Ubik by Phillip K. Dick
Transcript of the Darrouzet-Nardi book club
anthony: I finished Ubik. To be honest, I didn't expect myself to finish so soon, but the closer I got to the end, the less I could put the book down because I was so curious as to what was going to happen. The book had a lot of interesting language and I thought I would share this Ubiktionary I assembled. These are vocabulary words that appeared in Ubik that I looked up. Perhaps this wordlist will be useful and at the very least, you learn some new words...
WORDS I PROBABLY SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BUT DIDN'T!
stultify (p. 26) v:
1: prove to be of unsound mind or demonstrate someone's incompetence
2: cause to appear foolish
3: deprive of strength or efficiency
somnambulate (p. 74) v: To walk in one's sleep. Derivative: somnambulant
salacious (p. 77) adj: 1: characterized by lust
sallow (p. 78) adj: unhealthy looking
variegated (p. 93) adj: having a variety of colors
sedulous (p. 142) adj: marked by care and persistent effort
rococo (p. 163) adj: having excessive asymmetrical ornamentation
lithely (p. 173) adv: In a lithe, pliant, or flexible manner.
INTERESTING WORDS I WOULD NOT HAVE EXPECTED MYSELF TO KNOW
miasma (p. 25) n:
1: an unwholesome atmosphere
2: unhealthy vapors rising from the ground or other sources
taradiddle (p. 26) n:
1: a trivial lie
2: pretentious or silly talk or writing
numismatical (p. 88) adj:
1. of or pertaining to coins; relating to the science of coins
2. or medals.
atavism (p. 201) n: a reappearance of an earlier characteristic
vitalic (p. 79) adj: pertaining to life; vital. (I guess this is obvious, but still unusual)
WEIRD CLOTHING AND OBJECTS
cravat (p. 7) n: neckwear worn in a slipknot with long ends overlapping vertically in front
mantilla (p. 52) n:
1: a woman's silk or lace scarf
2: short cape worn by women [syn: mantelet]
dirndl (p. 58)n:
1: a full skirt with a gathered waistband
2: a dress with a tight bodice and full skirt
snood (p. 58) n: an ornamental net in the shape of a bag that confines a woman's hair; pins or ties at the back of the head
ingot (p. 172) n: a block of metal that is cast in a particular shape for convenient handling
spansule (p. 191) n: time-release capsule of a drug (definition scavenged from the net)
WORDS THAT AREN'T IN THE DICTIONARY!
blurple (p. 144) "The old Curtiss-Wright biplane blurpled on..."
I think Dick invented this as an onomatopoeia.
grunk (p. 50)
Term of derision (found only in the PKDictionary)
nurt (p. 59) Expletive: (found in PKDictionary, so these ones are probably coined slang. I wonder if Dick made them up or if he used them with people he knew)
monad turret (p. 81)
This is a weird one. I looked up monad:
1: an atom having a valence of one
2: a singular metaphysical entity from which material properties are said to derive
So, perhaps this is some kind of machine that looks like a turret and functions kind of like a replicator in Star Trek?
swizer (p. 167)
ergic (p. 195)
bleh? (interpretations welcome for these last two)
And I probably missed some. Enjoy the rest of Ubik. (Or maybe you guys are done too?)
chris: I have certainly finished Ubik, by the October 1st due date. I admit, when I got halfway through that book I could not put it down. I only wished I had read most of the beginning more pedantically.
The vocabulary from Ubik was certainly stimulating, and I am glad Anthony drew our attention to those words. But I am more curious as to what the hell happened over the course of the novel. The final paragraph flummoxed me quite a bit, although I spent a portion of my walk (which I took directly after finishing the novel on the train) trying to figure out what had happened.
So let's hear thoughts. The obvious first step is to conclude that whatever happened to Joe Chip after the explosion was beginning to happen to Runciter. This of course signalled by the Joe Chip currency (equivalent to the Runciter currency found by Chip). This leads to nowhere directly because of the disorientating experience of Mr. Chip. We are lead to believe he continued some existence in the not hermetic afterlife experienced by those in Dick's world. But how can we be sure? Are we to believe that Joe Chip is somehow influencing the world of Runciter at the end in the same manner Runciter had supposedly influenced his?
I reread the part regarding the explosion and only found that Pat did not use her ability. Otherwise, I still don't know what to make of her ability and the rest of the novel. Runciter's early explanation that she was using her ability to move back in time seemed reasonable, but then was contradicted by the idea of Jory. Plus, with Pat, Joe Chip and the others should have experienced some sort of memory loss, not just a regression of time. ARRGH!
