After finishing Ubik, I realized that I’d been reading Philip K. Dick in the wrong order. Ubik is foundational. It belongs at the start, not near the end, of one’s reading of the author.
One might add: The busy reader could stop after Ubik. In what follows I’ve tried to avoid spoiling too much of the plot, mostly by avoiding specific incidents or details. I’ve never personally understood the need for a novel not to be “spoiled”; I commonly read the last few paragraphs at or near the beginning. But out of respect for those who do, I’m going to stick to the abstract.
Ubik is exceptionally well-titled; it is, in a sense, the same story that Philip K. Dick told everywhere else: There is a consensual reality, and it’s either glorious or depressing, but usually the latter. That reality is more or less unnoticed until it starts to break down or perhaps disappears entirely. The characters who experience the breakdown struggle vainly to return to the normal world. Then they appear to succeed, but things are not the same. Then it is realized — there never was a normal; the normal was the illusion, and the illusion, real. Its denizens have powers far above our own, and their interests may or may not match with anything we care about.
It’s the story that PKD told in bits and pieces everywhere — short stories like “The Electric Ant” and “The Faith of Our Fathers,” novels like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and of course the VALIS-themed books. He told this story over and over, and finally he believed it, and then he lived by it, and then it took him over, and it wrecked his own connection to consensual reality, and he died.
It would be madness, besides being boring and predictable, if he were not so gracefully self-aware. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick is a collection of unpublished letters and notes pertaining to his mystical experiences, which came to a head in February and March of 1974. In early 1979 he writes:
It’s as if certain books of mine went out from me (Unteleported Man, Ubik, Tears, etc) and then (years) later (or weeks) came back, like in F. Brown’s “The Waveries,” in signal form… like a mind responding to my mind as I expressed it in my books…
The explanation of “who or what fed me back my books,” in particular Ubik (in 3-74), is found in the contents of Ubik itself; i.e., the formulation of the information entity Ubik. Obviously I envisioned an entity which actually existed and therefore which responded with a feedback confirmation. One could analyze this theoretically; viz: if there were a macro-information entity, and you presented a fairly accurate formulation of it, you could reasonably expect the entity to fire a confirmation at you; since the formulation puts it forth as helpful and benign, in fact interventive. (p 473)
Ubik is about many things, but above all it is about metaphysics. It’s about the nature of reality — whether it’s knowable, or not; whether it is ordered by some consciousness, and if so, the nature of that consciousness; and finally, whether “reality” is itself one thing or perhaps more than one thing, with each type thereof ruled by different laws. In Ubik, the answers are something close to yes — we can know a bit about reality, though not always fully; it is ordered by two consciousnesses (at least); and the two we know of are at war with one another.
One consciousness rules by entropy, the other, by information. They are figures of the Devil and God, of course, but also something more than these two words mean conventionally. Or possibly less. In the same document set, PKD writes:
I have only described what my own head construes the deity to be like — a self-portrait; albeit a modern, complex and sophisticated apprehension of the deity, it is quite subjective, and quite culturally determined (i.e., a cybernetics-biological model). As shown in Ubik I conceive God as isomorphic to my own brain: thus I encounter a macro-brain arranging reality into information, a projection on my part. (p 475)
And again, in January of 1978:
I am too far into Gnosticism to back out. The idea of Jesus opening Adam’s eyes and bringing him to consciousness, the re-linking to the lost primordial state through the Gnosis, the unflinching facing of evil in the world and knowing it cannot have come from (the Good) God — and the salvador salvandus — man as cut off from part of the Godhead…
I am really very happy. Snuff, music and cats, friends and my exegesis, my studying and gradually more and more understanding my Gnosis, when in 3-74 the savior woke me to full consciousness, for the first time in my life and refound myself, knew who and what I was, remembered my celestial origin, was restored to what I had been before the fall. I saw the prison we are in, and knew I had done right. (p 276)
It would be difficult not to call some of PKD’s writing in the Exegesis just plain paranoid. Likewise anyone who believed that Ubik explains the real world. Yet there’s so often this sense of perspective, of balance: I’ve had an amazing, mind-blowing experience of God. And then I go back to life. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water.