Science Fiction Studies

# 5 = Volume 2, Part 1 = March 1975

Peter Fitting

Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF

Philip K. Dick's Ubik (1969) is, for this reader, one of the most important SF works of the 1960s, for it is both deconstruction and a hint at reconstruction: it lays bare the principal ways that SF is used for ideological ends, in terms of science and of fiction, while tentatively looking towards a future freed from the restraints it has exposed. In this novel Dick has exploded and transcended the SF genre and the "representational novel" of which it is a part.

Two general criteria are most commonly used to screen out the "trash" from those SF works which are deemed worthy of critical attention and may be included in the university curriculum. The first refers to a work's scientific or philosophic intentions and content, by virtue of which it is described as fictionalized science (vulgarisation), or as a paradigm of the scientific method (extrapolation) which may be used to probe our contemporary problems—for instance, SF as Utopian Literature. A pedigree of academic worth may also be granted on the basis of formal criteria, involving the discovery of esthetic or literary qualities: attention to style, imagery and metaphor, and to the work's striving towards the status of High Art.1 These attempts to make SF respectable through its co-optation into some larger literary tradition effectively strip it of its specific or generic qualities. Thus, they also fulfill an important role in the preservation of the literary status quo and, in corollary fashion, of the society it is the university's function to support. But such conformist critical recuperation cannot make sense of much that is best within SF, and in particular, of the writing of Philip K. Dick.

Dick's writing is not easily included within traditional academic limits, for his novels are, in appearance, badly and carelessly written, with superficial characterization, confusing plots and similar deviations from "good writing." This apparent inattention to writing, along with an overabundance of traditional SF details and conventions have earned him the neglect of the proponents both of high art and of the New Wave; while his sprawling, chaotic near futures and his total disregard for the traditional SF virtues of rationality and futurological plausibility have caused him to be overlooked by the proponents of the more traditional extrapolative SF.2 However, this paper will attempt to set out, through the example of Ubik, how Dick's SF presents a model of a more subversive form of writing which undermines rather than reconfirms the repressive system in which it has been produced, and acts as a critique of the ideological presuppositions of the SF genre and of the traditional novel in general.

AS WITH HIS OTHER FICTIONS, from Eye in the Sky (1957) and Man in the High Castle (1962) through The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) and Maze of Death (1970), Ubik is centered on the "reality problem"—on the efforts of a group of people to grasp an elusive, changing, sometimes hallucinatory and often hostile reality. The novel divides readily into two parts. The events which lead up to the explosion take place primarily on a single reality plane involving the business rivalry between Hollis Talents' psi agents and Runciter Associates' "inertials" (anti-psis). Then, following the explosion and death of Runciter, reality begins to lose its consistency and integrity. Although Joe Chip and the other inertials succeed in transporting Runciter to the Blessed Brethren Moratorium where the dead are preserved in "half-life"—a state between "full-life and the grave" (§2) in which the subject may be revived and communicated with as long as the waning "cephalic activity" is retained—attempts to revive Runciter fail and are superseded by the inertials' own anxious efforts to understand what is happening to them. Faced with a disintegrating, hostile reality, they surmise that there are two opposing forces at work: a "process of deterioration" in which their reality ages and decays, and another force which counteracts the first and involves inexplicable manifestations of the dead Runciter.

Their attempts at comprehension can be seen in the different hypotheses which they develop and which occupy much of the novel: they think that Runciter has pre-recorded messages to them before his death; that Runciter is alive trying to contact them in half-life; or that Pat (Joe Chip's wife) is an agent of Hollis and has succeeded in trapping them in a mental illusion. But as Joe Chip concedes, they can't make it all add up; finally, he "meets" Runciter who assures him that they—not he—were killed in the explosion and are now linked together in half-life where he has been trying to communicate with them. And the inertials' shared awareness of Des Moines in 1939 is the mental construct of the boy Jory who maintains his own half-life by feeding on the vitality of other half-lifers. Yet this final explanation is first modified, when Chip inadvertently summons into this illusion a living person from the future who replenishes his supply of Ubik, the "reality support" which protects him from Jory; and then destroyed when Runciter, upon leaving the Moratorium, discovers that all his coins and bills bear the likeness of Joe Chip.

