I was looking for UBIK at AltaVista ...

Claudia Krenz
June 1999

when I found Frank's Views. He and I had corresponded years before and then lost touch so, naturally, I gleefully emailed him on the spot. Frank said he'd always wondered how things between Phil and me got started, what impressions I came away with from corresponding with Phil and writing a MA thesis about Ubik and Clans, what I learned "about PKDs works, about PKD himself, and about you...in experiencing all of that???"

That  refers to a spate of time in the 70s (1970s to be Y2KPC) when I was writing the thesis, Phil was writing Valis and his Exegesis, and we were corresponding feverishly... Corresponding? Imagine, if you will, your email has devolved into the printed page, your router has turned into the postman, and mail delivery occurs by foot, not over copper or fiber or coax. That's corresponding.

the beginning

It all started in Boise, Idaho, U.S.A. I was browsing in a used bookstore for nothing in particular, saw Ubik (catchy title I thought), bought it for a dime, got home, started reading and didn't stop until I was "finished." As you may know, Ubik is one of those books that keeps spinning through your head long after you've read it. At any rate, it sure worked that way for me. I asked the milk man to bring me UBIK, but he didn't know what it was so I loaned him (and many others) Ubik. We talked about UBIK (I remember a homemade sign in someone's kitchen: "Instant UBIK. Press here." it said).

Subsequently, I went on to grad school, a mistake I was later to repeat. Actually, I didn't "go" to grad school in the sense of purposive behavior; I just opened my eyes and found that I was there.  Much more purposive was finding and reading all the PKD novels I could. But, finding myself in grad school--and being something of a realist--I concluded it was in my best interest to write a thesis so that I could get out of grad school. But about what? If you've ever read a 17th century British novel, you'll know why the thought of writing a thesis on one filled me with dread (and, of course, angst). Bet you can guess where my thoughts turned. Trouble was that back then


So I drummed up my courage, told myself that I was at least metaphysically tall, talked fast, dropped Pirandello's name and observed that the background music in Ubik was in Latin: and *whew* my committee approved.

I wanted to write about Ubik (UBIK, actually), because I wanted to figure it out. I didn't mention Clans at the time, because, somehow, I didn't think my committee would think that a slime mold from Ganymede really cut it as a literary figure.

I wrote Phil (Dear Sir) and asked for a bibliography of his works. I must have addressed that first letter to his publisher (back then is not like today, where everyone can stalk everyone else).

Phil wrote back. That his innards were being replaced by plastic Philco radio parts. After that, everything changed, at least for me.

the middle


Some days I'd get 3 letters from Phil, single-spaced, 14 pages each (plus the manuscripts he often included with the letters). I'd been seeing manifestations of UBIK for several years but now it was manifestations of Phil himself that appeared...in my daughter's play (Have to take a break and read my Philip K. Dick letters), in my photo album, and in my dreams (he always said we had a strange relationship after we went to bed). We exchanged gifts at Xmas. We talked on the phone (once I even talked to Thomas). Phil and I though talked about mundane things like my garden and his cats. Several times we spoke of getting together (physically) but something would come up and so we never did.

I was, as you might guess, overwhelmed. It was like being in 5th grade again (then, I'd picked up my Mom's copy of the Bhagavad Gita and been blown away that I could read  something without having a clue as to what I'd read,  e.g., I knew what "right" meant and I knew what "livelihood" meant but had no clue about "right livelihood"). I would read what Phil wrote and ponder, reread and then ponder some more. I'd paraphrase what he'd written (to see if I understood) and then ask about what I couldn't fathom. Most of our correspondence was about Phil's search for an explanation of his experiences during March 74 and the several months following. He proffered many explanations, once even that he was the reincarnation of Gracie Slick but most of them serious. He explored religion, not the dogmatic crap you see today (family values--shut up and drink your kool-aid). But the earlier interesting stuff and later even time itself (think of a barrel being pushed up an incline: inside the barrel is the roll-and-roll kind of time; outside is the linear up the slope kind). In the end--my opinion--he rejected them all.
* Phil's letters to me total some 200 pages. They run between April 74 and August 81. Some have been published sans marginalia (Frank tells me in two different volumes). I have the first one (scrounged by Paul Williams) but not the second (Joe Chip money just doesn't buy what it used to).


If you wish, you can check out some excerpts from the letters, just things that struck me as I was rereading them for the first time in 20 years. If you do, be sure to read the one about the tomcat peeing on the bed (July 26)--it's hysterical. While on that subject, be sure to check out

the bookseller who offers visitors Ubik fortune cookies,

The Collected Utility Bills of Philip K. Dick, and

the Philip K. Dick " phasion show," a parade of clothing described in Ubik (makes me want to have a Halloween party where everyone dresses up like a PKD character [although, admittedly, shifts the color of a baboon's ass may be hard to come by]);

I was disappointed not to find John Sladek's earlier parody of "Chipdip K. Kill"--but these three, to name but a few, are in that same fine spirit.

*In the thesis, I agreed with those who stated that, to be human, we must be compassionate. Without compassion--empathy, caritas, the paraclete--we are mere machines. And I was (still am) fascinated by the intimations of a "real " world of powerful forces--both purposive and random, both good and evil--underlying our cheap coin-operated universe. That which is real is that which has meaning; that which is evil decimates whatever meaning and form there are.

