An Entreaty to Gamergate: Giving Ourselves Permission to Change for an Inclusive Video Game Culture

Originally, I wrote a draft of this essay last year for a special roundtable on important issues in “play and competition” for the journal NANO: New American Notes Online. However, I wanted to send these thoughts into the world as soon as possible—especially in light of tonight’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode based on the experiences of Gamergate victims (NBC, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 9:00PM). I will write an update to the essay below as part of an upcoming Nano roundtable in a future issue of that journal.

If you are not familiar with Gamergate or how it has developed over time, you can catch up with these reports: Gawker; The New York Times here, here, and here; The Guardian; Newsweek; The Washington Post; and ArsTechnica (lots of coverage).

An Entreaty to Gamergate: Giving Ourselves Permission to Change for an Inclusive Video Game Culture

Jason W. Ellis

I recently visited Adam Yauch Park near where I live in Brooklyn, New York, because I sought inspiration for this essay about inclusion and video game culture. As you might know, Yauch, whose stage name was M.C.A. and who was a founding member of the hip-hop group The Beastie Boys, passed away from cancer in 2012. I felt that visiting this park in a corner of Brooklyn where I now call home would help ground my thinking about the way exclusionary actions and beliefs threaten and continue to threaten video game culture as a community for anyone who likes to play games, talk about games, and build games. What drew me to this park is that fact that M.C.A. and The Beastie Boys represent something that I feel to be very important to the human condition: the ability to change over time, admit to past mistakes, and make amends for those transgressions. As you might know, The Beastie Boy’s infused sexist attitudes (e.g., “Girls” and other lyrics—notably on songs from their first album) and homophobic prejudices in a proposed album title (Licensed to Ill was originally titled Don’t Be a F****t). As they grew older and listened to challenges from their fans and critics, they reflected on their past actions and changed their attitudes and behavior for the better—to be more inclusive and respectful to others by changing lyrics during performances (Tyler-Ameen par. 10) and writing socially and politically progressive songs on their later albums (e.g., “Song for the Man” on Hello Nasty, and “It Takes Time to Build,” “Right Right Now Now” on their album To the 5 Boroughs, and “In a World Gone Mad,” released online as an mp3 download).

The Beastie Boy’s shift toward inclusivity and away from the exclusivity of their early career provides a useful guide for thinking about one of the most pressing issues in video game culture made paramount by the largely misogynistic Gamergate movement. In particular, two songs come to mind where M.C.A. uses his low, course voice—the most mature voice of the trio—to establish The Beastie Boy’s program for inclusivity. In “Sure Shot” from 1994’s Ill Communication, M.C.A. sings, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and sisters and wives and friends/I want to over my love and respect to the end.” These lines promote the idea that empathy, understanding, and welcoming constitute respect for others. Related to this is an idea that comes from “It Takes Time to Build” from 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs, where M.C.A. lays it down: “Waiting like a batter who is on deck/When it’s time to wreck shop then shop I’ll wreck/So let’s calibrate and check our specs/We need a little shift on over to the left.” While M.C.A. explicitly takes issue with Bush-II era politics, his entreaty for a shift to the left—of opening minds instead of closing them, of listening instead of speaking, of empathizing instead of victim blaming—is something that we must continue to strive toward if we are to move into the future constructively rather than destructively.

The ongoing actions taken by misogynistic Gamergate supporters and instigators against feminist voices—voices calling for equality and righting cultural stereotypes, prejudices, and attitudes—in the video game community demonstrate the pressing need of inclusivity. I define inclusivity to be the unconditional acceptance of everyone as members of a community of game developers, game players, and game fans. In all of these overlapping groups, inclusivity particularly applies to the unconditional acceptance of historically marginalized groups from gaming culture, including women, LGBTQ persons, people of color, and persons with disabilities. To illustrate the marginalization as evident in the production and consumption of games, consider that while 48% of game players are female (ESA 3), only 22% of game developers are female (IGDA, Developers 9). Or, as Patrick Yacco reports from an interview with game designer and critic Mattie Brice: “While there is little data regarding LGBT characters and players, Brice believes that ‘most developers find it too much of a risk to include queer people in games, even when it comes to avatars with little to no narrative arc in the games’ stories,’ leading to a paucity of queer characters. She adds, ‘The majority of queer people are stereotypes many people are tired of seeing’” (Yacco par. 8). Or, at 79%, the overwhelming majority of game developers are white (ESA 9), and at 75.1%, the overwhelming majority of video game characters are white (Williams et. al. 825). This is despite the fact that some evidence shows that African-American and Latino gamers spend more time playing (Packwood par. 8), are more likely to purchase games more frequently than their white counterparts (Good par. 3), and have a greater percentage of homes with video games than their white counterparts (Nielsen 5). Furthermore, Williams et. al. conclude their study of gender and race that, “Nevertheless, the current study demonstrates that the world of game characters is highly unrepresentative of the actual population and even of game players. For developers, this is a missed opportunity. For players, it is a potential source of identity-based problems” (Williams et. al. 831). Or, the fact that the conclusion of the IGDA’s 2004 white paper on game accessibility begins with this paragraph acknowledging the need for political will to potentially overcome financial over ethical concerns: “It goes without saying that the efforts of game accessibility must have a realistic financial grounding, otherwise they risk not become implemented in mainstream games. What is important is: to achieve this we need to work on a political level” (IDGA, Accessibility 26). Yet, the report backpedals in the next paragraph and again asserts the financial calculus: “Efforts of individuals or small companies to create accessible games are important and interesting from many perspectives. However, to get mainstream games to be accessible to as many as possible we need first to resolve the financial issues, which are related to the time and effort accessibility development takes, and the increased number of sales you get by doing it” (IDGA, Accessibility 26). This sampling represents only a small part of the quantified data regarding marginalization in gaming culture. Reading online screeds, comments, and tweets reveals the semi-anonymous vitriol against inclusion of these groups. Listening to the lived experiences of these marginalized peoples and the challenges to building their own communities and attempting to enter exclusionary communities provides a deeper insight that these other sources cannot capture.

Obviously, one person excluded from gaming culture might occupy one or more of these marginalized identities. Their exclusion from gamer culture takes the form of misogyny, homophobia, racism, religious intolerance, and an overwhelming lack of empathy, understanding, or even acknowledgement. Some exclusive practices are organized by anonymous mobs of ethically unhinged persons who threaten anyone, any idea, or any game seen as antagonistic or different than those games celebrating male power fantasies supported by violence.

For example, Gamergate (or #gamergate on Twitter) continues to play out online and in real life (of course, both being lived experience). What began as false allegations by an ex-boyfriend against the award winning indie game developer of Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn, exploded into an unrelenting assault on women and their supporters dubbed by Gamergate supporters as “Social Justice Warriors.” Organizing on sites including 4Chan and Github, Gamergate supporters organized attacks against anyone seen as potentially upending, challenging, or critiquing male power fantasies in games or game fandom. Instead of recognizing the work of Quinn and others (such as developer of Revolution 60, Brianna Wu; editor-at-large of Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander; or founder of Feminist Frequency and creator of “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, Anita Sarkeesian) as adding to gaming culture, they were seen as threats to the status quo needing silencing or in the most extreme elimination. Continuing over the past several months (though, the threats extend further back), people have been doxed (having their private information released online), harassed in the worst possible ways, and threatened with assault, rape, and murder. Even more alarmingly, as of a few moments ago, even mass murder was leveled as a threat against Utah State University where Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak. She has since canceled, because the police declined to perform security checks due to Utah’s open-carry-gun laws, which understandably made Sarkeesian feel unsafe in an already threatening situation (Wingfield par. 2). As M.C.A. entreats us, “the disrespect to women has got to be through.”

The disrespect and exclusion of women from game culture (space here does not permit me to further describe other examples such as the “fake geek girl”) is only one (albeit alarmingly so) component of the overall exclusion of Othered individuals from gaming culture. Exclusion leveled against women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, ethnic groups, and religious persons confront largely explicit exclusion from participating in games culture writ large. Stereotypes presented in message board visual memes, hate speech written and spoken, and exclusive cliques, teams, and guilds all serve to warn marginalized persons that they are unwelcomed participants in game culture.

The other form that exclusion takes, of course, is implicit. On the one hand, these are the game design decisions that developers, publishers, or advertisers make (the tail wags the dog as surely in video games as in other spheres). They include choices such as: Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Who are non-playable characters (NPCs)? Where does the story take place? What level of control do players have in the visual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, race, etc. of their playable character? How central are these considerations to the development of the narrative and its interactive progression? When developers are overwhelming white and male (cite), they might not know from their privileged position how important considerations are for audience identification, engagement, and empowerment afforded by providing the possibility of identifying with in-game characters, nuanced and informed handling of cultures and identities as part of a game narrative, and supporting an inclusive and respectful community of gamers.

Another implicit concern has to do with issues of accessibility and accommodation. To what extent are video games and video game platforms playable by persons with disabilities? To what extent are gamer communities receptive to the voices and needs of gamers with disabilities? Do message boards for game fan communities adhere to usability guidelines to enable everyone regardless of challenges to participate in this shared culture?

These exclusions—explicit and implicit—are opportunities for us to confront and correct them in the work that we do together as faculty, students, and the public. Video games are an important part of our culture that we should bring into the classroom as new texts to experience, confront, question, and in a word, grok (meaning to understand completely and holistically within a larger historical and cultural context—see Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land). Together with our students, we can explore how games and game culture are a part of real life and lived experience. We can discover how we learn from video games and how we have lessons to offer to others about games as they currently exist and as they have yet to be made. We can critique how game culture as it has evolved to be exclusionary is not how it has always been or how it always will be. Simply helping our students understand that their choice to behave a certain way to others in game culture is a decision that they should make after having the tools and knowledge to make informed and ethical decisions will be an important shift, as M.C.A. puts it, “over to the left.”

Deeply embedded in this challenge is an observation by the celebrated science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who writes, “A human being without the proper empathy or feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or mistake. We mean, basically, someone who does not care about the fate that his fellow living creatures fall victim to; he stands detached, a spectator, acting out by his indifference John Donne’s theorem that ‘No man is an island,’ but giving the theorem a twist: That which is a mental and moral island is not a man” (Dick 211). For Dick, it is our capacity for empathy that makes us human and not machine-like androids. However, he cautions us that human beings can become android-like if we lack empathy and ignore the suffering of others. Social justice advocate Mark Bracher argues in his body of work that literature is one important avenue to teach students how to feel empathy for the suffering of others. In a recent essay, he asserts, “From the perspective of these and other philosophers [Sandra Bartky, Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, and Robert Solomon], the question of how the study of literature might contribute to the production of social justice is thus not a question of how it can inculcate new values, provide new knowledge, or develop new analytical skills but of how it might help people overcome their indifference to, and instead experience compassion for, the billions of people who live in misery on our planet. If literary study could systematically help students overcome their indifference to the suffering that surrounds them and experience compassion for the sufferers, it would make a significant contribution to social justice” (Bracher 471). Likewise, I argue that video games provide an even more important cultural point of contact for these issues and for teaching students how to empathize, because 1) video game culture as it now stands is overwhelmingly exclusionary and provides many engaging teachable examples, 2) the interactive aspect of game play provides different kinds of characterological, narratological, and psychological engagements on the part of the player, and 3) video games are significant carriers of culture for an increasing number of people worldwide of all age groups.