From the first mention of half-life—a phenomenon which, according to Runciter, has "made theologians out of them all" (§2)—to the inertials' quest for the meaning of their existence and their awareness of the forces of life and death, the narrative of Ubik continuously plays with a metaphysical dimension. Half-life is not presented as a realistic future possibility (that is to say, the novel does not explain how half-life might be possible, nor does it explore the possible moral, ethical or scientific problems raised). Thus the reader might begin by envisaging half-life as the fictional transposition of the world of ghosts and spirits into an SF novel, where the explanation is provided by pseudo-scientific assertions rather than by reference to the supernatural. Within this context both the quest for meaning and the never ending struggle between the forces of life and death have traditionally a metaphysical significance. The quest would usually rouse the reader to expect not only that there is some discernible meaning in reality, but that this meaning lies beyond or behind observable reality (teleology) and that man sometimes receives messages from the beyond about the meaning of reality (divine revelation). Jory, the negative force of illusion and death, is the devil in this Manichean allegory, while the Runciters are the agents of Ubik, the life-preserving force which is clearly analogous to God: by its name (from the Latin ubique, the root of ubiquity, one of the attributes of the Christian God), by its functions and, most explicitly, by the epigraph to the last chapter which recalls John's "In the beginning was the Word...":

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)

Although the reality problem is thus posed in metaphysical terms, such expectations by the reader are ultimately frustrated, and metaphysics is rejected. The characters are unable to discover any final, comprehensive meaning, and Joe Chip realizes, when he meets Jory, that there is nothing behind that reality: "Well, he thought, that's one of the two agencies who're at work; Jory is the one who's destroying us—has destroyed us, except for me. Behind Jory there is nothing: he is the end" (§15). And again, when he meets Ella, he exclaims "You're the other one, Jory destroying us, you trying to help us. Behind you there's no one. I've reached the last entities involved" (§16).

Yet Joe Chip's discovery of the "last entities involved" is not that of a final or first cause. Jory and Ubik, although they may be seen as allegorical representations of God and the Devil, are limited, nonetheless, in several crucial ways which weaken this allegory; or rather, which suggests a criticism of such idealistic concepts as "God" or "the Devil." In fact, Jory only "speeds up" the "normal cooling off" and death of things which is the "destiny of the universe" (§13). Nor does Jory think of himself as evil: his own half-life, he tells Chip, depends on his ability to prey on weaker half-lifers (§15) a dependance which is very similar to Joe Chip's "ecological" argument in defence of Runciter Associates and the anti-Psis "neutralising" of Psis: "[anti-Psis] are life forms preying on the Psis, and the Psis are life forms that prey on the Norms...Balance, the full circle, predator and prey. It appears to be an eternal system; and frankly I don't see how it could be improved" (§3).

In metaphysical terms, the thing Ubik is also an analogue to Christian "grace," the divine assistance given man to help him through the earthly vale of tears into which he is fallen, towards the afterlife and his heavenly reward. Chip's quest becomes, in large part, a search for Ubik (as Perceval's quest was for the Grail, symbol of Christian grace and redemption), which will protect him from the forces of evil and death (Jory). However, Ubik's significance as a mediating agency or signpost of metaphysical reality is undermined in several critical ways. First, it protects Chip by maintaining him an illusory reality, while covering up the "real" reality of the Moratorium. In similar fashion the established Christian religions have glossed over the human problems and injustices of reality while affirming that this existence is but the shadow of and preparation for an immaterial, ideal reality. Second, Ubik is de-sacralized through the ironic use of epigraphs, which I shall discuss in a moment, and within the narrative itself. For as Chip learns (§16), 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. And the final reference to Ubik in the narrative is an ironical comment on divine intervention: after the attractive young woman who has materialized from the future to bring Joe Chip a spray-can of Ubik disappears, leaving him in the middle of trying to invite her to dinner, he discovers a message on the can: "I THINK HER NAME IS MYRA LANLEY. LOOK ON REVERSE SIDE OF CONTAINER FOR ADDRESS AND PHONE NUMBER" (§16).

