Worlds and selves falling apart - The science fiction of Philip K. Dick

Swiss Diploma Thesis, 2000

93 Pages, Grade: 1.5 (A)


Table of Contents


Iridescent Worlds: Ubik

Time and Historicity: Time Out of Joint

Metafiction and the Real World: "Small Town,"The Man in the High Castle and A Maze of Death

Fluid Selves: Eye in the Sky and A Scanner Darkly

Schizophrenia: Martian Time-Slip

Paranoia: "Impostor"


Works by Philip K. Dick
Secondary Works



The two basic topics that fascinate me are "What is reality?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?" ("How to Build" 260)[1]

In this paper, I will discuss the science fiction of Philip K. Dick against the background of postmodernism. Postmodernist theory is particularly suitable for an investigation of science fiction for the postmodernism debate revolves around themes which are traditionally the domain of the sf genre, such as technology and its effects on society and the individual subject. Moreover, postmodernism as a literary genre shares many characteristics with science fiction. Brian McHale even calls science fiction the "sister-genre" of postmodernist literature (59). There are, indeed, historical as well as thematic parallels between the popular and the avant-garde genre. The origins of both genres lie in the first decades of the 20th century. What H.G. Wells is for science fiction, Joyce, Beckett, or Kafka are for the postmodernists. The development of postmodernism and science fiction as literary genres, however, takes place after World War II, and mainly in the United States. Both genres reflect the cultural change that was later to be called postmodernism, marked by multinational capitalism, the increasing importance of global communication and information, or the blurring of boundaries between all binary oppositions. Thus science fiction and postmodernist literature share their themes, since they are both children of their age. As the culture of postmodernism progresses and the boundary between high and low art vanishes, postmodernist authors such as Thomas Pynchon write science fiction, or science fiction writers such as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. are suddenly recognized as postmodernists.

While postmodernist literature often tries to reflect the discontinuous structure of the culture from which it emerges in its narrative form, the science-fiction genre has an innate thematic interest in the said cultural changes, for many of these arise from scientific and technological revolutions.

SF has an advantage over most other disciplines in that is has had something like a theory of postmodernism ingrained in its futurism for many years. SF has observed with professional interest the increase, at first gradual and then drastic, in the influence of information/simulation technologies since World War II. (Csicsery-Ronay 305)

Thus if life imitates art in the postmodernist age, its model is science fiction. "There is simply no overstating the importance of science fiction to the present cultural moment, a moment that sees itself as science fiction" (Bukatman 6).

In Brian McHale's definition, the defining characteristic of both postmodernist literature (10) and science fiction (59) is that they are governed by an ontological dominant. That is, their main theme is the discussion of the basic condition of existence, whereas modernism's main interest lies in epistemology, the condition of knowledge (McHale 10). In science fiction, the dominance of the ontological theme is apparent, since it is one of the genre's defining features that it always creates new worlds, be they distant planets, the near of far future, the past, or even an alternate present. In other words, "Science Fiction inevitably redefines reality" (Hunt 65). Science-fiction novels and stories typically describe conditions of beings which are similar to the readers, even though they may be aliens, cyborgs, or androids. However, it is an important premise of this paper that the discussion of ontology in these texts do not correspond to an attempt to foretell future conditions of the subject. They are rather figurations of the ontology of the present moment. Hence Brian Aldiss' definition of science fiction does not refer to the future, but to the present.

Science Fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science) ... (Aldiss, Spree 8)[2]

When Philip K. Dick writes "I never could make out the future too well", ("Schizophrenia" 182) he knows that his talent is to grasp the present. However, he uses the planets, futures, and alternate presents of the fantastic genre in order to express how much, already in his present, the ontology of the real world has been challenged. In fact, Rosemary Jackson takes such a challenge to be a defining characteristic of the fantastic genre, to which science fiction belongs.

Presenting that which cannot be, but is, fantasy exposes a culture's definitions of that which can be: it traces the limits of its epistemological and ontological frame. (Jackson 23)

Philip K. Dick's science fiction not only traces, but stretches the ontological limits of American post-war culture. It is the aim of this paper to investigate these ontological experiments and compare them to the reality of postmodernist culture.