My basic point though was that epistemology was the principle unifying the visible world (a moldy Martian Grub Worm TV Dinner), humanity ("low-class windup toys"), and the gods (may I borrow a cup of yogurt culture?). Caught in a hall of mirrors, each reflecting his gaze, Phil's characters are not strangers to "identity crises." Their problems though are epistemological  not  psychological, collective  not  individual. Since psychology's cure is to hook the individual back into the illusory world, psychological theorettes aren't given much respect: "So you maintain...that if a person is killed by a meteor it's because he hated his grandmother. Some theory." Nor are psychologists--the mechanical Dr. Smile, bumptious Dr. Babble, and self-ignorant Mary Rittersdorf: there's no one to judge other than similarly blind mice.

Being unable to distinguish reality from illusion is an a priori part of the human condition. Our senses are blunt and primitive, and whatever messages we receive are corrupted by the forms they take--cereal boxes, grafitti, interoffice memos. We are doomed to not fully understand but our only hope, our Ariadne's thread out of the labyrinth, is to try.

the part after the middle

After 1975, Phil and I corresponded only occasionally. Sometimes years would go by between letters. Life has a way of doing that. But, in retrospect, I see that I've continued pursuing the reality question oh these many years. I discovered the same questions Phil asked about reality (like would we know them if we saw them) were asked by other modern writers and philosophers--Kant and Heidegger, Gadamer and Habermas, to name a few. The only real difference was that the latter weren't nearly as much fun to read.

We still must cope with the same epistemological problems that have confronted human beings since the beginning of time. Kenneth Burke once characterized the human person as "nervously loquacious on the edge of the abyss." We create  reality through language (and probably drool while we're doing it). But language is deceptive. Acronyms, for example, which pepper the present world, can deceive us:

I once read that Carl Sagan sued Apple for using his name as the codeword for an upcoming model and Apple, in response, changed the codeword to "bha." Whether Apple intended for that to stand for "butt head astronomer" I don't know--but it could have.

It's not just language which is deceptive: we hear the same falsehoods over and over, as in our many urban legends, one of the more recent ones being another purported sighting of the mythical email virus (seriously, the reporting, at least in the U.S., is so bad that the hackers regularly complain about it, if the Hacker News Network is any indication).

My own pursuit of the epistemological question took a rather peculiar twist after that brief but intense period of correspondence with Phil. I got a Ph.D. in quantitative research methods: scientific knowledge claimed capital-T Truth, and I wanted to know if that was so: nope, it wasn't.

Let me use a book called The Bell Curve as an example. It has had and continues to have considerable influence on both U.S. policy and how people see themselves. And, yet, its conclusions are based on faulty statistical analyses (I've laid this out in no doubt excruciating detail if anyone's curious).

Note that I'm not saying that the epistemological basis of scientific knowledge is crap (or that The Bell Curve is the only instance of sloppy statistical analysis). All I'm saying is that, as with all forms of knowledge, you can't tell by surface appearances. To so illustrate, I quote below from the abstract of an article John Platt published in Science back in 64:

One begins by devising alternative theories to explain ... observations. One then devises critical tests which will point toward one (or some) of the theories, excluding one or more of the others. As one progresses thorough an investigation, it is like going down a road. With the first test we are at a fork and the results of the test point toward one branch or another. We choose and conduct the second test according to which branch the first test points towards. The results of the second test point towards the next test to be conducted...The scientific method, by its nature, cannot be absolutely certain.

I for one see no difference between Platt's goal and methods and Joe Chip's: the goal is to peel back the reality onion and the methods are to use the tools you have at hand--and to think  and reflect  on what you're doing.

And that brings us nearly to the present. It's been pushing 25 years since Phil and I had the brief but intense period of correspondence. I suppose, were I forced to distil it all down to one word, that word would be "doubt." Phil taught me to doubt the collective illusion we call reality, the facile explanations we proffer each other, the mob hysteria we too often take for common sense, the tautologies we use to distinguish good from evil (and so often end up mistaking the one for the other): "Be silent; consume; die" (from the logo on a T-shirt advertised in RealChange, one of Seattle's better newspapers). In subsequent years I've come to see that doubt is an a priori characteristic of all  human knowledge, be it grounded in the evidence of our basic senses or in results obtained by applying some mathematical model.

But there is yet another kink in the reality onion (if you don't mind mixed metaphors) that should be addressed. And that's the incredible technological changes which have occurred in the last 20 or so years, the pace of which shows no signs of doing anything other than speeding up. I refer, of course, to a necessary precondition for your reading this: being logged on. I think it's useful to view Phil's work in the context of those changes.

To illustrate, I've prepared a timeline highlighting our so-called digital revolution. To view the timeline, either flip to the bottom of this page or let Sherman set the wayback machine for 1928.