At the end though, Runciter seems confused as hell about the Joe Chip money, and doesn't seem to think of it in juxtaposition with what happened to Joe Chip, and that he KNEW about it. Let me explain. At the end, Runciter doesn't think, "crap, I influenced Joe's world into having money with me on it, and now mine has him." He thinks, "what the hell is Joe Chip doing on currency?" So are their positions reversed? Or are they both dead and in different moratoriums? Chip always discussed the idea that one person was against him, and that two were pulling for him: Jory vs. Ella. Or perhaps there is some even greater work of one of Hollis's psis for example (doubtful).
I don't know where the answer lies--maybe in the beginning of the book, maybe with Melipone, the psis, or in Pat, or Sammy Mundo (the man who did not die in the blast). Well, now I'm just confusing myself, and this will be to my chagrin if you all are smirking because you have it figured out, and I am sitting with information and no connections. Maybe Ubik brings everything together.
Safe when taken as directed.
mom: Jeanette and I are still working our way through Ubik. We are enjoying it. We need more time because it goes slow when you read out loud only at night.
I read it myself and really enjoyed it, though I'm not sure what happened. It's good to be reading it again.
The vocab list was interesting. I'll read Chris's thoughts when I've finished for the second time. One thought I had is that while Philip Dick didn't get many of the technology parts right (such as referring to typewriters) the satire on consumer culture is even more apt than when he wrote it.
I read a little bio of him (maybe in the book itself) and he seems to have died at 54 and lived somewhere around here in Southern California though he was born somewhere else.
jeanette: I finished Ubik alone, and thought it was a really good book, despite the fact that Mom said it would be too hard for me alone. I had a few responses to the comments from Chris. One concerns the thing about Glen Runciter seeing Joe Chip on his currency: I thought what that meant was that Glen Runciter was now in half-life, and Joe Chip was trying to communicate with him. Also, I didn't understand what he meant by his question about Pat's talent.
I realized that Ubik reminded me of an Agatha Christie book, because it was kind of a whodunit. I predicted towards the end of the book that it was Jory, when Glen Runciter was finally seen in the real world, signing out from talking to Joe Chip in the moretorium.
I was wondering about the back-in-time thing: Why did the cigarettes fall apart and decay like the people? I found that hard to figure out. Also, I was wondering why Jory preyed on the people. Did eating their half-life extend his own? Also, Chris's comment about who caused everything confused me. I found it very clear that Jory was the force behind all that. I was also confused about why the author put those Ubik commercials at the beginnings of the chapters. Mom said that those were the forms Ubik is made in, but I thought it only came in the spray bottle.
I didn't understand any of the vocabulary words Anthony sent. Those clothing articles and objects were the ones I was asking about too.
mom: I didn't quite understand why Jory was doing what he was doing, except maybe to extend his own half-life? My favorite parts of the book are still the epigraphs in each chapter. It was interesting that the rhythm and rhetoric of hard-sell advertising are still the same as they were in 1969 when Dick was writing this book. He nailed that. I guess it's advertising and beyond to a consumer dictation in which we are told how to consume products, making us more sheep-like and willing to go along with what capitalism puts out. We aren't invited to use products; it is assumed we will, and we are told how, like children, after the hard sell and the suggestion that much is lacking in our life without the products.
Anthony's vocab list was interesting because of the words that I see have passed out of usage, such as dirndl (although girls might still know the word), cravat (old-fashioned even when I was growing up, but still recognized), snood (which only a few in-crowd girls knew when I was in high school), and mantilla which everyone knew. I didn't know what sedulous meant. I was surprised Anthony didn't know stultify or miasma (check out Edgar Allen Poe sometime). Atavism is one of those words I've learned a million times and always forget. Anyway, a great Ubiktionary.
I agree with Christopher that I did not understand much of what happened. I did not understand Melipone or why Jory did not come back in until the end. Jeanette said that was a typical Agatha Christie move--to have a character who recedes then comes back as the perpetrator. Maybe Dad will clarify more of the plot when he reads it as he is good with plot. Jeanette said that Runciter was actually alive at the end and Joe Chip was dead or at least in half-life. Did you guys get that? I mostly liked the atmosphere I absorbed from the book as well as its skeptical tone, its resistance to consumer culture, and the foolishness of the idea of abolishing death (which is still a big idea to many).
anthony: Mom, you're such a lefty! But I enjoyed your interpretation of how PKD was stickin' it to the man. I agree that he was. Some of my favorite passages in the book were along those lines, like this one: "'Thanks very much, Mr. Vogelsang,' Runciter said, following Herbert through an outer office in which clerks worked to an empty inner room that smelled of drab and unnecessary micro-documents." I love how PKD portrayed this somber-missioned institution as a hopeless bureaucracy with a spineless money-grubbing owner, Herbert Shoenheit von Vogelsang.
