Philip K. Dick: The Real Thing

by Bruce Gillespie

Note: The following article first appeared in SF Commentary 9 (February
1970, pp. 11–25. It also appears in Philip K. Dick: Electric

(ed. Bruce Gillespie; Norstrilia Press, 1975). When I began retyping this
article recently, I was reading it for the first time since 1975. Would I
still agree with myself? Some sections I now don’t
quite understand. Other sections I would delete if I were revising the
essay, because many critics have said similar things better since. Other
bits depends totally on the time when they were written. I finished the
essay in the same week Nixon began the
bombing of Hanoi. But in general, I still like this piece well enough to
allow it to be reprinted. I hope you enjoy it as much as my
twenty-two-year-old self enjoyed writing it.

Editions used:

NWFLY = Now Wait for Last Year (Doubleday; 1966; 214 pp.)

DADOES = Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Doubleday; 1968;
210 pp.)

Ubik (Doubleday; 1969; 202 pp.)


In Now Wait for
Last Year
, Philip Dick describes the situation thus:

‘What’s the
relationship between this man’s angina and the Secretary’s

‘Relationship? Is
there one?’…

Eric bent over the cot on which the patient McNeil lay. So this was the
man who had the ailment which Molinari imagined he had. Which came
first? Eric wondered. McNeil or Gino Molinari? Which is cause and which
effect –
assuming that such a relationship exists… But it would be
interesting to know, for instance, if anyone in the vicinity had cancer of
the prostrate gland when Gino had it… and other cancers, infarcts, hepatitis, and whatever else as well. (NWFLY, p.

In one of the scenes from
Ubik, the traveller Joe Chip faces this problem in his trip across a
disappearing America:

To Joe the official said,
‘Go out by hangar three and look for a red and white Curtiss

‘Thanks,’ Joe
said, and left the building; he strode rapidly toward hangar three,
already seeing what looked like a red and white Curtiss Wright biplane. At
least I won’t
be making the trip in a World War JN training plane, he said to

A short fat man with red hair puttered with an oily rag at the wheels of
his biplane; he glanced up as Joe approached.

‘Are you Mr Jespersen?’ Joe asked.

‘That’s right.’ The man surveyed him, obviously
mystified by Joe’s clothes, which had not reverted. ‘What
can I do for you?’ Joe told him.
‘You want to trade a LaSalle, a new LaSalle, for a one-way trip to Des

Together they made their way to the parking lot.
‘I don’t see any ‘39 LaSalle,’ Jespersen said
suspiciously. The man was right. The LaSalle had disappeared. In its place
Joe saw a fabric-top Ford coupe, a tinny and small car, very old, 1929, he
Obviously, it was now hopeless. He would never get to Des Moines. (
, pp.130–1)

The occurrences in Philip Dick’s novels are impossible. In what future will you find (a) one man who may exhibit all the signs of an illness of a man in the next room, (b) a process by which time devolves around a modern man without him going mad, or the whole chemistry of his body collapsing, or (c) a drug (JJ-180, the star of Now Wait for Last Year) that literally, magically, turns back the tides of time, wipes out memory or transfers people between different time zones, all in the space of one second? More importantly, how often would you find people who would know what was going on when these things happened? Yet try to invent a science that will explain all the elements in Now Wait for Last Year, for instance.

In Ubik,
Philip Dick invents a technology to ‘explain’ magical
happenings. One of Dick’s characters says that
‘Defusing a psi operation has to be done on a systematic basis’.
Presumably Dick refers to all the rigorous ‘systems’ of E.
E. Smith stories and Campbell editorials. Telepathy does not make sense;
in context, the statement is a joke. In Ubik, Hollis’s psis disappear suddenly from view. Glen
Runciter’s inertials have been hired to track them and stop them
from invading the population’s mental privacy – Hollis has
removed them from the telepathic
‘scene’ and made Runciter’s organisation

Runciter: ‘You’re sure the teep was Melipone? Nobody seems to know what he looks like; he
must use a different physiognomic template every month. What about his

‘We asked Joe Chip to
go in there and run tests on the magnitude and
minitude of the field being generated there at the Bonds of Erotic
Polymorphic Experience Motel. Chip says it registered, at its height, 68.2
blr units of telepathic aura, which only Melipone, among all the known
telepaths, can produce…’ (Ubik, p. 2)

Does jargon extend to
everything? Can it possibly extend to telepathy? We know it is one big
laugh, but there could be a catch of puzzlement that mars the guffaw.

