UBIK – Philip K. Dick (1969)

Ubik (Peter Rauch)When I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 5 years ago, I approached it the wrong way. That novel is full of plot holes & other inconsistencies, and while I appreciated the mood, I ended up being bothered by its mushy core. I decided to not make the same mistake for Ubik, and see if a go-with-the-flow attitude would yield another reading experience.

Being who I am, I still ended up writing down numerous inconsistencies, but indeed, they did not really bother me. Maybe that is because Ubik simply is a much better novel, I don’t know: I’d have to reread Androids, and that’s not going to happen.

A bit before I started Ubik, I read a review on Calmgrove that determined my reading experience this time. It hinted at Serious Levels of Depth, and that provided the novel with lots of my credit upfront. It made me go down another rabbit hole this time: in search for truths about life & death.

For the uninitiated: Ubik is a strange novel, in which Dick draws back the curtain numerous times, only to close it a bit later on. It involves time travel – or not?, strange temporal digressions, merged states of half-life, a conflict between two psychic mutant factions, a trip to the moon and capitalist consumerism satire. An American-made Kafka: light in calories, and with a dose of cigarettes, X-Men & half-baked religion.

It’s a bit weird, yes, but I don’t think Ubik is that difficult if you just go with the flow. Inception is a much, much bigger mindfuck. The paradoxes Dick presents aren’t exactly quantum science, and when all is said and done it’s all pretty straightforward: this novel is about epistemological uncertainty. Can we be sure of anything? Aren’t we dead yet? Is this a dream? Questions that are as old as Zhuang Zhou’s story about the butterfly dream and Plato’s cave. What is the Matrix? You know the drill.

Philosophically, I’m not sure if Dick brings anything new to the table, two and a half millennia after the Zhuangzi or the Republic. Some go pretty far in attributing mad genius to PKD, like Melissa Rininger in her answer to a Goodreads question about the very end:

The coin is a reference to Plato. Wisdom is the key to unlocking the metaphysical question of reality: “There is one true coin for which all things ought to be exchanged, and that is wisdom.” Dick constructed the world of Ubik in a Platonic system: Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Forms, and the Conception of the Tripartite Soul. By the end of the novel, Joe Chip uses Socrates method of dialectics to see the difference between empirical reality and absolute Forms. He becomes the logistikan (logic), Ella represents spirit, and Jory represents appetite. Once wisdom (logic) overcomes the body’s appetites, then logic/spirit/appetite align as one and they transcend–becoming the Total Man. The coin represents their transcendence and becoming One with God/the Immanent Mind/the Immovable Creator/the Univeral Being/whatever-you-want-to-call-IT. Ubik is a cosmological explanation for Dick’s schizophrenic hallucinations and visions. The coin implies the nature of reality is cyclical and the direction of movement is circular depth, not linear.

I’m not buying that. Even if Dick intended it that way – which I doubt – it still amounts to baloney. Even if there are fragments in The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick to corroborate Riniger’s interpretation, I still think it’s way off with what is actually written: there are no absolute forms in the book as far as I can tell.

Snorting tons of speed will do that to you. Amphetamines make you amazed by your own contraptions. It’s to Dick’s credit that he manages to convince others to listen in: this guy could write for sure. Drugs fuels creativity, yet it also kills your internal editor. In the case of Dick, I think it might have diminished him. People like to revel in counter-culture and the rebellion inherent in dope, and easily subscribe to the substance free-your-mind narrative that is so dominant in our culture, so nobody asks the hard question: could it be that Dick would have been a better writer if he had been less spaced out? Writing novels is not making music.

Back to the book. I guess I’m not done with reading Dick, as Ubik is very entertaining. Like so many other books from that period, it is a bit dated in certain respects, but not so much it spoils the fun. The mood is great, at times the prose is too. The satire is nice, even though Brunner did it better – sharper, deeper. The story is creative, a roller coaster, and if you just go with the flow, you’ll have a great time – never mind all the mind-body & interface problems Dick just sidesteps, never mind zero character development, and never mind the unresolved central conflict with Ray Hollis: that was just a sideshow anyway. Ubik‘s puzzles keep the mind occupied, and the resolution is satisfying. (If you’re interested, Manuel Antão wrote an excellent, glowing piece, pointing out most of the important open questions/plot holes, and at the same time offering a valid way out.)

Just don’t go in thinking you’ll learn a lot. PKD is not a philosopher. And while his point here is more interesting – and more valid – than the philosophical mess that is Do Androids, it’s also a horse that has been flogged to death for over 2500 years. It’s only fitting the American version of said activity feels like a Disneyland dark ride inspired by the Dutch MC Escher. The real deal, but not quite.

