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Self-Determination and Philip K. Dick’s “Ubik”

The ultimate message it proffers—Ubik the substance, Ubik the book—is one of self-determination despite humanity’s manifest lack of control and certainty.”

“This battle goes on wherever you have half-lifers; it’s a verity, a rule, of our kind of existence” 

— Ella Runciter

In Philip K. Dick’s work of temporal and perspectival manipulation, Ubik, selfhood becomes an uncertainty threatened by a greater context.

Published in 1969, Ubik could be analyzed as having been written in the context of the broader political conflicts of the day. (And perhaps it was. We still wonder to what extent it is possible to avoid the seeping in of the political vagaries of one’s own time into one’s writing.) However, eschewing that, one may come to understand the novel’s message in terms of the individual mind and self-determination. Tormented in life by the guillotinic preeminence of death, it is all any human can do to learn to accept the limitations of that condition with the tools at his or her disposal. This outlook, of course, has political implications as well; however, prior to the organization of individuals comes the individuals who choose—based on their compatible way(s) of viewing the human situation—to agree on a manner of organizing their society.

So arrives Ubik. At the story’s outset, we meet Joe Chip, a monetarily indebted talent evaluator for Glen Runciter’s successful company of “inertials,” whose job it is to counteract the activities of Ray Hollis’ psionic telepaths and precogs, who in this futurescape possess the ability to read peoples’ thoughts and predict or determine their futures. We learn that some of Runciter’s inertials have been disappearing while on missions, and that there likely exists an ominous force that causes these disappearances. An acquaintance of Chip’s brings Pat Conley, a woman with a unique talent—the ability not to determine the future, but to redetermine the past and in doing so undo events which have since occurred—to Chip’s apartment, where he measures her anti-psionic ability for potential hiring with Runciter and marks her as dangerous, based on her stated skills, her demonstration of them, and her demeanor. “Watch this person,” the two underlined crosses Chip draws on her evaluation indicate. “She is a hazard to the firm. She is dangerous.” Although he tells Pat that the two crosses mean “Hire her at whatever required cost.” Nevertheless, Pat is taken to Runciter and hired to the anti-psi team, a position likely gained by means of her skills with retroactivity.

In less religious terms, Ubik is time, positively utilized; it is purpose; it is life as lived towards an overarching goal within a finite landscape, despite all apparent certainty of decay.

Around this time, a rich businessman named Stanton Mick contacts Runciter for hire, to prevent what he believes to be an intrusion by Ray Hollis’ people on his company’s lunar base. Runciter assembles a team of eleven of his best and goes along with them to the Moon. When the team arrives and enters Mick’s base, they are ambushed. An explosion then takes Runciter’s life, and the team rushes back to Earth to place Runciter in cryogenic half-life next to his deceased wife, Ella, to await further instructions.

It is here that events begin to unravel, in the reader’s awareness. Time comes unstuck; normal objects such as cigarettes and coffee are non-consumable, as they have decayed to the point of grotesqueness. Money, too, is degenerating—not falling apart, but reverting to a prior physical form (the patterns and pictures on the money, i.e. are those from many years ago). And interrupting Runciter’s half-life communication with Joe Chip and the rest of the survivors is the intrusive voice of a boy named Jory, a half-lifer in the same Swiss facility, whose presence had previously disturbed Runciter’s communication with Ella prior to Runciter’s apparent death. The team begins to see manifestations of Runciter on coins and on television, manifestations that seem to be speaking specifically to them. A few members of the team now begin to degenerate, their bodies slowing and deteriorating and shriveling into nothing before disappearing.

The novel’s battle, thus, commences: the indomitable forces of decay and invasive predominance of others over the decaying versus the staid struggle to (merely) perpetuate oneself.

Much is to be gained from Dick’s novelistic extrapolation. Applied politically, the novel has parallels to the liberty/societal determinism binary. Perhaps more directly, however, the novel’s message applies to the human qua human.

We, as humans, are in a state of decay. On the grandest scale, in individual terms, we all will die and walk towards that ending daily. Life is the anomaly; forward by our bodies, we move. This itself is a half-life of sorts: Our perspective is never complete, our voice never omniscient or omnipresent. On the day-to-day scale, the ideas that we proffer and the things that we do rise and fall in absence of the active maintenance thereof, the revolutionary, formational reconstruction required of being “authentic” at each moment. 

