Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 5/5, The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik Publishable Essay, December 10, 2008

This is the fifty-first post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

If I had to pick one seminar at Kent State University as being the most important to my shifting my thinking and rigor into running gear, it would have to be Professor Tammy Clewell’s Methods in the Study of Literature class. Methods is the introductory class that all PhD students have to take. Each year, a different faculty member teaches this class, and I am glad that the planets aligned for me to take this class from Professor Clewell. My joy for taking this class derives from Professor Clewell’s laser-beam accurate and calmly delivered criticisms. She expected rigor in our work, but she delivered her appraisals and commentary kindly. There was no malace in her demeanor—only the daily expectation of meticulousness, demonstration of preparedness, and application of theory. Her candor about higher education and the challenges of scholarship were eye-opening and appreciated. I was very happy to take another class from Professor Clewell the following year and even more so when she agreed to lead my postmodern theory exam and join my dissertation committee. For all of her efforts teaching, advising, and advocating, I am eternally grateful.

This is the final Recovered Writing post from Professor Clewell’s Methods seminar. Each post is one project from the seminar. They should be considered parts of a semester-long process of entering professional discourse. These are attempts at learning, arguing, and improving. The culmination of this work is the fifth project/post in this subseries—a publishable-length essay, “The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik.”

With additional feedback from Professor Clewell and seminar members, I continued my research and expanded my conference length paper into this publishable length essay included below. While all five parts should be seen together as a constellation of my progress in the class, this longer essay is the final deliverable of that very formative period in the Kent State PhD program. I shopped it around, but I decided instead to publish it as-is as a part of this seminar series of Recovered Writing on

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

10 Dec. 2008

The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

Ubik has generated a significant amount of discussion in the thirty-eight years following its initial publication in 1969. Much of this criticism avoids rigorous examination of gender roles in the text, particularly the roles of women. For example, Brian McHale includes the novel as an emblematic example of New Wave Science Fiction (SF) that represents, “SF and postmodernist mainstream fiction [becoming] one another’s contemporaries, aesthetically as well as chronologically, with each finally beginning to draw on the current phase of the other, rather than on some earlier and now dated phase” (228). Patricia Warrick most lucidly describes the postmodern aspects of Ubik in her textual and biographical analysis of the novel in which she says:

The power of Ubik…lies in Dick’s perfect yoking of content and form. He is writing of entropy, of a time when things fall apart, when death begins to eat at social structures and at the individuals who live in society, and he uses a form that is itself decayed and nearly worn out. He writes of the struggle between order and entropy, and the form becomes the content. (146)

Beneath the level of form creating content, most of the discussion involving the novel primarily involves economics and class structures. Darko Suvin argues for an elaborate structure to Dick’s writing periods by studying his, “use of characters as narrative foci and as indicators of upper and lower social classes or power statuses” (par. 2). Fredric Jameson continues the discussion on Ubik with a Marxist analysis, and he notes Dick’s postmodern dissolution of history when he writes, “Consider Dick’s capacity to render history. Consumer society, media society, “the society of the spectacle,” late capitalism–whatever one wants to call his moment–is striking in its loss of a sense of the historical past and of historical futures” (346). However, these analyses stop short of any sustained commentary and critique of gender in the text. Peter Fitting tacitly engages this when he writes, “Ubik is…a deconstruction of the metaphysical ideologies and the metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel” (par. 14). His critique of the “metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel” has to do with the nature of reality and linear time rather than other aspects of the bourgeois novel replicating and reinforcing accepted gender roles. Christopher Palmer talks about sex and sexuality, but only in terms of male sexual fulfillment. He connects sex to consumer advertising when he writes, “Joe Chip’s quest for sexual pleasure strikes us as grubby in the circumstances of Ubik, and anyway is continually frustrated…The implication seems to be that one can find Ubik–which is simultaneously a deity; the ultimate, shiny, and wonder-working, but insubstantial consumer product; and the promise evanescently behind every consumer product. But sexual satisfaction is not to be had” (57). My question then is for whom is that satisfaction intended? In this reading, the answer seems to be for men, which promotes patriarchic hegemony. Ubik becomes a story for and about men as well as men’s “needs.” Yes, there are women, but they are made subservient to the needs of men and the narrative progression centering on the favored narrators: Joe Chip, and his employer, Glen Runciter. Krista Kasdorf’s recent work brings us one step closer to investigating female subjectivity in Ubik through an analysis of thermodynamic entropy in Dick’s novel and Pamela Zoline’s 1967 feminist SF short story, “The Heat Death of the Universe.” Kasdorf, extending the metaphor of entropy to women, writes, “the young attractive women of Ubik can be combined into one type based on function instead of merely by physical description–they are the Maxwell’s demons of the text, and their usefulness is determined by their willingness to expend energy for men” (39). Despite the intriguing aspects of her argument about the function of women in Ubik, I disagree with her reductionist argument to combine the “young attractive women” into one type. Things are more complicated than that within the text. Instead, I argue that the individual representations of the women in Ubik serves as a more useful model to critique and understand gender roles within the novel and their replication and commentary on the real world–historically or in the here-and-now. Therefore, the question stands: How does Dick (re)present women in Ubik, and what does that representation mean?