In Ubik,
Dick talks about a different part of this telepathic technology: the
functions of Beloved Brethren Moratorium, owned by Herbert Schoenheit von
Vogelsang. After you die, your
‘protophasons’ of encephalic half-life glimmer within your body.
Your ‘bereaved’ may contact you at the Moratorium. There is
one problem: as you natter away, your protophasons leak away. Each frame
of life draws your mind toward death.

The reader does not really believe in all this, especially as we learn
little about the future technology that might weld together such unlikely
allies as Runciter and Assocs and the Beloved Brethren Moratorium. Dick does not mention, for instance, what the
government (if any) thinks about all this.

The chalk marks against Dick score his board badly. Impossibler and
impossibler, as Dick’s
honorable predecessor, Lewis Carroll, might have said. Mistakes in
political science (or, should I say, political technology?) glare more
obviously than mistakes about the shape of computers in 1992. Dick’s
governments, where he talks about them at all, repel us. Not only are
they usually fascist governments that would not allow the freedoms that
Dick’s characters presume, but their functions are laughably over

Dick’s ‘societies’ look no more credible.
In Now
Wait for Last Year
, government officials amuse themselves by collecting Lucky Strike
packages and lose their identifies in Wash-35 (a miniaturised Washington
of 1935). The war between Earth, Lilistar and the reegs proceeds, but
makes no visible difference to the face of Earth. Molinari, the all-powerful UN General Secretary, who directs the War,
was ‘elected into office’. But who elected him, and why?
Dick does not show us the population of Earth, but only the small group of
people who surround Molinari.

‘Just head
west,’ he told the cab. I’ve got to get back to Cheyenne, he
realised. Somehow, by some route.

‘Yes sir,’ the
cab said. ‘And by the way, sir, you failed to show me your travel
permit. May I see it now? just a formality, of course.’

‘What travel permit?’ But he knew; it would be an issue of
the governing ‘Star occupation agency, and without their permission
Terrans could not come and go. This was a conquered planet and very much
still at war. (NWFLY, p.

Sure, cabs work in Saigon,
but among bomb ruins and beggars’ feet. Earth’s war does not
warrant all the worry hat Molinari expends on it.

But the realities
of national politics do not affect Molinari –
like Hitler or Franklin D. Roosevelt (Dick combines elements of both),
Molinari directs events from his well-protected bunker. But in Now
Wait for Last Year
, we do not brush near the SS lackeys, and Molinari
does face the daily swarm of Marcos’s
sycophants. Molinari has it on a plate; LBJ might well envy his
continuing success, but he would learn nothing from Molinari about how it
is done.

Late in the novel, Dick makes great play of the scene

Trailed by Secret Service
men, they…entered a guarded, locked room which Eric realized was
a projection chamber; the far wall consisted of a permanent vidscreen
installation on a grand scale.

‘Me making a
speech,’ Molinari explained…

Chuckling, Molinari said from the deep, foam-rubber chair in which he
lounged beside Eric, ‘I look pretty good, don’t I?’

‘You do.’
The speech rolled on, sonorous, even containing, now and then, a trace of
the awesome, the majestic. And it was precisely this which Molinari had
lost: he had become pitiable. On the screen the mature, dignified man in
military garb expressed him
self clearly in a voice that snapped out its sentences without hesitancy;
the UN Secretary, in the video tape, demanded and informed, did not beg,
did not turn to the electorate of Terra for help…
but how had it been done? How did the pleading, hypochondriacal invalid,
suffering from his eternal half-killing complaints, rise up and do this?
Eric was mystified.

Beside him Molinari said, ‘It’s a fake. That’s not
me.’ He grinned with delight as Eric stared first at him and then
again at the screen. (NWFLY, pp. 93–4)

The TV screen image (false)
beckons to the millions (we don’t meet any of them, except for the
robant taxis) of Earth
. Molinari Mark II whips up enthusiasm and directs the emotions of the
crowd. We know the effects of television and the public meeting on
twentieth-century politics. But we also know of the groundswell of
discontent housed in separate discontent minds that
must receive the message. Without believable governed, Dick’s
governors continue to mystify us.

As I have hinted,
the political–economic structures in Ubik and Do Androids
Dream of Electric Sheep?
, if structures can be said to exist at all, look
The only other people in Dick’s novels beside the main characters
are the members of the other fascists. In Now Wait for Last
, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik
, the all-important battles are two-dimensional: the Earthmen fight the
aliens, the inertials are trapped by the telepaths, and the bounty hunters
track the androids. Dick’s ‘bosses’
Gino Molinari and Glen Runciter are accepted without question by their
subjects, and accepted with great difficulty by the reader.