And this struggle does not occur in a vacuum: Loud voices, divergent and different ideas, and/or mere noise, threaten to override us and, as Jory in Ubik, determine our path and our legacy or render it moot by drawing that remaining modicum of free expression and free thought into its context, to be bound by its will. It is an aegis, of a sort—in such a context there need be no worry about breathing well, being well, living well, for all such things are taken care of. But this aegis shields the human behind it not only from external fear and threat but also from the inescapable humanness of being here, with a mind. Being consumed by Jory, here, would mean allowing an idea, a voice, or a previous mode of your own being to speak for your present self. 

Jory is not evil—merely does he exist to perpetuate himself finitely, as all finite things do. In order to hold firm against such an insurgence from others—whether they be outspokenly friendly or antagonistic—the finite must find and make life through itself, casting the strictures which bind it to stale or incongruous definition. We exist in a half-life: In this half-life we are capable of striving positively and doing good, as defined by mere being, insofar as we acknowledge what we cannot control and do our best to counteract it, thereby giving ourselves a voice which cannot be dominated.

Hence the applicability of Ubik, the substance. In the novel, Ubik is a sprayable substance invented by Runciter’s wife, Ella, along with other half-lifers, to protect them from Jory’s opportunistic, perspectival overtures which would render their lives fully taken. After Joe Chip witnesses the extinguishing of all of his fellow anti-psionics by the near-ubiquitous hand of Jory—sees them crumble and disappear, their energy sapped and directed into Jory’s own perpetuation—and experiences his own near-death multiple times, he finds Ella, walking anonymously along a sidewalk in Jory’s constructed world (as Jory is stronger in his half-life-being than the others, he knows how to construct a world in which other half-lifers around him must exist. He invades their beings. This world can be favorable to others, if played right; however, by its being Jory’s world, and Jory’s goal being self-perpetuation, traps by nature exist everywhere). Ella gives Chip a certificate for a lifetime supply of Ubik, a substance which had earlier saved Joe Chip from the brink of Jory’s consumption and an advertisement for which has preceded each chapter throughout the book. Ella believes that Chip can eventually learn to nullify Jory’s influence, though she is skeptical of Chip’s ability to completely destroy him. Chip, struggling against the constant decay brought by Jory’s influence, accepts the certificate and bids Ella goodbye.

Chip recognizes that Ubik gives him what he had been worrying over since his entry into half-life: time. With Ubik, he need not stress about “his” being, for Ubik—per the message concerning it prior to the final chapter, in which Glen Runciter discovers a coin with Joe Chip’s face on it—is eternal, non-perspectivally encompassing: 

“I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.”

Ubik is the counteracting force for the half-lifed individual just as the anti-psis are the counteracting force for the psis in the world before half-life. Ubik, simply, provides perspective—not a new perspective, not an old perspective, but perspective—that which allows for a complete understanding of time and humanity. Other reviewers, including Dick’s former wife, Tessa, have held that Ubik is akin to God:

“Ubik is a metaphor for God. Ubik is all-powerful and all-knowing, and Ubik is everywhere. The spray can is only a form that Ubik takes to make it easy for people to understand it and use it. It is not the substance inside the can that helps them, but rather their faith in the promise that it will help them.”

In less religious terms, Ubik is time, positively utilized; it is purpose; it is life as lived towards an overarching goal within a finite landscape, despite all apparent certainty of decay. It is being bound together not through coercion but through necessity in moral and task-driven matters.

A minor point: Pat Conley, who when the anti-psis began to disappear in Jory’s constructed world claimed it was upon her doing, herself disappeared by Jory’s power. This a reminder to recall that those who claim they know what’s going on, that they control fate to whatever extent, are often as bereft as the others.

The ultimate message it proffers—Ubik the substance, Ubik the book—is one of self-determination despite humanity’s manifest lack of control and certainty. It is easy to sacrifice the drive to Self, the aforementioned authenticity, the eternal essence which allows our heads to break the water/poke above the mole-hole/peer out from the cave, for doing so does not require a sacrifice at all: All it requires is not doing. The true sacrifice is committing yourself to the moment and living, despite the end—considering life and living on.

Patrick Burr is a writer living in Latvia. He holds an MFA from the University of Washington, where he received the program’s Nelson Bentley Prize.

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