Ubik by Philip K Dick

It seems to me that Dick is one of those authors who has to speak for himself.  The fact that the internet is littered with forum groups trying to figure out what the ending of Ubik means attests to that.

Although back in the sixties and seventies, Dick was not the commodity he is now, nonetheless a lot of interviews exist where he does get to do just that, speak for himself. So I’m going to let him do that here.

SFR: Why do you think your books have sold so well in foreign countries, and not as well in America?

DICK: Well, the first answer that comes to mind is “Damned if I know.” Perhaps it’s the general attitude towards science fiction in European countries, accepting it as a legitimate form of literature, instead of relegating it to the ghetto, with the genre, and regarding it as sub-standard. The prejudice is not there in France, Holland, England, and Germany, and Poland that we have in this country against science fiction. The field is accepted, and it doesn’t have anything to do particularly with the quality of my writing, it has to do with the acceptance of the field of science fiction as a legitimate field. Bear in mind that many, many of the English writers wrote science fiction: Ian Foster, of course we always think of George Orwell, Huxley, and it’s just natural. It wasn’t a step down, into the gutter for them to do it, and it would be here. If Norman Mailer were to write a science fiction novel — an inter-galactic novel — I doubt if he would. Saul Bellow wrote me recently, and he said he is writing science fiction, and he of course in a very fine writer, so maybe the ghetto walls will break down here. But I think it is the fact that they have a high regard for science fiction there. And I think also one of the reasons — especially in France — is that they’re aware that it’s a field of ideas. The science fiction novel is a novel of ideas, and they’re interested in the ideas. There’s an intelligentsia in Europe among the students that appreciates the ideas. You don’t have the equivalent intelligentsia here. We just don’t have that interest in books of ideas that they have there. They appreciate the philosophical and other types of ideas in science fiction, and look forward to science fiction novels. They have a voracious appetite for them.

SFR: That would probably be the same reason, then, why science fiction books sell so well on college campuses.

DICK: Sure, yes, absolutely. I got a letter from a German editor. There are science fiction political organizations — right-wing and left-wing — there, too, that there’s no equivalent for here at all. One of them, the left-wing one, voted me a vote of solidarity, and I thought that was neat. It was something like the Workers and Peasants for Science Fiction Gameinschaft. And it was clear to me from the letter that we just have nothing like that here, a kind of political science fiction groups, where they see them in terms of the sociological and political ideas and the effects on society of the 1984 type of novel — the dystopian novel. They take those dystopian novels very seriously there, they really do. I think another thing in the fact that the American people are apolitical. The dystopian novels don’t really signify anything to the American people, because the American people are so politically naïve that the dystopian novels don’t seem significant to them, you know what I mean? They don’t have the relevance to them that they would have to the European people.

SFR: The Americans seem to get more out of things like Tolkien.

DICK: Right, fantasy. But in Europe they’re more politically aware, and in fact they will read political things into novels which are not there actually. I’ve read a lot of European criticism of my writing in which they see a lot of sociologic and political science type ideas which isn’t there at all. “The Decomposition of the Bourgeois Structure of Society” I think was the name of one article about my writing, and how I had subverted the bourgeois society by destroying its fundamental concepts in a most subversive way. A way so deviously clever that I never mention politics. And this was so fundamental that the whole thing would collapse — the bourgeois society would collapse like a house of cards if I would just write two more books like UBIK. The fact that no political ideas were ever mentioned in UBIK merely showed how subversive this book was in undermining bourgeois society.

SFR: With reasoning like that, you could say the same thing about a Buster Keaton film.

DICK: Oh, certainly. That’s your really subversive thing, where there’s no political ideas expressed at all. It’s too fundamental to be articulated.

As usual, although I don’t see reviews talking about this, Ubik’s setting captures ideas of the future that feel like they are coming our way. In particular the automatisation of everything combined with user-pays operation. You can’t as much as get a door open without either credit or coin. And the half-life – so convincing.

But also, as usual, I sat through the book thinking, oh, if only he could write. Characters. He makes them up with a thesaurus surely. They never ring true. So I was rather surprised to read in the same review that this is all he thinks he does that matters. Characters.

