pawn in this struggle.
Toward the end of the book, the narrative is dominated by Herb Asher’s desire to met and maybe become romantically involved with a rising singer by the name of Linda Fox (who is apparently styled on a real singer called Linda Ronstadt, of whom I am ignorant). This seems to take place in a false world imagined by Zina, who Manny can’t quite get his head around even though he is the true God. Here The Divine Invasion takes on a sort of sub-Ubik afterlife, but it’s all too late to save this story. The stuff about ‘the Fox’ is interesting enough, but it’s hard to say what role it serves in a novel that is ultimately about the struggle between two gods. And in the latter regard, PKD’s second to last novel has something in common with one of his first, The Cosmic Puppets, in that the actual lives of the small characters are overshadowed and made irrelevant by the greater struggle above. Ultimately, this is why The Divine Invasion fails. I knew this ten years ago and I know it now: PKD’s second last novel is the least distinguished of the so-called VALIS trilogy.
This is not to say that I feel that this novel fails because it is about religion. After all, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is fuelled by religious speculation and conjecture. The problem is that in Three Stigmata and Ubik PKD poses a number of theological questions for which there are no easy answers, or perhaps even no answers at all. In The Divine Invasion, however, the answers are there on the page, apparently (I don’t feel qualified to evaluate them, but I’m certainly not convinced). And this is this where PKD’s second last novel fails, as it ultimately fails to weave a compelling narrative out of the strange and disparate elements the author has cobbled together here. I’m sure this novel has its defenders. I’d be eager to hear their rebuttals.