The Mole would have been their leader at any time; at any stage in human
society. And &#150 anywhere.

But is there any evidence that our political leaders have ever exhibited
signs of superhumanity? Has there ever been less mediocrity at the top
than in any other stratum of society, or at any other time than the

If you wanted to present a case against Dick’s work, it would most
profitably proceed along these lines. Dick’s mind is wide ranging
and his interests far reaching &#150 but there are whole areas of
experience that he
does not think about. But how many other SF writers think more clearly
about sociopolitical matters than does Philip Dick? Only one or two,


There are several explanations or excuses that might cover this
credibility gap. At least these are the excuses that people drag up for
the faults of all the other SF authors:

(a) Many authors, within and without science fiction, have written
novels. Perhaps all novels feature some elements that would prove
impossible if applied rigorously to
the evidence from ordinary experience. The most common reason authors
advance for the deliberate distortion of perceived reality is that they
wish to refine or provide analogies for particular areas of existence. We
do the same thing with a microscope or a
telescope. Are Philip Dick’s novels allegorical of particular
aspects of our world?

(b) Could we say that Philip Dick is just another SF writer, dredging
up all the old SF ideas, reusing them like flat soap suds? Are Dick’
s novels meaningless fantasies, like many works that superficially
resemble them? Does Dick write about only two-dimensional distortions of misunderstood processes? (This is
a false ploy, of course. If this were true, I would not have written this

(c) Philip Dick likes to talk about politics, industrial warfare, and
possible post-World War III worlds (Do Androids Dream of Electric
). But are these elements so much scenery, as Ted Pauls suggests in a
recent review? Are these novels private games, like Nabokov’s more
efforts? Perhaps Dick has escaped from the normal pigeonholes that divide
popular literature into such categories as realist, expressionist, or
science fiction. If this is the case, how do we judge Dick’s work
at all, let alone understand it?


For the reasons that I have already outlined, the reader must admit that
(a) is unlikely, for the same reasons that some readers might shrug off
Dick’s work with point (b). Dick features politics, interracial warfare, the
society of an empty, radioactive world, etc. In Now Wait for Last
, there are numerous parallels between the Earth &#150
Lilistar &#150
reegs conflict and the four-sided Vietnam War. Dick makes this war into an
elaborate game where everybody gets hurt except the organisers; where huge
numbers of civilians and cities are said to have
disappeared, but Dick does not show us any signs of the process of
disintegration. But, ultimately, these are asides: Molinari’s comic
ambiguity is nowhere near as comic or as ambiguous as, say, that of two
presidents facing different public reactions, a local yokel who runs his state but lets
everybody know how badly he is doing it, and a paternalistic communist
whose influence increases in inverse proportion to the organisation of his
troops and the strength of his supply lines. There is nothing as interesting or compelling in Now Wait for Last
‘s allusions as the situation behind these headlines we yawn at every day.
As for science and sociology in general, Dick gets them wrong. Quite often
this is done with comic intent (as in The Crack in Space) but never
with allegorical content.

Point (b) is more
likely. In Dick’s writing there is a neverending flow of original,
grotesque or quaint SF gimmicks and variations on old ‘ideas’. I had thought The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch had exhausted all the novel aspects
of drugs, but Now Wait for Last Year
tips over a whole new barrowful of tricks from the same source. We are
sick to death of android stories and After-the-Bomb stories, but Dick
manages to gloss over his Nexus-6 androids and his empathy boxes (Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
) so that we think that nobody else had
ever used these ideas.

Who could resist the ever-present little can of Ubik that peeps from
behind every doorway in the novel of that name? Every chapter begins with
one of the virtues of Ubik, qualities presented by an advertising
executive. The third chapter, for instance, carries the following cryptic message:

Instant Ubik has all

fresh flavor of just-brewed

drip coffee. Your husband

will say, Christ, Sally, I

used to think your coffee

was only so-so. But now,

wow! Safe when taken as

directed. (Ubik, p. 17)

The last line of each blurb
gives the game away: the all-purpose aid to modern living must never
exceed the limits, must be ‘taken as directed’. Ubik is the saviour, but the novel that unrolls underneath these
advertisements tells of a terror that is past saving.