I think the writer falls in love with his characters, and wants the reader to know of their existence. He wants to turn what are people known only to him into people known to a fairly large body of readers. That’s my purpose. My purpose is to take these characters, who I know, and present them to other people, and have them know them, so that they can say that they’ve known them, too, and have enjoyed the pleasure of their company. And that is the purpose that I have, which, I suppose, is a purpose beyond entertainment.

The basic thing that motivates me is that I have met people in my life, who I knew deserved to be immortalized, and the best I could do — I couldn’t guarantee them immortality — but I could guarantee them an audience of maybe 100,000, like girls that I’ve met, or drinking buddies I’ve had, turn them from just somebody that I knew, and two or three other people knew, that I could capture their idiosyncratic speech mannerisms, their gentleness, their kindness, their humility, and make them available to a large number of people.

That’s my purpose. So, I suppose in a way I have a purpose beyond entertainment. But I certainly wouldn’t say that this is why people ought to write, or that they ought to write for any purpose beyond entertainment. But this is why I write. Always.

Especially I like to write about people who have died, whose actual lifetimes are over with, and who linger on only, say, in my mind and the minds of a few other people. I happen to be the only one who can write them down, and get their speech patterns down, and record incidents of great nobility and heroism that they have shown under very arduous conditions. I can do this for them, even though the people are gone. I have written about girls that I admire greatly, who are so illiterate that they would never read the book, even if I were to hand it to them. And I’ve always thought that was rather ironic, that I would make this attempt to immortalize them, when they were so illiterate that they could not or would not read the damn thing themselves.

You could have knocked me down with a feather. Who knew that this is what Dick thought he was doing?

Perhaps that just goes to show that real life has the same nature as reality as it appears in his books, where the rug is pulled out from under your feet again and again.

The interview quoted in this post is available in full here. It first appeared in 1976.

3 thoughts on “Ubik by Philip K Dick

  1. Super interesting. I still have to read the last few pages. It’s so strange to read what authors think about their books and compare it to what we feel and think about them, isn’t it?

    There’s a reason why this author stays right there at the crack between classics and pulp fiction. I got to thinking also, that for him to do what he does well, this dystopia, the ideas, the philosophy he throws at us, -he even mentions Plato in a relevant allusion-, and to make that plot move well, and keep us interested in reading, I think the character development suffered much, as you say. Maybe he knows the people he based the characters on so well, that just by giving us a few strokes he thinks he’s done his job well, ha ha ha.

    One thing that popped up immediately, which I fear if I share with any who hasn’t read the book may predispose them not to read it, it’s that he sounded like Asimov and Vonnegut in his portrayal of women. These guys love “blondes”, and he admits to it in the other excerpt you quoted, where he mentions the “illiterate girl” he immortalized. It didn’t bother me. It’s their idea of the hero. Even Le Carré shares their idea of woman in The Spy Who Came from the Cold. It’s his idiosyncrasy and a bit of what makes the archetype of hero/antihero in their genre. There were other details in the book that make it charmingly outdated. All fiction is condemned to suffer this fate. It’s still worth reading. Every age has its biases.

    I’m grateful for books like this. They fit some moments in life when I want to wrestle with ideas but in not a very heavy handed way. As you pointed, the future predictions are so convincing, -automatization and the half life-.

    • What an interesting idea, that he thinks he has portrayed them well because he knows them. It makes sense.

      And yes about the women. I cringe sometimes. But overall, it doesn’t matter to me – I’m a historian, so I try to have an open-minded ‘you have to see it through their eyes’ attitude, which makes everything more forgivable or overlookable. It reminds me of a piece I saw by Bradbury – I can’t recall if I might have quoted it maybe on my post on Farenheit 451 – where he talked about how he’d been treated when, relatively late in his writing career he’d proferred a play which had no women in it. Hey, it was about astronauts, how could it? He has a very male world, even when it is at children’s level. But all the same, I’d rather he was writing what he wanted than what we expect. I imagine at the very least it’d read better.

      • Nice annecdote about Bradbury, which I adore. Yes, his world is very masculine. I love your attitude as a historian. I too have no qualms with these authors or any other white male, hahaha. If I feel I need a bit of a correction to my reading diet, or balance, I know where to go. I too rather read what they write the way they want it.

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