To answer this question, Joanna Russ’ significant Second Wave Feminist (2WF) essay from 1974, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” serves as an important starting point to engage Ubik and its representation of women. Her essay is published only five years after Ubik, and one year before her own groundbreaking New Wave SF work, The Female Man. In the essay, Russ argues that the majority of SF lacks an imaginative extrapolation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She summarizes her paper by writing:

            The title I chose for this essay was “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” I hesitated between that and “Women in Science Fiction” but if I had chosen the latter, there would have been very little to say.

There are plenty of images of women in science fiction.

There are hardly any women. (Russ 57)

For Russ, “images of women” lack, “speculation about the personality differences between men and women, about family structure, about sex, in short about gender roles” (54). Instead of imagining gender roles other than those rooted in the past or present, she finds that what’s often generated is, “the American middle class with a little window dressing” (54). However, there are some examples of extrapolation that require biological oddities or reengineering rather than a re-imagining of the interaction between men and women in a future space.

For all the literary experimentation as well as critiques of capitalism and subjective experiential reality in Ubik, women are subjected and subordinated to male hegemony through the reinforcement of “images of women.” I don’t agree with the way the text reinforces these images, but it is essential to uncover and analyze these images as part of a feminist reading. This reading will determine whether these images of women are a reinforcement of male hegemony or a commentary on the feminist struggles during 2WF.

There are several aspects of images of women in Ubik. First, all of the women, save one briefly in chapter five, are subordinated to narration and internal dialog of the favored male protagonists. Without a deeper, psychological voice, the women characters are flattened into images. They lack the depth of their male counterparts. Second, the women are immediately identified by physical appearance and sexual attributes, most notably through the characters Ella Runciter, Pat Conley, and Wendy Wright. And third, the women are literally miscounted in relation to male characters–more on this later.

Ella Runciter, like the other female characters in Ubik, is constructed as a mere image, because she is presented and restrained by the sexualized descriptions of her body and sexual desirability. Her full name, revealed in the penultimate chapter, is Ella Hyde Runciter. She is framed as the perpetually twenty-year-old dead wife of Glen Runciter. Also, her first name, Ella, sounds like a child’s name, possibly derived from Stella, Isabella, or perhaps whimsically, Cinderella. Her maiden name, Hyde, brings up two questions: Is she hiding from the real world in half-life, or does male authority, signified by her husband, hide her away from the world through the masculinized half-life technology provided by the Beloved Brethren Moratorium?

