The Library of America (that authoritative guide to all things Classic in American Letters) has a three volume set of Philip Dick, the science fiction author from the 1960s and 70s. I just finished UBIK, the fourth novel in the first volume of that set. And now four novels in, I must confess to a certain wonder why Dick deserves this All-Star treatment.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed UBIK. Reading it was a pleasant diversion from reading economics books. Dick writes in a style which is not particularly great, but makes it easy to just go along for the ride. But, where is this ride going? That is surely a question worth asking before elevating a book to Great Book status, and it is here that Dick trades in cheap tricks as a substitute for substantive ideas.
UBIK offers up a bewildering array of science fiction tropes, but as it turns out most of them are the literary equivalent of the magician’s trick of waving a hand to divert attention from where the real action is happening. There is an entire story of people with psychic powers and an organization set up to stop people with psychic powers from using those powers. There is a plot of a woman with the ability to change the past, generating a new present—though how she knows what she has done in the new present is totally unexplained and likely internally incoherent. But neither the woman nor the whole psychic power thing matters in the end. The real story is about half-life—a state which people enter after death in which there conscious self still lives on in a bizarre dream world. Living people have some odd ability to talk with those in half-life, but only at some sort of company which specializes in enabling contact between the living and those whom Billy Crystal would call the Almost Dead. Those Half-life people move along in some sort of odd time which seems to be shorted as they spend more time talking to the living, susceptible to interaction with other Half-life people whose bodies (corpses) are physically close, but sometimes the physically close corpse can take over half-life person’s world or even that person’s channel of communication with the living and if this is making any sense at all, then I am providing clarity where there really isn’t any in the book. And, all this is totally irrelevant to the real story too.
The real story. Our hero may be alive or he may be in half-life and he doesn’t know and we don’t know which either. Indeed, neither our hero nor we have any idea what is going on--until the penultimate scenes in which we discover that our hero is, in fact, in half-life and while there he has to fight against nefarious evil plans of another half-lifer. Why the plans of an evil half-lifer to do evil things to dead people matters is a bit unclear. And then we get the final scene in which—ready for mind-blowing conclusion?—we find out that the person who was revealed to still be among the living may be in half-life after all, so maybe that previous conclusion isn't right after all. The most coherent conclusion would be that everyone is in odd parallel half-lives, but that conclusion isn’t really coherent. Indeed, I suspect there is no coherent storyline in this book.
So, where does that leave us? A pleasant, but totally incoherent story. If that was the aim, it would be one thing. But, I suspect the author has delusions of grandeur here. This book seems designed to make us question the nature of Reality. Are we too living in some sort of half-life state, just imagining we are still among living? It’s the old “How do you know you aren’t a brain in a vat somewhere imagining that all of this is real?” A trippy, unanswerable question? Or, like Samuel Johnson, when faced with an older incarnation of the idea, kicked a rock and said, “I refute it thus”?
So, UBIK takes an old philosophical question and converts it into an incoherent science fiction novel. Fine. But the Library of America treatment? I have two more volumes of Dick to go; perhaps the answer lies there.
In the meantime, I’ll wonder if this is real or not.