AN EPIGRAPH IN THE FORM of an advertising jingle opens each chapter of Ubik, except that the last chapter has the epigraph quoted above, which can, however, be read as a theological super-ad, confirming the novel's strange identification of religion and capitalist consumerism. These commercials, which have little or nothing to do with the narrative, sell Ubik as the best beer, the best instant coffee, the best shampoo....

Friends this is clean-up time and we're discounting all our silent, electric Ubiks by this much money. Yes we're throwing away the bluebook. And remember: every Ubik on our lot has been used only as directed. (§1)

The best way to ask for beer is to sing out for Ubik. Made from select hops, choice water, slow aged for perfect flavor, Ubik is the nation's number one choice in beer. Made only in Cleveland. (§2)

If money worries have you in the cellar, go visit the lady at Ubik Savings & Loan. She'll take the frets out of your debts. Suppose, for example, you borrow fifty-nine poscreds on an interest-only loan. Let's see, that adds up to— (§8)

These "commercial messages" provide a restatement of Marx's description of value, for Ubik is a universal equivalent (the embodiment of exchange value), which can represent or replace any other commodity: under capitalism everything has its price; while the presentation of Ubik through these ads stresses the obligation of capitalism to produce needs (use-values) in the consumer.

Furthermore, the epigraphs, by their non-pertinence to the narrative (where Ubik is a "reality-support" which comes in a spray-can and is not mentioned until chapter 10), may also be seen as a further subversion of the metaphysical concept of representation. An epigraph, like a title, is expected to serve as a comment and/or digest of the contents of a chapter, as if meaning were contained in the writing and could be summed up in the way that labels tell us what is inside a can at the supermarket. Impertinent or facetious epigraphs (or chapter headings, as in Maze of Death) are a deliberate mislabeling which violates the commercial contract at the basis of the traditional novel.

The ironically inappropriate epigraphs to each chapter are thus a prelude to a more complex refutation of teleology and metaphysics in Ubik which depends upon recognizing the metaphysical presuppositions of the novel form itself. The classical bourgeois novel has been described in recent French literary theory as itself a metaphysical construct: traditionally, the novel has been a representative medium, and the concept of representation implies that the text is a restatement of some pre-existent meaning.3 This attitude reduces reading to a looking through the text to the "real" meaning, whether that meaning be empirical reality, the author's conscious design or his unconscious intentions. Such a transcendental bias valorizes the meaning (the signified) while reducing the signifier to a means; it thereby masks and mystifies the text itself, both in its materiality (its texture) and in its production (the act of writing), in much the same way that—as Marx has shown—exchange value effects a masking and mystification of an object's use-value as well as of the concrete human labor invested in it.4

The traditional "representational novel" functions in this way as an ideological support for capitalism: it reinforces a transcendental conception of reality which mystifies the actual reality of the capitalist mode of production and the resultant repression and alienation. And although SF stories depict an imaginary reality, they have traditionally been concerned with the representation of a "fictional alternative to the author's empirical environment" which is usually consistent and regulated by knowable laws.5 As in other novels, there is a discernible, comprehensible meaning which informs the SF novel. (And this quite apart from any criticism one could make of the "contents" of the traditional SF novel.) But the reader of Ubik is refused any such final, definitive interpretation. At the end of the novel the reader seems to have at last achieved a complete explanation of the events according to which Joe Chip and the others are in half-life while Runciter is alive trying to contact them. The reader's usual satisfaction in finishing a novel and looking back over how everything fits together derives from the formal confirmation of his conception of reality and, in the case of Ubik, from his relief at having finally resolved the disquieting tension between fictional reality and illusion. But this satisfaction is short-lived, for as Runciter leaves the Moratorium he discovers that the coins and bills in his pocket all bear the likeness of Joe Chip (as, at the beginning of the second part of the novel, Joe Chip and the other inertials' money bore the likeness of Runciter)—an indication that this reality is also an illusion. And the novel concludes, as Runciter looks disbelievingly at his money: "This was just the beginning": the beginning of an endless series of illusory realities, but for the careful reader, also the beginning of an end to a number of illusions about both reality and the novel. There is no satisfactory single interpretation of Ubik, my own included; and the reader's traditional response—the discovery of that interpretation—is frustrated. However, that frustration was planned; this kind of text is no longer a window opening onto a transcendental meaning, but a mirror which reflects the reader's look, forcing him out of his familiar reading habits while drawing his attention to the functioning of the novel as a form of manipulation.

