Monday, 18 April 2011

Ubik - Philip K Dick

I've read a fair few books by Dick now: Man in The High Castle, A Scanner Darkly (I think I've read it. Or was it reading me? Or was the other me reading it? Or did I imagine I read it?), 'Androids, and '3 Stigmata'. This'll be my 5th novel.

About 9 months ago, I tried to read Ubik. "I  may come back to it.", I did more than that. I completed it, and...

Ubik  was written in 1969. It seems to be in the main 4-5 of his recommend novels; his most popular. What really surprised me when I was researching the book, was how Time Magazine had named Ubik in their 100 greatest novels since 1923.

Science Fiction takes a different kind of approach to read compared to mainstream literature; you have to read it a tad more slowly, open your mind a little more. Again, I was surprised how Dick managed to create a somewhat accessible prose in this book, especially for something so archaic.

I sometimes wonder that as his work progressed, did his writing ability improve? Did it become clearer? In at least half the novels I've read of his, some pages just don't make sense; I found myself reading paragraphs or 2 over to try and piece it together. Albeit, even in modern copies, there seems to be lack of a good editor. Dick struggled with poverty, drug addiction, and mental health throughout his life which ultimately was the cause of a lot of his work, for better, and for worse: he wrote an incredible amount, and we have speed to thank for it. It's how he made a living, and he made very little -- dying before Bladerunner was even released. You could argue that we also have drugs to thank for his more schizophrenic and theological works, but you'll soon realise, or even start wondering yourself, whether Dick's drug-fuelled tales came from the drugs at all. They were simply just fuel for his writing sprees.

After reading 'Castle', I didn't think it was a great book. I thought it was a brilliant concept, and I thought it was good it parts, but it was incoherent. Perhaps you learn to understand the way he writes? For some reason shortly after, I started watching documentaries and reading interviews about Dick. I'd read this novel by the guy; it took me about 3 attempts, I kept putting it down. I got lost. I couldn't figure out one character from the other. I was drawn to his work and to his life and I'm not quite for why. I think it's because I empathise with Dick, who used science fiction solely as a way to present his unique ideas to whatever audience was willing to read it.

Why was I empathizing with a novelist who was tainted by this "genre lit" and was a classic example of what must be a standard quote -- "Sci fi writers can't write". It's so true; so caught up in their ideas, and like Dick, with his own paranoia, his speculation, doubting and questioning time, what it means to be human, and reality itself. Dick's merit has been hidden behind the ghastly, stupid covers that his work has been printed under. I dreaded again putting up the version of the cover I own: the fantasy helmet-wearing woman on my cover has absolutely nothing to do with the story line. Dick's works, and insight into his life have also allowed me to realise the struggles a lot of science fiction writers have: a lot of them are capable of writing, but they're expected to churn out so much stuff, turn stand alone novels into trilogies, forced to write series, sequels, prequels, and are ultimately doomed into everything geeky and cliched like Warhammer-playing, video-game-obsessed teenagers represent about the genre (although fellow Dick fans don't seem to be the sort -- nor do Time Magazine critics...) -- sorry for any elitism there!

It's a shame Dick never got the recognition his work deserves. He grew up reading Joyce, Proust, and numerous other "cultural" French novelists. It's a shame that if you want to base your novel in the future, it's science fiction, despite having theological and philosophical undertones -- it's going to be sold alongside the Marvel comic books and videos games and turned into blockbuster films. 1984 and Brave New World are science fiction, so why are they recognised, and so much is not? It's mainly down to luck of publishing.

Ubik in itself turned out to be a metaphor for God. We cannot be sure of anything we think is 'reality'. Are we alive, are we dead, are we just dreaming? Prepare for an enthralling existential nightmare. Don't expect to wake up though.

1 comment:

Maxine said...

My favourite Dick novels are A Maze of Death, it's simple with a nice little twist at the end and Dr Bloodmoney. I have read a lot of his work and the novel I've liked the least is High Castle, I couldn't connect with any character and it had no ending. Like you I liked the concept. I haven't read Ubik yet, but I do have a copy so I'll try and get to it some time this year :)