There are two “encounters” with Ella in Ubik, and each is loaded with physical images of the character, revealing her subjection to male hegemony. The first appearance of Ella takes place in chapter two, when Glen visits her at the half-life moratorium to speak with her on dire business matters. She is described as, “upright in her transparent casket, encased in an effluvium of icy mist…with her eyes shut, her hands lifted permanently toward her impassive face. It had been three years since he had seen Ella, and of course she had not changed. She never would, now, at least in the outward physical way” (Dick 11). Ella is described most effectively as Runciter’s “dead wife,” because she is encased in a casket, with her hands posed just-so in relation to her “impassive face.” The casket conceals her “pretty and light-skinned” body, and her closed eyelids cover her “bright and luminous blue” eyes (Dick 12). Additionally, her “impassive face” indicates that she lacks agency on the real world. Runciter chooses when to visit with Ella, without any apparent way for Ella to request or demand an audience with her husband who hasn’t visited her in three years. In terms of her appearance to someone inhabiting the real world, she cannot change “in the outward physical way,” further reinforcing her lack of dynamism, choice, and ultimately, future in the real.

Ella, in the moratorium described above, and in the world of half-life, is a character constantly seen rather than seeing. Dick describes Ella very differently in the next-to-last chapter, when a dying and increasingly sexually frustrated Joe Chip, riding in a cab, spots Ella walking along the sidewalk. The narration illustrates her as a “girl” with a “slow, easy gait,” “window-shopping,” and she’s “a pretty girl, with gay blond pigtails, wearing an unbuttoned sweater over her blouse, a bright red skirt and high-heeled little shoes” (Dick 203). In two sentences she’s described as a “girl,” despite her twenty years, and her body is eroticized by the juxtaposition of “gay blond pigtails,” implying youth, and her adult attire modified by the words: unbuttoned, bright red, and little.

Ella is made more of an objectified image when Chip learns her identity, and exclaims, “You’re the other one…Jory destroying us, you trying to help us. Behind you there’s no one, just as there’s no one behind Jory. I’ve reached the last entities involved” (Dick 206). Chip objectifies her doubly, first as a sexual object with “gay blond pigtails,” and now, as an “entity.” She responds to Chip by saying, “I don’t think of myself as an ‘entity’; I usually think of myself as Ella Runciter,” to which Joe adds, “but it’s true” (Dick 206). Granted, there is a sarcastic element to Ella’s response, but nevertheless, it’s interesting that she “usually [thinks] of [herself] as Ella Runciter,” than knowing and claiming herself as a female subject. Also, her agreeing with Chip, further implicates herself in her own objectification as an “entity” and not a human subject. Instead of a female subject, or a human being, she is reduced to existence as an “entity.” An entity usually refers to a thing, rather than a person. This is an objectified labeling by the favored male narrator enforcing the real world’s male hegemony on Ella within the psychological, dream-like world of half-life, which in a sense, is an even more despicable enterprise considering that her psyche is undermined in addition to her body.

The final aspect of Ella’s creation as an “image” rather than a woman comes when she reveals her plan to Chip about his future in half-life. She tells him, “I have a very selfish, practical reason for assisting you, Mr. Chip; I want you to replace me. I want to have someone whom Glen can ask for advice and assistance, whom he can lean on” (Dick 206). This seemingly innocuous scheme reveals the facsimile nature of Ella’s existence. She pointedly tells Chip that she wants him to replace her. Granted, she’s nearing her point of departure from half-life into rebirth, but the straight-faced manner in which she delivers this plan indicates that her role as provider of Ubik and advice, as well as role as wife, is interchangeable. Her being an interchangeable image or part further serves to objectify her as merely a “cog in the male dominated machine.” Furthermore, no one is suggesting that Chip be swapped out for one of the female characters. Despite her youthful, sexualized entrance on the stage of half-life, her plan for replacement eliminates any other desires whether they are personal fulfillment, sexual, or otherwise. Therefore, she, by this admission of replacement, relinquishes any possibility of human subjectivity and she is laid bare as an “image of women in science fiction.”

