Sunday, June 5, 2011

Some More Thoughts on Ubik

I've got one more week working on the e, so posting here will be minimal. I do, however, want to write a bit more about Ubik. I've been reading as much secondary source material about the novel as I can. I even read Rickels' chapter on Ubik, Three Stigmata, and Do Androids; though I could follow his interest in the three different types of 'merging' described in these books, the rest was incoherent. Sample:

"This disruption on the inside of the perfectly functioning establishment of Spiritualism is the flaw in the appointment the survivor tries to keep according to a schedule of one and a half lives" (344).

It's a bummer because one of Rickels' key interests is what happens to the dead in text and I would have thought he'd have something a little deeper to get into. But he does notice one thing: both Deckard and Joe Chip are 'testers'; Deckard detecting androids with his VK set-up and Joe Chip checking potential psychic operatives. I can't help but think of Ubik and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as being connected.

Next up was Darko Suvin's "Artifice as Refuge and World View: Philip K Dick's Foci." Suvin is a legend and his pronouncements about SF in the 1970s came from on high. Suvin says Ubik is deeply flawed and this seems to represent one whole school of thought on the novel: the 'incomprehensible' ending, when coupled with the plot holes/problems are insurmountable flaws. Guys like Suvin are willing to acknowledge there's much that's good about Ubik but, Suvin at least, concludes his appraisal thusly:

"The net result [of Ubik] seems to me to be one of great strengths balanced by equally great weaknesses in narrative responsibility reminiscent of the rabbits-from-the-hat carelessness associated with the rankest van Vogt if not "Doc" Smith..." (92).

Ouch. Also, that's not exactly accurate. I hope to have time to tell you why.

Next up is Peter Fitting's "Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF." This is another important essay, one which Dick had read. Remember PKD wrote to the FBI about Fitting and Jameson and the other dangerous Marxist literary critics. Not Dick's finest hour. Regardless, here's Fitting's claim:

"In this novel Dick has explored and transcended the science-fiction genre and the "representational novel" of which it is a part."

Here's his (cough, Marxist) take: "[Ubik's] "commercial messages" provide a restatement of Karl Marx's description of value, for Ubik is a universal equivalent (the embodiment of of exchange value), which can replace any other commodity: under capitalism everything has its price; while the presentation of Ubik through these ads stresses the obligation of capitalism to produce needs (use-values) in the consumer" (154).

Then, with quite an elaborate argument, Fitting attempts to convince readers that because Ubik fails to satisfy as a representational novel, it undermines capitalism. Or something. Fitting continues:

"There is no single, satisfactory interpretation of Ubik, my own included; and the reader's traditional goal -- the discovery of that interpretation -- is frustrated" (156).

I'm not sure I agree. Anyway, last, but certainly not least, I read Michael Bishop (of Philip K Dick is Dead, Alas) fame's "In Pursuit of Ubik." I wish Bishop had something more to say as his writing is absolutely brilliant. Using an extended metaphor of the pinned butterfly, Bishop argues that to analyze Ubik is to destroy it. Kinda like that line in Seinfeld about how a cartoon in the New Yorker was 'like gossamer' and "one doesn't dissect gossamer." But the article is very well written and praises PKD's efforts

"Whatever our attitude toward it, Ubik -- in ragged, beautiful gyrations confounding our ability to follow -- keeps flying. It invites our continued pursuit by its very elusiveness" (138).

None of these authors offers much in the way of insight about the wardrobes, the emergence of Ubik from ad culture, or the ubiquity of coin-operated appliances. I want to tackle those issues. But I will have to wait for another day.

I found all of the above essays in JD Olander and MH Greenberg's Writers of the 21st Century Series (pictured above).


Jon said...

I am anything but a PKD scholar (as I will now conclusively demonstrate), but I'm reasonably well read, including half a dozen (full dozen?) of his books. I'm really surprised to learn that Ubik gets a regular critical panning. Of all his books (and many not his), Ubik struck me as among the most convincing in terms of emotional power and in creating an atmosphere of slow-burning dread and confusion. And funny, to boot! It was the first of his books that I re-read, and I think the most memorable.

Back to the issue of coin-ops, I always took this as a balance between mechanization and disintegration. More things given up to technology, but a crude technology prone to failure. Sort of like at the heart of Gilliam's Brazil.

Regarding the costumes, I took this as a simple riff on a SF cliche, but now you've got me wondering if there's more to it. The general distinction between the outward appearance and the inner reality, and the basic pantomime of the advertising world both suggest themselves here. Unfortunately it's way too long since my last reading to remember the specifics of the wardrobes.

