In an alternate 1960s, conservative senator Ferris F. Fremont becomes president after the Johnson administration; Fremont makes sweeping changes to the United States, abrogating civil liberties and human rights in pursuit of a shadowy Communist group called “Aramchek” which has infiltrated American society. During Fremont’s rise to power, a young man named Nick Brady begins to receive Gnostic visions which he believes are from a helpful alien entity he knows as VALIS, or the Vast Active Living Intelligence System. [Radio Free Albemuth was originally titled VALISystem A, so it shares a lot of the same themes and setting elements as the later VALIS trilogy]. Nick feels himself being pushed by VALIS towards a confrontation with Fremont’s corrupt government, as America finds itself awash in paranoia…
It’s fascinating to read this alongside Dick’s Exegesis, as Radio Free Albemuth covers so much of the same ground—the girl with an Icthys-fish symbol, the religious visions, the attunement to an alien/deity and receiving its telepathic broadcasts. There’s even a few less obvious elements, like Ferris F. Fremont—with F being the sixth letter of the alphabet, it’s an allusion to 666—crafted as a stand-in for McCarthy and Nixon, making the novel Dick’s paen to the post-Watergate world. And because of that, it’s also a bit redundant, a thinly veiled autobiography that splits Dick’s experiences into the mary-sue Nick Brady character. Nick exists to allow Dick some distance between himself—the semi-fictional self in RFA—and his thoughts, allowing Dick the character to dialogue with Nick/Dick the author’s experiences. That gives it yet another metafictional layer, further confusing what is real with what is fiction.
It also makes the novel something of a grind to read; there’s an awful lot of my least favorite writing—passive (past-tense), expository infodumps—in the first section, where the fake Philip K. Dick retells FFF’s rise to power alongside Nick Brady’s emerging visions. It reads something like the draft that it is, lacking the care or polish that Dick’s best works have—the novel was published posthumously by Dick’s estate, and I think the call for more PKD works in the wake of his death played a big part in its release, as I don’t think the novel was otherwise publishable in its current state.
While Dick tries to write a character-centric drama rather than pure pulp SF escapism, it’s plagued by redundancies, and both the characters and plotlines feel a bit underdeveloped and artificial. I’m not a huge fan of the VALIS trilogy and found that a more developed and satisfying read, balancing its crazier ideas with a more polished depth. Combine VALIS with Dick’s attempts to write mainstream literature and you start to arrive at Radio Free Albemuth.
If you want to understand Dick’s Exegesis and its themes—paranoia, religious fervor, alien communications, state control—without actually reading it, then Radio Free Albemuth may be the better route. It’s Dick’s attempts to categorize the same things into a cogent novel, though it covers much of the same ground as the Exegesis’ 900+ pages of correspondence and notes. Instead, it takes most of those elements and tacks them onto a somewhat-fictionalized but heavily autobiographical novel. The problem is that the novel isn’t very good; parts of it read more like Dick’s notes, sketches to be filled in later. Other elements reappeared in VALIS, which itself has more niche appeal among SF readers compared to PKD’s earlier works. Radio Free Albemuth will be an interesting read for diehard fans of Philip K. Dick, but that’s the main group I’d recommend it to—if you are a PKD fan and can’t convince yourself to reading the Exegesis, Radio Free Albemuth will give you a a more accessible and vastly abbreviated version.