BOOK REVIEWS (2014): Philip K. Dick’s (1969) Ubik

20 March 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

How someone misreads a book says a lot about them.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  P.K. Dick’s  (1969)[2] Ubik

This makes for the second PKD book I have read (see my reply to Man in the High Castle here) on the strength of both Stanisław Lem’s contention that Dick is a writer of ideas (albeit often too sloppy) and also an acquaintance whose sensibilities arise out of thoughtfulness even as they differ from mine aesthetically.

One description of Ubik runs:

Philip K. Dick’s searing metaphysical comedy of death and salvation (the latter available in a convenient aerosol spray) is a tour de force of panoramic menace and unfettered slapstick, in which the departed give business advice, shop for their next incarnation, and run the continual risk of dying yet again.

LeGuin, who either went to school with or knew PKD, uses the word sin to describe a key element of this book. And critics Lacayo and Grossman describe it as “a deeply unsettling existential horror story, a nightmare you’ll never be sure you’ve woken up from” (from here).[3]

I can say this much about Ubik—Dick managed to put it together less sloppily than Man in the High Castle, which meanders about aimlessly for a very good portion of the text and not toward much of an end finally. In that book, the moment with Hawthorne Abendsen (author of the book-within-a-book The Grasshopper Lie Heavy) when we find out that “our” world actually happened, so that everyone in the book’s world gets de-centered into some nebulous existential uncertainty, does work with some degree of spookiness, but this does not ultimately offset the investment required by the reader to get there, I’d assert. Of course, literary critics might find clever ways to excuse this, but what they will primarily describe amounts to the reader’s experience of the book, rather than the construction of the book itself. It seems, more, that Dick provides, essentially, a short story that has bloated out with a mass of preliminary material that neither adds nor detracts—because it does not connect finally—to the preceding material.

Call this a tendentious reading and let it lie for the moment. Ubik also has problems with plot, but in a different way. It clearly sets out on a definite trajectory. Runciter’s organization has taken a hit from his enemy/competitor Ray Hollis, and something needs doing to correct it. A group of specialists set out to do so, and simply stumble into a trap (as it seems). Now, one may call this plot trite, trivial, or whatnot—a who-dunnit with some telepathy thrown in—but it at least has the impetus of a plot. And the point of view embodied in the text after the attempted assassination of the group, as the survivors drag toward their spacecraft to escape, has a nicely confused “haze” to it that matches the (presumable) confusion that one might experience following an explosion. It reminds me of that moment in Klimov’s (1985)[4] Come and See, when a bomb’s detonation renders the protagonist mostly deaf, and the sound in the movie cuts mostly out.

After this, however, the book drops away all of these narrative conceits in an unsatisfying way. Of course, with PKD one expects shifting realities, but a reader may discern the palpable difference between a reality shift and simply negligent plot construction. I could point to the figure of Mick Stanton as the most obvious case—a trillionaire, introduced into the text for no reason except to tempt Runciter into travelling to the Luna. In Dickens, this might enter the text as one of his quick character sketches, but usually those vivid asides do not influence any substantial course of the action. Here, the figure of Mick Stanton makes for the central raison d’etre of the quest to Luna, and his name gets mentioned, perhaps, one more time in the book after Dick resort to this conceit.

Partly this occurs because Dick drops the even larger conceit of a conspiracy by Ray Hollis—Stanton being either the lie or the patsy in Hollis’ scheme. This part of the plot, which largely disappears anyway while the main focus of the text concerns the explosion’s survivors trying to cope with whatever world they find themselves in, returns when it gets suggested that one of the psionics in their group has made the whole thing possible. But this too turns out only a feint, and the “real” enemy finally makes a showing too close to the end of the book. With the abrupt appearance of the actual antagonist, Dick also quickly wheels in what mythologist might call the helping animal (in the form of Ella Runciter), and then Dick finishes off with one last facile twist (doubtless because he cannot help himself) to suggest that everything we think we have read actually should have an opposite valence (that Runciter has died after all and the “other world” had reality or some other arguable variation; Dick does not provide enough textual grist to decide this).

Call this a tendentious reading an leave that aside for now as well. The problem at work here involves a contract with the reader—and I will leave aside for now any grand claim of trying to inculcate or indoctrinate readers into a new form of reading as a strategy or aim of Dick’s books. He does not seem an attentive enough writer to warrant giving the texts that much credit, even if a reader can generate such a reading for herself. In the conventional (by which I mean merely typical) sense, readers to some degree enjoy being tricked by a twist, but at the moment it happens, she should feel invited to revisit all of the text and have moments of, “Oh, so that’s why that happened” and the like. Dick does not provide that, neither in reflections on the part of characters in the text nor in any critical mass of previous narrative that supports indulging in such reflections.

