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.


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.)




Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968): Dick’s Environmental Vision

I suppose I am one of those people who thinks that what is best about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is missing from the subsequent film Blade Runner.  The film does take one one of Dick’s themes from the novel, the nature of artificial intelligence, but does so in an inverted way.  While in the novel, the androids are schizoids, the film plays with the idea of their humanity.  It strikes me that perhaps the film should have been based on We Can Build You, which does experiment with the idea that androids could be more capable of empathy and human feeling than some human characters.  Interestingly, the film holds true to the failure of androids to pass the “empathy test” but still wants us to sympathize with them.  But for the most part, I am not interested in fooling around with this conflict.  Enough has been blogged and written about this theme in both the book and the film.  I will focus on a few other themes, most importantly the environmental problematic as defined by Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  It proves to be the most clear description of his environmental pessimism, a question that is often there in other works but easy to miss as it is not emphasized.

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In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the earth is depopulated due to World War Terminus and the ecological catastrophe is left behind.  The vast majority of humans have emigrated to outer colonies.  Most of Earth’s animal life has been destroyed and that which remains has been denaturalized and transformed into commodities.  Late capitalism is doing this aggressively now, without a war.  The totality of the devastation is apparent from the depopulation.  That animal populations have not benefited from the near extinction of humanity on Earth suggests that humans created permanent, unrepairable damage.  We do not need a war to envision a future death of the natural world.  In the novel, a catalog lists the prices of animals (including many prices for animals that are not in stock due to low populations).    What at first might seem to be a simple function of the supply and demand curve, is the logical consequence of capitalist expansion and a foreshadowing of things we see now.  Despite the total death of nature, people sustain a very intimate and emotional relationship with animals.  Animals are not merely a status symbol due to their high cost.  People long to have animals in their life, and no matter what their social status, some animal life is in reach.  For the rich, ostriches, owls, and horses.  For the poor, crickets, frogs, and cats.  Our hero, Rick Deckard wants a real, live sheep to replace his electric one.  A sheep seems to be a good investment for a middle class family.

Sentiment does cross over to status climbing, but the sentimental attachment to animals is richly expressed throughout this very emotional novel.  Deckard and his wife wake up in the first chapter in total misery.  To get through the day, most people use a mood organ, which injects chemical cocktails to create in people an artificial mood.  Often, it is necessary to get through the day in a bleak, artificial and devastated city.  The lack of nature is certainly a part of people’s perpetual moodiness.  Deckard desires a real animal to replace his electric one, not merely because he worries about how the neighbors look at him.  He misses animals.   When he purchased a goat, his android lover later kills the goat, devastating Deckard.  He is later crushed when he finds a frog in the mud and learns it is electric.  The “empathy test”, used to determine if the test-taker is an android or not relies mostly on questions about human abuse of animals.  The very idea of leather shoes or eating meat – even crustaceans – is supposed to bring to people an empathetic response, something androids are incapable of.  By this logic the rampant misuse or animals as food, clothing, entertainment, and science experiments transforms us into psychopathic monsters.

“Kipple” is the name J. R. Isidore gives the the expanding realm of death that surrounds humans.  More than simple garbage, “kipple” is the the expansive equivalent of nature.  While nature will tend to expand organically into new areas, “kipple” expansion is seemingly organic and uncontrollable able well.  Its essential difference is that it is dead things, dead labor, dead capital, wasted goods.  Even the remaining people on Earth have been “kipplized,” lacking a natural context for their life, living artificial emotions, unable to reproduce themselves due to extensive nuclear fallout.  “No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”  Isidore, in this quote, sees kipple as a form of entropy, when in fact it is a an expanding realm of the dead that inexorably includes the remaining humans.



In the realm of the religious, the divide between empathy and nature contrasts with the logical consequences of consumerism.  If there is any optimism in this book, it is in the fact that the dominant religious remains quite human and the stale, consumerist fails to take off.  The major religion is Mercerism.  It is first explored in the short story, “The Little Black Box.”  In this religion, people experienced the suffering of Wilber Mercer as he climbs a hill in a natural setting (I think it was a mountain).  Everyone holding onto the handle bars of a black empathy box will feel the suffering of Mercer.  Mercer shares with the rest of humanity a deep appreciation for the natural world and a longing for connection to animals.  It is a shared experience, representing a declining space for real humanity.  In contrast, the second shared experience “Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friend” is the kipple of television.  The show argues against Mercerism and encourages the incorporation of androids into human life.  For if humans are mere consumers, why not include the androids who can perform that function just as well.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a devastating and powerfully emotional novel.  This may account for its popularity as much as the success of the film Blade Runner.  It is certainly touching on the environmental consequences of mass consumer culture and late capitalism’s war on nature.  Dick is reminding us that we will not likely miss nature until we have finished destroying it.  Nature will be dead and gone but it will be us who suffer its absence.