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.