Considering Ella as an “image of women in science fiction,” is there the possibility of a redemptive reading of Ubik? Reading Ella as a cyborg as defined by Donna Haraway has the potential for interpreting her image in the novel. Haraway defines a cyborg as, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149). Ella is transformed through the technological mediation of her body on cold-pac life support, and the audial technology that facilitates the conversion of her thoughts into voice, and a live speaker’s voice into thought–what Runciter calls, “impediments to natural communication” (Dick 12). She is a “hybrid of machine and organism,” because her life and interaction with the real world is made possible and mediated by technology. Additionally, Ella is repeatedly referred to as a machine in need of “[cranking] up” and Runciter fears she’s “worn out” (Dick 7 and 12). Through her life encased in cold-pac, as her being seen as a body within a casket, she is termed more machine than human. The hybridization of half-life as being between life and death, mirrors Ella’s own hybridity of flesh and machine. Furthermore, Ella’s subjectivity as a cyborg is, in Haraway’s terms, “a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century” (149). This reading of the image of women in Ubik reveals something about the acceptance and reinforcement of stereotyped gender roles in culture perpetuated by works of SF.

In the preceding examples, Ella is represented as an image and not a realized subject with her own voice. Connected to her image is the sexual language surrounding her cyborg encapsulation in half-life. Haraway points out that, “far from signaling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight couplings” (152). Nothing could be further from the truth in Ubik. Half-lifers’ intermingle minds and experiences through a shared hallucinatory experience. Unfortunately, this facilitates what the moratorium owner describes as, others “may have gotten into her because of her weakened state. She’s accessible to almost anyone” (Dick 18). The phrases “gotten into her” and “she’s accessible to almost anyone” are sexually laden and imply rape, particularly considering the “getting into her” involved an adolescent boy. Therefore, Ella’s cyborg subjectivity is more of a disturbing bodily nightmare than a political space of “pleasurably tight couplings.”

Another significant image of women in Ubik is the character Wendy Wright. Unlike Ella, Wendy is Runciter’s employee, which places her in a subordinated position in relation to the male corporate head. Additionally, she’s bound to the organization through her wages in order to exist in the future coin-operated world and “tyranny of the homeostatic machine” (Dick 81-82). As an employee, Wendy’s particular inertial ability isn’t described as it is with the majority of the other members of the team, which weakens her position as an active participant in the team’s mission to the moon. Also, her name is significant. Like Ella, Wendy is a childish name, derived from Gwendolyn and reportedly first used as a girl’s name in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904). Her last name, Wright, is phonetically the same as “right.” This, along with Chip’s desire for Wendy might be what leads him later to say, “You know who I feel like talking to?…Wendy Wright. She’ll know what to do. I value her opinion. Why is that? I wonder. I barely know her” (Dick 90). However, Chip’s not knowing a woman very well is irrelevant to his male patriarchal objectification. She fits into a mold he created in his mind for the ideal woman, and within that role, she’s made to be the image that Chip wants.

Wendy’s objectification by Chip is best illustrated in an important passage in chapter five. In addition, the passage frames Wendy as the token Marilyn Monroe actress/character/persona on Runciter’s team to the moon. The narration presents Wendy in the following way:

As always, when the opportunity arose, Joe took a long, astute look at the girl whom, if he could have managed it, he would have had as his mistress, or, even better, his wife. It did not seem possible that Wendy Wright had been born out of blood and internal organs like other people. In proximity to her he felt himself to be a squat, oily, sweating, uneducated nurt whose stomach rattled and whose breath wheezed. Near her he became aware of the physical mechanisms which kept him alive; within him machinery, pipes and valves and gas-compressors and fan belts had to chug away at a losing task, a labor ultimately doomed. Seeing her face, he discovered that his own consisted of a garish mask; noticing her body made him feel like a low-class windup toy. All her colors possessed a subtle quality, indirectly lit. Her eyes, those green and tumbled stones, looked impassively at everything; he had never seen fear in them, or aversion, or contempt. What she saw she accepted. Generally she seemed calm. But more than that she struck him as being durable, untroubled and cool, not subject to wear, or to fatigue, or to physical illness and decline. Probably she was twenty-five or -six, but he could not imagine her looking younger, and certainly she would never look older. She had too much control over herself and outside reality for that. (Dick 58-59)

