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July 2018: Dystopian > Ubik--Philip K. Dick-4 stars

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Brilliant and disturbing, the epitome of PKD’s genius and window into his madness. Published in 1969, it projects a society of 1992 totally dominated by corporations and consumerism. Two corporations take center stage and a malevolent, mysterious one behind the scenes and off-stage provides the metaphorical bullets to keep the actors dancing to their tune. This is a tale of rampant paranoia, which Dick has a special mastery of in all its flavors. As usual, his brand of horror has plenty of comical satirical twists to modify its impact. Here the persistent sign of dystopia for this future comes in the form of a computerized voice asking for money to access every minor benefit of civilization, from bathrooms, coffee-makers, refrigerators, elevators, or even doors.

Our heroes Glen Runciter and associate Joe Chip run a “prudence organization”, which provides security for individual privacy against companies that use psychic operatives such as telepaths and adepts at pre-cognitive probing, neutralizing the intrusions with their own crew of psi mercenaries:
Ads over the TV and in the homeopapes [customized news story feeds] by the various anti-psi prudence establishments had shrilly squawked their harangues of late. Defend your privacy, the ads yammered on the hour, from all media. Is a stranger tuning in on you? Are you really alone? That for the telepaths … and then the queasy worry about pre-cogs. Are your actions being predicted b someone you never met? Someone you would not want to meet or invite into your home Terminate anxiety; contacting your nearest prudence organization will first tell you if in fact you are a victim of unauthorized intrusions, and then, on your instructions, nullify those intrusions—at moderate cost to you.

But something really nefarious is at large, as many anti-psi operatives are disappearing or ending up dead. Glen needs the wise advice from his dead wife Ellie, who is made accessible through the expensive technology of another corporation, a “moratorium”, which preserves the departed in cryogenic suspension. But when Glen has Ellie revved up for a “half-life” state for electronically mediated communication session, their visit is invaded by a fellow half-life resident at the facility.
At a gathering of anti-psi operatives on a colony on the Moon, they are attacked by a bomb. Joe survives and takes responsibility for leading the efforts of survival and war against a faceless enemy. He believes Glen is dead, but he starts getting strange messages from him through diverse channels, often linked to advertisements for a multifaceted product called Ubik claimed to cure many ills of human life. He also has many encounters with examples of sudden aging and deterioration among his team, dreams of invading cold and bleak emptiness, and cases of elevators, cars, and appliances reverting to older models. Ubik comes to seem like a key to fighting the destructive forces they are fighting, but what the hell is it and who is behind it? One of his team members shared her dream:

”A great hand came down from the sky, like the arm and hand of God. Enormous, the size of a mountain. And I knew at the time how important it was; the hand was closed, made into a rocklike fist, and I knew it contained something of value so great that my life and the lives of everyone else on Earth depended on it. And I waited for the fist to open and it did open. …
On the spray can …there was one word, great golden letters, glittering, golden fire spelling out UBIK. …There’s a Latin word very close to it: ubique. It means---“
“Everywhere,” Joe said.


The delivery of this creeping horror and strange uber-reality is very well done as a taut page-turner. If you liked the non-stop action of “Dark Matter” and its quest to make sense and fight back against hidden realities, you will likely appreciate this predecessor. Yet, according to a psychobiography of Dick by Carrere, “I Am Alive and You Are Dead”, this tale is no simple mindfuck for entertainment from the author’s drug-riddled imagination, but part of a serious quest to chart those hidden realities. In the first place, Carrere maintains that aside from one bad trip, Dick avoided hallucinogens (though often used amphetamines to keep to writing deadlines). PKD was long seeking his version of God and was obsessed with the Tibetan Book of the Dead and its concern with our life on earth as a form of “bardo”, or state of existence between death and the afterlife. He went through phases of using the I Ching tokens like dice to determine many small and large decisions in his life. Several years after writing “Ubik” he believed he was contacted by a higher being he called Valis, for “vast, active, intelligent, and living system.” Here is a bit more on Carriere’s take:

Runciter was not Ubik but simply an ordinary man trying to find his way into our sick consciousness. He is an awakener, a kind of salesman, hawking Ubik’s spray of concentrated Logos however he can. In a way, Phil believed he was playing the same role with his readers. But someone was playing it with him; someone, acting on behalf of Ubik and Valis, was giving him messages to guide him. Like Joe Chip, he thought he recognized a familiar tone within this haze of confused and contradictory signals.

I don’t think I am ready yet to read his novel “Valis” based on this trajectory of spiritual quest, as I have had enough madness infiltrating into my life. But at the doorways to madness, I really dig the elements here of humankind facing up to the bleak entropy in the laws of the universe: Here is dear Joe as confused as the dwellers in Plato’s cave:

But, he thought, this is a projection on my part. It isn’t the universe which is being entombed by layers of wind, cold, darkness, and ice; all this is going on within me, and yet I seem to see it outside. Strange, he thought. Is the whole world inside me? …It must be a manifestation of dying, he said to himself. …When I blink out, he thought, the whole universe will disappear. But what about the various lights I should see, the entrances to new wombs”? Where in particular is the red smoky light of fornicating couples? And the dull dark light signifying animal greed? All I can make out, he thought, is encroaching darkness and utter loss of heat, a plain which is cooling off, abandoned by its sun.


message 2: by KateNZ (new)

KateNZ | 2323 comments Wonderful review, Michael


message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments Nice of tou to say so. A lot of his work is kind of rough, stuff completed under deadlines. This one feels pretty crafted.


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