Before the reader
has time to consider the significance of Ubik, its magical qualities taunt
the mind. It springs up like a poltergeist in every situation. As Joe
Chip’s world deteriorates around him:

A hard-eyed housewife with
big teeth and horse’s chin replaced the cartoon fairy; in a brassy
voice she bellowed,
‘I came over to Ubik after trying weak, out-of-date reality supports. My
pots and pans were turning into heaps of rust. The floors of my conapt were sagging. My husband Charley put his foot right through the bedroom
door. But now I use economical new powerful today’s Ubik, and with
miraculous results. Look at this refrigerator.’ On
the screen appeared an antique turret-top GE refrigerator. ‘Why,
it’s devolved back eighty years.’

years,’ Joe corrected reflexively.

‘But now look at it,’
the housewife continued, squirting the old turret top with her spray can
of Ubik. Sparkles of magic light lit up in a nimbus surrounding the old
turret top and, in a flash, a modern six-door pay refrigerator replaced it
in splendid glory. (Ubik
, p. 118)

But finally even Ubik itself seems to degenerate under the pressures of the processes unleashed upon the novel’s characters:

There, on the seat beside him, rested the bottle which he had received in the mail. He picked it up –

And discovered something which did not really surprise him. The bottle, like the car, had again regressed. Seamless and flat, with scratch marks on it, the kind of bottle made in a wooden mold. Very old indeed; the cap appeared to be handmade, a soft tin screw-type dating from the late nineteenth century. The label, too, had changed; holding the bottle up, he read the words printed on it.


All this might have
significance; it certainly has comic point.

   But are
Dick’s books nothing but highly entertaining conjuring tricks?
Certainly the trickery is the reason why I find each book just as
fascinating as its predecessor. Dick’s pyrotechnics alone would assure him his place in the SF echelon. Some of
Dick’s earlier novels, such as Dr Bloodmoney (discussed in
SF Commentary
1) could best be described as energetic romps.

But in the three novels under discussion, there is much prose that does
not romp. Many passages of Now Wait for Last Year are very funny, but
the jokes are hardly like those of Bob Hope’s. As Harlan Ellison
has noted, Dick’s jokes read more like Harold Pinter’s. When Eric Sweetscent (in
Now Wait for Last Year) moves forward in time ten years, he is
rescued from death by his ten-years-older self:

As Eric stepped from the MP
patrol ship the man sprinted up to him.

‘Hey,’ the man
panted. ‘It’s me.’

‘Who are you?’ Eric said; the man… was certainly
familiar – Eric confronted a face which he had seen many times and
yet it was distorted now, witnessed from a weird angle, as if inside out,
pulled through infinity. The man’s hair was parted on the wrong side so that his head seemed
lopsided, wrong in all its lines. What amazed him was the physical
unattractiveness of the man. He was too fat and a little too old. Unpleasantly gray. It was a shock to see
himself like this, without preparation; do I really look like that? he
asked himself morosely. (NWFLY, p. 171)

A tremendous routine, you
must agree, worthy of all the best absurdist writing, and certainly an
improvement on Robert Heinlein’s ‘By His Bootstraps’
and all those other time-paradox stories. At the same time, the joke
wrenches: how would your fifty-years-old self like to see your
forty-years-old self approaching you?

Many of
the conversations in these three novels are ironically funny, but also
feature agonised quibbling and wrangling. Two characters often cut away at
each other, and the mental pain rivals that shown in the film Accident
. National problems become personal battlegrounds. In Do Androids
Dream of Electric Sheep?
there is a brutal yet ironically pitched
encounter between the two bounty hunters. Rick Decard hopes to
six Nexus-6 androids in a day, and Phil Resch, who has chased androids
for years, now fears that he himself may be an android equipped with false

‘You’re sure
I’m an android? Is that really what Garland said?’

‘That’s what
Garland said… This is necessary. Remember: they killed humans in
order to get away. And if I hadn’t gotten you out of the Mission police station they would have killed you.
That’s what Garland wanted me for… Didn’t Polokov
almost kill you? Didn’t Luba Luft almost? We’re acting
defensively; they’re here on our planet – they’re murderous illegal aliens
masquerading as –’

‘As police,’ Rick said. ‘As bounty

‘Okay; give me the Boneil test. Maybe Garland lied. I think he did
– false memories just aren’t that good. What about my

‘Yes, your squirrel. I forgot about your

‘If I’m an andy,’ Phil Resch said, ‘and you
kill me, you can have my squirrel.’ (DADOES, p.