UBIK IS NOT ONLY A DECONSTRUCTION of the metaphysical ideologies and the metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel, but also of what (in Solaris) Lem has described as the anthropomorphic presuppositions of science and of SF. Science is expressly demystified, first of all, through the disregard for scientific plausibility and through the single "scientific" description of a technological device in the novel:

A spray can of Ubik is a portable negative ionizer, with a self-contained, high-voltage, low-amp unit powered by a peak-gain helium battery of 25kv. The negative ions are given a counterclockwise spin by a radically biased acceleration chamber, which creates a centripetal tendency to them so that they cohere rather than dissipate. A negative ion field diminishes the velocity of anti-protophasons normally present in the atmosphere; as soon as their velocity falls they cease to be anti-protophasons and, under the principle of parity, no longer can unite with protophasons radiated from persons frozen in cold-pac; that is, those in half-life. The end result is that the proportion of protophasons not canceled by anti-protophasons increases, which means—for a specific time, anyhow—an increment in the net put-forth field of protophasonic activity...which the affected half-lifer experiences as greater vitality plus a lowering of the experience of low cold-pac temperatures. (§16)

This passage parodies scientific jargon which is often used to conceal ignorance rather then to convey information or knowledge (try reading a textbook description of cancer, for instance, a "disease" which science can "describe" without understanding it).

More importantly, Ubik is a critique of the a priori modes of perception which inform scientific thinking and which science often claims as objective empirical principles.6 Dick undertakes this critique of scientific imperialism and tunnel-vision by carrying subjectivity to an extreme, by reminding us—as he has done perhaps most effectively in The Clans of the Alphane Moon and in Maze of Death—that the position of the observer is an extremely subjective perspective from which to deduce universal laws; that "reality" is a mental construct which may be undermined at any time.

Dick's writing has often been labeled schizophrenic, but it is time to recognize that this is not necessarily a criticism, that schizophrenia may be, in R.D. Laing's words from The Politics of Experience, a "breakthrough" rather than a "breakdown." Philip K. Dick's writing is an example of such a breakthrough, not only in the sense of a deconstruction of the SF novel, but also of a breaking through the psychological and perceptual confines imposed on us by capitalism.

For the repression of the individual under capitalism goes beyond the obvious economic and military machinery of imperialism or the internal police control which Dick has frequently denounced in his public letters and speeches. It also functions in a more subtle and dangerous way through the control and direction of our forms of perception and thought, making a radically different reality either unthinkable or horribly monstrous. The well-known SF film, The Forbidden Planet (1956), for instance, is a classic presentation of the theme of the "monsters of the id," those libidinal energies which (from the notion of "original sin" to the contemporary theories of man's innate aggressiveness), we have been taught to fear and distrust, which society seeks to dominate and control, and which are unleashed from the unconscious whenever the individual's conscious vigilance is relaxed. Unlike this film which contains an explicit warning against the unbinding of those forces, Van Vogt's Voyage of The Space Beagle reveals a more ambiguous attitude towards that repression. For what is striking about Van Vogt's novel (especially in view of his expressed political philosophy) is not so much the voyage, which is both a voyage of self-discovery and the familiar SF theme for the need for synthesis and integration of different scientific methods and disciplines in order to meet the challenges of a changing world, but the narrative of a series of contacts between humans and hostile space creatures. Like the monsters of The Forbidden Planet, these creatures are symbols of the raw, unrepressed libidinal energies which threaten the fabric and smooth functioning of capitalism. Yet in his presentation of these monsters we can detect as well an implicit (or illicit) desire for their force and power which contradicts the novel's explicit message of science containing those threats. During each confrontation in Van Vogt's novel, the reader looks for a time through the monster's eyes, feeling and perceiving reality as the monster experiences it. This identification, however brief, provokes our admiration and envy. To an even higher degree, this is the case in the emphatic understanding of what it would be like to be a Loper in Simak's City, where almost the entire population of Earth emigrates to Jupiter when offered the chance of becoming such a monster.

