Ubik: Philip K Dick's funny and peculiar near-futurology
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Eldritch
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Ubik: Philip K Dick's funny and peculiar near-futurology
Both eerie and amusing, Ubik's vision of 1992 from 1966 mixes unsettling prescience with some terrific comedy

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An android Philip K Dick on display at NextFest in Chicago in 2005

The first thing to say about Ubik is that it's a serious piece of writing. It's an unashamedly entertaining fast read, it's full of pulp fiction tropes and daft jokes, the language is simple and possibly even workmanlike, but in the immediate aftermath of reading it, I'm mightily impressed. And more than a little confused.

Ubik juggles notions of reality and the limits of imagination with consummate skill, while chucking up endless extra balls relating to time-travel, subjective viewpoints, morality and immortality, divine intervention and structural integrity, Plato and Buddha. Everything blurs, it's impossible to follow any one element individually, but watching them all whir round together is mesmerising.

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The second thing to say is that this reading experience is so exhilarating, and – variously – surprising, bewildering and unexpected, that I'm worried about spoiling it for anyone else.

I don't want to talk too much about the plot and mechanics of the story for fear of giving away the secrets that Philip K Dick so expertly unlocks and conceals. For this first piece I'll aim instead to talk about less plot-oriented aspects of the book and author.

First, in case you were wondering, here's Philip K Dick's assessment of the book's themes:

"Salvific information penetrating through the 'walls' of our world by an entity with personality representing a life – and reality supporting quasi-living force."

I'm glad that's cleared up. The inside of this man's head must have been a fascinating and terrifying place to be. On that subject, one of my favourite insights into Philip K Dick's imaginative reality comes from the story told in Lawrence Sutin's Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick.

In 1958, the novelist and his second wife decided to move out of Berkeley to be beside the sea, across the bay in Sausalito. They stayed in the apartment they had rented for just one night. When he woke up in the morning "and saw nothing but water, his response, as a good Jungian, was to see the vast bay as a sign of his own overwhelming unconscious forces. Back to Berkeley they went."

The same biography also contains a fine insight into Dick's thoughts on the nature of science fiction, dating from his first discovery of the genre. In 1940, aged 12, he bought a magazine called Stirring Science Stories, mistaking it for a non-fiction magazine Popular Science. "I was most amazed," Dick said later. "Stories about science? At once I recognised the magic which I had found, in earlier times, in the Oz books – this magic now coupled not with magic wands but with science … In any case my view became magic equals science … and science (of the future) equals magic."

Read full story.

I like to look at the human self-model as a neurocomputational weapon, a certain data structure that the brain can activate from time to time.

Thomas Metzinger
2014 Mar 13 11:26
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