In any discussion of ontology, two elements and their relation to each other must be examined, i.e. the subject and its world, for the conditions of existence are the conditions of being in the world. I have thus divided my paper into two large parts – the first examining Dick's fictional worlds, the second his characters. At the same time, the two parts also represent the examination of the two main themes Dick identifies in the quotation heading this paper: 'What is reality?' and 'What constitutes the authentic human being?' ("How to Build" 260). Each part contains three chapters. The first chapter focuses on Dick's novel Ubik and the ways in which the stability of the world described in this and other texts is deliberately undermined. After this discussion of Dickian space, the second chapter will examine Dickian time – more specifically Dick's use of historicity in texts such as Time Out of Joint. I will conclude the first part of this paper with an investigation of the processes of meaning-production in the Dickian corpus, specifically Dick's preference for allegory and metafiction in his story "Small World" and the novels The Man in the High Castle and A Maze of Death. This will result in a tentative conclusion on Philip K. Dick's poetics, or, in other words, the ontology of his texts. In the second part of my paper, as I have mentioned, I will concentrate on the position of Dick's characters in the worlds described in the first part. Chapter four will delineate some guidelines of how the often-quoted 'death of the subject' is immanent in the Dickian corpus. My discussion of the novels Eye in the Sky and A Scanner Darkly will demonstrate how these texts consistently dissolve the boundaries between self and world, and between self and other. The final two chapters will correlate this fluidity of selves with two forms of mental illness which figure dominantly in Philip K. Dick's texts. Firstly, chapter five will trace Dick's portrayal of schizophrenia as the process of a subject succumbing to a discontinuous world. The quintessential text on schizophrenia is Martian Time-Slip. Secondly, the sixth chapter will describe a reaction against the multiplicity of the subject's world, expressed in the form of paranoia. This chapter will mainly discuss Dick's early short fiction, focusing on the story "Impostor". Finally, my conclusion will present the essentials of Dickian ontology based on the findings of this paper and discuss its relevance to the contemporary reader.

This paper aims to discuss features which are relevant to Philip K. Dick's entire body of work. On the one hand, this is an endeavor suggested by the texts themselves, for their interconnectedness and the reoccurrence of themes are obvious.

All his novels are one novel, elegant, surprising, ... witty – full of disconcerting artifacts [sic], scarecrow people, exiles, robots with ill consciences. (Aldiss, "Web" 310)

On the other hand, due to the sheer size of the Dickian corpus, it is not possible to discuss more than just a few selected novels and stories in a paper of this size. Anton (207) counts 52 novels - eight of these unpublished, two lost - and 125 short stories. Thus, the texts for any study of Dick's writing must be carefully chosen.

I have selected the texts to be discussed on the basis of several criteria. Firstly, I have excluded Philip K. Dick's mainstream novels, i.e. all texts which are obviously not part of the science fiction genre. Most of Dick's realist novels have not been published until after his death, and have never attained the success of his science-fiction works. This is partly due to the fact that, as I will argue in this paper, Philip K. Dick's particular talent was the poetic transformation of his world, culture, and reality into science-fiction allegories, and not the realistic portrayal of any actual social reality. It is this transformation that will be discussed in this paper. In other words, my particular interest was to show that Dick managed to be the more relevant to the contemporary moment, the crazier his science-fiction metaphors and allegories were. Although the science-fictional nature of works such as The Man in the High Castle or A Scanner Darkly could be doubted, it will become clear in my paper that, even if the science-fiction elements in these texts are scarce, they are always part of the fundamental structure of these works. Moreover, I excluded the last three novels Dick wrote, known as the VALIS trilogy. These represent the literary reworking of Dick's mystical events in March 1974,[3] when, as Dick said, he experienced an "invasion of [his] mind by a transcendentally rational mind" (Sutin, Exegesis xviii). This alleged theophany has led to a radical reinterpretation of Dick's texts, in the VALIS trilogy itself as well as in critical works and Dick's non-fiction. It would be interesting to investigate the nature of this reinterpretation, and show how much Dick's portrayal of and exegetic meandering on the event resemble the narrative strategies of his earlier novels. However, it is clearly necessary to discuss the ontology of Dick's text before such an investigation.

An essential criterion for a selection of Dick's texts is their diverging quality. Some texts have obviously been written only for the little money they yielded, and can be considered hack-work. Unfortunately, some critics have judged many of Dick's works too rashly, which has led to their exclusion from the quickly built canon. Hence novels such as Time Out of Joint or Eye in the Sky are regularly underestimated, and hardly ever thought worthy of critical discussion.[4] Nevertheless, it is possible to select exemplary works, which stand out as typical for a particular theme, or which manage to combine themes in ways that are extraordinary. In Robinson's opinion,

it can be said that Dick saved his fullest writing efforts for the projects that he felt most deserved them, slighting the lesser projects to save needed time. (Robinson 78)

Hence, bearing in mind the danger of canonization or re-canonization, I have chosen, based on critical agreement and my own judgment, not only the most typical, but also some of the best novels by Philip K. Dick for my discussion. Moreover, while the novels are investigated more thoroughly, I will also examine a number of short stories. It will become obvious that, in Dick's early short fiction, ideas and themes are suggested which are developed and combined in his novels. However, since most of Dick's novels are overloaded with interwoven ideas, it is often useful to first isolate the kernel of a theme in a short story.

The critical material at my disposition was not quite as prolific as Philip K. Dick's literary output. Moreover, most of the earlier critical readings of his texts were, first and foremost, attempts to structure the Dick corpus. Firstly, many early essays on Dick, e.g. Darko Suvin's "Artifice as Refuge and World View: Philip K. Dick’s Foci", contain severe quality judgments, some of them eliciting the anger of the author himself.