As part of our engagement with students playing video games, we need to help them reflect on what they do in video games. Of course, this is not a concern for all video games, but it is for the popular first-person shooter (FPS), real-time strategy (RTS), and other games brokering violence. In my previous work, using cosmopolitanism as a lens is one approach to rethinking and re-engaging a video game apparently meant to be something else. For example, World of Warcraft. “which is overtly about war, death, and defense of one’s own race and faction, carries an implicit cosmopolitanism hidden within the game’s mechanics (quests), in-game achievements (associated with travel and exploring the entire world of Azeroth), and the over-arching game narrative in which the two opposing factions, which are comprised of the only playable races, tentatively cooperate against the subversively encroaching Burning Legion. Furthermore, it is these cosmopolitan imbued in-game elements that may serve an educational and pedagogical function for game players” (Ellis 157). That is, helping students see others as human beings sharing the same world despite arbitrary borders. More to the point with Dick’s ideas is the need of teaching empathy. While video games are often registered as mindless fun, we need to work with our students to identify with and consider Othered characters in games so that they might feel something instead of tuning out their empathy for others and disabling their ethical compass. Through games, we can help our students be more human and less like androids. Similarly, we can work with the public using outreach in person or with new media outreach (Twitter, YouTube, blogging, etc.).

As far as how digital play might play a role in restructuring how we structure learning, I am sure that it will in some way. More learning is taking place now via games and reward/achievement systems than ever before. More research is taking place on how the reward centers of the brain might be harnessed to improve learning outcomes, too. My concern about these developments is three fold. First, we need qualitative alongside quantitative assessment of student learning outcomes, and we need to be a part of the process that develops the implementation of these pedagogical methods instead of having them imposed from less qualitative disciplines. Second, we cannot ignore the material conditions of our students and their access to technology that supports studying digital play. Also, we cannot assume anything about our students’ backgrounds and experiences that inform their engagement with digital play. Third, we cannot ignore the material conditions of the faculty who design, implement, and improve gamification of learning environments. Faculty cannot be exploited to pursue the next buzz-worthy wave of digital pedagogy.

Finally, I think the most important lesson for all involved—faculty, students, and the public—is that, like The Beastie Boys, we are not bound by our initial conditions. M.C.A. and his band mates Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) and Mike-D (Michael Diamond) became who they are through learning and experience. In 1986 when their first major album License to Ill was released, they were disrespectful towards women and LGBTQ people, but they became inclusionary over time—admitting to past mistakes and misjudgments and working to put things right through their rhymes, public work, and open acknowledgments. For example, Ad-Rock published an open letter to the gay and lesbian community in Time Out New York on December 16, 1999, in which he wrote, “There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity. … We hope that you’ll accept this long overdue apology” (qtd. in MTV News Staff par. 1). The Beastie Boys can serve as an exemplary model for how we should all aspire to be—permit ourselves to change our minds based on new evidence, connect with people who we might not have made connections with before, attempt to understand others who we might believe are different than ourselves, welcome others, and finally, encourage others to follow our example and actions as inclusive teachers, designers, makers, players, and critics.

Works Cited

The Beastie Boys. “It Takes Time to Build.” To the 5 Boroughs. Capital, 2004. MP3.

—. “Sure Shot.” Ill Communication. Capital, 1994. MP3.

Bracher, Mark. “Teaching for Social Justice: Reeducating the Emotions Through Literary Study.” jac 26.3-4 (2006): 463-512. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

Dick, Philip K. “Man, Android, and Machine.” In The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. 211-232. Print.

Ellis, Jason W. “Engineering a Cosmopolitan Future: Race, Nation, and World of Warcraft.” In The Postnational Fantasy: Essays on Postcolonialism, Cosmopolitics and Science Fiction. Eds. Masood Ashraf Raja, Jason W. Ellis, and Swaralipi Nandi. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. Print. 156-173.

Entertainment Software Association. Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry: 2014 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data. theesa.com. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Good, Owen. “Survey: Hispanic Gamers More Inclined to Buy Games.” Kotaku. 1 April 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

MTV News Staff. “Beastie Boy Apologizes for Past Lyrics.” MTV.com. 17 December 1999. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.

International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Accessibility in Games: Motivations and Approaches. igda.org. 29 June 2004. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

—. Developer Satisfaction Survey 2014: Summary Report. igda.org. 25 June 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Nielsen. Ethnic Trends in Media. Nielsen.com. March 2009. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Packwood, Damon. “Hispanics and Blacks Missing in Gaming Industry.” New American Media. 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Tyler-Ameen, Daoud. “Adam Yauch, Co-Founder of The Beastie Boys, Dies.” NPR. 4 May 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Williams, Dmitri, Nicole Martins, Mia Consalvo, and James D. Ivory. “The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race, and Age in Video Games.” New Media Society 11.5 (2009): 815-834. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Wingfield, Nick. “Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in ‘Gamergate’ Campaign.” The New York Times 15 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Yacco, Patrick. “Game Developers Conference Tackles LGBT Representation in Video Games.” The Advocate. 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Defense Opening Statement, May 15, 2012

This is the sixty-fourth 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.

I prepared this brief statement to introduce the thinking behind the choices that I made on which writers to include and the emergent theme of the dissertation that would lead to my current research: technological ephemerality. This statement is part justification and part roadmap for where I am now and will be in the future.

To set the stage for making this statement, imagine me sitting at the head of a conference table. Behind me on a podium is a Powerbook 145 with Gibson’s eBook of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive open and the big box for the Neuromancer video game adaptation from the late-1980s.

Dissertation Defense Opening Statement

Jason W. Ellis

15 May 2012

            I would like to thank you all for reading my dissertation, “Brains, Minds, and Computers in Literary and Science Fiction Neuronarratives” and for meeting with me today. I am looking forward to your questions and our discussion. Before we begin, I would like to take this opportunity to describe my project’s goals, it’s origins, my methods of research, and what I hope it accomplishes. As you will see, my iPad figures prominently in these things.

In my dissertation, I draw on my interdisciplinary interests in literary studies, science fiction studies, history of science and technology, and evolutionary psychology to situate science fiction’s emergence as a genre in the early twentieth century within the larger context of the human animal’s evolutionary co-development with technology. In a sense, I sought the raison d’être of the genre in a Darwinian and cognitive context. I believe the communal teaching aspect of science fiction to be an integral part of the genre itself, and it is this aspect that I gave the name “future prep.” From another perspective, I define science fiction as the kind of literature that performs this function. I also wanted to take one related thread from the genre’s overall development—that being brains, computers, and artificial intelligence—and trace it through the work of three significant writers, namely: Asimov, Dick, and Gibson.

My dissertation originates in part from my long interest in the biology of the human brain. Perhaps this is a byproduct of the conceptual metaphors that I learned in school or in books that the brain was a type of computer and the computer was a type of brain. We know that these are imperfect analogies, but you can imagine that they can have a strong influence on the development of a curious mind. Even at an early age, I strongly felt the link between brains and computers as evidenced by a sustained performance that convinced my kindergarten classmates I was a robot. More recently, I fell into the physics of mind when I was in high school. Thanks to Stephen Hawking, I stumbled onto the work of his collaborator Roger Penrose, who had done other work arguing that the brain is not a Turning-type computer and that quantum phenomena must play some part in the emergence of human consciousness. Much later, during my MA at the University of Liverpool, I made a deal with a friend in the neuroscience program to give me a digital copy of my brain in exchange for my participating in his neural correlates of facial attractiveness study. However, the most recent and profound shift in my thinking came about in a serendipitous way. During the preparation for my PhD exams, I met with Professor Clewell to discuss my readings for the postmodern theory exam. I recall our conversation veering toward computers and the human brain. I learned from Professor Clewell about the emergent discourse surrounding the human brain and the human experience from a Darwinist/evolutionary rather than a Freudian/psychological or Marxist/social perspective. As invested as my work up to that point was in cultural theory, I was very intrigued by the interdisciplinary possibilities that neuroscientific topics and evolutionary psychology might provide for my work in literary history. Without a doubt, this was a pivotal moment in the development of my dissertation. It provided me a direction to expand the scope of my project from one author—originally on the fiction of Philip K. Dick alone—to three by developing a new theory of the genre in terms of the human brain’s evolution. This was new territory for the literary history of science fiction, and I wanted to trek an unexplored path into this uncharted territory.

The next stage was to select the literary focus of my research. I chose Dick’s work, because I believe his awareness of the brain’s role in human experience and in our relationship with technology strongly connects to my theory of science fiction. Then, I selected Asimov as a connection between the early editors who shaped the genre and later writers including Dick, whose androids obviously respond to Asimov’s robots. Finally, I decided on Gibson, because he reinvented Dick’s concerns about technologization of the human experience in a more nuanced manner than Dick’s paranoiac division between the android and the human.

Research and writing of my dissertation presented its own challenges, but I was very pleased that part of the subject matter inspired my own processes of work. In my reading and research, I leveraged computer technology to my advantage to build efficiencies and speed into my work. In particular, I wanted to make all of my research—primary and secondary sources—available on my computer, iPad, and iPhone. The primary reason for this was to make it easier for me to track my research and use digital tools such as textual analysis software and key word search on materials I had read or skimmed. Having the materials on my various computing devices made it easy to search the same or multiple documents very easily and quickly while taking notes or writing in Microsoft Word on my MacBook. Of course, my brain did the work of configuring, contemplating, and creating the dissertation itself.

The issue of obsolescence, which I discuss a bit about in the concluding part of my dissertation, was also a driving force behind my efforts at digitization of my research materials. For example, the last half of the second chapter presented a unique problem—I needed to read the editorials of the old pulps—particularly Amazing Stories and Astounding—but these pulps are not widely available in library collections, and when they are, it can be difficult to handle and read them due to their extreme fragility. Luckily for my research, legions of science fiction pulp collectors have made much of this material available online as scanned copies. Obviously, there are tensions between the efforts of cultural preservationists and the Disney-fication of copyright law, but due to the nature of my research and its importance to the long literary history of science fiction, some of which is egregiously at risk of disappearing, I side with the preservations. Unfortunately, the scanned materials were not always complete, but they did provide me with some useful evidence and clues to more. I filled these missing holes with interlibrary loan requests that took several weeks to complete. For other primary sources, I was able to track down circulating text files—such as for Asimov’s, Dick’s, and Gibson’s novels, and others, I purchased either through Amazon’s Kindle shop or Apple’s iBook store. I should note that I used these non-paginated materials for research purposes, and I cross-referenced any findings there with the physical copies that I own or borrowed from the library—the only exception being Dick’s Exegesis.

