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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Philip K. Dick, “A Maze of Death” (1970): Alternative Reality and Freedom

In A Maze of Death, Philip K. Dick tries to show us that an alternative reality can lead to the perception of freedom, if not freedom itself.  In the novel, fourteen lost spaceship residents, establish a collective delusion for cathartic reasons.  This delusion is cathartic, provides some limited illusion of freedom, and wastes their time.  The novel might be compared to The Matrix or eXistenZ with its reliance on an alternative reality.  In eXistenZ, the approach is more playful and the reality is always hidden under another layer of delusion to the point the characters do not know where they are.  A Maze of Death presents us with a reality that is brutal and horrible, fourteen progressively insane members of a lost at space spaceship crew with murderous impulses and no hope of escape.  In The Matrix, of course, the delusion is created as a means of exploitation and social control.  The film-makers believe that reality is preferable to delusion and the struggle for freedom comes from escaping the fantasy.  A Maze of Death show us that opposite.  People find their freedom in the fantasy.  Reality is a prison.  Even if the freedom in the fantasy is sexual excess, murder, or a host of conspiracy theories and paranoid, at least it allows us to live out our passions, rather than confining them?

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A question arises by the time you get to the end of A Maze of Death.  If these fourteen people hate each other so deeply and use stimulated realities to, in part, work out their hostilities against each other, why do they not simply murder each other in reality?  Their mission is lost and they have no hope for salvation.  Perhaps the answer is that in reality, despite their unique circumstances, they are still bound by the rules of society.  Philip K. Dick may be saying that our lives are really akin to these fourteen lost in space.  Any freedom we have is a delusion.  We are bound by social obligations beyond any reason.  We have at best a bottle-up disgust for the other members of our species.  We escape into fantasies (television series, adulterous relationships, myths of the happy family, raising children, irrelevant political battles, cruises to Jamaica that never show us anything of Jamaica beyond the resort) because this is the one way we can escape the horror of our enslavement.  It is a false freedom, of course.  To fight for freedom in the realm of the real would require a revolution.  This is something neither we nor the crew members of ship are capable of.  Whatever optimism Dick had in humanity and our capacity to achieve solidarity (expressed in Now Wait for Last Year) is missing in A Maze of Death.  When one fantasy breaks down, they have no choice but to start another one.  In a sense, the hope lies in there.  Overtime our fantasies lose the ability to sustain our interest so we must at some point face reality, each other, and the chains that bind us.

The theological system collectively created by the participants in the fantasy is not uninteresting.  In this particular version, God exists in four different parts.  It is much like Hinduism, where God is divided into Brahma (the creator), Shiva (the destroyer) and Vishnu (the sustainer).  Here the four aspects of the divine are the Intercessor, the Mentufacturer, the Form Destroyer, and the Walker on Earth (closer perhaps to the Holy Spirit or a Buddhist Bodhisattva).  There is a mechanical system by which people can request help from these different avatars through “prayers,” which are not so different from requests to superiors.  Indeed, the first character we meets treats his prayer just like this, asking for and receiving a transfer to a new location.  In this reality, the truth of the divine is uncontested.  Not only are prayers really answered and direct connections to the divine explicable via natural law, but the Walker on Earth is experienced directly by one of the characters.  Created by the participants through a method of collective will (I am reminded of the Jungian psychology here), this theological design is not far from what people really want from their God.

Another layer of the delusion, is that the characters are given an important task.  Again, this is something that is clearly lacking in reality.  On the ship, they are no different from millions of people in office jobs, teaching jobs, government bureaucracies who know that their work is meaningless.

So in their fantasy, they create an important task, consisted with their skills and training.  Everyone has an important task that is worked into the fantasy.  On the surface, they are sent to begin the settlement of a planet Delmak-O and they all have an important task (a psychologist, a linguist, a computers specialist, a repairman, a custodian, a sexy secretary, etc.).  Conveniently, the mission is never explicitly stated, so they can only know they each have an essential role, they cannot know what that role is.  One of the many fantasies of late capitalism is that we matter, that our job has a purpose, that the world needs us.  Liquid relationships proves that this is not even true of our children.  If we die, there is a step-mother waiting at the bar on the corner – more beautiful, more playful, and with a higher income.

The solution to the dilemma of late capitalism, to the world that we live in, is not more fantasies of freedom.  It is to realize our slavery, our insignificance, our hatreds and our passions.  We should wake up to the chains around us and fight to smash them as described in Lu Xun’s iron house parable.  “Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?  But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house. ”

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