It was also amusing when the clean-up robots, whom Joe Chip was trying to hire to clean his decidedly non-Nardi-like apartment, informed him that he was a "pathetic anomaly." Later, in a small moment of satisfaction during his terrifying ordeal, Joe notices that "The coffeepot had undergone the least change; as a matter of fact in one respect it had improved--it lacked the coin slot, operating obviously coin free."
And now, my take on the vexing plot questions: It seems to me that Joe Chip and the rest of the inertials entered half-life after they were killed in the explosion (by a very strange bomb!). This would explain how all of the weird supernatural occurences such as the Runciter appearances and regressions occurred. Later, we find out that the regressions are caused by the villainous Jory who consumes other half-lifers to increase his own energy, or maybe just because he's sadistic. I think Jeanette's analysis of the plot being a classic mystery plot where a minor character emerges as the villain, is indeed correct. That makes me think that Pat Conley was a decoy villain, but I am still wondering what the significance of her character is; was she in cahoots with Hollis et al. or not? In any case, she was consumed by Jory like the rest of the inertials. I think that the main significance of the Hollis-Mick-Melipone crew was that they were the ones that murdered everyone. Melipone's escape from Runciter's watch was foreshadowing for the bombing murder. Then, once they were in half-life, they were out of the pan and into the fire, the fire being Jory. The trickiest part of the book was the end. My interpretation diverges with Jeanette's in that I think the Joe Chip coins meant that Runciter was dead also, despite what Runciter thought, and that Jory, or others like him, was messing with Runciter. In this interpretation, all of the main characters were killed and relegated to this god-awful "half-life." This is meant to be chilling and awful.
I think that Mom is correct about the atmosphere of the book being the most important part and I'm not sure that if you sat down and re-read and microanalyzed the book that all of these loose strings would tie together. I seem to remember the movie "Total Recall," which was based on one of PKD's books, having a similarly confusing plot. Perhaps this novel is more like an impressionist painting where PKD sets this horrific, but also darkly humorous scene and leaves it to the audience to interpret it as they will. There may be multiple correct ways to interpret the plot and what the various characters and objects (especially Ubik itself) represent. If anyone has a good interpretation of what Ubik is, please share it. All this said, I'm sure I've missed some important points that Dick DOES make clear, and like Mom, I am looking forward to Dad's interpretation, given his knack for figuring out storylines. One question I would really like to hear everyone's interpretation on is: What is the significance of "safe when taken as directed?"
chris: I agree that Mom is such a lefty. For Ubik, best I can tell, it is the Man trying to put Joe Chip down, always trying to push him down. I still don't know what I think about the book except that he left it open enough that no clues can point to "exactly" what happened.
If Runciter and Chip died then, then that would explain Runciter's ability to contact Chip from "the outside," while really they were just close enough to one another to occasionally interact through cold-pac proximity. It seems too coincidental, however, that Runciter hepled Chip with Ubik, only to have the exact symptoms that first appeared in Chip appear in Runciter in an opposite manner, RIGHT as Chip is finally safe from Jory. Plus, for what it is worth, Runciter truly believes he has reached out to Chip through cold-pac (while alive), as we see at the end of the novel when he is sitting in the lounge area of the Von Sheckoturgan Uber Splachen guy after supposedly contacting Chip.
dad: My trip to Cincinnati went fast because I was wrapped up in Ubik the whole way. I enjoyed it a lot. You guys have said most of the key things about the plot as I experienced it. Not sure that it all hangs together--or, it may be that it does but with the tricks that often allow Sci Fi novels to pull off these paradoxical plots. Still, I am confused about a number of things.
First, I was leaning toward thinking that Runciter was actually alive in the end--indeed throughout. I was wondering just after the bomb if perhaps he was somehow spared, or perhaps not even really there-- that his being there was a dreamwish of the twelve of them who were blown up. I kept picturing Runciter with his moratorium equipment--the stethoscope-like earphone, trying to contact the others who were killed and pac-ed in ice, feeling responsible for them, trying to hold them together. But I think you guys may be right: he too was blown up; it was merely Runciter's own wish-fulfillment in his half-life state: he was doing something that he regularly did Ella--trying to contact half-lifers. But Jeanette is still onto something in that by the end, the very last, short chapter, returns to Runciter going to the moratorium again. It could be that Joe Chip has been dreaming of Runciter AND that throughout, all the messaging to Joe was from a live Runciter trying to reach them from the living side. Are there enough clues to figure this out?