That's a good boy, Sherman

I've obviously grossly oversimplified the timeline: Phil certainly published more than Ubik; I also omit Netscape's arrival () and the first Windows OS (). I gloss over many other important events as well, one being the great breakthrough in human-systems engineering made by the Digicrime Parody Page: recognition that it was "best viewed with a monitor" as opposed to a particular browser (no doubt out of modesty, they no longer advertise their discovery).

The whole purpose of this illustration has been simply to underscore how prescient, how incredibly prescient Phil's novels seem today although he died just as the revolution was starting to pick up speed. Yet, like characters in today's "cyberpunk" novels, Phil's characters are outcasts, marginalized but ordinary people living on the fringes, people oppressed by technologically strengthened governments and religions--not to mention dot.coms and BDCs (big dumb companies)--people who at times fight the system to alter it but more often just to stay alive, existing, in some novels, in a globally networked virtual reality. Although "Bladerunner"/aka Androids is the more talked about, I think Ubik is the more immediately relevant: Are we really linked via the web or by lying in the basement of the Beloved Brethren Moratorium? Are we sure?  does it matter? do we care? It may be that we have more to learn from Phil, more than we've yet realized. It may be that we don't even know which questions to ask yet.

in retrospect

Earlier, I'd mentioned thinking that Phil had spent the rest of his life trying to figure out what happened in March 74 (and, in the end, rejected all his explanations). I'm amazed to discover how many others are asking the same question. One needn't look far to find gnostic, drug, and mind control/brain implant explanations--not to mention "little green men" and those Russians. And there are, de rigeur,  a plethora of psychological explanations. Some said he was paranoid (that though seems to me a viable survival strategy). Others say he was schizowhatever. A self-proclaimed "real" psychiatrist who spent one whole afternoon  with Phil said he (that is, Phil) was bipolar; I'd guess that he (the psychiatrist, who, in his insights, managed to trash numerous others' perspectives) is one of those who is rarely in doubt (but rarely correct).

Decide for yourself. I don't proselytize. But IMHO none of the preceding are true. Phil's a great, a brilliant writer, equipped with an extraordinary intellect (and wit) --who happened to think and write about what many would consider metaphysical and religious issues. Yeah, he did do drugs (maybe the DEA will exhume him and test his DNA for, well, you know). And crazy things did happen to him, crazy, insane things like losing a daughter. The world is always wider and wilder than we think it is. Phil lived life on the fringes, where it's always more interesting and always less easy to categorize and classify.

I'd like to conclude by quoting Lawrence Sutin, one of Phil's biographers. He said that Phil

possessed tremendous passion and courage, driving himself to the limit by probing - in his fiction and in his daily thoughts - questions that most folks shunt aside as "metaphysical" and hence a waste of time. To Phil, the nature of reality and of the human soul were pressing, even painful concerns...How many of us dare to value what we see, hear, feel, and think when it veers away from "official" constructs of reality? ruler_abacus2

1928 [or thereabouts] to 1999 Timeline

5000 years ago dust abacus
2500 years ago bead & wire abacus

1928 Phil's born
1947 I'm born; Reynolds wrap
1957 Sputnik launched; ARPA formed
1966 Ubik

70 Monty Python's spam skit
71 UNIX: the first generation;*   lst INTEL microprocessor chip
72 lst email
74 my lst letter from Phil
76 lst routers and UUCP;   the Apple-I (priced at $666.66);   Bill Gates publicly denounces software piracy
77 Star Wars

80 Gardner Dozois coins the term "cyberpunk"
81 my last letter from Phil;   BITNET;   lst IBM PC running under DOS
82 Phil dies (peace, my friend);  TCP/IP;   Commodore 64
84 DNS;  Bill Gibson speaks of " cyberspace"
86 Al Gore makes reference to the " information superhighway."  It is a loss to history that no one recorded its first roadkill and litter.
87 Nancy Reagan says "say no" to drugs (no, never before breakfast!)
88 release of the Internet "worm," whose name was taken from John Brunner's Shockwave Riders (published a decade earlier);  the term "hacker" enters our vocabulary

90 EFF;  ARCHIE;  Tim Behrens-Lee introduces the "world wide web"
92 the cleverly named VERONICA (Very Easy Rodent Oriented Net-wide Index to Computerized Archives) & the lame phrase "surfing the internet" introduced (the latter reminds me of the Beach Boys and vapid minds);  CERN puts out the lst browser--freeware
93 NCSA Mosaic;  the Casper Wyoming Star-Tribune becomes the first U.S. newspaper on the net (check out trib.com at your favorite whois if you doubt).
94 Pizza Hut accepts online orders
95 I put out my first web page;  AOLers smarm the net; WWW traffic exceeds FTP traffic
96 microsoft discovers the internet ("Windows 2000; users zilch," the title of one of the many great "I, Cringely" essays, speaks volumes)
97 Gene Roddenberry's ashes make it to the moon
98 goodby, Netscape as we knew you: you fought the good fight
99 Network Solutions disappears the Internic domain lookup site

* Note that (:]), were Phil alive today, as sure as he wrote Ubik, he would be working on a UNIX workstation--two four letter words with the same vowels is too much for mere coincidence (or, well, maybe, perhaps, probably, you're right, a Mac, but let's not quibble). Now, Sherman, be a good boy, and reset the wayback machine.