The SF of Philip K. Dick concentrates less on the actual unbinding of these forces (Dick's use of parallel worlds, his exteriorisation of internal reality) or on the "real" shape they might take than on attacking the forms of control which I have discussed—the presuppositions of the novel form and of science. Although the metaphysical solution is rejected, although there seems to be no final answer then to the question of what reality is, and although for Dick there can be no single, final reality, there is little pessimism in the endings of Dick's novels when compared to the facile pessimism of the currently fashionable literature of despair. Although Ubik does mark the end of some of our illusions, it is hopeful in its refusal to close the conflicts by a pat happy or unhappy ending in much the same way as another important SF novel of the 1960s, Delany's The Einstein Intersection. In Delany's post-cataclysmic world, strange mutated beings roam the Earth and speak of a different and unknowable future, but one towards which they move deliberately, with hope and longing. Ubik, through the figure of Ella Runciter, also holds out the promise of a different, unknowable future. Ella is leaving half-life for a "new womb" to be "reborn." This rebirth begins with the dissolution of the personality, as can be seen in Ella's description of the intermingling and "growing together" of different personalities in half-life. But this rebirth is not described as reincarnation; it does not involve becoming something specific, something which has been designed or programmed: rather it is an opening towards new forms and new collective possibilities.


1The most recent such study is David Ketterer's New Worlds for Old (1974), which argues SF's pedigree by attributing it to a "form of accepted literature" which Ketterer identifies as "apocalyptic" (p. ix): "If more teachers of literature are to be convinced that science fiction is a viable area of study, it must be demonstrated to them that a novel such as The Martian Chronicles can open up to intense critical scrutiny just as Moby Dick can" (p. x). And to accomplish this accreditation he will employ a "critical strategy [which] involves the comparative, hopefully mutually illuminating consideration of science-fictional and non-science-fictional or 'classic' manifestations of the apocalyptic imagination" (p. x).

2See the counterblast of S. Lem, "Philip K. Dick, czyli fantomatyka mimo woli" in his Fantastyka i Futurologia (Krakow 1973), 1:174-92. A modified version of this study appears in SF Commentary ##35-36-37 (Sept 1973) as "Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case—With Exceptions." The exception is Dick, of whom Lem writes (pp. 22-23): "The surface of his books seem quite coarse and raw to me, connected with the omnipresence of trash.... Dick cannot tame trash; rather he lets loose a pandemonium and lets it calm down on its way. His metaphysics often slip in the direction of cheap circus tricks. His prose is threatened by uncontrolled outgrowths, especially when it boils over into a long series of fantastic freaks, and therefore loses all its functions of message."

3This discussion is based largely on the critical theories of the Tel Quel group: Tel Quel: Théorie d'ensemble (Paris 1968), in particular the critical and theoretical writings of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jean Ricardou and Philippe Sollers. For a critical appreciation of their work see Frederic Jameson, The Prison House of Language (Princeton 1972), pp. 172-186.