I also converted many sources on hand into digital copies for my personal use. Generally, I took photos of pages, created a PDF, and ran OCR software to generate searchable text. Due to my limited time, this was especially useful during my research trip to UC-Riverside’s Eaton Collection in February. In addition to my typewritten notes on my MacBook, I captured over 1000 pages of rare and interesting primary research for the Dick and Gibson chapters with my iPhone 4S’s built-in camera. Some of this research is included in the dissertation, but there is much left for me to review as I begin the process of transforming the dissertation into a publishable manuscript. This extra work paid off by revealing quotes overlooked during skimming or reading. While I am reading to you from my iPad, I also have my dissertation manuscript, primary sources, secondary sources, notes, and much more all available at the touch of my finger. However, I have to remain vigilant with my archival practices to ensure my access to my data now and in the future. It is also a challenge to find software that maintains compatibility and preserves my workflow.

As Gibson warns us in his afterword to the Neuromancer e-book, technology’s fate is obsolescence. As he foretold, it was nearly impossible to access his e-book in its original version. First, I had to wait several weeks to receive a copy of the e-book’s disk from one of the three American universities that hold it. Then, I had to find an older Macintosh with a floppy disk drive to read the disk and in turn allow me to read the e-book. Unfortunately, there are no Macs with floppy disk drives anywhere near Kent State. I turned to eBay to find an early PowerBook, but unfortunately, the first one I purchased was destroyed during shipping. Eventually, I was able to read the e-book with this PowerBook 145, but it took time, money, and know-how. What does the future hold for those of us who want to read the stories these technologies have to tell us, and what effects do these technologies have on our cognitive development? These are questions I plan to investigate following the dissertation.

In closing, I hope that my work on the literary history of science fiction accomplishes two things. First, I believe that science fiction’s roots run deep, and my dissertation is meant to show how it is a literature that emerges as a byproduct of powerful evolutionary forces of the development of the human brain in conjunction with the human animal’s co-evolution with technology. Second, I hope that my work facilitates further cross-discipline discussion and leads to additional research into the brain’s role in the emergence of human experience and the enjoyment of fiction—especially science fiction.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 3 of 3, Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler, 7 June 2010

This is the sixtieth 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.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

After resting over the weekend, I took my final PhD exam on Philip K. Dick. My dissertation director Donald “Mack” Hassler administered this test for me. We had spent time discussing Dick’s novels and stories during an independent study. However, this minor exam required me to read the entire Dick oeuvre and a good amount of scholarship on the writer’s work. We agreed on this reading list. During the year of preparation, I would walk down to Mack’s house–a few blocks from the house my wife and I rented in Kent–and we would sit and discuss my progress.

In this exam, I discussed in broad strokes Dick’s career in the first question, I explored the major theme of authenticity in the second question, and I examined his personal ontological insights in his VALIS trilogy in the third question. Like the postmodern theory minor exam, I had four hours to write the following response.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald Hassler

PhD Minor Exam: Philip K. Dick

7 June 2010

Question 1

Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist, whose most recognized works were in science fiction, but he also wrote a significant number of realistic fictions, only one of which was published during his lifetime. The majority of stories are closely related to California, where he spent most of his life. Also, the loss of his twin sister Jane and his life with his mother following his parents’ divorce severely affected his personal life and colored his fictions. In his stories, there are a number of recurring character archetypes and themes. His primary recurring characters include the serviceman or blue collar worker who works for someone else and is trapped at home and work, the castrating harpy or bitch is usually the serviceman’s wife, the dark-haired girl is a younger woman who serves as a distraction or seductress to the serviceman, and the patriarch who is the father figure or boss of the serviceman and he is sometimes helpful, sometimes not, and may compete for the attention of the dark-haired girl. The themes that Dick explores in his fictions include the relationships between men and women, humans and machines, the plight of the everyman, psychological rupture, authenticity versus inauthentic, philosophy, ontological uncertainty, and theological questioning.

Using Brian McHale’s theory of postmodernism, I have divided Dick’s oeuvre into three phases based on the epistemological or ontological dominant evident in the fictions. As he argues, epistemologically dominant issues or questions (i.e., how do we know particular things, what can we know, how do we know ourselves, etc.), when pushed far enough, transform or lead to ontologically dominant issues (i.e., creation of a world or worlds, making sense of one’s place in a world, etc.). Even though he is arguing for a division between the modern (epistemological) and the postmodern (ontological), his idea that these dominants coexist on different levels within texts provides a way of engaging Dick’s writing.

The first phase includes his writing to the end of the 1950s during which time Dick was performing two kinds of writing: an overwhelming number of science fiction short stories and a handful of novels including a number of mostly unpublished realistic novels. These fictions promote a epistemological dominant. The second phase with its emphasis on ontologically dominant issues includes the 1960s and the early 1970s. The third phase, which overlaps with the second phase (Dick mentions gnosis in The Penultimate Truth (I will capitalize book titles and not italicize to save time typing), for example, in 1964, and theology in some of his earlier works), includes primarily his fictions of the late-1970s to the early-1980s in which he returns to epistemological questions through his exploration of theology and Gnostic beliefs as he attempts to interpret his own subjective experiences beginning in February and March of 1974.

Dick’s first writing phase begins with his first published story: “Beyond Lies the Wub” (1952), in which an intelligent and telepathic Martian pet takes over the mind of a ship’s captain after it is killed and eaten. Uncertain borders between inside and outside, such as in this story, define the paranoiac tensions in his fiction that turn up again and again. This theme is most fully developed in his mid-1960s novel, Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) when Bill exchanges minds with Hoppy Harrington. Other notable stories from this period include “Imposter” (1953), which is about a man who discovers that he is actually an android, “Second Variety” (1953), which is about a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by men and killer androids that are indistinguishable from humans, “Autofac” (1955), which is about automatic factories that cannot be turned off when they are no longer needed, and “The Minority Report” (1956), which is about stopping crime before it happens and questioning determinism. Minds, paranoia, human-machine relationships, and knowability are issues in his early fiction that he continues to develop throughout his career.

While writing an extensive amount of short fiction in the 1950s, Dick also began writing realistic fiction and science fiction novels, with greater publication success with the latter. His first novel published was Solar Lottery (1955), which depicts a future in which chance defines life and the ultimate lottery is the one that determines the world leader or Quizmaster. Other early novels include The Cosmic Puppets (1957), which features a remote town torn between two competing Zoroastrian gods. This novel combines the issues of a simulated reality with the paranoia of something lying beyond our immediate perception of reality controlling the lives of what Patricia Warrick terms the “little men.” Another early novel is Dr. Futurity (1959—interestingly, published the same year as Heinlein’s “All You Zombies”), which revisits the question of free will through the tribulations of a time travelling surgeon, snatched 400 years into the future to help and inadvertently kill an Iroquois chief. Other notable novels from this period include The World Jones Made (1956), Eye in the Sky (1957), and The Man Who Japed (1956).

During this time, Dick wrote a significant amount of realistic fiction, because he wanted mainstream success. Science fiction, as a result of his agent and publisher, never paid well for Dick. He desired mainstream success and recognition. His first written novel was in fact a realistic novel, Gather Yourselves Together. Written in 1950, it is about three American business people preparing to leave post-WWII China as the Communists begin to control the mainland. The principle characters, two men and one woman, deal more with their interpersonal sexual relationships than with the impending social revolution just outside the gates. In 1952, he wrote Voices from the Street, which is an early appearance of his trademark Modern TV Sales and Service, and it is about its owner and his breakdown from the effects of the mundane. Mary and the Giant, written in 1954, is an interracial love and love-lost story that Dick described as a retelling of Don Giovanni. The Broken Bubble, written in 1956, is about two couples who essentially swap wives, and learn life lessons from the economy of sexual relationships. In 1957, Dick wrote Puttering About in a Small Land which shares elements with Voices from the Street. It is about Roger Lindahl, who runs a TV shop, and who develops marital problems after having an affair with a dark-haired girl/woman. It ends with him not going insane, but instead, skipping out on his wife and lover with a car full of his own TV sets. In 1958, he wrote In Milton Lumky Territory, which is about a warehouse manager turned typewriter sales shop manager. Confessions of a Crap Artist, written in 1959, was the only realistic novel published in Dick’s lifetime. It is a story about the death of a man seen from his and three other character perspectives, and how each constructs a particular view of reality. As in Dick’s most important science fiction, this novel demonstrates Dick’s belief that reality is a subjective experience. The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1960) is about real estate troubles fueled by racism and a poisoned water supply. In fact, racism is viewed as more problematic than the effects of contaminated ground water. And Dick’s last realistic novel from the early period is Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, which was written in 1960. It is a story about two cooperative business owners split apart by an outside entrepreneur. All of the remaining mainstream novels have since been published after Dick’s death in 1982.

The second phase of Dick’s writing career begins with his 1959 science fiction novel Time Out of Joint. It combines the epistemological issues of knowledge and self and the ontological world building that defines Dick’s central works. In the novel, Ragle Gumm is maintained by the world government in a 1950s simulacral enclave in what is really 1997 (note also the exchange of time by place—a postmodern development that figures large in Dick’s middle period). Gumm discovers that he has been placed in the enclave to assist with his psychotic regression from the pressure he was under in the real 1997 predicting where Lunar missiles will strike the Earth. In the simulacral 1950s, he plays a daily contest, “Where are the Little Green Men?” in order to supply the Earth forces with the data they need to prepare for the next attack.

The novel for which Dick won the Hugo Award for Best Novel was his 1962 The Man in the High Castle. The novel takes place in an alternate history where Japan and German won WWII and divided the United States between them. This represents one ontology, or world. Within the story there is another novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This novel, developed with the help of the I-Ching or Book of Changes, tells our story, or what we know as reality. This represents another ontology. It is only at the end of the novel that one character, Juliana Frink, questions the I-Ching and learns that Grasshopper is “Inner Truth” or the true reality. This novel provides a denouement that Dick’s later ontological mysteries dismiss favored a deferred meaning.

Martian Time-Slip (1964) takes time and ontology into another direction. In this story about Martian immigrants and the displaced peoples of Mars, the bleekmen, Arnie Kott tries to capitalize on the precognitive abilities of an autistic boy, Manfred. Manfred’s reality is shaped by a different perception of time, seeing slices of time extending into the future, people appearing and disappearing as they move about. With the mystical help of the bleekmen, Kott’s manservant Heliogabalus guides Kott and Manfred to Dirty Knobby, a place that will help focus Manfred’s ability. Instead of helping Kott, it allows Manfred’s already powerful ability to control the reality of those around him by sending Kott back in time to try to interfere in the original course of events that took the claim of the FDR Mountains from him. The original time line is maintained and upon his return Kott is killed by Zitte, a smuggler whose warehouse was destroyed by Kott’s men. Kott dies believing that he is still in the world controlled by Manfred.

Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) is a post-apocalyptic story about a group of survivors living in the California countryside. Instead of a straight ontological Dick story, this novel is about the control of reality by technoscientific means. First, Dr. Bluthgeld/Jack Tree/Dr. Bloodmoney, representing the military-industrial complex and the man held responsible for the devastation of the war, and seemingly innocent and eccentric member of the neighborhood family, once marshaled his abilities to ruin the world and society as it then existed. Now, threatened, he attempts to use his force of will to rein terror down on humanity once again. He is stopped by Hoppy Harrington, a phocomelus, a human mutant reliant on his mental powers and technological apparatus to move about and do his work. Hoppy destroys Bluthgeld, and in turn, becomes like Bluthgeld. Mad with power, Hoppy and his stunted child-like mind demand favors and attention. Hoppy is in turn defeated by Bill, Edie’s unborn brother who lives inside her body. Hoppy uses his power to remove Bill, but Bill uses his own mental powers to switch bodies with Hoppy—leaving Hoppy to die and Bill to take over his new, yet deformed, body. This world is dependent on the interconnections between the characters and the unifying voice of Walt Dangerfield, endlessly orbiting Earth in his manmade satellite. Disruptions to the web of connections lead to ontological instability and the threat of more bombs. The elimination of Hoppy and Bluthgeld restores stability to the world and breaks the cycle of mad power hunger represented by these two characters.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) is a demonstration of drug-induced ontologies. Can-D is a drug for Martian colonists to interact with their Perky Pat layouts—the ultimate commodity fetishism through virtual immersion. However, the Perky Pat layout is limited to only Pat and her boyfriend Walt, which means several persons may inhabit these virtual selves at a given time. Palmer Eldritch, or something purporting to be Eldritch, returns from a mission to the Prox System with a new and improved drug that he calls Chew-Z. Unlike Can-D, Chew-Z creates a world just for the person who uses it. What Eldritch doesn’t say is that every world, all of those separate ontologies, are inhabited and controlled by him. His three stigmata—mechanical arm, stainless steel eye, and metal teeth—become ubiquitous. The ending gestures towards the uncertainty of reality or the certainty of a subjective reality that Dick will explore more in this period culminating with Ubik and A Maze of Death.

The transition from his second to third phase of writing begins with the richly complex Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). I will speak more on this novel in the second question, but for now, it suffices to say that this novel returns to Dick’s earlier dominant theme of epistemological questions through an ontological subplot. The primary issue in the novel is the human builds machine, and then the human becomes the machine. The main character, Rick Deckard, struggles with his own identity as he retires or kills escaped androids for money that would allow him to own a real live animal sheep. In this future Earth populated by those who cannot or choose not to immigrate to the outer planets, Fredric Jameson’s waning of affect is clearly evident when the other characters are surfaces to be painted by emotion delivered by the Mood Organ and the Empathy Box. The Empathy box is far more important to the story, because it allows an individual to interface with every other person using an Empathy Box. In that other realm, the individuals merge with Wilber Mercer, an apparently old man who struggles up a steep and barren hill against the killers—those who would take from Mercer his ability to return the dead to life. Interestingly, Mercer is revealed to be a fake and a fraud, and yet, he transcends his realm of the Empathy Box into Deckard’s world to warn him of the androids waiting for him at the end. Mercer tells him that he will do the thin that conflicts with his identity—the thing he wants to refuse to do—and that thing is the taint on all creation. By Dick’s own description of an android and how humans can become androids, Mercer is telling Deckard that there is no escape—that in some way we are all androids when we experience this identity crisis.

Ubik (1969) is arguably the finest example of Dick’s ontological experiments in fiction of the 1960s. The story is structured around a series of ontological puzzles, one cliffhanger explanation after another, where the characters are caught in a deadly entropic world trying to figure out where they are and how they can survive a world in constant flux beyond rational analysis. The characters may be in half-life, or they could be in a world created by a telepath with a unique time-altering ability undetectable by precogs. This dark-haired girl is particularly dangerous to men and women who stand in her way to the men she desires. Their boss may be alive, or he may be dead. They may be in a real world and their boss trapped in half-life. All the while, one by one they die off by an accelerated entropy, the gubble or kipple in Martian Time-Slip or Do Androids, that ages their bodies in a matter of moments. An anti-entropic force is at work in this changing world that provides the main character Joe Chip with Ubik, a commodified chemical substance that keeps his body safe and immune to the effects of entropy. However, it is difficult to come by Ubik, and its effects are only temporary. Jory, a boy in half-life who apparently is feeding off the life force of those caught in half-life will ultimately return for another chance at Joe. This novel interweaves ontological dilemmas with a heavily commodified culture that has become ubiquitous to the point that there is no outside advertising fueled capitalism (cf. The Space Merchants). It can be argued that this capitalism, which Jameson and others point to as giving rise to postmodernism, is what causes the ontological crisis for the characters in the novel. This idea complements McHale’s formulation of epistemological/modernism and ontological/postmodernism.

Further bridging Dick’s earlier work with his increasing integration of religion and in particular gnosticism into his fiction is his novella “Faith of Our Fathers” (1967). In this story, the world is ruled by the Chinese Communist government and its one supreme ruler. Everyone on Earth is given prescribed hallucinogenic drugs. The protagonist, Tung, obtains an illegal anti-hallucinogen, which causes him to see the supreme ruler as he actually is—a multiply and shifting appearance from the machine to the monstrous to the natural. Tung discovers that the leader is actually an alien or demiurge with fantastic powers, but who rationalizes his actions as not being as bad as other beings in the universe. At the end, Tung dies wishing to regain his hallucination, because it was a much more acceptable reality than the one he now finds himself in.

In A Maze of Death (1970), Dick begins to combine theology with ontological instability. A group of specialists converge on a mysterious planet, Delmak-O, and begin dying off one by one. In this world, people can contact their religious deities through a network of transmitters and amplifiers. Interestingly, each person sees a mysterious building on the planet in different ways and in different places prior to the planet’s complete dissolution. Also, the tenches, large techno-organic beings, serve a role providing I-Ching-like advice and duplicates of artifacts that the colonists need. It is believed by some of the colonists that the tenches play a significant role in the world that they are on, but it is later revealed that Delmak-O is merely a simulation of reality, slightly distorted for each participant. The inhabitants of this virtual world are trapped aboard a spacecraft orbiting a distant star. The final destabilizing moment of the novel comes when Morley is visited by his deity from within the simulation in the real world. The deity offers him an escape from the ship, which Morley gladly accepts.

Largely based on Dick’s troubles as a result of increasing involvement in the California drug scene, A Scanner Darkly (1977) develops a more elegant depiction of drug-induced ontologies and the resulting epistemological troubles that arise from an uncertain reality. Bob Arctor is a NARC who is assigned to infiltrate the Substance-D(eath) scene. As a NARC, he wears a scramble suit in the police building and at official functions, so no one really knows what Bob looks like. On assignment, Bob makes friends, each with their own personality quirks and psychoses that develop from their use of drugs including Substance-D. The thing about this drug is that it severs the cross talk between the two brain hemispheres and effectively divides the self into two. For Bob, this is particularly troubling, because he loses grasp on the division between his undercover and professional selves. The drug makes the division real, which precipitates the crisis leading to his girlfriend (a dark-haired NARC) taking him to the New-Path Facility, a special detox and rehabilitation center that the authorities believe are behind the production of Substance-D. Bob didn’t realize that his mission lead to this point where he would, hopefully be able to alert the authorities of his findings. The important thing to take away from this novel is that what we know is determined by the biology of our brains, which can be influenced or destroyed by chemical dependence. Furthermore, subjective experience of our ontology is determined by the physicality of our brain.

Dick’s last three novels VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981), and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) are loosely collected as the VALIS Trilogy (I will talk about these more in the third question). Dick refocuses his writing on epistemologically dominant questions as he processes the meaning of his 2-3-74 experience. Beginning in February 1974, Dick experienced what he described as a bright pink laser beam, which filled his vision and imparted information about his life, those around him, and the universal structure of things. Described as 2-3-74, due to the most impressive visions having happened in February and March of that year, Dick began attempting to make sense of the experience. He began writing what he called his Exegesis. It was a remembering of knowledge that he believed he had lost, or anamnesis, and a rational explanation of what these new memories meant for himself and his understanding of the universe. Part of Dick’s revelatory experience is that it was grounded in Gnosticism—an early Christian belief that the world was created and ruled by a lesser being, the demiurge, and that Christ was the emissary of the distant supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge or gnosis of whom enabled the redemption of the human spirit. Some critics have written on Gnosticism in Dick’s earlier works, but these ideas unequivocally play a defining part in these, his last three novels. VALIS is a metafictional account of the author as a divided character in a novel who watches a movie about his personal spiritual experience and seeks to understand it with the help of his close friends. The Divine Invasion is a fictional story that relates the author’s Gnostic vision in a far future story of personal salvation. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is a theologically based realistic fiction that is told in flashback by his most realized and sympathetic female character, Angel Archer. It is about loss, the human and the android, and redemption through giving and empathy. I will address these novels more in the third question.

Throughout his fiction, Dick’s characters are usually little men or the everyman. They may get tangled up on something much larger than themselves (e.g., politics or the battle between good and evil). Populating their worlds are numerous simulacra or androids—mechanical beings but lacking affect or emotion. In Dick’s worls, however, the humans often become or are already androids themselves—beings who lack empathy. Late capitalism and commodity fetishism turn men into machines—unfeeling, disconnected from humanity, acting on programming or instructions. In Dick’s fictions, it seems like he began with epistemological questions, which led him to push them into the realm of the ontological. I believe this is what caused his career to circle back to the beginning so to speak. He was almost always concerned about the interiority and psychology of his characters even while exploring how people figure out the world in which they find themselves. Dick’s turn to theology was only another turn in this questioning of subjective reality. He believed that his 2-3-74 experience was the next path to explore and that it might lead him to explore and that it might lead him to some explanations, however problematic they may be, and those explanations seem to have made sense to his subjective experience, which for Dick, was all that really mattered.

An important element of Dick’s writing has to do with his development of female characters. Until Angel Archer, the majority of Dick’s women characters were spiteful, controlling, and emasculating to the men around them. Without knowing the full context of Judith Merril’s “domestic patriots,” which I suspect is related to Lisa Yaszek’s work in Galactic Suburbia and Elaine Taylor May’s Homeward Bound, these women protected the home and community in the face of nuclear Armageddon. However, they do this in confrontation with men’s power and authority. Dick’s relationships with women including his mother is troubled to say the least, and it could be that his women characters are by-and-large representations of the way he saw women who tried to take authority away from men, including himself. However, I do not get a sense that his women character’s gradually change over time. Angel Archer is a specific shift in writing for Dick, and I am suspect to how much Angel was an authentic attempt at a female narrative voice or merely Dick’s assuming a new tact at controlling women through his fiction. In effect, he have crafted Angel so well to control her (in opposition to the controlling female characters in the past stories), and to assert his command as a writer who can also write in a feminine voice (a topic particularly exacerbated by the Robert Silverberg introduction to the James Tiptree, Jr. collection, but I do not know if Dick weighed-in on this or not).

Dick doesn’t seem to give up on his fears of fascism. Even in The Transmigration, Tim Archer is besieged by the invisible church authorities and in The Divine Invasion the world is controlled by Belial. Dick is always looking for the ‘penultimate truth’ and the next layer underneath what we perceive as reality and the social. Even in his last fictions, Dick still perceived something underneath everything that maintained control. Most famously, at the convention in Metz, France in 1977, Dick asserted his beliefs that we now think of as an invention of the Wachowski Brothers in The Matrix (1999).