I think it's the worst news a writer can get, that he did his best work fifteen years ago, and is obviously never going to do anything good again as long as he lives. (Dick in Rickman, Words 82)[5]

Apart from inspiring some despair in the author, these quality judgments also led to the process of quick canon-building I have referred to above. Critics like Kim Stanley Robinson or Patricia S. Warrick, while they did not always agree with earlier quality judgments, further strengthened this canon by periodizing Dick's work, not without suggesting that some periods are more valuable than others. Furthermore, Warrick in particular short-circuited these tentative writing periods with Dick's biography, basically allotting a period to each of his five ex-wives. Another endeavor that is encountered in these critical writings is Dick's elevation as an author. In order to free him from the connotation of cheap pulp fiction and hack writing associated with the science-fiction genre, Dick is thus compared to critically acclaimed and accepted authors. Ursula K. LeGuin, for instance, has called Dick "our own homegrown Borges," which is quoted as a cover blurb on the Vintage edition of Dick's novels. While a comparison of Dick with authors outside the field of sf is interesting, many critics are content with mere name-dropping in order to legitimate their studying popular fiction.

It will become obvious in my discussion that the aim of this paper is neither to prove that Philip K. Dick is a postmodernist author nor that his texts are as good as those of Pynchon or Barth. Instead, theories of postmodernism - in my case those by Jameson, Baudrillard , and McHale – will provide a helpful framework for my investigation of Dick's worlds and subjects. Furthermore, the parallels between Dick's texts and the fundamentals of postmodern culture as described in these theories will reveal some evidence for the specific relevance of the Dickian corpus for the contemporary reader.

Iridescent Worlds: Ubik

I like to build universes that do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. ("If You Find" 262)

In an early essay about Philip K. Dick's work, Darko Suvin detected a "serious loss of narrative control in Ubik" (92). While for Suvin this is clearly a failure on the part of the author, postmodernist critics such as Brian McHale or Scott Bukatman interpret the novel's lack of coherence as an integral part of its structure. Paradox and oxymoron lie at the bottom of Ubik. The text uses these elements, among others, to deconstruct the narrative coherence traditional critics like Suvin expect. Yet the result of these undermining tendencies is not a void, but a different kind of fictional space, described by Brian McHale as a 'zone'.[6]

Space here [in the zone] is less constructed than deconstructed by the text, or rather constructed and deconstructed at the same time. Postmodernist fiction draws upon a number of strategies for constructing/deconstructing space, among them juxtaposition, interpolation, superimposition, and misattribution. (McHale 45)

The result of this deconstruction is an unstable, rather than confused, narrative, depicting an equally unstable world.

The point where, according to Suvin, Dick has lost his narrative control is easily found. In the middle of chapter 6 (67), a bomb explodes. Before this, the novel presents a futuristic world which is admittedly wild, but still operates within the boundaries of 'coherent' science fiction. As is typical for the genre, the world Dick constructs is different from our reading present, and yet mirrors its most important structures and mechanisms. Most importantly, the pre-bomb world of Ubik presents the dynamics of multinational capitalism - as do many of Dick's earlier novels. In the world of the first five chapters of the novel, two huge multinational corporations work in opposing fields. The Hollis Corporation provides telepaths and precogs for other companies,[7] which use these mostly for industrial espionage. On the other hand, the Prudence Organisations, most prominently Runciter Associates, have so-called inertials for hire, psychics who counteract telepaths and precogs rendering them ineffective. Hence these corporations live on the economic competition of other companies – the very nature of capitalism is their source of income. Furthermore, since the two companies nullify each other's effect, they continually recreate their respective markets.

However, there is an element of transcendence that at first glance seems to run counter to this dominance of the economic. There is in the sf-nineties of Ubik an artificially induced state of life after death, or rather life-in-death, called half-life.[8] People who are frozen shortly after their death continue to exist in a dream-like state for years until they are finally reborn in a "new womb" (2:13).[9] The outside world can communicate with the people in half-life through microphones and headphones. Half-life is often referred to in religious terms: its followers, the "faithfuls" (1:6) even celebrate a new holiday: "Resurrection Day" (1:5). Even a hard-boiled business tycoon like Glen Runciter admits to the spirituality of half-life: "the half-life experience was real and it had made theologians out of all of them" (2:14).[10] While Runciter communicates with his wife Ella, who is in half-life, there is even an unsettling event foreshadowing the post-bomb world of Ubik. The personality of a young boy, Jory, supercedes Ella and talks to Runciter instead of her. The owner of the half-life "moratorium" (1:4) explains that "[a]fter prolonged proximity ... there is occasionally a mutual osmosis, a suffusion between the mentalities of half-lifers" (2:17). An identity is suddenly superimposed onto another, one person fades out, another fades in – this outrageous process becomes regular for objects as well as subjects after the bomb-blast in Ubik.

Even if the element of half-life introduces superimposition, paradox and oxymoron – "I'll consult my dead wife" (1:4) – into the world of the novel, it is in itself a part of its capitalist structure. Already in the first chapter of Ubik, Glen Runciter states that operating a moratorium is "a profitable business" (1:6). Evidently, half-life is a privilege of the wealthy, and it is certainly no coincidence that Ella Runciter is kept in cold-pack as a consultant executive manager of Runciter Associates. Half-lifers are often judged according to their "functioning" (1:5, 2:11, 6:62), their ability of still being "cranked up" (1:7).[11] In short, they are commodified objects rather than subjects.