It will, of course, become difficult to distinguish between a text that simply as a consequence of its sloppy construction provides a reader the experience of having thwarted expectations or that as a matter of authorial intention deliberately does so. Any claim to existential horror, for example, seems to presuppose a deliberate depiction, because for us (as human being) if we woke up tomorrow and discovered everything we knew had ceased being the case (or even if we simply had a sufficiently long moment of it) this would unsettle us (I assume) to a great degree. But we don’t get that in Dick’ book. The “horror” Joe Chip experiences arises from the increased entropy rapidly destroying him (the col and the weight), especially as he tries to climb some stairs (another vivid passage in the book), or in the merely suggested horror of Wendy Wright’s and Al Denny’s deaths, which purport to unsettle the reader (Denny’s death more successfully, since the reader gets plead in the position of an auditory witness to it).

So, any existential horror does not center on the shifting reality in the book. It begins to seem as if this element of the book remains s gratuitous and unconnected to the main plot as Mick Stanton (or Ray Hollis for that matter). Thus, we have a narrative that functions approximately 90% of the time as an “I woke up and it was all a dream,” which (again) violates the typical contract with the reader. And, I would add, in the canon of a writer who seems very concerned with reality, to simply allow the “unreality” of a dream to persist in the ethos of such a world uncontested seems especially poor work. At a minimum level, whatever the characters experience, the reader carries forward (as a virtual creature “in” the book) all of the experiences, the realities, of the book s experiences, and thus realities. Saying to the reader, in effect, “Forget all that, attend to this,” cannot function in a satisfying way, because it simply gets it wrong. No authorial feint can complete banish the reader’ (experience of) reading, however sloppily or attentively the reader has read.

However, even Dick betrays his awareness of not making good on the “world mechanics” he proposes in this text. If the existential horror does not center on ‘what is reality” but on the presence of “accelerated death” (entropy), on embodying the “malevolence” of the universe (or nature) in the form of a petulant (deal) adolescent named Jory, then he does not do so consistently. More precisely, he seems not to have clearly thought through how to deal with the “pace” of the regression or entropy going on in the text. While at one point the regression comes very swiftly (and time seems to go backward at the rate of years in a matter of minutes) at other times—merely for the sake of the plot, obviously—this rate of change slows down, or essentially stops. I may get this detail slightly wrong, but the error remains inessential: if the car Joe Chip has driven regresses from a 1939 LaSalle to a 1929 Ford of some sort in a matter of minutes, his desire to get up in the air in an airplane and fly for three days must seem like a death wish, since it could only happen that the plane will regress in mid-flight (to an early wright prototype?) and thus crash to the earth in a fiery unpleasantness. At some point, Joe Chip wonders in the text (perhaps wondering aloud on Dick’s behalf) how the plane lasted as long as it did.

The weak justification offered comes from the antagonist, or at least we have little choice but to infer it from him: his appetite waxes and wanes. His desire to eat half-life energy varies. But what makes this so unsatisfactory involves precisely the readers counter-factual to this explanation: that the rate of decay caries and correlates according to what Dick elects to do plot-wise. It represents a kind of joke or mere inconvenience when the car Joe wants to sell regresses from a (valuable) LaSalle to a (worthless) Ford in a matter of minutes, and then is a matter of convenience that the plane does not regress (seemingly at all) over the course of three days travel.

Lots of other mechanics in the novel seem problematic or unclear, but this becomes less of a problem because Dick does not seem necessarily to violate them. The claim that Ella will reincarnate certainly wreaks havoc on most of the claims to “existential horror”—if half-life turns out as something undoable, then the sort of grinding destruction the book asks us to find horrifying turns into a necessary (if unpleasant) step toward re-life. the justification that Jory embodies a problem one cannot simply avoid makes a bit more sense (because Jorys “exist” in all half-life mortuaries), but as a psychic entity, one could imagine inertials capable of blocking his psionic villainy. Moreover, while a sort of embodiment of the Second Law of thermodynamics, human life itself represents a reversal of entropy, and so already we have a conceptual “ward” against entropy, but this does not appear in the book at all.