Jory was clearly pre-figured in an ominous way, with his intrusions into Ella's mental space, but then he drops out of the narrative. He was indirectly figured again (hinted at) when Chip wonders if the destroyer in all of this was the young guy in the group. Also, it was in that early discussion about Jory and Ella where Vogelsang talks about the proximity issues and invasions, and the advantages of people being together, the inter-communication among the half-lifers.
Jory's motive was under-developed, as Mom has noted--it seems to me that it was a way of maintaining strength and prolonging life. I was fully expecting an appearance of Ella in her youth in all this--she "died" young, as did Jory, and the younger and healthier you are, the longer and stronger half-life you may have.
The social class stuff was there at the end big time: Jory's wealthy, powerful relatives are cited as doing all they can to make sure that Jory can continue to "prey" on others, to exploit them, to take more than his share. It is the powerful among the living who maintain their advantage for their half-dead family members. They pay and bribe and do whatever it takes to keep Jory in a position near the others so he can intrude and "eat" them.
I don't have a clear picture yet of the dominant point of view. It surely seems to be Joe Chip--we see most of the thought/dream action while they are in half-life from his perspective--the various members of the group cycle through Chip's remaining consciousness. But again: at the very end, it is Runciter. Jeanette thinks that "only the beginning" refers to the beginning of Runciter's half-life, with Joe trying to reach him though the coin.
PKD does a great job with the atmospherics--and to me, the most creative part was his way of imagining what such a half-life consciousness might be like from the half-lifer's point of view. He uses a lot of ideas from Freudian psychology about how we dream and how symbols work. Basically, things from real life make their way into the dream-like state of the half-lifers. Coins, which Joe is forever trying to get a hold of in real life, and which he must use for everything, figure centrally in the "action" of the dream-like state the half-lifers are in most of the time. The half-lifers only surface to something more like our waking consciousness when contacted by a living person. So, all the action of the post-explosion is, of course, what the whole lot of them experience in their intermingled dreaming. Early on, Runciter asks Ella what the other part of being a half-lifer is like (when not in contact):
"In the earphone words, slow and uncertain, formed: circular thoughts of no importance, fragments of the mysterious dream which she now dwelt in. How did it feel, he wondered, to be in half-life? He could never fathom it from what Ella told him; the basis of it, the experience of it, couldn't really be transmitted." (Page 12)
To me, much of the book seems to be PKD's experimental imaginings of what that dream world would be like. Of course, we have the ego's experience of dying and being put into ice, just after the explosion.
I am still quite baffled by the entire theme of the reversion, and the entire role of Pat. I wonder if that is not simply another atmospheric--that it would not have been necessary--but then, I recall that central to the PKD's depiction of things is the PLATONIC FORMS motif. Things keep reverting to earlier instances of the universal form; the "idea" of an elixer that can cure all takes it many forms in history. PKD has several threads running through and they don't seem to always (or perhaps just, easily) cohere. The reversion allows PKD to write as a virtuoso, to have these long solo riffs of commentary on how things change but do not. Otherwise, I don't see it as part of the plot--EXCEPT, I suppose, as being part of the long decoy role of Pat. What really confused me about Runciter is that he evaporates in Des Moines, at his own funeral.
It took me forever to come up with an understanding of why these folks are called "inertials." It's because, unlike the psis, they cannot make things move or do other fantastic mental things. Inert, as in inertia --a thing at rest like a spoon on a table, cannot simply move or be made to move by a mental force at a distance. The inertials are the un-'talented' regular folks like us.
mom: Dad hit on many themes we haven't yet discussed, especially the Platonic forms. Dad, Jeanette, and I had a long talk about Ubik on a walk last night. Dad made some other interesting observations: for example, Ubik is billed as "comic" on the cover, but seemed pretty dark. I did find the Ubik epigraphs to have some dark humor, but otherwise it had a claustrophobic feel to me (in line with the importance of imagining what half-life would be like).
