Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Modern Parmenides

by Philip K. Dick

“The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides taught that the only things that are real are things which never change... and the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that everything changes. If you superimpose their two views, you get this result: Nothing is real.”  ― Philip K. Dick

The novel Ubik is dazzling and complex as Philip K. Dick takes you on a journey through levels of both time and consciousness.  Written in 1969, this science-fiction novel is set in in the future, in 1992, in what is known as the "North American Confederation". In this era, technology has advanced to the extent that normal citizens can take regular outings to space and parapsychology ("psi phenomena": telepathy, precognition, reincarnation and others) are common traits of the people. As well as this, the human life cycle has been extended with people having the ability to sink into the state of "half-life", a phase following death, which allows fully living humans to communicate with their seemingly deceased loved ones.

The hero, Joe Chip, is an everyman who is caught up between other characters and within this world of discontinuities.  Joe along with other main characters are the employees of the Runciter Organization that is owned jointly by Glen and Ella Runciter.  However Ella is dead, or rather being maintained in a "half-life" state and may be consulted when important decisions are required for the business.  A successful company, Runciter specialises in anti-psi talents, for example an anti-precog prevents a precog from seeing the future. After Glen Runciter receives a request to stop psi activity on Luna, another planet, he quickly organizes a group of the best anti-psi agents, including the new and mysterious Pat Conley, who has the rare ability to change events in the past.
But then the team arrives on Luna, discovers it is a trap, seemingly set up by the company's rival, Ray Hollis. Before they know it, a bomb explodes, apparently only killing Runciter. The rest of the team, now led by the protagonist Joe Chip, fly back to Earth to set Runciter in the half-life state.
Upon arriving at Earth, the team begins to experience strange morphs in reality, with food and drinks beginning to "deteriorate". The currency begins to feature Runciter on it, and Joe Chip begins to receive messages from him, suggesting that Glen Runciter must be alive. Soon after, members of the group begin to die in gruesome ways, suggesting time is running out- if it hasn't already - to figure out what is happening, and why the planet is regressing back into time, at an alarming rate.  They come across a strange product called Ubik which is advertised in every time period in the book, implying perhaps this product will be answer to the strange occurrences happening.  

"The primitive forms must carry a residual, invisible, in every object, mused Joe. The past is latent, submerged, but still there and can come to the surface as soon disappear, for whatever unfortunate reason and against what daily experience teaches us the characteristics of the ultimate object, later. The man does not contain the boy, but the men who preceded him. The story began long ago. "  

Even as he goes on a journey backward through time; as objects morph into different forms changing their identities the novel raises questions about the nature of identity of the world and the place of one's self in that world.   There is a fine line between full life and half life, always leaving the reader in doubt as to what is an illusion and what is truly real. There are twists and turns in every chapter which throw the reader off track.  In my own analytical way I assumed that the story must hang together, but perhaps part of Dick's approach includes discontinuities in the narrative that preclude the sort of straightforward analysis that I am used to. This approach leads to some discomfort, but also adds to the appeal of the story.  Epigraphical humor helps lighten the tension that builds in the narrative providing a form of comic relief. This is a novel that truly demonstrates its themes through its structure as well as its characters and plot.   Ubik is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read - and I am certain you will think the same when you read it!


Brian Joseph said...

I was excited to see that you posted commentary on this one. It is one of my favorites that I first read when I was in my teens.

The "discontinuities" that you mention are characteristic of most of Dick's work. It is present in his plots and to some degree his themes. I actually though that Ubik hung together better then most of his novels.

The quote that you included is marvelous. I love Dick's writing style. It is difficult to describe but I would use such contradictory terms as profound but also playful.

I have read him somewhat extensively, many of his books are well worth it but I think that his best is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Very different from the film Blade Runner which was based upon it).

James said...

I do not remember when I read my first Philip K. Dick but Ubik is a more recent addition to the list of his books I've enjoyed. My favorite is The Man in the High Castle, but Ubik is a close second.

Brian Joseph said...

I really like The Man in the High Castle too. The ending was so ambiguous and cryptic though. From what I understand not even Dick was sure as to what he was getting at.