Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Ubik - Philip K Dick

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1967 is the year the first human was cryogenically frozen. Cryo is from Greek, meaning frost. Geneo, also Greek, refers to birth, beginning. Cryonics forged ahead with freezing bodies, hedging bets on the hope that medical techniques of the future will learn to revive frozen bodies and grant longer, if not eternal, life. The goal of cryonics is that it would offer its adherents a frozen fountain of youth.

Enter Philip K. Dick, the skeptic. His book Ubik came out in 1969, providing a nightmare vision of  suspended animation resulting from the cryogenic procedure, raising ontological and metaphysical questions, commenting on consumer society, and reflecting the dark drug-infused counterculture of the era.

Let me sum up the central conceit of the book in a single sentence:

Joe Chip dies, is cryogenically frozen, but doesn't know it.

Ubik is a piece of existential detective fiction, a precursor to The Sixth Sense. To Joe, the observable world is not stable. Buildings flicker in and out of different eras of their history. Technological progress regresses. Time moves backward as Joe Chip's life ebbs away. But Chip gradually pieces the clues together, finding that his reality is separate from standard, objective reality. Messages he recieves from his boss, Glen Runciter shouldn't function in simultaneity to other events. Time shouldn't go backward. People shouldn't evaporate.

Joe's one saving grace is Ubik, a chemical compound that helps fight off the psychic attacks from Jory Miller, a child in a nearby cryo unit that acts as a parasite, leeching the consciousness of others to ensure his own survival. With regular sprays from a can of Ubik, Joe is protected from Jory's psychological attacks. But he is reliant on the product. Without it, he is defenseless against Jory's mental power.

So, first, Dick questions the newly developed cryogenic science and its phenomenological repercussions. What might happen to a person that is frozen?

Second, Dick raises philosophical questions about the nature of reality. By presenting cryogenically frozen individuals that experience an alternate reality, Dick makes us question our own understanding of what is real.

Ubik problematizes a Kantian understanding of reality, that time and space exists outside of the human mind. Those frozen in cryo don't perceive time or space in normal ways. They may dip in and out of consciousness with gaps of several months or years between awareness. In consideration of space, Joe Chip has only a muted awareness of his frozen body. If too much time has passed before he gets a dose of Ubik, he begins to feel more and more cold, a problem ending with the final disappearance of consciousness. For all intents and purposes, the only reality of a frozen person is an inwardly projected one.

Third, Dick critiques consumerist America. Many products on the market are advertised as products you can't live without. The late '60s wasn't far removed from the first availability of new labor-saving gadgets and products and the modern marketing strategies employed to popularize their use. And, after using many products, many consumers felt that they couldn't live without the new products. America's love affair with labor-saving products has spawned the TV dinner, the overabundance of paper waste due to paper towels, and ever increasing kitchen sizes to contain all our labor-saving devices. Yet, some advertised products, like coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol, have addictive properties that, used frequently enough, cause users to feel very much as if they very well can't live without it.

But Dick was not only referencing run-of-the mill depressants and stimulants. A regular methamphetamine user, Dick's Ubik spray reflects the hard drugs that, when using, can give a user a sense of mindfulness, clarity, and well-being and, when not using, throw the internal world of the user askew. In Ubik, Joe Chip is put into a cryogenic state along with several more of Runciter's employees after a bomb explodes while they are working. The team experiences their altered reality as a community. They share the experience of psychological disintegration much like Dick watched other users around him self-destruct as a result of illegal and dangerous drug habits.

And drug use intersects well with the questioning of reality. The user alters their empirical experience with each hit but can never escape the entropic effects of decay and energy loss.

Even if you have a lifetime supply of Ubik, the measure of a lifetime is never certain.

The next Rapid Transmissions is incoming:



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