The joke is that Decard is
bent on destroying creatures that he cannot recognise except with the aid
of a purely mechanical test. Luba Luft ‘posed’
as an opera singer before the ambitious-boy-on-the-way-up, Rick Decard,
shot her without a whimper from him. Several other androids
‘pose’ as a typical American family – but their attitudes
and actions do not differ at all from that of the ‘real’
American family. And where have the ‘real’
people gone? They have ruined Earth with atomic bombs, and now do little
except save money to buy the few remaining specimens of live animals left
on Earth. Few novels pose the question ‘What is humanity?’
quite as sharply as does Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

But one may have
just missed the irony in this passage in the excitement of Decard’s chase. Only the blunt prose itself contains all the strands that make up
the complex emotional response with which we should read this book. The
androids appear as more human than the humans, and we have least sympathy for the boorish SS-like
killer Rick Decard.

Some of the conversations in Now Wait for Last Year
bite as deeply as those in the novels I have just looked at. Dick
entertains us with the effects of JJ-180, but the reader remembers just as
clearly the bitter exchanges between Eric Sweetscent and his wife, their
separation, and the private quest for security that leads Eric right back to home base. Dick sets the tone early in
the novel:

[Jonas] broke off, seeing
that both the Sweetscents had a grim, taciturn cast about them. ‘I

‘Company business
takes priority’, Eric said, ‘over the creature
pleasures.’ He was glad of the intervention… ‘Please
scram out of here, Kathy,’
he said to his wife, and did not trouble himself to make his tone jovial.
‘We’ll talk at dinner. I’ve got too much to do to
spend my time haggling over whether a robant bill collector is
mechanically capable of telling lies or not.’ He escorted his wife to the office door; she moved passively,
without resistance. Softly, Eric said, ‘Like everyone else in the
world it’s busy deriding you, isn’t it? They’re all
talking.’ He
shut the door after her.

Presently Jonas Ackerman shrugged and said, ‘Well, that’s
marriage these days. Legalized hate.’ (NWFLY, p.

The tone is familiar. People
in soggy melodramas talk this way. But few authors catch the
interrelationship so well –
Kathy appears passive, welcomes Eric back, and the old fights break out.
Dick cuts deeper than many writers who attempt the same thing. This is ironic comedy that contains no laughter, and Dick sees possibilities
that many other authors could not think of. If they did, they would not be
able to write scenes as cruel as this:

‘I’ll put you
in the building’s infirmary,’ he decided, rising to his
feet. ‘For the time being. While I figure out what to do. I’d prefer not to give you any medication, though; it might further
potentiate the drug. With a new substance you never –’

Kathy broke in. ‘Want
to know what I did, Eric, while you were off getting the Secret Service? I
dropped a cap of JJ-180 into your coffee cup. Don’t laugh; I’m serious. It’s
true, and you’ve drunk it. So you’re addicted now. The
effects should begin any time’… Her voice was flat and

He managed to say, ‘I’ve heard that about addicts in
general; they like to hook other people.’

‘Do you forgive me?’ Kathy asked, also

‘No,’ he said. (NWFLY, p.

Eric has transferred his
attention from his wife to the all-consuming Molinari. He misjudges his
wife, and suddenly he collapses, hit from the most unexpected quarter. All
he can say is, ‘I’ve heard that about addicts in general; they like to hook other
people.’ His emotions are dislocated, almost lost. The rest of the
novel tells of his rediscovery of the ‘necessary’
emotions: it is a story of personal salvation in a world that, like all
Dick’s worlds, comes apart as you watch.

But even these
sharp observations do not form the centre of Dick’s work –
very few of his novels centre upon these close human relationships. Judged
in the light of Now Wait for Last Year, all except a few of Dick’s other novels
are failures. But many of the other novels are not failures. We
cannot explain Dick’s work with chatter about the ‘ideas’
; we cannot justify them with talk about Harold Pinter dialogue. What have
I left out?


What I sought in the articles ‘Mad Mad Worlds’ and
‘Contradictions’ (SF Commentary 1, 2 and 4), and did not find,
was the centre of the wheel around which all of Dick’s other ideas
revolve. I’ve not read Kant, Zen Buddhism or theories about entropy, so I cannot spin
a neat theory in terms of Philip Dick’s self-acknowledged

Instead, I want
to go back to the passage from Now Wait from Last Year
with which I commenced this article. Molinari (as we find out) is the
only character in the novel who can control the drug JJ-180. He alone owns
the antidote and can control the time-alteration features of the drug at
will. He can take the antidote at intervals to stave off immediate death. However, JJ-180 catches up with
all its addicts – in Molinari’s case, he takes on the
symptoms of the terminal diseases ‘projected’ by other
persons in the same building as he is in.

