Saturday, June 13, 2020

Ubik - Philip K. Dick

One of the most compelling scenes in Philip K. Dick's Ubik is a struggle simply to walk upstairs, to find a place of rest: a fight against inertia, fatigue, the pure malice of entropy. Reading this scene during the pandemic, after seeing harrowing accounts of the fever and weakness that COVID-19 inflicts, the scene gains a terrible resonance.

At other times, Ubik might seems  prescient for its distillation of routine capitalism into endless payment for trivial services, such as the coin-operated doors and coffee-makers, presaging the economy of micro-transactions and in-app payments. But this, like the plot that sets emergent “psi” powers against their natural, effect limiting counterparts or “anti-psi” operations is simply part of the scaffolding, the incidental background for a more profound and deliberate consideration of how worlds are made and unmade, and what happens when our physical, moral, and even temporal realities begin to unravel. 

It’s striking that the forces of entropy are yoked to malice and cruelty in Ubik, just at a time now when reactionary politics in the US are also heedlessly erasing or countermanding progressive reforms in an attempt to wind the clock back to an era of “greatness” that never applied. In contrast, the cure-all “Ubik” seems to come from a humanizing impulse to heal and restore, an almost spiritual impulse to resist the death urge: “watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life.”

And yet, as in most of Dick’s work, for every action there is a reaction, for every reality a counter-reality, and the tension between life and half-life is never wholly decided. Perhaps this is why Ubik is both fascinating and unsettling — we’ll never quite know where our world stands; the only valid choice is what we’ll fight for, what we need to resist.

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