In chapter six, Philip K. Dick literally explodes this seemingly stable fictional world. Taking a "business opportunity" that "happens once in a lifetime" (4:43), Runciter leads a team of inertials to the moon. They think they are being hired by Stanton Mick, an important businessman who plans to speculate with real estate on the moon. Significantly, the novel's protagonist, Joe Chip, describes Mick in oxymoronic terms: "the loudest noise ... that I have ever seen" (6:65). The man, however, turns out the be a "self-destruct humanoid bomb" (6:67). With a man who is not what he seems starts a narrative which is not what it seems.

After the blast, which seemingly kills Glen Runciter, a process of destabilization begins. At first, mainly objects are affected. The characters are confronted with dry cigarettes, a two-year-old phone book, sour cream, stale coffee and a "brand new tape recorder, completely worn out" (9:114):[12] commodities originating from their stable world which now all of a sudden display signs of old age and decay. Soon, characters are affected as well. The inertial Wendy Wright at first feels old, yet shortly after that not only dies, but becomes a "huddled heap, dehydrated, almost mummified" (8:99).

While one character after the other suffers Wendy's fate, the decay of objects turns into regression. Money, the essential element sustaining the capitalist world of the first five chapters of Ubik, does not grow stale but obsolete. A coin Joe Chip carries in his wallet turns out to be 40 years old, of merely numismatic interest. Moreover, the tape-recorder referred to above it not just worn out, "it's forty years obsolete" (9:114). Objects revert to earlier forms, rather than growing old.

The TV set had receded back a long way; he [Joe Chip] found himself confronted by a dark, wood-cabinet, Atwater-Kent tuned radio-frequency oldtime AM radio, complete with antenna and ground wires. (10:131-132)

Hence, the TV has not turned into an older TV, but into a different object, which, however, represents an earlier manifestation of the idea of a mass media receiver. Chip refers to this process as regression, devolution, recession or reversion. Dick, in a speech a few years after the completion of Ubik, interprets this as "a motion along a retrograde entropic axis, in terms of Platonic forms rather than any decay or reversion we normally conceive" ("If You Find" 243-244). The Platonic concept of the world of ideas is already quoted in the novel itself.

Prior forms, he reflected, must carry on an invisible, residual life in every object. The past is latent, is submerged, but still there, capable of rising to the surface once the later imprinting unfortunately – and against ordinary experience – vanished. (10:132)

Yet not even the vanishing of later forms of objects is a stable fact in Ubik. Objects soon begin to fade in and out of existence, similar to Jory's superimposing himself on Ella Runciter.

He [Al Hammond] ceased talking. Because the elderly clanking contraption had dimmed, and, in its place, the familiar elevator resumed its existence. And yet he sensed the presence of the other, older elevator; it lurked at the periphery of his vision, as if ready to ebb forward as soon as he and Joe turned their attention away. (9:117)

This latency of past forms in present forms turns into sheer iridescence and oscillation when Joe Chip, while searching for Ubik, perceives a drugstore that should have been abandoned in 1939 – the moment in history in which the rest of the world seems to be temporarily locked.

A shimmer, an unsteadiness, as if the building faded forward into stability and then retreated into insubstantial uncertainty. An oscillation, each phase lasting a few seconds and then blurring off into its opposite, a fairly regular variability as if an organic pulsation underlay the structure. (12:163)

The past and present of an object, here, are juxtaposed not as two stable moments in time, but as amplitudes of a wave, mere tendencies of being. This closely resembles Roman Ingarden's notion of iridescence and opalescence McHale quotes.

Ambiguous sentences may project ambiguous objects, objects which are not temporarily but permanently and irresolvably ambiguous. This is not a matter, in other words, of choosing between alternative states of affairs, but rather of an ontological oscillation, a flickering effect, or, to use Ingarden's own metaphor, an effect of "iridescence" or "opalescence." And "opalescence" is not restricted to single objects; entire worlds may flicker.[13] (McHale 32)

In Ubik, too, it is the whole fictional world, rather than just objects, that oscillates. Language, for instance, is also affected, as an obsolete term suddenly resurfaces in Joe Chip's mind (9:116). Moreover, even characters fade in and out of existence. Near the end of the novel, there is an event closely mirroring the superimposition of characters in half-life described in the second chapter. It is again Jory who surfaces on the inertial Don Denny (15:195). He then says that he has taken on other identities, such as Bill and Matt, who have appeared in some of the inertials' dreams (15:196), and confesses that he has 'eaten' all the other characters who died such horrible deaths. Hence Jory's identity seems to have permeated almost all the other subjects in this world, taking advantage of, and destroying them.

It is no surprise, then, that the characters in the novel feel threatened by the unstable and iridescent quality of their world. Continually, they try to interpret their ontological situation, to draw some coherence, and hence stability, out of their perceptions. This quest mirrors that of the reader.

Every reader of Ubik becomes engaged, just like its characters, in the struggle to create a coherent explanation for the events of the narrative, and like the characters every reader is eventually defeated. (Robinson 97)

At first, the characters' explanations remain in the scientific realm, as can be expected in a science-fiction novel. The blast of the humanoid H-bomb, Joe Chip considers, could have led to Wendy's death and the staleness of his cigarettes (8:101). Yet already the two-year old phone book contradicts this theory. Then, different conspiracy theories come into play. In the beginning, these are rather vague, imagining an evil 'they'.

