Philip K. Dick, “Ubik” (1969): Half-life and Half-Lifers

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? gave us “kipple,” dead, former commodities and the living dead of a devastated Earth, unable to reproduce.  They are much like the people of Children of Men, awaiting an end that comes slowly but inevitably.  Ubik gives us the concept of “half-life.”  People in “half-life” are dead but are placed in a state of suspended animation, which they come out of at certain regular times (like yearly visits to the old-folks home) or when their advice is needed.  The main character, Glen Runciter, for instance, begins the novel with a visit to his dead wife who provides for him useful corporate advice.  Over the course of the novel, it is never clear if the characters are in this state of “half-life” or not.  As in The Maze of Death and Eye in the Sky, it is revealed that everyone is sharing a constructed reality.  In those novels, it was self-created by the participants, a democratic delusion if you will.  In Ubik, the reality is constructed by outside, malevolent forces.  It this way, it is a more accurate description of the world we live in.  We can come right out and interpret Ubik as a reading of the consumer republic, where choice is confined to what is allowed by those that construct reality.  We carry on, in a state of half-life, living only for service.  It is the PKD novel that is thematically closest to The Matrix, since the purpose of the delusion is clear exploitation and the cause is a clearly identifiable external force.  In Ubik, the external force is Jory Miller, another person in half-life, who regularly consumes people to sustain himself.  “Ubik,” which is an ubiquitous (the name is purposeful) product, which functions as a preservative to keep the characters from being consumed by Miller.  While “Ubik” saves (really preserves) the heroes of the tale, the heroes seem to play a role as “Ubik” for Miller.  If we look at it this way, we have a very clear model of the capitalist world.  Jory Miller functions like the capitalist class, of the system but able to master its rules at the expense of the other participants.  He is sustained through the life force of others, but consumer products become a means of sustaining those victims, keeping them together long enough to be fully consumed.  Unfortunately, the interpretation is not quite this easy for two reasons.

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Rory Miller did not construct the reality himself.  Unlike the exploiting machines in The Matrix, the simulated reality seems to have an external creator.  When one enters “half-life” they go into it.  That reality is shifting and participants have some say in its form, moving to familiar times and places.  (Here I want to stop and make a side bar point about simulated realities.  Most depictions I have seen of simulated realities are horribly uncreative, and tend to involve people recreating something they know or a time they know.  Why are they not utopias?  I suspect this has much to do with our fundamentally incapacity to imagine true alternatives.  Even when given the freedom to create new worlds, we stay in the old way.  Even in fantasy literature, we find basically capitalist economics at work.  In Dungeons and Dragons good performance is rewarded with advances in rank.  Characters use gold coins to purchase weapons.  How is that fantasy?  It is too familiar.)  Perhaps it is akin to the more democratic delusions of The Maze of Death.  Rory Miller is still, of course, an exploiter.  This is not a serious interpretative problem.  We merely need to acknowledge that most of the exploiters in the world we live in did not create the institutions that they oversee.  In the case of consumer culture, the exploited masses play a role in creating the infrastructure of need that binds all of us to the “normalcy” of capitalism.  It turns out that Rory Miller is no more than the run of the mill, clever and lucky member of the global elite who is slightly better at playing the game than others, but lacking any real claim to creativity.  The ruling elite are vampires, not architects.

Much more difficult to interpret is the role of the commodity “Ubik,” which seems to save people from decay.  It is clearly commoditfied.  Each era that the characters travel through advertizes Ubik.  It famously comes in an spray can.  While it seems to be a part of the odious regimen of the exploiters, it is used by Runciter to help sustain the people, to help them avoid becoming “kipple,” dead, used-up trash.  The lesson here is that the very thing that must fight against our perpetual status of “half-lifers” is a part of the artificial world we exist in.  We do not need to jump to Ubik being God or the universal salvation.  Ubik is whatever we apply in our struggle against total “kipplization.”  It will always take the form of the world we live in, just as any libertory movement must put on the face of late capitalism, use its tools, and necessarily fall into hypocrisy.  Purity is not possible.  In the novel, Ubik had to take the form of the delusion.  In the same way, our means of avoiding the slow death of capital must look to us like a product of late capitalism itself.  (If we want to borrow the theological argument, it is no different than Christ needing to become man.)

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2 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “Ubik” (1969): Half-life and Half-Lifers

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “Introduction” | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. In “Ubik”,it seems there is the perfect case for a merging of theology and capitalism.Ubik is the antidote to entropy,a restorative entity and substance that keeps our world in balance,but doesn’t exist in half life reality,which is why everything decays there.It is reminiscent of the universe Manfred Steiner perceives in “Martian Time-Slip”,where the active force known as Gubbish or the Gubbler is the exact opposite of Ubik,or the Form Destroyer in “A Maze of Death” and the Tomb World in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”.

    However,some of the half lifers have managered to make some Ubik,which is available as a commodity in spray can form under the name.It equates with the alchemists’ elixir of life,a sort of holy grail,that’s exists under our noses in “our world”!

    Heading each chapter as you know,is an advert for Ubik the wonder product,that can be any commercialised product found on the shelves of your local supermarket,but is the substance which is a form of and made from the bones of “God”.Here it has been reduced to a global gimmick for mass marketing,but if it can be used in a liquid capacity for profit,why not as salvation for the good of the masses whom it sustains in various,everyday forms?Capitalism it seems then,as a cypher for divine interferance,can also have a positive effect contrary to the meaning of greed usally associated with it.

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