 

Question 2

Dick’s underlying concern in most (if not all) of his works is authenticity. He is concerned about the authenticity of experiences, things, and phenomena. What is authentic reality? What is my authentic experience compared to someone else’s? Are these goods authentic or ersatz duplications? These questions recur in Dick’s fiction and essays and concern his fictional creations as well as his subjective experience of the supposed real world. Dick is particularly concerned about authentic human beings and their inauthentic simulacra. However, Dick did not formulate a simple dichotomy between real humans and androids. Much more interestingly, he observed that humanity is embroiled in its simulacral creations, and one may transform into the other. It is the contemporary challenge of humanity to not become the android as the world changes in various ways with the forces of technoscientific advancement and the effects of late capitalism. Coming before the work of Fredric Jameson and his lament for the waning of affect and Bruno Latour’s demonstration that the moderns artificially purified subjects and objects while hybrids continued to proliferate underneath the surface, each qualified for engaging Dick’s ideas about humans and androids. Patricia Warrick began to theorize the meanings of Dick’s ideas about human authenticity and inauthenticity through the work of Bruce Mazlish.

Warrick’s analysis of Dick’s fiction in regard to humans and androids relies on the work of anthropologist Bruce Mazlish. He perceived a discontinuity between man and his machines that could be breached in the future. Mazlish’s argument goes that this is another artificial division to be deconstructed by modernity. Copernicus taught man that he was not the center of the Universe. Darwin taught man that he was not separate from nature, but instead part of and evolved from the animal world. Freud taught man that he was not a wholly rational creature with a centered self. Mazlish believes that man should recognize his nature as being continuous with the tools and machines that he constructs. Warrick shows that after the 1950s, science fiction literature that should support Mazlish’s claims exacerbates the discontinuity between man and intelligent machines. However, there are some writers who show the creative potential in man and machine symbiosis.

Warrick compares Dick to Isaac Asimov in her analysis. Dick and Asimov are wildly different writers who both present futures where the distinction between man and machine is erased. Dick, unlike Asimov, is more concerned with androids than robots. Importantly, Dick believes that machines can be androids and humans in certain circumstances, largely from what we think of as late capitalism, can become androids. The central theme in Dick is to define the authentically human and to distinguish those who are non-human with alien elements from the authentically human. Dick and Asimov share a humanistic outlook and believe in the idea of progress, but they are also divergent in a number of significant ways. Asimov is identified with world, objective reality, discursive logic, scientist, sanguine, pre-WWII, no post-holocaust stories, psychohistory, man does not change, static environments, and future is a fictional model of present reality. Dick, on the other hand, is identified with mind, subjective reality, terminal metaphor, humanist (in regard to culture and oriental philosophy), pessimism, post-WWII, post-holocaust stories, future is radical and unexpected, transformation of technology leads to transformation of man, new forms appear as a result of science and technology, and the future is a fictional alternative to current fiction (subjective view point), hence a metafiction.

In Dick’s fiction, there is an evolving reciprocal relationship between man and machine. Man fights automated machines, becomes more un-alive and machine-like, withdraws into schizophrenia as they reject exploitation by economic and political machinery, and schizoid humans turn into androids with mechanical/programmed personalities. In contrast, machines transition and evolve: electronic constructs/automated machines, alien and enemy robots masquerading as human, robots becoming human, will to survive, and robots becoming superior to humans.

Warrick develops her own tripartite classification to Dick’s writing based on the relationship between the human and the android. In the first period, primarily the 1950s, Dick wrote mostly dystopian short fiction that explores the horror of paranoiac militarism, totalitarianism, and manipulation of the little man through mass media persuasion. A few representative works from this period include: “Imposter,” robot/bomb replaces scientist and the scientist tries to prove his innocence/humanity. “Second Variety” is about robots who masquerade as humans in post-apocalyptic landscape. “The Defenders” is about the leady, artificial soldiers who stay above ground while the humans go under while the robots fight on. Unbeknownst to the underground dwellers, the robots make peace and rebuild the world above. And in the novel Vulcan’s Hammer, the Vulcan III computer rules over all humans (not as kindly as the robot controllers in Asimov’s “The Evitable Conflict”). Things become alive and people become things, mere pawns at the control of the computer. This story is emblematic of machines as destructive humans. This illustrates the importance of metaphor in Dick. He sees the computer as a metaphor that runs in two directions: machines/computers can be like humans who kill, but humans, driving by unrecognized impulses (going back to Freud), become machines that kill. This latter metaphor is demonstrated in The Man in the High Castle by the totalitarian state becoming a machine of domination and destruction. In this way, Vulcan’s Hammer and The Man in the High Castle form the opposite poles of a dichotomy that Dick would later more fully explore in a single work.

Dick’s middle period shifts from a focus on militarism and a third person point of view to economic and political structures and multiple narrative foci. He also more fully develops these two main ideas in his fiction: 1) the outcome of the war, be it military or economic, is not victory or defeat, but transformation to the opposite (e.g., human/machine, ally/enemy, us/other), and 2) media images replace the actual (i.e., the image becomes reality). Technologies transform man into new, unexpected, and possibly ironic forms, and technologies through communication media create fictional realities that are more powerful than the real. Just as machines are programmed to perform, people are made subjects who are programmed with a certain view of reality. Some examples include: In Martian Time-Slip, Jack Bolen sees other people as machines. For him, schizophrenia is a way to deal with an inhuman environment. Insanity is represented as absolute reality, because the schizoid sees beneath the surface of things. Manfred, the precognitive autistic child, is the more authentic character. His ‘madness’ allows him to see what no one else wants to or can see. And possibly the most human character in the novel is the Martian aborigine, Heliogabalus, who is able to connect with Manfred with empathy. Dick relies on empathy as the basis for his humanistic value system—something we see repeated to better effect in Do Androids. Also, it is important to note that Manfred does not commune with the teaching androids in the school. His mental disconnection from the rest of humanity does not necessarily make him a machine. It only makes him different and in some ways more human. Palmer Eldritch is like Arnie Kott in Martian Time-Slip: both characters use a form of economic domination to oppress or control others. Kott fails when Jack tries to escape this, but Eldritch’s ubiquity seems inescapable. Eldritch’s stigamata—the mechanical arm, stainless steel teeth, and artificial electronic eye signify his otherness from humanity. The being that returned from the Prox System is more than likely not human. He has returned to devour the little men. His stigmata infiltrates all humanity, and it is through his drug Chew-Z that he gains power of manipulation over reality. His created reality/hallucination replaces the real. The Simulacra has double inauthentic leaders: Nichole Thibodeaux, the supreme leader who is forever young thanks to an endless supply of actresses, and der Alte, her husband, elected every four years, and served by an android. The media and robotic electric technologies allow for this level of manipulation. In The Penultimate Truth, Stanton Brose is the hidden economic-oriented dictator, and the representative of the honest government to the masses is President Talbot Yancy, a programmed simulacra. However, in Dr. Bloodmoney, transformations save the day. Hoppy Harrington transforms into Dr. Bluthgeld as a power-hungry techno-scientist, but the caring Bill subverts their power when he changes bodies with Hoppy.

In the third period, not taking into account Dick’s theologically oriented works, Dick shifts to the inner workings of the mind. Robots haunt the human from within, and the human is seen as a machine and android. Dick outlines these thoughts in his speech “The Machine and the Android.” He argues that the android mind has a paucity of feeling, predictability, obedience, inability to make exceptions, and inability to alter with circumstances to become something new. The finest example of this is Dick’s Do Androids. Unlike most of his middle period works that feature multiple narrative foci, Do Androids focuses on Rick Deckard and J. R. Isidore. Rick Deckard, the android hunter, is left brained, rational, and unfeeling. Isidore is right brained, intuitive, and empathizes with all things, including androids. The novel has further proliferating pairings: people/things, subject/object, animate/inanimate, loving/killing, intuition/logic, human/machine, Deckard/Resch, and Rachael/Pris. Wilber Mercer seems to take a pragmatic, transcendent middle way—the one who could resurrect the dead, but conceding the reality of the universe: you will be required to do the thing that you don’t want to do, the thing that will violate your own identity. Deckard, as in the earlier stories, represents man who created machines that kill/man becomes the machine that kills. However, Deckard is unlike Resch. Deckard is troubled by what he has become. He wants a real live animal so badly that he is willing to kill androids for $1000/each, even while acknowledging that they can give something back to the world (e.g., Luba’s gift as an opera singer). To survive in this world, you have to let go of the inauthentic division between man and machine, living and nonliving. This is what Deckard and Iron do at the end with the mechanical frog. Isidore, considered a chickenhead by many, points the way to the power of the right hemisphere of the brain and its creative power to transform us from machines into authentic humans. In the film version of Do Androids titled Blade Runner (1982), Deckard is figured as an android with his own implanted memories and alone in the world. He falls for Rachel Rosen, a Nexus 6 android, and at the end, he runs away with her. She has come to love him, and he her. If they are both androids, they have demonstrated what Batty and the other escaped androids were trying to tell the humans all along—they can see and feel just like humans. Our constructs are just like us, and it is our responsibility to acknowledge that. Perhaps it is this realization that drives Deckard to run away with Rachel—that through living, however short a time they may have, they will achieve the thing humanity denies androids. For humanity to acknowledge the lives and emotions of its constructs, it would ultimately destabilize and undermine the importance of the human in a universe otherwise devoid of intelligent beings (at least those we have personally encountered). Humanity in this sense is a fascist regime—it denies agency and emotional depth to other creatures. Humanity is the oppressor, and it is unfortunate that Deckard must retire so many androids before he comes to realize his part in the fascism of humanity—something that is hinted at through Mercer’s words to him in the novel.

It is through the film Blade Runner that Dick’s work most colorfully contrasts with that of Asimov. Asimov’s robots, especially R. Daneel Olivaw in the robot and later Foundation novels, contend with the self-imposed superiority of humans over robots. However, the robots have the last laugh through the Zeroth Law—assuming a position of ethnical authority over humanity and its development. Dick’s androids take no stand against or for all of humanity (except perhaps the Machiavellian Vulcan computers in Vulcan’s Hammer). Dick’s androids are, like his humans, individuals trying to find their way in a very unfriendly ontological creation. In Do Androids, they want to hide out and live their lives away from the deadly bounty hunters. In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott shows us how the androids act and behave toward one another as mutually caring individuals.

“The Electric Ant” is another emblematic story of this period of Dick’s writing. Like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Garson Poole wakes in a hospital bed and discovers that he is actually a robot. Learning this fact forever changes the way he sees himself and the world around him. He realizes that he is programmed to act and behave in a particular way according to the instructions on his tape, but he also realizes that he can reprogram himself, change his tape, and experience the world differently. Thus, his reality tape is a subjective reality, just as our own acculturation and education creates in us a subjective reality for seeing and interacting with the world. We are programmed in various ways, and Dick understood how this can be a very bad thing if left unacknowledged—leading to fascism and blindly following internalized rules or behavior.

Ultimately for Dick, he sees the irony in our situation. He observed that seeing everything as alive or everything as dead means the same thing. He seeks a middle path: namely that everything is lived through. Life and living are processes, not an end unto themselves. Recognizing this in ourselves and in our simulacra can lead to a more creative and accepting worldview that will eventually come—Dick was there and came back to tell us about it.