It's as if, he [Joe Chip] thought, some malicious force is playing with us, letting us scamper and twitter like debrained mice. (6:71)

Then, Joe gradually identifies the mysterious psi-talent Pat Conley as their menace. During Chip's agonizing climb up the hotel stairs in Des Moines, Pat even confesses to her infiltrating Runciter Associates as a spy of the Hollis Corporation. She actually thinks she is responsible for the process of regression as well as the death of the other inertials. And yet she dies shortly after her confession. The one interpretation that appears again and again is that the whole situation is actually inverted, i.e. Runciter has not been killed in the blast, but his whole team has, and the whole experience of regression and instability is only the "normal decay" (14:186) every half-lifer experiences. This idea is supported by the so-called "manifestations" (8:106) of Runciter. His voice is on Joe Chip's hotel phone (8:84), his portrait appears on coins (8:105), he speaks to Joe through a TV commercial (10:127), and writes messages on the wall of a urinal.



Yet even if it becomes more and more evident that Joe Chip and his colleagues are in half-life, the fact that Runciter is alive is more than unclear. His body at his funeral service within the half-life world, is, after all, as dried out as all the other dead (8:99). Moreover, in the final twist at the end of the novel, Runciter finds his coins imprinted with Joe Chip's head – an event that is not interpretable through any of the ontological theories put forth in the novel. As Glen Runciter says after contradicting himself several times, "[t]his situation is very complex, Joe. It doesn't admit to simple answers" (13:187). In fact, it does not admit to any answer. The impression of the characters is easily summed up by Joe's following statement: "I can't make it all add up" (11:156).

On the level of narrative ontology, this lack of possible interpretations is easily summed up.

Now, the constructing principle in Ubik is this: for every explanation one can construct for the events of the novel, there will be at least one event that confounds that explanation, making it impossible and thus inoperative. (Robinson 95)

Moreover, Dick confuses the reader by misattributing his narrative levels. After the bomb-blast on Luna, the narrative actually enters a mise-en-abyme, a world within the world. Yet the readers, as well as the characters, only gradually become aware of this fact – which in itself is not quite certain. According to Brian McHale, this is a typical narrative strategy of postmodernist novels.

Postmodernist texts ... tend to encourage trompe-l'oeil, deliberately misleading the reader into regarding an embedded, secondary world as the primary, diegetic world. (McHale 115)

Let us come back to the situation of the characters, who, unlike the readers, are not only confronted with an unstable, iridescent world, but are forced to live within it according to its rules. Once they have thoroughly realized that they exist in a "sort of lingering universe" or "pseudo-environment," which is "highly unstable" (10:27) and has "lost its underlying support" (11:153), they find ways to counteract the instability. The only alternative would be to succumb to the process of decay and devolution, the consequence of which would be death, the "ultimate ontological boundary" (McHale 65). Mirroring the capitalist world of Ubik's first five chapters, the force counteracting the process of entropy is reified into a commodity, the spray can called Ubik. This is the "reality support" (10:127) capable of reversing the process of decay and regression.

Ubik, the product, is in demand because it fixes reality (in both senses of the word: it repairs the real and locks it in place), and this allows the group to function. (Bukatman 95)

Ironically, however, the product itself is no real fixture in the half-life world at all. Firstly, this is a fact simply because Ubik is an object within this world of unstable things. Actually, it regresses several times, which is in Joe Chip's words an "irony that is just plain too much" (10:138). The name Ubik, on the other hand, points toward the transcendent quality of the product - it is derived from the Latin word 'ubique', 'everywhere.' Like its negative counterpart Jory, Ubik permeates all of half-life existence, it is part of its ontology. Ubik is, after all, not only a spray can, a "portable negative ionizer" (16:215), as it is described towards the end of the novel, satirizing science fiction's tendency towards pseudo-science. In the chapter headings of the text, Ubik is advertised as a range of different products, such as painkillers, razor blades, plastic coating, hair conditioner, deodorant, a sort of wonderbra or different kinds of food. All these ads emphasize the freshness of the products, and all these commodities somehow try to prevent disturbing elements running counter to an ideal of a young and beautiful body. Ubik, then, is each and every product that sustains the "illusion of coherence" (Bukatman 97) by hiding the effects of the tendencies which threaten this coherence, i.e. age, decay, and death.

The above statement is certainly too fixed for the complex ambivalence constructed around Ubik in the novel. According to Slusser, the term reification I used above is not very accurate, either.

The term "reification" ... simply does not fit this interpenetration of object and human in Dick which is an undulating, two-way process ... but reification describes a one-way, fixative process. (Slusser, "History" 206)

What is more, there is a danger of Ubik hinted at in the chapter headings: almost all the ads contain a warning along the lines of "[s]afe when used as directed" (3:19). Hence the product itself is only potentially beneficial – in the wrong hands, it can even become dangerous. The interpretation of Ubik is even further complicated with the last chapter heading.

