Qu’est-ce Elixir de Ubique, Monsieur Dick?

ubik If science fiction is dated, is it still science fiction? Perhaps in the way post-feminists are still feminists, it is. Is Wade Boggs still a Red Sox legend, while a Yankee? And why wasn’t Boggsy allowed to go into the Baseball Hall of Fame wearing his cashmere Devil Ray cap, sporty maroon wrapper, electric yellow cummerbund, birch bark pantaloons and twinkle-toed cleats like he wanted? You might say that’s neither here nor there, but its assuredly more certain than what’s going on in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik.

The book was discussed at the Illuminado’s Athenaeum & Natatorium (the Old A&N) located on Connecticut’s shoreline. It was hoped that this restful retreat on the picturesque Long Island Sound could settle the chaos Ubik had released within the frontal lobes of our virtuoso cerebrums. To some extent the serene environs were a comfort, although a few brothers ultimately yielded to the vapors. Either those, or the off-gases being released from the keg of home brew percolating on the premises.

The session began with a stern “mind your p’s & q’s” as those who just closed the back cover wanted to reach immediate consensus on the impact of the coinage Glen Runciter just pulled from his pocket. “Let’s not be premature!” ejaculated Brother Jason, and splendidly said since he had finished UBIK shortly after it was selected. Once things had climaxed on Luna, he said couldn’t hold back and just finished, the book. He had waited near a month with his book in his hand for this meeting and as always served as a splendid prophylactic for the proceedings.

Right out of the box, there was criticism of Joe Chip. Brother Brian does not suffer bumbling protagonists well. (See, Reilly, Ignatius) How could a guy who couldn’t afford cleaning bots and whose door had threatened him with a lawsuit, so easily grab the reins of a company with the reputation of Runciter Associates? Seriously, this company was moving to planet-wide commercials every hour. That’s even more than Oxi-Clean. A look back at the VanGuard Prudence Sector Fund in 1992, shows a 38% decline on the day Joe Chip took control. Maybe the story didn’t go on long enough to document any activist shareholder proxy fights (in half-life?) Still Chipper was an apt metaphor for the numerous contradictions throughout the book.

He contributes to the yo-yoing with his erratic knowledge of Latin. First he think’s Pat’s Carpe Diem tat is written in Hebrew, next he is translating Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsong’s arias from Latin to English. Joe later asks Pat(?) for a cigarette, she says she all out, then she lights up a few sentences later, which is of course nothing to Pat’s undressing lack of sexual interest in Joe. Yet she marries him on an alternate time line and tells Wendy (on the book’s baseline reality) that she’s Joe’s mistress. Pat mind eff’s everyone. Still, thickhead G.G. Ashwood believes there is a sexual understanding between Joe and Pat, but clear-headed Runciter dismisses it out of hand. “He’s too poor even to-“what? Take her out? Get a hard-on? How we wish Glen would have finished that sentence.

There is certainly a bleak projection of where runaway commercialism will take society. The coin-operated phones, washing machines, TVs and Magic Fingers beds of Dick’s time evolve to coin-operated doors, showers and coffee makers even in the individual’s own conapt. When Pat explains that everything in the Topeka Kibbutz is free, Joe is stunned. Free! That’s not economically feasible! Then to lead-off 16 of his 17 chapters, Dick shows it isn’t too hard to ape the high priced campaigns of Madison Avenue as he schlocks all sorts of products as the greatest thing ever…when used as directed, thereby highlighting what a whore the ad man is. Even so, some of us were ready to cut a check from the Ubik Savings & Loan for the salad dressing and the razor blades. Within this nightmare of commercialism, Joe Chip, our humdrum hero, does have his heroic moments, particularly this scene where he lashes out at a coffee maker that threatened to call the police on him…

‘‘One of these days,’’ Joe said wrathfully, ‘‘people like me will rise up and overthrow you, and the end of tyranny by the homeostatic machine will have arrived. The day of human values and compassion and simple warmth will return, and when that happens someone like myself who has gone through an ordeal and who genuinely needs hot coffee to pick him up and keep him functioning when he has to function will get the hot coffee whether he happens to have a poscred readily available or not!”