 

Question 3

            Dick’s fiction represents the author’s continuing emergence and development as a writer, but unlike his earlier fiction, Dick’s last three books take a decidedly different turn in relation to the author. Dick acknowledges his autobiographical elements in all of his fiction, but it is in the VALIS trology that the author breaks the fourth wall and creates his most postmodern works, particularly with the novel VALIS. The author’s earlier works may have been about his own life in various ways, but it is in these last novels that Dick explores his own subjective experiences and psychosocial traumas. The author’s voice in these works is more developed in these three novels than in his earlier work, because he assumes the role of the mighty Oz and pulls back his own curtains to reveal to the reader what lies beneath the surface of his writing. This curtain hides the underlying beliefs of the author and the author’s own subjective experience known as 2-3-74. Dick’s Gnostic beliefs, already present in his fiction prior to the 1970s, comes to full fruition in the VALIS trilogy as a return of the apostolic age—the juxtaposition of the time of Gnosticism in ancient Rome with Dick’s modern day California—a juxtaposition of returning belief structures united through time transformed into space.

It is through the VALIS trilogy that Dick explores the apostolic age reinvention through the author’s belief in VALIS, the satellite connecting him to the Supreme Being through its Gnostic transmissions. In his last three novels, Dick creatively uses voice in ways much different than in his earlier works to bring his subjective experience to his reading audience. I believe that Dick’s VALIS trilogy represents a strong example of Bakhtin’s monologism. VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer are monologic novels, because the characters are subordinate to the authoritative discourse found in the trilogy. Following Dick’s 2-3-74 experience in which he believed to have been contacted by a super intelligent being who passed along information and awakened Dick’s anamnesis, or a remembrance of things past outside of Dick’s existence in the here-and-now, he sought an explanation for his visions. Through his textually heavy Exegesis, Dick employed his extensive book knowledge and reasoning to come up with possibilities and counter possibilities. Like a Derridean trace, Dick’s ultimate understanding was in the end forever deferred and inconclusive. However, Dick repeatedly circled back to Gnosticism: the early Christian belief in the demiurge, a lesser divinity who controlled and created the universe, and the personal salvation of the individual through esoteric knowledge delivered by Christ, emissary of the greater supreme being. Dick believed that the bright pink laser beam that struck him in 1974 was just such a message, which supplied the possibility of salvation by uncovering the artificiality of reality created by the demiurge. Dick recorded his thoughts and personal conversations regarding his experience in his extensive Exigesis. It is from this collection of notes that Dick began development of VALIS.

The many character voices in VALIS are subservient to Dick’s professed desire to make sense of his experience in a fictional format that could be shared with his readers. He employs a particular rhetoric to do this through the use of character voice—representations of himself in various guises. It is important to note that Dick described VALIS as a picaresque novel populated by picaroons, or rogues. In much of his earlier work, Dick created characters identified by what they did for a living. There were salesmen, repair men, managers, pot healers, etc. Then after he fell into the California drug scene in the 1970s after his then-wife left him and he populated his house with various people from that scene, Dick noted that they were all rogues of various kinds. These were not workers, but users of people, things, and drugs. They would do whatever they needed to do to score a hit. Observing these new friends and acquaintances, Dick, in several late interviews, begins to see everyone as rogues of one sort or another. This realization on Dick’s part informs the central characters of VALIS.

In VALIS, Phil Dick is a science fiction author, much like the real author, Philip K. Dick. Phil creates a persona named Horselover Fat (Philip is Greek for horselover, and Dick in German is Fat) who is a character unto himself, but connected to Phil. Phil explains that he created Fat for some much needed objectivity. Phil and Fat’s friends are David, a catholic, and Kevin, a skeptic who wants to ask the creator why his cat was run over by a car. These four characters banter back and forth about the meaning of Fat’s experience with the pink laser beam transmission from what he calls VALIS, or Vast Active Life Intelligence System. Phil could be said to be rational, left brained persona of the author, Philip K. Dick, and Fat could be the intuitive, right brained persona. Some critics argue that David and Kevin are further psychic splits of the author represented as characters within the novel. However, the underlying point about which they all orbit is Fat’s experience and VALIS. They may provide alternative explanations, but they are each a manifestation of the various ideas that the author explored in his Exegesis. They are straw men for the central idea that the author imagines was his 2-3-74 experience.

To complicated matters, it can also be argued that VALIS is a dialogic or polyphonic novel. The characters do provide a unique voice or point of view to the events that Fat experiences. After VALIS’ contact with Fat’s mind, Fat comes to realize that he lives in two time-space continua—the present day California and ancient Rome. However, in ancient Rome, he is Thomas, who Fat considers the dominant personality. So, Dick has created another schism, another split, another voice. Thomas notwithstanding, the California group, who call themselves the Rhipidon Society, are also an example of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Order is inverted—the serious is made silly and the silly is made serious. These picaroons debate the reasonable and the not-so-reasonable in ernest. Dick, the author, is challenging the accepted dogma of a good deal of the Christian world through these rogue characters. Thus, the novel is not completely monologic, but the playful irony and parody within the novel still presents a singular view about 2-3-74 that Dick himself asserted. It is this fact that makes me agree with Christopher Palmer who believes that the most postmodern and fascinating thing about the VALIS trilogy is that Dick was being serious. He points out that Dick pushes the boundaries of belief in all of his works, but in VALIS, Dick’s real belief that he uses to literary effect while denying textuality. VALIS is a view into Dick’s own beliefs that came about as a result of his 2-3-74 experience. Dick pushes the truth of VALIS onto Fat, and the possibility the reader is confronted with through this maneuver is that Dick really believes in VALIS. Dick demonstrates the postmodern turn from new as entertainment to entertainment as news: his novel denies its own fictionality. The other novels in the trilogy do not take this exact turn, but they do continue to carry the author’s voice in different ways.

The Divine Invasion’s Herb Asher is the little man who would like to be left alone, doing his job in the outer reaches of the solar system, rebroadcasting entertainment for his similarly trapped space colonists. Herb is like Dick—isolated and desiring aloneness with his music. The irony of course is that for Dick’s agoraphobia, he liked to surround himself with friends. Then there is Rybys’ immaculately conceived child Emmanuel who Herb only meets much later after surviving in emergency cryofreeze after the fateful wreck. Emmauel, one half of the godhead, the creator, returned to Earth to carry his message to the people and save them from the demiurge, meets Zina, the other half of the godhead, signifying wisdom. Zina guides Emmanuel to remember, to recover through anamnesis, like the VALIS laser beam supposedly helped Dick. Emmanuel and Zina signify Dick and his twin sister Jane. Two halves separated and then reunited. Dick imagines the twin to be wiser and more in control than he himself is. This biographical element of Dick’s life seems to play itself out here in these two characters. The important aspect of Dick’s new belief system that he developed as a result of his embrace of Gnosticism following 2-3-74 is that salvation is a personal thing—salvation is a choice that each person must make and it is on that microscale that salvation is accomplished. In VALIS, Phil chooses to listen to Sophia and regain control over Fat—essentially banishing him from his psyche. In The Divine Invasion, Emmanuel and Zina bring salvation to Herb through the beside-helper Linda Fox. When Belial is about to kill Herb, the singer Linda Fox saves him, because Herb has accepted her not as a pop idol but as a human being who he would like to be with. Much like VALIS, The Divine Invasion borders the difference between monologic and dialogic forms. The central Gnostic message is the point around which the different character voices orbit, but they do take on particularly unique voices in comparison to some of Dick’s earlier work. I cannot say that these voices are better than those in VALIS in terms of their development and representation of a rounded character, but they do represent a trend in Dick’s development as a writer. He was a writer exploring personal salvation and the meaning of 2-3-74 while also thinking about his craft as a writer. He wanted to share his epiphany, but he does so through the development of his writing and the crafting of narrative voices.

In The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Dick achieves a fully dialogic novel that subtly engages the carnivalesque. The protagonist is Angel Archer, the counter character to Bishop Timothy Archer (styled on Dick’s friend James Pike). Dick said of Angel that she was created out of Zeus’ head—out of nowhere. This is in opposition to earlier remarks by Dick in which he asserted that no character can come from nothing. All characterrs for Dick up to Angel were based on people he actually knew. We cannot completely rely on what Dick said about Angel, but I do believe that there is the desire on Dick’s part that Angel was a new kind of character for the author that surpassed his earlier work on voice and characterization. Dick says of Angel that she is smarter, more rational, and more knowledgeable than himself. Angel was a character that Dick says he fell in love with and that he enjoyed her company. Angel could represent his dead sister Jane, but she could also represent himself and a love for the part of himself that he believed was missing via his lost dead sister. On the other hand, Bishop Archer, Angel’s father-in-law, could represent Dick’s voice in the novel. Bishop Archer was based on Dick’s friend Bishop Pike who died in the Middle Ease under similar circumstances to Archer, but Archer is directed by his textuality, his love of knowledge contained in books, and the authority invested in books. Archer is disconnected from the here-and-now, because he circles back to textual authority time and again. Angel is guilty of this, too, something she blames on her extensive college education and personal reading. It is this connection that allows Angel her ability to reflect on herself and the things that she realizes give her wisdom and the capacity to love others, particularly Archer, despite his own inability to reflect on his own without reliance on books. Dick, particularly in some of his realistic fiction from the 1950s, reveals his own indebtedness to books and intertextuality that was probably ahead of his agent’s ability or desire to promote for sale. Angel and Tim Archer could be two voices for Dick, each representing two ideals or two sides of his own psyche. Angel is the rational, adaptable, and wise, and Tim Archer is the imaginative yet restricted book-thinker. Further evidence for follows Tim Archer’s death when Angel decides that she cannot go any further. She has lost her husband, her best friend, and now Tim Archer. She becomes the android, a machine—recording and playback only without any feeling for the things that pass her play/record assembly. The one half of Dick’s voice is destroyed, which causes Angle, the other half, the devolve into the dreaded machine, incapable of being a fully realized human being any longer. She becomes like Kristin’s hebephrenic son Bill. However, Edgar Barefoot, the boat guru, gives her back her humanity as part of a deal. He gives her a rare LP, music, Romanticism, the soul, all of those things that revive Angel, and in return, she need only give back to another person—Bill. She regains her empathy and love, the kind of love for others that she lost when Tim Archer died. Furthermore, Angel’s development as a character and voice for Dick reveals not only a realized character, but one that changes over time in response to real life events. Dick’s earlier characters reacted to the ontological changes around them, but the characters generally did not change as a result of the process. They may go mad on one extreme, or carry on with their lives as best they can on the other. Angel’s progression as a character takes on more than a positive or negative change in relation to where she began. There are positive and negative changes that do not add up to the same point at which she began. The experiences of loss and the supposed transmigration of Tim Archer’s soul into Bill’s body have left an indelible mark on her. And it may be through Angel that we can see Dick, the author, finding his own true voice, discovering himself finally through a character that represents his most successful and believable female character in all of his novels.