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. (17:214)

Here, Ubik is identified in biblical terms with God and the logos. One possible interpretation would be to equate the commodity with God, and hence read Ubik as a critique or portrayal of "commodity fetishism" (Bukatman 97). On the other hand, one could emphasize the element of logos, and read Ubik as a metaphor of the transcendent signified, the notion of a world of fixed ideas following Plato. The fact that Ubik is represented as a product rather than a concept would then be the effect of the capitalist conceptualization of the world. In a thoroughly commodified world, the human desire for stability must be realized as a commodity. The conclusion of this line of thought is actually quite close to the first interpretation mentioned: commodities are an expression of the human desire for a transcendent signified.

Ubik stands as the ... ur-commodity. The modern commodity functions as both reassurance and threat in that it confirms one's relation to and position in the world, but only by constructing a temporary state of pseudo-satisfaction which lasts only until the can is empty or the next commercial is viewed. (Bukatman 97)

Bukatman rightly points out the dangers of this commodified transcendence. Firstly, the world constructed through commodity fetishism is not nearly as stable as the fetishist would like it to be. Only when "used as directed," commodities are able to temporarily secure a stable world-view. Secondly, fetishism leads to addiction and a misapprehension of the real – which, however, does not imply that there is the possibility of apprehending the real in an iridescent world at all. This notion is hinted at in the chapter-heading-ads, in warnings such as "Do not exceed recommended dosage" (11:143).

If there actually is transcendence in the unstable world of Ubik, it lies in the fact that there are human beings behind Ubik. It has been invented by a "number of responsible half-lifers whom Jory threatened. But principally by Ella Runciter" (16:213)

Ubik is a human invention, an image of humankind’s own struggle against entropy, rather than an image of divine assistance or guidance in that struggle. (Fitting 153)

It is no surprise, then, that Joe Chip, after having met Ella Runciter, concludes that he has "reached the last entities involved" (16:206). The battle between death and life, entropy and growth, instability and stability is not quite a Manichean one, but one between humans. "This battle goes on wherever you have half-lifers; it's a verity, a rule, of our kind of existence," says Ella Runciter (16:207).

Moreover, the one time the word 'transcendent' is mentioned in the text, it describes an attempt of a human, Joe Chip, to change reality. In his "final transcendental attempt" (16:210), he tries to counteract Jory's devolving of Ubik and evolve it back to his present. He seemingly fails, but his attempt brings a sales representative from the future, i.e. the present Joe left behind, who delivers Ubik to him. What is more, Ella Runciter has provided Joe with a "free, lifetime supply" (16:205) of Ubik. Hence, the struggle of the 'last entities', both human, is no longer dependent on the mechanisms of consumer capitalism; in other words, it has transcended commodification. The seeming firmness of this conclusion is undermined by the fact that neither the readers nor the characters are ever really certain where life ends and half-life begins, who exactly is and who is not in half-life. The ending of the novel hints at this infinite regress of uncertainties: "This was just the beginning" (17:216).

Given that instability is omnipresent in Ubik 's structure and themes, it is certainly safe to conclude that the instability of Ubik 's fictional world is not a sign of Dick losing control, but a deliberate strategy on the part of the text. The novel, after the literal explosion in the plot, explodes its fictional world. It constructs, or rather deconstructs, a space that cancels itself out. The two main strategies applied are, following McHale, interpolation and superimposition. Dick interpolates a space between his futuristic, empirically coherent world of the first five chapters and the negative space of death – this space is called half-life. In this 'zone,' older and newer forms of objects or concepts are superimposed, whole buildings and cities oscillate between different historical periods, substantiality and insubstantiality. Nevertheless, this space is constructed according to the principle of consumer capitalism, i.e. the dynamics of the first world in the novel. Even the positive principle opposing the forces of entropy is commodified into a spray can. However, there is a hint at the possibility of human beings transcending their condition by trying to fight the forces of entropy.

Time and Historicity: Time Out of Joint

What, at any given present instant we possess of the past, is twofold but dubious: We possess external, objective traces of the past embedded in the present, and we possess inner memories. But both are subject to the rule of imperfection, since both are merely bits of reality and not the intact form. ("If You Find" 244)

The instability of Philip K. Dick's fictional spaces is apparent already in works created earlier than Ubik, which was written in 1966.[14] For instance, the small town reality of Time Out of Joint, finished in 1958, bears many similarities to Ubik 's half-life world. The former novel's focus, however, lies less on life and death than on time and historicity. However, the historic theme is strong in Ubik, too. Hence my discussion of Time Out of Joint and Dick's historicity will clarify a point which is also valuable for Ubik and many other Dickian novels, namely that the spaces Dick superimposes on each other are moments in history rather than geographically distant places.

At first, the world of Time Out of Joint seems to be thoroughly stable. The novel is set, or so it seems, in 1959, i.e. the year in which in was published. The locale is an American small town of the period, equipped with everything a reader would, even 50 years later, take to be typical of the time and place: the nuclear family, petty flirtations with the neighbor's wife, James Dean, nylon shirts, army haircuts, the Kinsey reports, President Eisenhower, the red scare, civil defense courses, fear of H-bombs, Book-of-the-Month clubs, Sid Caesar and Charles Van Doren on TV. In other words, the period setting is constructed through a series of stereotypes. It is a representation of reality that is rather close to other forms of popular culture in the fifties intent on representing the typical everyday life, namely TV sitcoms and soaps.