No wonder that Lem at least guardedly praises some of Dick’s work, because Lem delights in pitting his characters against the unknown and then making them reflect on the experience of hearing their own echoes (and mistaking them for reality). Lem, however, embodies this theme in his text consciously and with narrative consequences. The confusion of a character (often the protagonist) facing the Unknown mirrors the reader’s experience (or allows the reader to inhabit that confusion). We see this perhaps nowhere so pointedly as in Lem’s (1961)[5] Return from the Stars, where an astronaut returns to Earth after 127 years to find it transformed into an unrecognizable “utopia”; his confusion while first wandering around on earth exactly mirrors our own s we encounter the text, &c. One might also note Lem’s (1959) “Ciemność i Pleśń “(Darkness and Mustiness), “about the creation of Whisteria Cosmolytica which is described as ‘a microbe annihilating matter and drawing its vital energy from that process’, creating a grey goo scenario,” though I do not think it possible Dick might ever have known of this text. Though the only US science fiction author praised by Lem, “Dick, however, perhaps due to his mental illness, believed that Stanisław Lem was a false name used by a composite committee operating on orders of the Communist party to gain control over public opinion, and wrote a letter to the FBI to that effect” (see here).

All of this said, one may wonder at the grandiose pronouncements made about this book (or Man in the High Castle for that matter)—less that people found them enjoyable reads, and more the bizarre claim that they warrant designation as craftily crafted literature. I find the charms of dick’s books (so far) largely accidental and the language of them never compelling except in two spots so far, and one of those I quickly recognized as a quotation from Shakespeare instead. The other pops up just before it in a narrative feint that Dick (once again) never follows up on. Related to the disappearance of the super-psi S. Dole Melipone (which I persist in believing is an anagram of something—or somehow related to the Greek Muse of Singing),[6] and the visitation in one character’s dream of two menacing figures (who never come back again either), the figure(s) say and the psionic replies:

“I can’t be myself while you’re round,” her nebulous opponent informed her. On his face a feral, hateful expression formed, giving him the appearance of a psychotic squirrel.

In her dream, Tippy answered, “Perhaps your definition of your self-system lacks authentic boundaries. You’ve erected a precarious structure of personality on unconscious factors over which you have no control. That’s why you feel threatened by me” (47).

Speaking frankly, Tippy’s answer here resonates as much with more consciousness of language as dos the Shakespeare quotation on the next page. Put another way, I would suspect it does not originate with Dick. And in fact, the phrase “precarious structure of personality” occurs in Young’s (1949)[7] review “Hell on Earth: Six Versions”, which begins:

The precarious structure of personality and the extrusive urge of religious experience, features of existence at any time subject to perplexity, assume desperate proportions in a world committed, as ours has been for thirty-five years, to crises involving mass destitution and death” (p. 311, see here).

I feel confident stating that this contributed as a source for Dick’s book, not just because of the phrase but the obvious content of Young’s article. Because I do not have access to the whole of Young’s review of the six books in question, I leave further source research to anyone who cares to search for it.

Dick doesn’t seem a writer who lavishes attention on his words—so much so that someone else’s words (Shakespeare’s, Young’s) stand out as distinctive. And, of course, what constitutes “literature” may seem a contentious issue. As Baldridge (1994)[8] makes clear, however, referring to Eagleton’s (1983)[9] Literary Theory: An Introduction:

[Eagleton writes,] “literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared inherent properties, does not exist” but is rather “a construct, fashioned by particular people for particular reasons at a certain time.” Thus, when he goes on to say that the “value judgements [by which literature is constituted] have a close relation to social ideologies,” I think we may take him to mean that decisions about what a given culture defines as literature tend to be saturated with political implications and that therefore works denominated as literary can often be examined in a  manner potentially revelatory of the culture’s ideological assumptions. I don’t think he means to contend that literary texts are always and everywhere supremely privileged windows into the workings of hegemony or that other, nonliterary texts would be chronically incapable of exposing such social processes to better effect” (f42, p. 195, italics in original).

By this, we may understand that delivering the laurel of “literature” to Ubik points to a political desirability for doing so, by which I do not at all mean such critics do so in the manner of a conspiracy, but simply (or complexly) as a function of the ambient discourse.

It seems significant then that critics should count the book as embodying a nihilistic and existential horror, despite the fact that reincarnation remains a suggested possibility in the book: a remedy for the existential horror at work in it. This amounts to overlooking the religious element at work in Dick in the first place, where religious means our human relationship with the transcendental, and which has specifically Eastern elements in Dick’s book: the Tibetan Bardo Thödol (or Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State)[10]. With Dick’s allusions to Jung (both here and in Man in the High Castle), the psycho-religious element gets further grounded.

