Sunday, 15 September 2013


Philip K. Dick Ubik (1966)

I'm not sure this is quite Philip K. Dick's greatest novel, or even that there's any point in making such a distinction, but it's surely amongst his very best. For those unfamiliar with the title, the story is - roughly speaking - a fine-tuning of the earlier Eye in the Sky representing a more fully expressed vision of Dick's view of the cosmos and his own place therein. Of all Dick's novels, there's already been a great deal said about this one, often by the presenter of one of those shows in which some knob from the props department mocks up a spray can of Ubik - just like from the book - which magically appears next to a typewriter with all the blinding imagination of Doctor Who documentaries in which some cockesque presenter materialises from thin air to the accompaniment of a familiar vworp vworp sound; but one aspect of Ubik which never seems to get a mention are the sartorial musings.

A bald-headed man, wagging a goatish beard, pointed to himself. He wore old-fashioned, hip-hugging gold lamé trousers, yet somehow created a stylish effect. Perhaps the egg-sized buttons of his kelp-green mitty blouse helped; in any case he exuded a grand dignity, a loftiness surpassing the average. Joe felt impressed.

'Don Denny,' Runciter said.

'Right here, sir,' a confident baritone like that of a Siamese cat declared; it arose from within a slender, earnest-looking individual who sat bolt-upright in his chair, his hands on his knees. He wore a polyester dirndl, his long hair in a snood, cowboy chaps with simulated silver stars. And sandals.

For some reason, this never makes it into those popular versions with Ben Affleck gripping stubbled technocops by the shoulders and raging but none of us are even real! Maybe Ben's agent didn't think he'd go for the kelp-green mitty blouse. Still, it's not like they really get much of the other stuff right either.

Ubik is on the surface of it a novel about layered realities, in this case the psychic half-life of a group of dying people who don't initially realise that they're dying, or that their mortality is signified by all constituent parts of their world regressing to earlier, simpler forms:

The TV set had receded back a long way; he found himself confronted by a dark, wood-cabinet, Atwater-Kent tuned radio-frequency oldtime AM radio, complete with antenna and ground wires. God in heaven, he said to himself, appalled.

But why hadn't the TV set reverted instead to formless metal and plastics? Those, after all, were its constituents; it had been constructed out of them, not out of an earlier radio. Perhaps this weirdly verified a discarded ancient philosophy, that of Plato's ideal objects, the universals which, in each class, were real. The form TV set had been a template imposed as successor to other templates, like the procession of frames in a movie sequence.

What is so interesting here is that this isn't some prosaic prediction of virtual reality so much as an allegory of our world, or at least of Dick's world; the illusory overlay of lives sinking inevitably towards entropy and death in contrast to the world out there, the hypothetically true reality of the living and those attempting to communicate with these dying minds. Ubik of the title is a substance derived from ubique meaning everywhere, which for the purposes of this novel might translate to reality, truth, or even God; and so in the world of the dying, a spray can of Ubik affords glimpses of that other better world which has been hidden from the protagonists by another of Dick's Deities gone mad, in this case one named Jory - the archetypal embodiment of evil as a lack of empathy, the child who pulls wings from flies just like the replicants in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, or Robots Have Feelings Too as I believe Ridley Scott titled his cinematic interpretation. Ubik is, in essence, Dick grappling with inertia expressed here as decay or entropy, a refutation of either death or at least the imperfect world in which death holds all the cards. It's one of his most enduring themes, and here it's taken a stage further with the concluding suggestion of those of the better world inhabiting their own version of the dying universe, in turn reaching out to the reader as we learn that salvation originates from within our environment. It has to, because nothing can come in from outside except words.

As Dick-brand brain food, Ubik is unusually coherent and strong in flavour without sacrificing any of the complexity of that which it proposes; as a novel it is almost flawless.

No comments:

Post a Comment