Will I have to read this book thrice now?!

Robert Cook said...

Gee...I have that book. I bought it in the 80s. I've never read it, though.

Joshua Lind said...

I've never been able to appreciate "Ubik," for some reason I can't put my finger on. Of the twenty-five PKD novel's I've read, "Ubik" is 15th on my list. I love the scene where the Joe Chip tries to get out of his apartment without paying the mandatory fee, but there are too many other flaws in the book. For me, it just doesn't reach the level of "The Man in the High Castle," "Martian Time-Slip," "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," "Dr. Bloodmoney," "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," or "Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said." I suppose I should try to re-read it, but the last time I did that, I only got to chapter seven.

Robert Cook said...

It's funny how often I see Dick-Heads namecheck FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID as among their favorites, one of Dick's best, etc. I've read it twice and I find it distinctly minor and not particularly memorable. (I did go see the Mabou Mine theatrical production of it about here in NYC about 20 years ago. I'm nothing if not a dutiful Dick-Head.)

Perhaps I'll have to read it again and try to open myself up to it to see if it speaks to me with greater force now. It's been probably 20 years since I last read it.

UBIK is outstanding, with only the fanciful clothing of its characters somewhat detracting from the book for me.

Keith Giles said...

UBIK is my all-time fave PKD book, next to Flow My Tears and DADOES.

I love how it constantly surprises me with profoundly mind-bending and mysterious turns. Great stuff!

Micah Sisk said...

Wow. What a load of hogwash people do write when they’re fixated on their own ideologies and not what they’re actually reading!

Ubik is one of my favorite Dick novels, though if you asked me to put them in order of my preference, I’d give you a slightly different list depending on my mood on that day. Maze of Death would be high on my list as well, another virtual world/battle against entropy novel…and total mind f---.

That being said, I can tell you what I think the product Ubik represents in the novel from both a structural and symbolic point of view…to do so without spoilers might be a bit difficult, but I’ll give it a whirl:

Structurally--that is how it’s used in the development of the story--the product Ubik is the single unifying plot device that keeps the reader on track. It is just about the only thing that continues through the story unchanged. I say unchanged, but of course it does change outward presentation, but the product’s purpose as a restorative, an invigorator, a vitality-giving source remains immutable. It’s cleverly and subtly used so that the reader doesn’t latch onto it until the forces of entropy at work in the story become so distressing that the product’s persistent appearance becomes visible as the key plot devise pointing to the final “what‘s really going on“ revelation.

Symbolically, Ubik represents the counter agent to the forces of entropy. If I might draw a religious analogy, anyone familiar with Tibetan Buddhism might recognize the ultimate bad guy of the story as a vital being, a vampire of the life force. Ubik is its opposite, a life-giving restorative that returns the vitality that is being drained away by the agent of entropy.

I’m not sure how consciously Dick structured his novels. They appear to have been written so fast that he may have relied on intuition more than pre-planning, I don’t know. And though I’m sure he would not have seen the product Ubik in exactly the same spiritual terms I used as metaphor, he was certainly expressing similar concepts: decay counterbalanced by the ubiquitous power of life/spirit/God, if you will.

Looking for any other meaning reflect more on the critic than the novel or author.

Mr. Hand said...

I've been thinking about this scholarly question of whether ubik is "incomprehensible, thus flawed" for more than ten years since I first read about it. It strikes me as a misunderstanding of the logic of Ubik, or the satirical point he's trying to make about logic. but until these english professors can understand how to read Ubik as pataphysics we're not gonna see much progress!

nanakwame said...

Well I re-read Ubik this weekend from the LOA picks by Lethem. It was a nice read and the use of words are impeccable. The half-life concept is quite ahead of its times given what we have today. Virtual and Natural!
He and Octavia Estelle Butler described 21st Century better than anyone to me

Morgan Chaney said...

The substance Ubik seems to me to be a metaphor for the divine, as Teresa Dick has said. This symbol of the sacred is extremely meaningful when taken in conjunction with the remarks that Joe makes about Platonic forms in Chapter 10:

"But why hadn't the TV set reverted instead to formless metals and plastics? . . . Perhaps this weirdly verified . . . Plato's idea objects."

So it goes: Joe's LaSalle reverts to an earlier Model-A, and modern elevators revert to caged-in bellboy-operated lifts. Interestingly, though, Ubik reverts to things that we nowadays use as examples of swindles in the whilom world before drug regulations. An example of this is Ubik's regression to Ubique, which Joe uses as fare to fly to Des Moines and which was simply gold flakes suspended in mineral oil. Ubik's form, therefore, would be something of placebo-like panacea, which is essentially why it makes such a metaphor for the divine, for God.