Obviously Dick has read Jung to some extent. He sets the mortuary in Switzerland in Ubik, and offers a Carl Jung Hospital somewhere in it.  And though the “precarious structure of personality” occurs literally in Young’s piece, whether Young—shall we call it a happy coincidence, or a piece of synchronicity that “Young” is the English translation of Jung’s name?—found his own inspiration in Jung’s work, who might certainly have written, “You’ve erected a precarious structure of personality on unconscious factors over which you have no control”. Jung also somewhere—I can no longer remember where—proposes that our psyches might actually extend out beyond our bodies in a literal way (if I read him correctly), which points again to Tippy’s assertion, “Perhaps your definition of your self-system lacks authentic boundaries.”

We may imagine this disregard arises from a rejection of the Eastern sources Dick refers to. Thus, the alternative variety of “salvation” locatable in the text becomes Ubik itself. Before saying more, I want to contextualize this.

Dick’s former wife Tessa remarked that “Ubik is a metaphor for God. Ubik is all-powerful and all-knowing, and Ubik is everywhere. The spray can is only a form that Ubik takes to make it easy for people to understand it and use it. It is not the substance inside the can that helps them, but rather their faith in the promise that it will help them” (from here, emphasis added).[11]

This platitude (that faith in god, not god saves you) remains unassuming enough, but it does at least line up with the dominating Judeo-Christian discourse the book drops into. More than this however, we should not forget the image on the cover of Ubik (of the spray can) and the text still on the back of the book, “salvation (… available in a convenient aerosol spray”). Contrary then both to Dick’s intentions as well as statements made by his former wife, the discourse about salvation from existential horror remains centered on the notion that technology shall save us. Moreover, as Baldridge (1994) points up, in his criticism of the Foucauldian conception of power:

Thus where Foucault asserts that “power is not built up out of ‘wills’ (individual or collective, nor is it derivable from interests,” a Bakhtinian perspective would insist that, after all, someone writes advertising copy, political speeches, product labels, and popular jokes, even though those people will never be known to us and even though their productions are shorn of all ostensible marks of individual authorship and mass-distribute throughout the culture” (106–7).[12]

All of this seems more interesting than Dick’s book, by which I mean: the book may occasion a discussion of these things (as my reply suggests) but primarily (if not only) because the reader does the bulk of intellectual heavy lifting. Thus, it is not Ubik (the book) responsible for the reader’s experience (salvation) but the reader’s belief in Ubik (as a work of literature).

My analysis keeps shifting from a consideration of the reader (the individual) and a consideration of the politics of reception surrounding Ubik, its (willful) misreading as a nihilistic tale (the phrase “metaphysical comedy of death”) of unrelieved existential horror whose only succor comes from technology (the phrase “salvation [the latter available in a convenient aerosol spray]”). The remainder of the ad-text simply lies; we find here no “tour de force of paranoiac menace and unfettered slapstick”—Lem’s (1961)[13] Memoirs Found in a Bathtub represents a more deft example of this—and no one departed out to “shop for their next incarnation” or anyone especially running ‘the continual risk of dying yet again” since whether people have already died or not serves as a crucial ambiguity.

It may seem facile to compare Dick to Lem. Certainly, familiarity with both books justifies Lem’s assertion of the poverty of science fiction in the United States—particularly if we take the critical claims made for Ubik into account. If we need acclaim from some authority, Theodore Sturgeon  declares it, “A well-wrought nightmare indeed”—underscoring its entry into the “nightmare” category Dick’s work gets place; again, the Grossman’s contention that Ubik offers  “a deeply unsettling existential horror story, a nightmare you’ll never be sure you’ve woken up from.” (By the way, I remain sure I’ve woken up from it, Lev.) And Lem says his project involves: “grim humor” and a tacit (satirical) rejection of:

“totalization of the notion of intentionality”. Explaining the concept, he further writes that everything [that] humans perceive, may be interpreted as a message by them, and that a number of “-isms” are based on interpreting the whole Universe as a message to its inhabitants. This interpretation may be exploited for political purposes and then run amok beyond their intentions (from here).

Notwithstanding the important distinction between Lem’s political aim and Dick’s religious (or spiritual) aim, the co-opting of Dick’s book into a technocratic interpretation—even when we construe it as one that purports an anti-commercialism—undeftly and ineptly does the necessary work; the reader must supply (or wrongly supply) the necessary material that the book lacks. One suspects that perhaps behind all of the veils that Dick cannot help deploying, he nonetheless seeks (and even seems to claim to find, I’d say) the ground of reality, even if the human protagonist stuck in the middle of things can only state that ground as a hypothesis: an Eastern philosophy demonstrates.