In each of the VALIS trilogy novels, apocalypse is encountered by individuals on a small scale. Gone are the convenient out of frame wars in Dick’s earlier fictions that creates an inhospitable ontology for his characters to explore. Instead, the characters in the VALIS trilogy have smaller apocalypses in their own lives that mirror their personal salvations. In almost every story, Dick is concerned about individuals and how they deal with the ontology in which they find themselves. In these last novels, the same is true, but the individual is given a way out through the author’s Gnostic beliefs gained supposedly from his 2-3-74 experiences. Dick certainly has his fun in the personal apocalypses, especially in VALIS where the primary concern seems to be Kevin’s cat and not Phil’s dead friends. However, there is earnestness in the way Dick proposes and promotes Gnosticism that brings his stories back to a monologism that cannot be ignored. The author is very much alive in these stories, and perhaps he found some solace in that before the end.

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 dynamicsubspace.net.

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 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/fitting5art.htm&gt;.

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 <http://www.artchive.com/artchive/R/rockwell/rockwell_rosie.jpg.html&gt;.

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 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/suvin5art.htm&gt;.

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

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 4/5, The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik Conference Paper, November 29, 2008

This is the fiftieth 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 fourth of five Recovered Writing posts 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.”

While my third project’s argument was a complete disaster, the feedback that I received on it enabled me to find a better approach supported by a stronger argument and more persuasive evidence in the fourth project. I went through three drafts before arriving at the conference-length paper included below.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

29 Nov. 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. 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 clearly is for men, thus promoting 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. 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 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.” 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 character Ella Runciter. 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 absolutely declaring herself as a human subject identified as Ella Runciter. 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. Interchangeability implies commodification and objectification. 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). It should be noted that Haraway’s Third Wave Feminism affinity politics structured around the idea of the cyborg comes much later historically than the text to which I’m applying it. As such, my 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.”

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).

Works Cited

Dick, Philip K. Ubik. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

Fitting, Peter. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/fitting5art.htm&gt;.

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.

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

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/suvin5art.htm&gt;.

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

 

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 3/5, New Wave Deconstruction in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, November 8, 2008

This is the forty-ninth 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 third of five Recovered Writing posts 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.”

In this project, “Drafting a Relevant Argument,” we created the kernel of our argument for a conference paper (Project 4) and a longer publishable essay (Project 5). I had great ambition for this short paper, but I realized later—thanks to feedback from Professor Clewell and others in the seminar—that my approach to deconstruction was completely off base. This feedback was immensely useful to my thinking and reconceptualization of my argument in the projects 4 (conference paper) and 5 (publishable essay).

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

8 Nov. 2008

New Wave Deconstruction in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel, Ubik, is the quintessential New Wave Science Fiction (SF) novel, because the author challenges accepted social frameworks, questions individualized versus universal experiences of the world, and draws on the soft sciences such as psychology and parapsychology. This work, originally written in 1966, was produced during a time of experimentation by a number of SF authors including J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Douglas Mackey describes it as “a landmark in Dick’s development,” and, “not only is it generally considered to be one of his best novels, it marks the first distinct appearance of the transcendental element in his work” (92). The “transcendental element” is the substance of the title, Ubik. As its name suggests, Ubik is ubiquitous, and it signifies a great many things including, among others: soap, beer, coffee, and a transcendent god.

The permutations of Ubik are initially eluded to as epigraphs to each chapter. These increasingly bizarre advertisements and warnings about the potential and danger of Ubik combine with the disjointedness of the narrative. The reader is unable to pin down a meaning for Ubik, in the same way that the narrative following the explosion on the moon that supposedly kills Runciter, but spares Joe Chip, lead technician, and ten anti-psi inertials (persons having the ability to nullify psionic abilities such as pre-cognition and mind reading). The counter-intuitive regression of time in the narrative, and the transformation of modern artifacts to their Platonic essences (e.g., coins transform from a present date to an earlier one, or a La Salle turns into an older Ford Model A) creates problems for character and reader alike. Darko Suvin claims in an early essay on the novel that, “there is a serious loss of narrative control in Ubik” (par. 23). I disagree with Suvin’s argument, because what he views as its “loss” is actually a positive gain. The SF author and critic, Stanislaw Lem, asserts that, “I think, however, that the critic should not be the prosecutor of a book but its defender, though one not allowed to lie: he may only present the work in the most favorable light” (par. 18). This paper’s “favorable light” begins with the work of Peter Fitting, who writes, “Ubik is not only a deconstruction of the metaphysical ideologies and the metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel, but also of what (in Solaris) Lem has described as the anthropomorphic presuppositions of science and of SF” (par. 14). Fitting claims that Ubik deconstructs the bourgeois novel and its commonsense worldview by, “breaking through the psychological and perceptual confines imposed on us by capitalism” (par. 16). Dick breaks through by introducing both psychological as well as metaphysical conundrums into the text that challenge not only his character’s perception of reality, but also that of the reader. However, Fitting’s argument is based deconstruction as a metaphor analogous to the fragmentation in the narrative following the explosion on the moon.

This paper goes farther than previous criticism in an exploration of its often cited non-meaning. In fact, Ubik’s meaning derives from its postmodern aspects including narrative fragmentation and deconstruction (in the Derridian sense) of commonly held beliefs. I argue that binary opposites and the deferment of meaning throughout the text generates what may be called a meditation on the nature of reality and the dissolution of objectivity.

It’s necessary to briefly describe the story before continuing the analysis. The narrative develops following the afore mentioned sneak attack on the moon by a group of industrial espionage psis perpetrated on Runciter and his group of anti-psis. The inertials escape for Earth with Runciter in cold-pac, but Joe Chip, the favored narrator, soon notices that entropy threatens the survivors’ existences. Chip and the surviving inertials discuss various theories about what’s happening, but they never fully discover the reason or mechanism for the entropic regression taking place around them and to them in the form of an accelerated death. The strange things taking place to Chip and the others is explicitly described in the text, but the overall form of the narrative into episodes of failed discovery reveals a continual deferment of meaning and resolution. In fact, many of the long running debates over the novel concerns interpretations of what actually happens and what the ending, or more accurately non-ending, actually means.

The meaning of Ubik first arrives in the ubiquity of binary opposites, which include life/death, order/entropy, heat/cold, and positive/negative. First, life and death are integral elements of the progression of the story. In the opening pages of the novel, Runciter responds to an imminent crisis by saying, “I’ll consult my dead wife” (Dick 4). He isn’t going to use a Ouiji board by candlelight. Instead, he flies to Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsand’s Beloved Brethern Moratorium in Switzerland. Moratoriums are places where the dead still live with the help of cold-pac, or cryogenic storage in a state of half-life. Technology is utilized to keep the half-lifer from going over the brink of death, and facilitate two-way vocal communication between the half-lifer and the outside world. Life is clearly favored over death, and Dick employs half-life as a mediator between the two. In doing so, half-life breaks down the binary categories of life and death by providing a third alternative where there was none before.

Parallel to the life/death binary is order/entropy. Life is aligned with order, and death is connected to entropy or disorder. Both in the universe and in Ubik, entropy is an encroaching threat. This begins on the moon following the explosion. On board their fleeing spaceship, Joe pulls out a cigarette from his pocket and finds it, “dry and stale, [it] broke apart as he tried to hold it between his fingers. Strange, he thought” (Dick 75). This manifestation of entropy has to do with the breakdown of organic matter. A further example of this is the foreshadowing of death on the same page when Wendy Wright tells Joe and Al Hammond, “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). In the following chapters, the progression of age is something affectively felt, and shown dramatically when individuals including Wendy succumb to entropy and wind up as, “a huddled heap, dehydrated, almost mummified” (Dick 99). After the loss of most of his compatriots, Joe Chip begins to feel the onslaught of entropy. In the regressed past of 1939, the narrator says of Chip, “He perceived himself in one mode only: that of an object subjected to the pressure of weight. One quality, one attribute. And one experience. Inertia” (Dick 173).   The inertial weight that Chip experiences is the rapid advance of age as part of the strange phenomena overtaking the survivors. Near death, Chip is saved by the once believed-to-be-dead Runciter armed with a spray can of Ubik. The cloud of Ubik restores Chip in body and mind, but it raises more questions for Chip and leads to him discounting earlier theories about what’s going on. Ultimately, Chip is told by Runciter that Chip and the others died on the moon, and that they are now in half-life. Runciter is alive in the outside world, and communicating with Chip. Therefore, the things that Chip sees are simulations of the mind within half-life, but they are not generated exclusively by him.

There are other forces at work within half-life, and they are Jory, a teenager in half-life that feeds off the psyche of other half-lifers, and Ella Runciter, Runciter’s dead wife. Jory and his two other personalities, Matt and Bill, created the regressive world that Chip and the others find themselves in following the explosion. In many ways, this process of simulation and devouring is a game for Jory. Ella Hyde Runciter on the other hand is one of many other half-lifers who resist Jory’s voracious appetite, which resulted in the development of Ubik within the world of half-life. This aspect of the novel combined with the mysterious Ubik substance is where Dick introduces the “transcendent element.” It’s not necessary to muddle in the metaphysical aspects of reincarnation that Dick alludes to, but it’s poignant that there is another layering of binary opposites. Ella connects to order, and Jory represents entropy. She’s clearly positive for helping Chip, 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” (203). Jory on the other hand is negative, selfish, and wicked. Also, he’s described as, “an adolescent boy, mawkishly slender, with irregular black-button eyes beneath tangled brows,” and having “shabby teeth,” and, “a grubby tongue” (Dick 195-196). Chip believes that after having met Ella and Jory that’s he pulled back the curtain of his half-life menagerie. He says, “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). However, this isn’t the case, and the deconstruction is revealed. In the final chapter, Runciter tells Chip good-bye and walks away from Chip’s cold-pac casket. When he tries to tip the attendant, he discovers that his money has transformed into coins with Joe Chip’s face, just as Joe Chip’s money had Runciter’s face, and the last line of the novel is, “This was just the beginning” (Dick 216). The author’s deliberate problematization of narrative resolution complicates where the end actually lies. Clearly, Jory and Ella are not the final “entities involved,” and Dick gives the reader a clue with the final epigraph at the beginning of that chapter. He writes:

I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be (Dick 215).

Ubik is described as an all encompassing order. It is, as its name suggests, ubiquity–appearing in all places. Therefore, Ubik flattens the binary opposites of Ella-order and Jory-entropy, because each are a part of its greater whole.

However, this cannot be full solution to the novel. Dick is playing with the nature of the mind and the ability of the mind to create reality. Also, the general consensus is that the actions taking place in the novel are taking place in half-life. They may involve different individuals as a sort of mass hallucination, or the events may be within the mind of one individual working out a rationalization for their existence following the explosion on the moon. In this light, the final epigraph is more telling about the nature of reality that Dick is questioning within the novel. Through imagination, we each have the ability to be god within our own mind. Jory creates a world for Chip and the Runciter inertials, but so can any one of them create a world and act on it through will alone. Dick even touches on this when Jory regresses Ubik to a pre-spray can state. Chip, “poured whatever energy he had left onto the container. It did not change” (Dick 209). Even though he could not directly transform the regressed container of Ubik to its modern form, his will ricocheted off in another direction bringing a television commercial spokeswoman from the future with a fresh can of Ubik. Thus, Chip acts on his environment, much as the god-like Ubik does in the last chapter’s epigraph.