Ubik


Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

10 responses to “UBIK – Philip K. Dick (1969)

  1. Ouch! 😉 Very scathing, very entertaining review – wonderful! I haven’t read Ubik, And now I’m torn between reading and discussing it with you and just not bothering since you so lovingly dissected it, Bart! Either way, great review!
    And I do like Escher! 😄

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    • Hey, thanks! It took me a while to find the right tone, I even thought of abandoning the review, as I was conflicted about what I wanted to say. But I ended up enjoying writing it a lot.

      I’m still not sure I would recommend it. Let’s say I think it’s a 3/5 or 3.5/5 star read. I guess it’s also a good place to start PKD, although I’ve read the opposite as this is supposed to be ‘difficult’. For people that are PKD-fans, it’s a no-brainer, Ubik is mandatory in that case. I guess serious scifi fans in general should read at least one PKD too, but maybe in that case read Androids, as there’s the connection to Bladerunner.

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  2. I’ve never understood the love and attention PKD gets.

    If you read more of him, best of luck and I hope your experience is more inline with this than Do Androids…

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    • Even though there’s some quality to his writing, I agree he’s overrated. I think it’s a strange combination of the glorification of drugs, the success of Bladerunner and the need for the literary establishment to include the token maverick – for the pulp community to embrace him back in the day, I get that totally, but why there are 3 Library of America volumes today, beats me. Obviously, individual taste is partly determined by cultural fashion, so he’ll be in vogue for the foreseeable future in these dystopian times, and we’ll see more tv-series adaptions etc.

      On Facebook I’ve had some recommendations of people who I trust that read plenty of PKD in their youth, and they basically say he’s overrated too, and not a very good writer at all, but they agreed on A Scanner Darkly & The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch being worth a read. Also the short stories maybe, and that’s a form I guess Dick should be able to pull off well. So I’ll read Scanner and/or Stigmata somewhere down the line, I’m intrigued enough by the phenomenon PKD to give it one more shot.

      A FB friend of mine wrote: “A lot of his work reads like amphetamine fueled hackwork cranked out to make enough money to live on… (which it was)”, and that basically sums up my own intuition, if I look at the fact he published 44 novels during his 54-year lifespan. Nobody can uphold quality control when writing so much.

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  3. For my part, I consider Dick to be an overrated novelist and possibly the finest short story writer SF has ever seen. In the short form, the ideas which typify the best of his work — that clash between human ingenuity and the depersonalisation of technological advancement — stand out strongly, and work because the plots are tooled purely to that end. His novels, as you say, get very plot hole-y and often meander as he needs to tie up things that have only been put in there to drive points home harder than they really needed.

    I’m not sure how much PKD you’ve read, but I heartily recommend his collected stories — the second volume, Second Variety is either full of genius that’ll help you appreciate his brilliance or full of weird inconsequential stories that probably mean you’re okay not reading him any further.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, could very well be, I thought the form would suit him, thanks for confirming that! As for Ubik, I guess the “depersonalisation of technological advancement” as you say doesn’t figure at all – unless you count talking doors that need coins to open.

      I’ve only read Androids & Ubik. So my next Dick is that second volume, or Scanner or Stigmata, depending on which I come across first.

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      • Gotta be honest, I don’t remember Ubik particularly well — it was my first PKD and there have been a lot since. Whatever flaws it had may have simply been lost on me because he was very new and very different: my SF reading to that point had been Iain M. Banks, Orson Scott Card, a couple of Nivens, late Vonnegut, so Dick really was a departure.

        Scanner is fun, Stigmata probably won’t convince you of anything, Flow My Tears might be up your alley…but I stand by that recommendation of his shorts. Look forward to reading about whatever you find!

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        • Yes I guess that difference is a big part of Dick’s appeal to SF fans. Maybe not so much for people that read a lot beyond the genre, idk.

          It might take me five years again, but I’ve added the short stories as the priority to my mental list. Will look into Flow too, never heard of that title.

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  4. For some reason I never read Ubik while I was making my way through the “classics” as I started my long-ago journey through SF: the synopsis hinted at something very weird indeed and back then that was not exactly my proverbial cup of tea. That’s why I found interesting your comment about Ubik being more approachable than Inception, which I was able to “digest” after some virtual head-scratching 😀 so I might have to re-think my approach to this novel…
    Intriguing review! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Inception is much harder. Ubik has a bit of a strange vibe, but not necessarily stranger than Androids, and as for the mechanics of the story, if you just sit it out, it all becomes clear – although you do have to accept Dick short circuiting the story himself, and deliberately leaves a few things unclear – that is the entire point, and I think it’s very clear that that is the point, so in that sense the novel is perfectly understandable – aside from some plot holes, which are not in the book because of it wanting to be difficult, but of sloppy editing, and/or Dick simply not thinking things fully through.

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