4Marx's theory of value is set out in Part 1, Vol. I of Capital, "Commodities and Money," In 1914 Lenin summed that theory up as follows: "A commodity is, in the first place, a thing that satisfies a human want; in the second place, it is a thing that can be exchanged for another thing. The utility of a thing makes it a use-value. Exchange value (or simply, value) is first of all the ratio, the proportion, in which a certain number of use-values of one kind can be exchanged for a certain number of use-values of another kind...Their common feature is that they are products of labour.... The production of commodities is a system of social relations in which the individual producers create diverse products (the social division of labour), and in which all these products are equated to one another in the process of exchange. Consequently, what is common to all commodities is not the concrete labour of a definite branch of production, not labour of one particular kind, but abstract human labour—human labour in general.... After making a detailed analysis of the twofold character of the labour incorporated in commodities, Marx goes on to analyse the form of value and money. Here, Marx's main task is to study the origin of the money form of value, to study the historical process of the development of exchange, beginning with individual and incidental acts of exchange..., passing on to the universal from of value, in which a number of different commodities are exchanged for one and the same particular commodity, and ending with the money form of value, when gold becomes that particular commodity, the universal equivalent. As the highest product of the development of exchange and commodity production, money masks, conceals, the social character of all individual labour, the social link between individual producers united by the market." Collected Works (Moscow 1964), 21:59-61.

The specific parallel between value and meaning is developed by J.-J. Goux, "Marx et l'inscription du travail" in Tel Quel, op. cit.: "The phonic or scriptural materials become simply signs, simple signifiers (of an exterior, transcendent meaning); but their transforming function (as a means of production) and their transformed characteristics (as a product) are denied. The fact is that any meaning is but the product of work on and the work of real signs—the result of textual production—is hidden, as is the original use (or merchandise) value of money (gold or silver whose value comes from the work invested in its extraction) in order to reduce it to an arbitrary secondary sign, only a sign" (p. 193).

5Darko Suvin, "On the Poetics of The Science Fiction Genre," College English 34(1972):375.

"In Lem's Solaris, the narrator describes the theories of the Solarist Grastrom who "set out to demonstrate that the most abstract achievements of science, the most advanced theories and victories of mathematics represented nothing more than a stumbling one- or two-step progression from our rude, prehistoric, anthropomorphic understanding of the universe around us. He pointed out correspondences with the human body—the projection of our senses, the structure of our physical organization, and the physiological limitations of man—in the equations of the theory of relativity, the theorem of magnetic fields and the various unified field theories" (§11).

The investigation of the metaphysical or ideological presuppositions of science and scientific method as well as the demystification of science's claims for its neutrality and objectivity have been the subject of a number of interesting and very different studies in recent years, from Boris Eizykman's important Science Fiction et capitalisme: critique de la position de désir de la science (Paris 1974) to Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers (1968) and Daniel Greenburg's The Politics of Pure Science (1967). For a look at the interrelationships of science, Marxism and political goals and the resulting successes and failures in the Soviet Union, see Loren Graham's very valuable Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (1972).


 Ubik (1969) is one of the most important SF works of the 1960s, for it is both deconstruction and a hint at reconstruction: it lays bare the principal ways that SF is used for ideological ends, in terms of science and of fiction, while tentatively looking towards a future freed from the restraints it has exposed. In this novel, Dick has exploded and transcended the SF genre and the "representation novel" of which it is a part. Dick’s writing is not easily included within traditional academic limits, for his novels are, in appearance, badly written, with superficial characterization, confusing plots, and similar deviation from "good writing." This apparent inattention to writing, along with an overabundance of traditional SF details and conventions, have earned him the neglect of the proponents both of high art and of the New Wave; while his sprawling, chaotic near-futures and his disregard for the traditional SF virtues of rationality and futurological plausibility have caused him to be overlooked by proponents of the more traditional extrapolative SF. This paper will analyze Ubik to show how Dick’s SF presents a model of a more subversive form of writing, undermining rather than reconfirming the repressive system in which it has been produced, and acting as a critique of the ideological presuppositions of the SF genre and the traditional novel.

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