Ubik obviously derives from ubiquity, which believers associate freely with their sundry deities. For those who instead worship along more materialistic lines, products for the consumer are commensurately ubiquitous. Both of these, God and products of all stripes, function to ameliorate our existence, however placebo-like this may be.

Greenaum said...

I can't remember anything anyone wore in Ubik. The Zap Gun is another wardrobe-mentioning novel. It doesn't matter, I see it as PKD having 5 minutes entertainment making up ridiculous costumes.

On "literary criticism"... I have a primer on post-modern analysis. From it, I learned that the whole field is just masturbating with long words. If you can't say it plainly, it's probably rubbish. Many great men wrote well about every part of the human condition in everyday language.

The ending, I just took as a Twilight Zone-style twist. Not meant to be taken seriously, if you read the book up until the last couple of sentences, before the Joe Chip money, then the story hangs together (except for the Ubik / protophason explanation, which makes no sense if Ubik exists only in the imagined world of half-life!). The ending is just another level of zoom-out on what we thought was real. Serves no purpose, it's just a cute trick. Pulling the rug out is this book's special move.

c0mpanion cube said...

Yeah well am I the ONLY one whos favorite dick book is the simulacra!?

bill said...

Although the French see UBIK in Capitalist/Marxist terms, I would also agree, being from the US.

Joe lives in a "1984" type apartment where dingy would be the operative scheme; the guy can't get ahead even though he works full time.

Ultimately UBIK is supplied by Capitalists who're now making buck from those freshly dead. Jory is allowed to invade people's space literally and metaphorically because he's well connected, but also that fact would drive more UBIK sales, seems to me.

A good cinematic ending to UBIK would be Joe meeting Ella and finding out that she has the answer to their dilemma: never get reborn.

Phil didn't say it, but I'd suspect that the 1992-era corporations had controlled people's lives and near deaths and were working on reincarnating them as slaves working for the corporation for an eternity. All that a hero can do is check out somehow...after all this isn't a Harlan Ellison tale.

I would expect Joe, the hero, to actually follow through and fail to be reincarnated--cue the house lights and applause!

This would be one multi-verse approach to a Hollywood ending.

Damokles said...

Engrossed though I am with Philip K.'s writing, I have only recently discovered it and am still quite unaware of the finer, more subtle threads and undercurrents that run through the gross of his work.

I do, however, have a thought regarding the ever-persistent penny-swallowing door that relentlessly haunts Chip, seemingly unaffected by the changes in time and the deteriorating world around it.

Perhaps Mr Dick felt that society could not deteriorate beyond such a system, causing it to retain the exact same form throughout the novel?

Other than that, doors are always a kind of balancing point in between worlds, belonging to neither and both of them at the same time. This could also be part of the explanation as to why it retains its shape.

James Robert Clark said...


Actually, it's interesting that you mention the "ubik/protophason explanation" as the other thing that doesn't 'hang', because I feel that this is the most convincing bit of information that is contrary to the idea that the last twist is just a bit of play.

On the contrary, like you said, if ubik only exists in half-life then the given scientific explanation makes no sense... but since the twist at the very end implies that Runciter is himself in half-life--and yet he is also in the world that we've deemed as static--this scientific explanation combined with the twist seem to heavily imply a sort of "macrocosmic zoom" or something.

In my interpretation, it is as if it is meant to very vaguely imply the slightest hint that EVERYTHING is a sort of half-life, and that there is no static reality...? Almost as if there are simply multiple layers of reality, with various degrees of susceptibility to entropy, which strengthens as one moves "down" into lower layers.

The thing that really took me off-guard was the idea that if Joe's face is appearing on Runciter's coins at the end, it seems to imply that what we perceive as a "reality within the reality" (ie, the world Joe finds himself in, the place to which Runciter is "calling" when he uses the mortuary's facilities) might actually be the world CONTAINING the world that Runciter is in.

There seems to be an implication that what is perceived as the "below" is actually the "above", which does fit with some of the more abstract and paradoxical aspects of some accounts of the more mystic aspects of our own reality.

It is as if the entire thing is meant to shake one's sense of what it really means to be dead.

By this, I am reminded of the title of the Dick interview book, "What if our world is their heaven?"

Food for thought. I am fairly new to the Dickian world. I am relatively young, and have found my way into his collection through an unusual thread, starting with A Scanner Darkly, DOADS, VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, and now Ubik, in that order.