I was trying to explain to Jeanette what I think Ubik is: I see it as a cipher for all the intrusions in our consciousness made by advertising and consumer culture. "Safe when used as directed" for me has the double meaning of, "You are safe in our hands," (that is, the corporate powers) and, "You WILL take/use/buy this product. And you will be *directed* by us, the corporations." That still strikes me as one of the most important aspects of the book. Dad went on to say that it is our own half-life, which seems right to me; our consciousness is diminished by the consumer culture, and it's something like being under water without full awareness. If you have any Crest toothpaste, check out the label which says something like "effective when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene." Philip Dick could have written that!
I think PDK would find modern life even more like half-life. I have noticed the incursion of music EVERYWHERE, even places where it did not used to be, like loudly blaring at the gym. (Luckily there are two rooms as the UCI gym where martial arts and yoga are done where they do not turn on the music.) And everywhere else, even outside at malls, which did not use to be the case. I think it is a way to paper over the alienation people feel at being around so many strangers all the time. And the obsessive use of cell phones truly reminds me of Runciter trying to contact Ella, to stay in touch with someone he does not feel alienated from, however impoverished the channel. Ah, it's too bad PKD is not around to comment on these things.
I'm not the only lefty; Dad's analysis of Jory's social class and power are interesting and something I completely missed. That does make sense--for example, the way that Vogelsang would not rein in Jory, a nice swipe at the Swiss, who for someone of PKD's generation, were often considered vile because they were neutral in World War II, only wanting to make money from both sides.
Jeanette has been reading Blade Runner (original title: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), written only a year previous to Ubik. There is a similar theme of different classes of people--the "specials" (with lower IQs), and everyone else.
dad: Guys, I think Runciter may be trying to contact us.
This morning I found the second of two pairs of strange cards sitting together up against the walls of our house. On the front each card displays a very pleasant, rich color, like those that someone might want to use to paint their house (of course, our walls are already painted.) But, most intriguingly, the text on the back sounds like it may be a message from Runciter:
"PLEASE NOTE: should another paint manufacturer attempt to copy this color, his computer will create a formula using only 2 to 3 pigments. The result will not contain the luminous, healing qualities of our Full Spectrum Paints."
Healing properties? Another manufacturer ("his," obviously a man)? Does the name Ellen Kennon mean anything to you guys? There's a toll free number and a website but frankly, I'm afraid to try either one. It's just what young Jory would want us to do.
Keep your eyes open.
anthony: Dad, the paint chips are surely a message from Runciter! Keep note of all other such occurrences so that we can piece it all together! But hmmm, perhaps the futility of trying to add up all of these messages is part of the point. I enjoyed Mom and Dad's interpretation of Ubik (the product, not the whole book) as the embodiment of the consumer culture that builds itself around us and manifests itself in these nonsensical, commanding "intrusions in our consciousness." Perhaps we are supposed to be a little confused just like the characters. Dick set this novel 23 years in the future (1969-1992), which is pretty soon for a science fiction novel that had us inhabiting the moon and developing psychic capabilities and reviving the dead. His message is clear: Ubik is imminent! To add to Mom's toothpaste and Dad's paint chips, this just in from my very own INBOX:
The Vimax Extender is 100 % effective:
All users who have followed the Instruction Manual have obtained an increase in penis length. Length gained ranged from 1.5 inches to 4 full inches after 4 months.
All users that have followed the Instruction Manual have undergone improvement of existing penile curvature. Improvement degree has ranged from 50% to 90% correction (straightening).
All patients who have used the Vimax Extender as post-operative therapy following surgical lengthening of the penis obtained a more rapid increase of penis length.
WE GUARANTEE YOU WILL BE SATISFIED WITH OUR PRODUCT OR YOU WILL GET YOUR MONEY BACK. You have nothing to loose but lots to gain.
Mom, you are correct that PKD would have had a field day with the likes of cellphones, the DMV, Ikea, muzak, and ads that play on the loudspeaker when you're in Safeway. None of the chapter epigraphs were so bold as to advertise penis enlargers, but then again, PKD didn't know about what is perhaps the ultimate evidence of Ubik: SPAM!
I have often thought it a defining Darrouzet-Nardi characteristic to defend our mental space against these besetting incursions, from Dad's lectures to telemarketers not to call us during dinner, to the seemingly illogical amount of time Mom spends trying to halt our catalog influx, to the general eschewment of television by all members. And further, we all tend to fight against the forces of bureaucracy in one way or another which was a minor, but related theme in Ubik. The link is that both bureacracy and advertising diminish the human experience. Perhaps they are necessary evils in some cases, but they should be kept in check lest we end up, as Dad explained, in our own sort of half-life.