In that case, any rejection of technocratic optimism that Dick offers as a satire easily allows itself to get misread by labeling his books postmodern, where the contestability of the text becomes absolute. But even Dick’s text seems locked in an inability to plainly assert, as his ex-wife does, that not Ubik itself but faith in Ubik matters. This will-to-reality, which the realist underpinnings of the novel makes fall into place very easily,[14] renders highly problematic the sorts of ambiguities Dick seems to want to maintain. Unlike Borges or Gogol or Lem or Faulkner or other exemplars of indeterminate fiction, Dick only erratically makes indeterminating gestures, perhaps because his commitment finally does not remain to thorough-going consistency (much less sufficiency) in his text, but allows himself an easy way out unmotivated within the text itself.

Why must Ella invent ubik to combat Jory if reincarnation occurs, for instance? The fact that Ella gets to reincarnate wreaks the same kind of havoc on the satire or surface of the text that Huxley’s daffy introduction of an isle of geniuses into his (1932)[15] Brave New World does. One may forgive a human being (an author) for wanting some relief, but readers needn’t accept the consequences of that desire in a text when it effectively destroys it. It amount to  sort of narrative question begging.

But these ineptnesses on the level of craft get fetishized on the (political) level of criticism, if only because critics must make up excuses for them in order to make a novel’s is course genial or amenable to the dominating discourse.[16] One might even read the “covert” Eastern aspect of the novel, as an actual or literal escape hatch that the dominating (Judeo-Christian) discourse “contains” within it. We get with this very close to the issues raised in Baldridge’s book, wither resistances to Power amount to nothing more than certain kinds of articulations of Power that Power actually subverts or co-opts—a point Baldridge refutes, insisting that meaningful resistance remains possible, and that claims otherwise form an essential backbone to political neutralization. Thus, certain kinds of Foucauldian insistences on the nature of Power serve precisely as the kinds of gestures of Power that serve to neutralize.

But all of this, again, seems more interesting than Dick’s book. As I said of Man in the High Castle, “Someone should rewrite this book with more thoughtfulness in order to actually do justice to the claims made about the ideas insufficiently articulated in this book.”


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Dick, P. K. (1991). Ubik. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 1–216.

[3] The purpose of this list, which does not seem improved by a measure of self-consciousness regarding the fatuousness or dubiousness of such lists, involves naming the 100 best English-language novels since Time magazine got published. Amongst the nearly-rans, the authors remark: “Dawn Powell, Mordechai Richler, Thomas Wolfe, Peter Carey, J.F. Powers, Mary McCarthy, Edmund White, Larry McMurtry, Katherine Ann Porter, Amy Tan, John Dos Passos, Oscar Hijuelos—we looked over our bookcases and many more than 100 names laid down a claim. This means you, Stephen King” (from here).

[4] Byelorusfilm (Firm)., Klimov, E. G., Adamovich, A., Kravchenko, A., Mironova, O., Laucevičius, L., Moskovskai͡a kinostudii͡a “Mosfilʹm.”., & Kino International Corporation. (2003). Come and see: Idi i smotri. [New York]: Kino on Video.

[5] Lem, S. (1980). Return from the stars. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

[6] The invocation of “Serapis” (in the text as Sarapis) no doubt figures into things somehow, at least if only in passing. The thread doesn’t seem worth pursuing, because Dick does not pursue it. It becomes (seemingly) just another convenience or contrivance of the moment that appears to have no consequence in the text.

[7] Young, V. (1949). Hell on Earth: six versions. Hudson Review, 2(2), (Summer, 1949), pp. 311–318.

[8] Baldridge, C. (1994). The dialogics of dissent in the English novel. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England

[9] Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary theory: an introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[10] I’ve no doubt that the inauspicious red light referred to at times comes from the Tibetan text or tradition. It doesn’t even seem necessary to confirm.

[11] With appropriate irony, the link to Tessa Dick’s claim has broken; the quotation remains available on Wikipedia (here).

[12] The passage continues: “The fact that hegemonic discourses do not arrive on our doorstep with a signature at the bottom does not prevent us from conceptualizing our agreement or resistance to such vocabularies in broadly conversational terms and aiming our response toward an imaginatively constructed human speaker or speakers whose words have reassured or disturbed us” (107).

[13] Lem, S. (1973). Memoirs found in a bathtub. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

[14] To say nothing of its embodiment in language, which has  very strong realist epistemology as well.

[15] Huxley, A. (2004). Brave new world: and, Brave new world revisited. New York: HarperCollins.

[16] (A critical critic might make such excuse in arguing the novel resists those discourses.)


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