Dick draws on the binary opposites of life/death, order/entropy, and internal/external to create a meditation on the nature of reality. As Patricia Warrick has pointed out, Dick said in speeches and essays that, “the material for the novel came primarily from a series of dreams” (145). However, she goes on make a beautiful analysis of the novel that fits into the deconstructive overall whole of the novel. She writes:

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).

This final aspect of the novel creates an additional layer connecting the binary opposites of order and entropy with form and content. Form is an ordering of the text, and the content has that form imposed on it. In this case, the content pushes back against the form. The content’s uncertainty manifests itself in the form. It’s a straight story in the sense that the book proceeds from one chapter to the next, each preceded by an epigraph, but within the form is the dual forces of time. Objective time going forward, and a subjective time enforcing regression to older essences opposing it.

Ubik is a novel that challenges objective, privileged frameworks by revealing how subjective mind world building and interaction is an uncertain enterprise. The novel’s ending is ambiguous as well as amorphous, because the author leaves little clues as to its resolution. Meaning is deferred ad infinitum, because the thesis contained in Ubik promotes uncertainty as the fabric of reality due to the subjective nature of the mind. In fact, Warrick, who performs a biographical analysis of Ubik in relation to Dick’s life, claims Dick doesn’t know the answers to the many questions his text raises. However, she writes, “He can speculate, as he does in the novel, but here he refuses to provide an answer for anyone else. Each man must make the intuitive leap to his own answer” (Warrick 144). This is the general idea of the final chapter that the reader must engage the text on a level beyond content. It’s a philosophical puzzle, perhaps without a definitive answer, but one worthy of and even necessitating consideration. Ubik requires the reader to consider the implications of these puzzles, and to work them out in his or her own mind–the place of literal and imaginative world building.

Works Cited

Dick, Philip K. Ubik. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

Fitting, Peter. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/fitting5art.htm&gt;.

Lem, Stanislaw. “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/lem5art.htm&gt;.

Mackey, Douglas A. Philip K. Dick. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1988.

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/suvin5art.htm&gt;.

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

 

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 2/5, Postmodernism and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, October 10, 2008

This is the forty-eighth 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 second of five Recovered Writing posts 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.”

In this project titled, “Bibliography and Analysis of Critical Trends,” students explored the discourse surrounding an idea or work for further development in the subsequent projects. In my case, I was interested in exploring postmodern theory through a discussion of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik. In this essay, I defined my approach, provided a reading list for my research paper, and discussed its importance in the wider field of postmodern studies and Dick studies. My final project transformed into a very different argument due in large part to Professor Clewell’s in-class questions and commentary after I read the next project (next post) to the class in the form of a conference presentation.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

10 Oct. 2008

Postmodernism and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

            The postmodern and biomedia critic Eugene Thacker said, “postmoderm is ‘whatever.’” Despite its flippant appearance, “whatever” is at the heart of postmodernism in the twentieth century. Postmodern literature is self-reflexive and intertextual. It may break the fourth wall, and challenge everything including language, culture, societal structures, and norms. Additionally, it provokes the reader to become engaged in the narrative itself, rather than passively accepting the framework advocated by the author. It embraces ambiguity, non-linearity, and continuity. They are disjointed, unstable, and contradictory. Postmodern texts reveal a suspicion of and disbelief in modernity’s grand narratives.

Postmodern study came into its own with Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 treatise, La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), which gives the most highly regarded elucidation of postmodernism. In this work, he defines the postmodern as, “incredulity toward meta-narratives” (Lyotard xxiv). He argues that grand narratives (e.g., narratives of science, morality, or progress) have broken down into nodes dispersed in a network to which we are connected. Therefore, subjectivity arises during discourse and engagement of particular nodes, like the possibilities in a quantum waveform, collapses in the absence of discourse.

Lyotard’s postmodern project has its challengers, most notable among them is Jürgen Habermas, who questions whether the non-meta-narrative of postmodernism is actually a meta-narrative. Habermas’ argument in “Modernity versus Postmodernism,” misses the point that postmodernism is doubt. It’s a skepticism of meta-narratives, and not a wholesale discrediting or absolution of meta-narratives. Additionally, Lyotard regards the postmodern condition as a phase texts must go through prior to becoming modern.

Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene (1976) and The God Delusion (2006), attacks postmoderism for it’s ‘whateverness.’ This is understandable, because his thoughts on biology and religion necessitate meta-narratives. However, his paradigmatic shift from focus on the biological organism to the gene as being the driving force of natural selection is a postmodern concept. Instead of a progressive accumulation of scientific knowledge, there are crises and fractures in scientific thought and belief that results in a new framework or worldview.

Furthermore, Noam Chomsky’s views on postmodernism, as noted in a Usenet post in which he wrote, “Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons” (par. 12). Chomsky claims not to get postmodernism from Derrida to Lyotard, and he’s willing to concede that he’s “incapable of understanding.” That being said, he “[remains] suspicious” of the claims of postmodern theorists. The fact is that he doesn’t ‘get’ postmodernism, and in this posting, he denounces it, because of his lack of understanding. Needless to say, this is a weak argument on the part of Chomsky, and his misunderstanding is an unvoiced acknowledgement of the postmodern, because of his skepticism.

In regard to Philip K. Dick’s novel, Ubik, there are debates on the theoretical methodologies to engage the text. An early issue of Science Fiction Studies, a long running journal in the field, was devoted to Dick’s works including Ubik. In that issue, Darko Suvin, one of the early theorizers of SF, wrote a Marxist textual analysis of Dick’s works across divisions of his creative career up to that time. Suvin takes issue with earlier papers by Stanislaw Lem, author of Solaris and The Cyberiad, and Peter Fitting, Director of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto, associate professor of French, and former chair of the Society of Utopian Studies. Fitting performs a postmodern reading of Ubik using Marxist terminology and deconstruction, and Lem’s paper argues critics should defend the novel’s ambiguities and disjointedness rather than prosecute it. Suvin’s response appears torn between the new, amorphousness of Dick’s works, and the old meta-narrative of SF tropes and Marxist power levels and narrative foci. This debate came about only six years after the first publication of Ubik. The discourse surrounding this novel has continued to the present.

Later analysis of Ubik, such as that by Fredric Jameson and Christopher Palmer perform Marxist readings of the text, while Douglas A. Mackey does talk about the commodity aspects of Ubik, he centers his analysis on the dissolutive aspects of the narrative as well as Dick’s conception of reality. Brian McHale makes the case that New Wave SF, which began in the 1960s was a precursor to true dialog between postmodernism and SF, and it’s in the 1970s that, “SF and postmodernist mainstream fiction become 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). He includes Ubik as one work of SF that falls into this latter group of the truly postmodern. Peter Stockwell uses Ubik to illustrate the concept of frame replacement, which is the reversal of integral character attributes (e.g., alive versus dead in this case) in The Poetics of Science Fiction. And, Carl Freedman explores plot structures of SF and the construction of reality through Dick’s works including Ubik in his book, Critical Theory and Science Fiction.

There are a number of academic conferences focused on postmoderism, SF, and Philip K. Dick. In June 2007, the English Division of Nottingham Trent University hosted PKD-Day, a one day symposium about Dick’s works. Each year at Norwescon, The Philip K. Dick Award, a highly regarded SF prize, is given to the best new SF published as a paperback original in the United States. Postmodernism and SF are subjects of entire conferences as well as panels on a number of the larger general ones. The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, Science Fiction Research Association, and the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts, each have annual conferences that engage these topics. Also, the Modern Language Association’s annual conference includes panels on postmodernism and SF in relationship to a variety of discourses.

Within the discourse encompassing Ubik, there are still many aspects of the novel in need of critical analysis internally as well as externally. What I mean by internally is that there are themes, tropes, and characters in the novel requiring further analysis, and likewise, externally refers to a number of texts produced before and after Ubik that are in dialog with it. Within this space, I will find a niche substantial enough to support my arguments regarding the text in my upcoming paper.

Bibliography

Work in the Field

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage. New York: Random House, 1967.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Aldiss, Brian W. “Dick’s Maledictory Web: About and Around Martian Time-Slip.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975): 42-47.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.

Warrick, Patricia S. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity Versus Postmodernity.” trans. Seyla Ben-Habib. New German Critique 22 (1981): 3-14.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-107.

Simons, John L. “The Power of Small Things in Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle.’” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 39:4 (1985): 261-275.

Durham, Scott. “P.K. Dick: From the Death of the Subject to a Theology of Late Capitalism.” Science Fiction Studies 15:2 (1988): 173-186.

Fisher, William. “Of Living Machines and Living-Machines: Blade Runner and the Terminal Genre.” New Literary History 20:1 (1988): 187-198.

Huntington, John. “Philip K. Dick: Authenticity and Insincerity.” Science Fiction Studies 15:2 (1988): 152-160.

Mackey, Douglas A. Philip K. Dick. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Palmer, Christopher. “Postmodernism and the Birth of the Author in Philip K. Dick’s Valis.” Science Fiction Studies 18:3 (1991): 330-342.

Stilling, Roger J. “Mystical Healing: Reading Philip K. Dick’s ‘VALIS’ and ‘The Divine Invasion’ as Metapsychoanalytical Novels.” South Atlantic Review 56:2 (1991): 91-106.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Zoreda, Margaret Lee. “Bakhtin, Blobels and Philip Dick.” Journal of Popular Culture 28:3 (1994): 55-61.

Chomsky, Noam. “On Postmodernism.” Usenet, rec.arts.books. 13 November 1995. 20 October 2007 <http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/chomsky-on-postmodernism.html&gt;.

McNamara, Kevin R. “’Blade Runner’s’ Post-Individual Worldspace.” Contemporary Literature 38:3 (1997): 422-446.

DiTommaso, Lorenzo. “Redemption in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.” Science Fiction Studies 26:1 (1999): 91-116.

Lee, Gwen and Doris Elaine Sauter, eds. What If Our World Is Their Heaven?: The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick. New York: Overlook Press, 2000.

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Enns, Anthony. “Media, Drugs, and Schizophrenia in the Works of Philip K. Dick.” Science Fiction Studies 29:1 (2002).

Readings of the Text

Fitting, Peter. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/fitting5art.htm&gt;.

Lem, Stanislaw. “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975): 54-67.

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975): 8-22.

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

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

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Hoberek, Andrew P. “The ‘Work’ of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick and Occupational Masculinity in the Post-World War II United States.” Modern Fiction Studies 43.2 (1997): 374-404.

De Cock, Christian, “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organizing (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society.” Social Science Research Network (2000). 18 October 2007 <http://ssrn.com/abstract=650686&gt;.

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2000.

Luckhurst, Roger. “Vicissitudes of the Voice, Speaking Science Fiction.” Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations. Eds. Andy Sawyer and David Seed. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2000.

Stockwell, Peter. The Poetics of Science Fiction. New York: Longman, 2000.

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

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