In this passage, there is a confluence of order and entropy. Wendy represents order through eternal, idealized femininity. Juxtaposed with Wendy, Joe is made aware, through his desire for this woman he idealizes, that he has a mere mortal body with processes that “had to chug away at a losing task, a labor ultimately doomed.” Part of being a human subject is the fact that death is a part of life. For Joe, Wendy is removed from the reality of death, and therefore, is a mere image, like the nymph or fairy–removed from time, and from a subjective reality of agency. In this way, Wendy’s beauty, as seen through Chip’s gaze, puts her in a casket much like that of Ella Runciter. Ella’s half-life existence removes her from agency in the real world, much like Chip’s objectification of Wendy creates a statue-like immortality. In fact, Wendy is very much described the same way as Ella in that Wendy, “looked impassively at everything.” Chip doesn’t want to join with her in a union of equality, but rather, he saw her as a, “girl whom, if he could have managed it, he would have had as his mistress, or, even better, his wife.” Therefore, Wendy is boxed into an eternal ideal as if she were already encased in cold-pac like Ella Runciter. This aspect of the novel is particularly disturbing in that wives of the choosing of the male protagonists are framed through the glass window of cold-pac and half-life existence. They are refused subjectivity so that they may be acted on explicitly by males, supposedly active in the real world.

Wendy’s image of immortality and unchanging womanhood in the early part of the novel contrasts heavily with her reaction to the explosion on the moon, and her ultimate dissolution as an image/character. During their anti-climatic escape from the moon base, Wendy asks Chip why Pat Conley didn’t use her time traveling ability to obviate the detonation. This interrogation on her part is the one act attributable to her person, but the only result is Pat laughing in her face. Wendy’s powers are negative and therefore, non-active on the world. She has to go to someone else, in this case, another woman, to act on the world. This reinforces Wendy’s powerlessness as a woman in the world of Ubik, and it questions Pat’s motivations and desires, which I will turn to later.

Juxtaposed with Wendy’s image of woman as constructed by Chip is the bodily effects that transform her following the detonation on the moon. Wendy is the first of the team to vocalize the entropic changes taking place on their bodies, which contrasts with Chip’s belief that, “Probably she was twenty-five or -six, but he could not imagine her looking younger, and certainly she would never look older. She had too much control over herself and outside reality for that” (Dick 59). In the face of Chip’s fantasy, Wendy questions and reports, “Did it age us? I feel old. I am old; your package of cigarettes is old; we’re all old, as of today, because of what has happened. This was a day for us like no other” (Dick 75). The ever youthful image of Wendy is shattered by her realization that “I feel old. I am old.” However, Chip doesn’t respond to Wendy’s epiphany, which indicates that he’s unwilling to acknowledge that his position as part of privileged male patriarchy with its benefit of creating desired objects is challenged by a potential female subject.

Wendy’s potential as a female subject is never realized within Ubik. Instead, her death reinforces her image-ness. In the morning after Al Hammond tells Chip that he’ll convince Wendy to sleep with him in his hotel room, Chip awakes to an empty room. Investigating after the moratorium’s owner arrives, they find something in the closet:

On the floor of the closet a huddled heap, dehydrated, almost mummified, lay curled up. Decaying shreds of what seemingly had once been cloth covered most of it, as if it had, by degrees, over a long period of time, retracted into what remained of its garments. Bending, he turned it over. It weighed only a few pounds; at the push of his hand its limbs folded out into thin bony extensions that rustled like paper. Its hair seemed enormously long; wiry and tangled, the black cloud of hair obscured its face. he crouched, not moving, not wanted to see who it was. (Dick 99)

Repeatedly, the body is referred to as “it.” Chip resists identifying the body, because that would connect the “huddled heap” with a flesh and blood person. Eventually, “he stared silently…at the shriveled, heat-darkened little face. And knew who this was. With difficulty he recognized her.