The question we ask ourselves is: how does the illness of one patient
‘cause’ the illness of Molinari? Why do we accept this
‘miracle’ as Dick relates it to us, and read on with
scarcely a whimper of protest? What is it in Dick’s writing that justifies his wholesale dislocation of events, and
his evasion of the laws of evidence? Why do Dick’s worlds work
differently from ours, but still make sense to us?

In logic, there are two main types of statements: those that are logically
provable or disprovable, and those that are only empirically provable or
disprovable. ‘I met a married bachelor’
is a logically impossible statement, because of the terms of the
definition of the word ‘bachelor’. The statement is

However, it is possible to imagine the situation ‘The moon is made
of green cheese’ (or, ‘Molinari exhibits the symptoms of the
diseases of the people in the same building’). There is nothing in
the idea of ‘moon’
that precludes the idea of ‘green cheese’.

Our ordinary observations, and the laws of science, seem to indicate that there are certain states of existence that are impossible, and certain laws of cause and effect that are necessary. However, in the classic case that questions this assumption, David
Hume gives the illustration of the two billiard balls. You hit one billiard ball with the cue; billiard ball A travels towards billiard ball B and makes contact with it; billiard ball B commences to move towards the opposite end of the table. We say
that billiard ball A ‘caused’ billiard ball B to move. However, it is quite possible that, instead of moving towards the other end of the table, billiard ball B could have
flown straight up in the air, stayed still, or disappeared altogether. In
fact, we observe that in all cases billiard ball B moves in a particular direction
when hit by billiard ball A.

It seems to me that Philip Dick does not
‘explain’ a large
number of events in his novels, because he takes the philosophical view
that many events in his novels do not have to be ‘explained’, even though they contravene accepted scientific ‘laws’.
All is possible (at least, all physical events are possible) because all
is logically possible. The web of scientific laws is part of the common
reality through
which Dick tries to penetrate.

In Now Wait for Last Year, JJ-180 does not
people to move about in time. This would require scientific explanation,
and Dick would merely have exchanged one tedious structure for a more
acceptable tedious structure. JJ-180 is an agent that removes from the characters’ minds and
bodies their previous misconceptions about cause and effect. The reader
(and the characters in the book) expect that the only way in which
Molinari could exhibit the signs of (say) malignant cancer would be if he suffers delusions. But the symptoms of cancer actually
appear in Molinari.

In the same book, we can see the same process at work when Kathy
Sweetscent takes her second dose of JJ-180: (a) Kathy climbs into the
robant cab. (b) The cut on her finger disappears… ‘No
break. No scar. Her finger, exactly as before…’ (c) She notes down this occurrence on a scrap of paper, but
even her writing disappears. (d) The cab ‘forgets’ that
Kathy ever had a cut hand. (e) The cab and Kathy fade
completely into the alternate future to which the drug has removed

But even with that last sentence I falsify Dick’s writing. Philip
Dick does not say that ‘the drug did this’: Kathy and the
reader think that the drug ‘causes’ these events. The reader makes the intellectual connection between events, just as the observer
sees the process of billiards in such a way that he thinks that the
billiard player causes billiard ball B to move, via his cue and billiard
ball A. Dick does not say that there are no, and should be no, scientific laws. He just reminds us that we made them
up, not the universe.


So Philip Dick can do what he likes, and excuse all his mistakes with an
airy wave of a philosophic hand? Not exactly. We would expect Dick to
replace these thought forms he rejects with new thought forms by which he can control
the structure of his novels. You cannot conceive of meaningful fiction
without some structure.

Dick’s letter [in SF Commentary
9] provides many clues to this structure. Dick posits that a deepened
view of reality will allow us to see past the self-consistent physical
universe that surrounds us, and may allow us to observe another
self-consistent reality. If we can find some way to throw off the delusion of ‘normal’ reality, we may ‘dream
dreams and see visions’, as the New Testament puts it. Or, as Plato would have it, we would stop
dreaming, and would turn from a world of shadows and look directly towards
the ‘sun’ we had never seen before. As Philip Dick
demonstrates in ‘Faith
of our Fathers’ (Dangerous Visions) and in the afterword to
that story, his quest is religious.

But Dick’s novels are not religious, or at least, not in any
conventional sense. Philip Dick feels free to write about the revelation
of reality, but it is his reality. Dick’s vision is despotic

the reader either accepts things as they come or he does not read any
further. At the same time, Dick’s purpose is not to promote an
ecstatic religious vision. Instead, he shows us the frailty of our
reality, and lets
us catch glimpses of other mysteries only when appropriate. The Three
Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
remains the only novel in which Philip Dick
has tried to detail a vision. More importantly, the drama of Philip
Dick’s novels flares out from the process of discovery, not that which is
discovered. A blind man given sight looks at his surroundings with
understanding before he tries to look at the sun.