If there is "realism" in the 1950s, in other words, it is presumably to be found there, in mass cultural representation, the only kind of art willing (and able) to deal with the stifling Eisenhower realities of the happy family in the small town, of normalcy and nondeviant everyday life. (Jameson 280)

Hence the reality of Time Out of Joint is immediately recognized as the small town fifties continually reproduced in the reruns of the TV serials of the period. Yet this stability does not last long.

Some disturbances in the reality of Time Out of Joint are only apparent through the differences between its representation of the fifties and the reader's knowledge of the period. For instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin seems to have been published in 1959 rather than a hundred years earlier (1:11). Moreover, radio stations have ceased to exist. Neither do the novel's protagonist Ragle Gumm or his sister's family know Marilyn Monroe. This is more disturbing than the instances mentioned above, since their neighbor, Bill Black, actually recognizes her as the film star the reader knows her to be. The same Bill Black will later be the focal point of some conspiracy theories. Then, as in Ubik, objects start to become "evasive" (2:29) when Ragle's brother-in-law Victor Nielson reaches for a light cord in a bathroom where there had always been a switch. Ragle himself even slips into what he thinks is psychosis when objects actually dissolve in front of his eyes.

The soft-drink stand fell into bits. Molecules. He saw the molecules, colorless, without qualities, that made it up. Then he saw through, into the space beyond it; he saw the hill behind, the trees and sky. Hew say the soft-drink stand go out of existence ... In its place was a slip of paper. He reached out his hand and took hold of the slip of paper. On it was printing, block letters. SOFT-DRINK STAND. (3:47-48)

Thus the characters are faced with several disruptions of their everyday reality, undermining its stability. Yet the only conclusion they can draw from these disruptive events is that something is wrong.

We have a hodge-podge of leaks in our reality, he [Victor] said to himself. A drop here, a couple of drops over in that corner. A moist spot forming on the ceiling. But where's it getting in? What's it mean? ... We can put everything we know together, he realized, but it doesn't tell us anything, except that something is wrong. And we knew that to start with. The clues we are getting don't give us a solution; they only show us how far-reaching the wrongness is. (6:95)

However, the characters, like those in Ubik, cannot be content with this confusion but try to glean coherence and meaning from it. Ragle Gumm especially is looking for a pattern in the seemingly unrelated events. It is, after all, his talent to see such patterns in space and time – a talent which enables him to earn a living solving the newspaper contest called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?" (2:21). Eventually, he finds a pattern with himself in the center: a huge conspiracy of "them" keeping him from leaving the town (7:106). Once he manages to actually leave town, the reason for the ephemeral quality of his surroundings is revealed.

The world outside of the town, it turns out, is the world of the future, the real world of the novel. In a twist that suddenly transforms a realist novel into science fiction, the author reveals that the narrative is actually set in 1997. The "Old Town" (13:190) is a fake, the whole reality of the fifties a mere reconstruction, "[n]atural looking, but completely unreal" (9:136). Until three years before the day the novel starts, Ragle Gumm has been a quintessential strategic planer in a civil war between Lunar colonists and an isolationist, totalitarian America. Using his ability to see patterns in space and time, he has predicted the place and time the next 'Lunatic' missile would strike Earth. However, after realizing that he is fighting on the wrong side and his predictions actually only prolong the conflict, his moral qualms have led him into a "withdrawal psychosis" (14:209). That is, Ragle spent more and more of his time thinking of his childhood in the fifties and eventually fully withdrew to this time. The military have seen their chance in this and have constructed the "Old Town" for Ragle, featuring every detail of his nostalgic childhood dream. They have fitted in a newspaper contest, with the help of which Ragle can predict the missile hits without any ethical considerations or pressure, making a game of it. Thus the alleged present of the novel turns out to be a mere reconstruction of the past.

However, compared to Ubik, the 1959 and the 1997 of Time Out of Joint are rather clear entities. It is established in the end that the Old Town is a fake while the world and time outside it are real. The disturbing effect of the novel is created through the implicit confrontation with the readers' present. After all, it is the fake, and not the real world, in the novel that corresponded to the present of the reader in 1959. The novel thus presents

a trope of the future anterior – the estrangement and renewal as history of our own reading present, the fifties, by way of the apprehension of that present as the past of a specific future. (Jameson 285)

This paradox naturally becomes even stronger for anyone reading the novel after the year 1997, when even the future of the text has become past in reality. Yet not only is the present reallocated as past, but it is also portrayed as a fake, a mere facade. It is a finite space, in the end described in terms of the stage; actors, props, scenery (14:207).[15] The novel is

the brutal transformation of a realistic representation of the present, of Eisenhower America and the 1950s small town, into a memory and a reconstruction. (Jameson 285)

The reference to memory is essential. The period reconstructed in the Old Town is the fifties according to Ragle, a reified childhood memory.