Wendy Wright” (Dick 100). The “shriveled, heat-darkened little face” is the only identifying feature with which to connect this ashen body with the once entropy-evading ideal called Wendy Wright. In some ways, Chip accepts her death as the burning coal of his revenge on the entropic forces acting upon him and the others. Unfortunately, Chip’s attempts at indiscretion with prostitutes in Des Moines eradicates any possibility that he actually cared for Wendy. She’s made into another image of women that can be discarded and forgotten. Thus, Wendy is denied, like Ella, any possibility as a desiring subject by a favored male protagonist. Furthermore, she’s idealized as a desired object, and anything outside those boundaries, obviates her and another form of patriarchy, Jory, devours/burns her alive.

Through Ella Runciter and Wendy Wright, women are constructed images rather than realized human subjects. Ella is encased in cyborg enhancing cold-pac, silent to the real world, and unable to act beyond the veil of glass covering her face. Wendy is a pin-up girl among Runciter’s team of inertials, lusted after by the male protagonist, and unable to live up to the ideal of her constructed image. A third, and much more problematic image in Ubik, is Pat Conley. Pat is a desired object, and not a desiring subject. However, she employs her desirability to manipulate the men that would otherwise control her. In this way, she does attain a certain subjectivity. Yet, whatever gains she makes as a sadistic manipulator of men, she looses in the end when she is devoured like the others by the half-life presence of the fifteen-year-old boy, Jory.

Pat’s image is fashioned early in the novel when a psionic talent scout tells Joe Chip that she’s a “sweet number,” and after his first gaze on her, he thinks to himself, “My god…she’s beautiful” (Dick 21, 24). Then, the narrator describes Pat:

She wore an ersatz canvas workshirt and jeans, heavy boots caked with what appeared to be authentic mud. Her tangle of shiny hair was tied back and knotted with a red bandanna. Her rolled-up sleeves showed tanned, competent arms. At her imitation leather belt she carried a knife, a field-telephone unit and an emergency pack of rations and water. On her bare, dark forearm he made out a tattoo. CAVEAT EMPTOR, it read. (Dick 24-25)

First, it’s interesting that the adjective “ersatz” is employed in relation to Pat. Besides the obvious connection to her fake “canvas workshirt,” it doubly points to her body beneath the shirt. This, combined with her tattoo, “CAVEAT EMPTOR,” implies a warning regarding her being not genuine. Furthermore, her not being genuine suggests a copy or image like quality to her being. This combined with the men’s gaze generating a desired object results in Pat’s being initially constructed as an image of women.

Relying on the previous passage, it’s intriguing that Pat’s image is described in masculine terms. First, her name is androgynous, and it’s only later that the reader sees Pat introduced as “Patricia,” and that’s in an alternative reality created by her in which she’s married to Joe Chip. As “Pat,” she is a masculinized image of women with work clothes, “hair…tied back and knotted with a red bandanna,” “rolled-up sleeves,” “tanned, competent arms,” and her having a tattoo. She evokes the image of Norman Rockwell’s painting, Rosie the Riveter, albeit without the halo. As an image of women, she’s set apart from the other, more feminine female characters in the text, which includes Ella and Wendy. She has a masculine physique and a laborer’s job as a maintenance person on the “subsurface vidphone lines in the Topeka Kibbutz,” where, “Only women can hold jobs involving manual labor” (Dick 25-26). In light of these revelations, she appears to be a female subject from a Jewish collective community that inverts predominant male patriarchal norms from the era of 2WF. Therefore, Pat appears to be a female subject that problematizes male/female roles and challenges male patriarchy.