Whatever Dick tries to do, the answering cry will be:
he’s making it up! Dick’s worlds are entirely imaginary
– they are entirely subjective.’

But Dick can convince us that his quest is legitimate, and his discoveries
are just as ‘real’ as our own observations. How does Dick
break down this dichotomy between ‘objective’ and

Ubik is almost a textbook illustration of the process that Dick
describes in his letter. One fanzine reviewer sniffs that ‘Dick has
this wonderful world, but doesn’t really use it’. But
Dick’s ‘world’
of 1992 centres around that implausible telepathic technology at which I
looked earlier in this article. It is a world that has some unusual
features, but Dick’s characters live in it no more easily than any inhabitant of our time
lives in our world. Joe Chip cannot afford to pay the vending machines
that supply all the elements of existence. Glen Runciter, his boss, keeps
in contact with his ‘dead’ wife, as they are still equal partners
in the firm.

But the process of half-life is an analogue for the process of decay that
sucks out all life from that secure universe that we think is quite
reliable. The Moratorium’s half-alive patients lose more
with each conscious act. As they move toward the final experience they
lose the power to experience. It is a tragic situation, where each
affirmation of life contains an equal amount of negation.

Again, this is not a ‘explanation’ of the processes set
loose in Ubik. Dick sets it all before us, and expects us to fall in
line, or at least enjoy the superficial aspects of the story. Why do we do

In Ubik, this group of inertials controlled by Glen Runciter travel
to the Moon to interview their ‘enemy’
Hollis. The interview is a trap, and an explosion kills Runciter and
leaves the others badly shaken. The group returns to Earth, attempts to
pick up the pieces of the Runciter organisation,
but find that the physical aspects of their world decay around them as
well as the social aspects:

Joe said, ‘Look at
this cream.’ He held up the pitcher; in it the fluid plastered the
sides in dense clots.
‘This is what you get for a poscred in one of the most modern,
technologically advanced cities on Earth. I’m not leaving here
until this place makes
an adjustment, either returning my poscred or giving me a replacement
pitcher of fresh cream so I can drink my coffee.’

Putting his hand on
Joe’s shoulder, Al Hammond studied him. ‘What’s the
matter, Joe?’

‘First my cigarette,’ Joe said. ‘Then the
two-year-old obsolete phone book in the ship. And now they’re
serving me week-old sour cream. I don’t get it, Al.’
Ubik, pp. 76— 7)

The process cannot be stopped: this gives the feeling of despair that
surrounds most of Dick’s novels. The character becomes an observer in a world that peels away.
Joe Chip protests, but the whole universe turns backwards. Joe tries to
buy a tape recorder; he opens the back to find all the components burnt

Joe picks up the
phone – he wants to patch up the remains of the Runciter
organisation and cobble together some normality:

Joe hung up the phone and
stood dizzily swaying, trying to clear his head. Runciter’s
. Beyond any doubt. He again picked up the phone, listened once

‘– lawsuit by Mick, who can afford and is accustomed to litigation of that
nature. Our own legal staff certainly should be consulted before we make a
formal report to the Society. It would be libel if
made public and grounds for a suit claiming false arrest if

‘Runciter!’ Joe said. He said it loudly.

‘–unable to verify probably for at least

Joe hung up. I don’t understand this, he said to himself.
(Ubik, p. 88)

Runciter’s voice drones on. On this first occasion it makes no contact, but it
breaks through numerous crevices of the world to which Joe tries to
readjust himself. Runciter reminds us of Palmer Eldritch, but Runciter is
not the suffocating face of evil. He becomes a neutral figure, one of many in Dick’s novels that try
to send a feeble semaphore from another ‘reality’.

Chip arranges a
hotel-room rendezvous with another of the inertials. She does not arrive,
and in the morning Joe discovers:

On the floor of the closet a huddled heap, dehydrated, almost mummified,
lay curled up. Decaying shreds of what seemingly had once been cloth
covered most of it, as if it had, by degrees, over a long period of time,
retracted into what remained of its garments. Bending, he turned it over. It weighed only a few pounds; at a push
of his hand its limbs folded out into thin bony extensions that rustled
like paper…

In a strangled voice von
Vogelsang rasped, ‘That’s old. Completely dried out. Like
it’s been here for centuries. I’ll go downstairs and tell
the manager.’