Everything in terms of your requirements ... What you needed, for your security and comfort. Why should it be accurate? (14:218)

Inaccuracies such as the publication date of Uncle Tom's Cabin are due to the fact that this whole small world is the reified nostalgia of a single person. If that novel has been a part of the fifties for Ragle, it becomes a part of the fifties. The Old Town is a place in the mind rather than a place in history, just like America is said to be (Slusser, "History" 200).

The motor behind this gigantic effort of reification is Ragle's desire for stability. Doing what he does in the nineties, Ragle is in a very ambivalent position. Whichever side he chooses, he is bound to do wrong. What is more, if he goes on predicting missile strikes, he must continue to bear the pressure that every mistake of his may cost thousands of lives. His situation in the world of his imaginary childhood, however, is completely opposite. As a child, he has no responsibilities whatsoever and can rely on stable small town values such as family and neighborhood. Furthermore, the fifties have a reputation as the Golden Age of American post-war history, as is apparent in Ragle's description of the period.

To the peaceful days when his father had sat around the living room reading the newspaper and the kids had watched Captain Kangaroo on TV. When his mother had driven their new Volkswagen, and the news on the radio hadn't been about war but about the first Earth satellites and the initial hopes for thermonuclear power.[16] (14:214)

Thus Ragle perceives the fifties as the period of hope and trust, which in the 1997 of the novel have given way to despair.[17] Every element running counter to this positive picture of the fifties has been edited away by his own nostalgic impulse. No wonder that the "tug back into the past" (14:216) is strong on him.

This impulse in itself would not be exceptional. However, Dick presents, on the one hand, nostalgia as an actual, built reality, and, on the other hand, he installs his own present when writing the novel as the object of nostalgia. Thus he conceives the present as history, along the lines of Jameson's definition of historicity.

Historicity is, in fact, neither a representation of the past nor a representation of the future (although its various forms use such representations): it can first and foremost be defined as a perception of the present as history; that is, as a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarizes it and allows us that distance from immediacy which is at length characterized as a historical perspective. (Jameson 284)

Thus, on the one hand, Dick constructs a historical period out of his present, using many stereotypes that have been valid ever since. On the other hand, the stability of this construction is immediately undermined. Firstly, the Old Town deconstructs itself through its sheer normalcy, its stereotypical quality. This space is a reproduction of a reality that has been mass-produced in the popular media, which decreases its value.


[1] References which do not indicate the name of the author always refer to Philip K. Dick.

[2] The quote continues: "and is characteristically cast in the Gothic of post-Gothic mould". The Gothic elements in science fiction and in Dick, however, will not be discussed in this paper. For the Gothic in Dick cf. Keeling.

[3] Which is, funnily enough, the month in which I was born.

[4] The fact that some of these lesser known novels are currently out of print makes it necessary for me to summarize their plots in more detail than usual in literary criticism.

[5] Dick refers to Suvin, who approves of The Man in the High Castle, but laments Dick's alleged turn from politics to ontology in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (Suvin 85).

[6] The term itself is originally William S. Burroughs'.

[7] 'Precog' is an sf-term referring to clairvoyants who can see the future.

[8] The idea was clearly inspired by cryonics, which grew popular at the time the novel was written. "In the 1960s the legal definition of death had been altered. The new definition stated that death occurs not when the heart stops beating but when brain activity ceases. During this period R.C.W. Ettinger wrote The Prospect of Immortality, a book popularizing the idea of freezing newly dead bodies until a cure for their disease could be found, and soon the Cryonics Society of California actually began freezing dead bodies" (Warrick Mind 137).

[9] References to Dick's novels always identify the chapter as well as the page where the quote can be found. This is due to the lack of a standard edition of Dick's works and the resulting abundance of varying editions.

[10] The dramatic irony in this quote is striking – the rest of the novel will demonstrate how real or unreal the half-life experience actually is.

[11] The fact that the verb 'to function' is used referring to Joe Chip (7:91) after the bomb-blast thus hints at the idea of him being in half-life.

[12] Again an oxymoron.

[13] McHale's quotation is from Ingarden, Roman. 1931. The Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973: 254.

[14] All dates of composition and publication of Dick's texts are based on Williams (178-184).

[15] The kinship of this theme to the 1999 movie The Truman Show is certainly no coincidence. Cf. my "Der Traum von der Wirklichkeit."

[16] It is striking that Ragle speaks of hopes about space travel and nuclear power, the two technological invention which most inspired American science fiction in the fifties.

[17] In later days, the nostalgic picture of the fifties as a period of social peace has gained, more so with the upheavals around the war in Vietnam, the hippie counterculture and Watergate. In the fifties, even rebellion itself had a romantic touch, as apparent in the movies starring James Dean or Marlon Brando, or as personifies in Elvis Presley (Jameson 290-291).

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Worlds and selves falling apart - The science fiction of Philip K. Dick
University of Zurich  (English Seminar)
1.5 (A)
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Worlds, Philip, Dick
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Mag. Markus Widmer (Author), 2000, Worlds and selves falling apart - The science fiction of Philip K. Dick, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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