Another large chunk of the discussion was consumed with the religious symbolism. While he deals with higher and lower realities, is Joe Chip a stand-in for JC? We couldn’t remember exactly how many inertials went with Joe to Luna, but were they The Apostles? Saints Tippy, Al, Tito, Ziggy, Fred, Don, etc… Was Pat Conley Judas? She gives herself a non-biblical portrayal as she can’t “turn stones into bread or give birth without impregnation or reverse the illness process in sick people…not even common talents like that.” Or is G.G. Ashwood Judas? Can Ray Hollis, S. Dole Melipone and their organization be the Pharisees or Romans? Is Jory Miller, with all his cephalic power, the Devil? Is Runciter God? Is Ubik God? Is Ubik, since it’s manmade (in half-life) a representation of religious creeds as they add structure to the world that may decay via the Devil’s (or Jory’s) works? Are these reaches? Check out the only noncommercial chapter opening, which occurs in the final chapter…

“I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, then do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.”

The book’s religious. There also were two “so it goes” references in the book which had us wondering if Dick was a Vonnegut fan or that was part of the lingua franca of the day. We went with the former because it seemed groovier.

These and many other questions which this writer forgot lay in store for the UBIK reader. It’s a challenging discussion book and just because it’s characterized as Science Fiction don’t sack it. We’ll bet you a Walt Disney 50-cent piece you will enjoy the read no matter who you feel is dead or alive.

Oh yeah, Spoiler Alert!!! For all the stuff you already read. But don’t worry. It won’t matter.


Side Piece – Everyday is For the Thief

lagosAfter years of soft living in the U.S., Nigerian-born writer Teju Cole is heading back to his old home on the outskirts of Lagos. While he is proud of the progress made by Nigeria and Nigerians during his absence, especially in literature and the arts, he is exasperated by two destructive traits engrained in Nigerian society. The first he calls “the same old, same old” which he blames for the peoples’ enduring tolerance of omnipresent corruption and low level criminality. The second is the attitude of “close enough.” While Nigerians overcome this in their art and literature, it stops them from making any meaningful contributions in the precise disciplines of science and technology. For this he views a lot of the country’s progress as borrowed.

The book is an enjoyable (and safe for the reader) jaunt through a city most readers are unlikely to visit or even take the time to think about beyond wondering if anyone is still falling for those Nigerian Internet Scams…Dearest Sir, I am the Director of the 1st Nigeria Bank of Petroleum have a confidential business proposal, please send me your bank account number so I can route $87,000,000 into your account to hold yada, yada, yada. Cole knows that certain ideas about legality that have taken root in him while in the West, thereby making him an easy target in the Wild, Wild West that is most of Lagos. Black skin alone doesn’t get you a free pass. The hunters look into the eyes of those of the herd to find the hunted. Fortunately, our self-aware chronicler has a pair and heads into the big city on his own. It makes for some great vignettes.

He is flabbergasted at the condition of the national museum, which seems to be ignored by the public and to have been looted of its cultural treasures.

He is appalled that a government official is only sentenced to 6-months for stealing over $100,000,000 from the people.

He thinks about what a powerful writer like John Updike would have produced had he lived in Africa rather than outside Reading, Pennsylvania. My goodness! What the explosive raw material of everyday African life would have done for his writing Cole can only wonder.

There is a great chapter revolving around a bus ride where a woman gets on carrying a book by Michael Ondaatje. This a rare sight on an NYC subway, let alone an African danfo. His mind races with questions…where did she get it, how could she afford such a book and still be on public transportation, what does an African woman who likely has not studied in the west get from the writing, are there others like her? In those few minutes he fell in love with what she represented for Nigeria.

There are other neat scenes, such as when he visits his first sweetheart, now married and with a family of her own, but you can’t help remembering the one where he drives by a billboard that blazes “Corruption is Illegal, Do Not Give or Accept Bribes” and is left to wonder how much the billboard owner bribed the government official to land the ad.

The book isn’t a must read, but if you want to spend a few hours in a strange land with an intelligent, affable writer like Teju Cole, you won’t begrudge him your time. A quick read. Accumulate.

A Syndicate of Imbeciles

iggyJust kidding…A Confederacy of Dunces. The book was read and discussed prior to the Holidays. We are just putting a placeholder in the blog for some future deeper thoughts, but what’s to say? Do you like the sound of your own unexpected laughter? Read the book. Then try the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books. We recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he’s found himself. His morality is rather rigid, but The Illuminado rather respect Batman.

Oh, Fortuna, you capricious sprite, thank you for this book.