However, Pat’s challenge to male patriarchy doesn’t remove her status as desired object, because she is never revealed as a desiring subject. If she is shown to be desiring, it’s a desiring of emasculating males (e.g., assuming Chip’s debt, and making up new house rules while essentially performing a striptease in front of him), and taking a sadistic pleasure in observing men in pain (e.g., watching Chip ascend the stairs in Des Moines while entropic forces are breaking down his body and not making any attempt to help him) (Dick 32-34, 170-179). She makes Chip the object of her delight in regards to inflicting pain, or observing pain. For these examples, she inverts the desired object/desiring subject dynamic, albeit only temporarily. Her gains as a desiring subject (i.e., one who desires to invert male patriarchy) are quickly lost when she leaves Chip on the stairs. She’s eventually consumed by Jory, the fifteen-year-old boy who’s actually orchestrating the strange affairs in half-life that Chip and his team are experiencing. Jory tells Chip during their first showdown, “I ate her out in the hall by the elevator.” There’s the literal reading that Jory devoured Pat, but another reading is that he “ate her out” in the sexual sense of cunnilingus. On the one hand, this would imply a male giving a female oral sexual pleasure, but this is made gross and potentially painful considering Jory’s “Gray, shabby teeth,” “grubby tongue,” and “great shovel teeth” (Dick 196, 198). The twist for Pat is that she believes that it was her powers facilitating the entropic deaths of the others as well as the temporal reversion from 1992 to 1939. However, these actions took place on the will of the male boy, and his implied adolescent sexual subjugation of others via his devouring oral fixation. Jory represents a sort of mega-male patriarchy in that all half-lifers represent desired objects for him, the only desiring subject. His status as desiring subject pulls the rug out from beneath Pat’s subjectivity, because the impetus behind her desiring is removed as she herself is consumed by the entropic heat death experienced by the others.

To conclude, it appears that images of women in Ubik just don’t count. This is alarmingly illustrated by a mathematical error in chapter four. It begins with Runciter gazing about his office, and thinking, “And so it went: five females and–he counted–five males. Someone was missing” (Dick 57). Prior to this, four female characters are named in the office: Edie Dorn, Tippy Jackson, Francesca Spanish, and Wendy Wright, as well six males. Also, he only pauses to count the men (albeit incorrectly). Following the passage above, the narration continues, “Ahead of Joe Chip the smoldering, brooding girl, Patricia Conley, entered. That made the eleventh; the group had all appeared” (Dick 57). Pat Conley increases the number of female inertials to five, whereas in the incorrect count, there should be six female inertials. Instead, there is an unacknowledged weighting of inertials towards men. This undocumented mistake or purposeful inclusion begs the question: Do women in Ubik really count? Ella Runciter’s loss of agency as a half-lifer would indicate no. Wendy Wright’s claim as the first of the team to die a lonely, accelerated entropic death further demonstrates this. And, Pat Conley’s false belief of destroying Runciter’s team with the use of her time traveling psionic power also implies the inability of women to act on the strange world of Ubik. Therefore, these images of women lack signification afforded to (male) human subjects caught in the subjective postmodern world Dick (re)creates in Ubik, and reinforces what Russ decried as the “cultural stereotype” of “masculinity equals power and femininity equals powerlessness” (55).

A feminist reading of this text in regard to Russ’ concept of “images of women in Science Fiction” can be problematic. On the one hand, there’s the reading that this novel absolutely objectifies women and does so in particularly demeaning ways. Essentially, they are formulated as nothing more than parts in a male dominated machine, easy to replace, and ready to serve. However, my reading of the text holds that the images of women in Ubik are commentary on Dick’s historical present within New Wave SF and more importantly, 2WF. This is evidenced by his later work, particularly the fully realized female subject, Angel Archer, in his last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982). Ubik, and Dick’s other novels, are deserving of further attention regarding gender roles, and I believe that there is much more to say about the interrelationships of gender and capitalism that, unfortunately, I could not address in the scope of this paper.

Works Cited

Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Dick, Philip K. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.

—. Ubik. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

Fitting, Peter. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <;.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso, 2005.

Kasdorf, Krista. “Ubiquitous Entropy and Heat Death in Philip K. Dick and Pamela Zoline.” Thesis. Florida Atlantic University, 2006. Proquest/UMI Microform 1435298.

McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Palmer, Christopher. Philip K. Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2003.

Rockwell, Norman. Rosie the Riveter. 1943. Private collection. 2 December 2007 <;.

Russ, Joanna. “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” Vertex 1.6 (Feb 1974): 53-57.

—. The Female Man. New York: Bantam Book, 1975.

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975). 19 October 2007 <;.

Warrick, Patricia S. Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.


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