‘It can’t be an adult woman,’ Joe said. These could
only be the remnants of a child; they were just too small. ‘It
can’t be either Pat or Wendy,’ he said, and lifted the
cloudy hair away from its face. ‘It’s like it was in a kiln,’ he
said. ‘At a very high
temperature, for a long time.’ (Ubik, p. 93)

On one level this is a
mystery story –
we want to know what happens next. We know already that there is no neat
explanation at the end of it all: we want to discover the wide range of
possibilities that Dick elucidates. Most importantly, every process is
revealed clearly and precisely
– there are no waste words. Chip exclaims in bewilderment, but each
scrap of knowledge comes without exclamation. This is unimpaired sight
– an experience transferred to the reader’s nerve ends through the main character. We cannot detach ourselves from
the process and say ‘This is impossible’. It is not
impossible – it is happening to us.

Dick has a surface explanation for the novel: that Runciter did not die,
but was the only person left alive after the explosion on the Moon. The
rest of the inertials lie in half-life, Joe Chip among them. Runciter
succeeds in the projection of partial messages into the time-degenerating half-world, but he cannot reach through
as he should be able to. Runciter appears on television in Chip’s
‘reality’, and wields Ubik:

Runciter’s dark voice resumed, ‘by making use of the most
advanced techniques of present-day science, the reversion of matter to
earlier forms can
be reversed, and at a price any conapt owner can afford. Ubik is sold by
leading home-art stores throughout Earth. Do not take internally. Keep
away from open flame. Do not deviate from printed procedural approaches as
expressed on label. So look for it,
Joe. Don’t just sit there; go out and buy a can of Ubik and spray
it all around you night and day.’

Standing up, Joe said loudly,
‘You know I’m here. Does that mean you can hear and see

‘Of course, I can’t hear you and see you… This
commercial message is on videotape…’ (Ubik, p.

The image of Runciter
continually reappears, but Joe’s reality still holds some
continuity –
Runciter cannot speak directly to Joe, but finds himself on a videotape
recording. The image manages to direct Chip to Des Moines, Iowa.
He arrives there just before all pre-World War II motor traffic
degenerates altogether. His post-World War II plane disappears into the
form of an early model car.

There are no
answers in this process – at the end of the novel the
‘explanations’ are there, but the tragedy of Joe Chip’s new circumstances
remains. The haunting desperation of The Zap
‘s ‘Enough is enough’ remains in the last few
chapters of Ubik.

The experience is total; the documentation complete. But this is a tour
through Dick’s experience, not a tour through our world, or the
world over Philip Dick’s back fence. This is a chute of metaphysical discovery, in which every
one of our assumptions is tested. Sometimes the process is terrifying; at
best it is also very funny.

Dick’s fear of evil is here – but Dick does not run from it.
He welcomes it as the only legitimate perception of a fully awakened mind,
even though he knows this perception can only burn out the perceiving
mind. Dick’s characters are parts of himself. On the one hand they do not understand
proceedings: they feel fear, panic or horror. But they also see clearly:
their fear does not blind them, but only brings out the best in them. At
the end of Ubik
, Joe Chip watches himself deteriorate as he climbs the steps of the
decrepit Des Moines hotel. There is no hysteria here – just direct,
all-inclusive description that draws around us all the emotions that fit
the situation:

He lay for a time, and then,
as if called, summoned into motion, stirred. He lifted himself up onto his
knees, placed his hands flat before him… my hands, he thought; good god. Parchment hands, yellow and knobby, like
the ass of a cooked, dry turkey. Bristly skin, not like human skin;
pinfeathers, as if I’ve devolved back millions of years to
something that
flies and coasts, using its skin as a sail.

Opening his eyes, he searched for the bed; he strove to identify it. The
far window, admitting gray light through its web of curtains. A vanity
table, ugly, with lank legs. Then the bed, with brass knobs capping
its railed sides, bent and irregular, as if years of use had twisted the
railings, warped the varnished wooden headboards. I want to get on it even
so, he said to himself; he reached toward it, slid and dragged himself
farther into the room. (Ubik
, p. 168)

Action merges into perception; perception shows Joe his own alienness;
this perception sets his mind and ours forever seeking the key to the
pattern; action and perception settle into a kind of acceptance of the
last resting place. There is despair in the scene, but also the kind of intelligence that seeks to understand even
when all understanding seems to have disappeared. How better could I sum
up the whole of Philip Dick’s enterprise.

– Bruce Gillespie, 1969

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