Ubik and Archaeology

As part of my ill-considered project to work through Philip K Dick’s novels in search for some kind of archaeological inspiration, I read Ubik this week. Largely regarded as among his most ambitious books, Ubik describes a future where the living and the dead can interact, individuals with special mental powers could read minds, predict the future, and even change the past, and it was a viable business to coordinate the labor of individuals who could block humanity’s expanded mental powers.

More prescient still is Dick’s world of autonomous things that constantly demanded payment for even the most routine functions like opening the door, turning on the television, or cooking food. While the “internet of things” promises world where every device from our refrigerators to our light fixtures and cars are seamlessly connected, Dick’s world is the dystopian vision of that reality. His integrated world allows for devices to conspire against their human owners and to negotiate and even deny their services. As technology creeps into everyday life from tractors to coffee makers, we are at the mercy of devices which are largely outside our control and mici-payments that nibble around the edges of diminishing income.

The story is convoluted. It involves a firm that employs individuals who can block psychic abilities. A specially assemblage group of the firms top agents was tricked into traveling to the moon to fulfill a lucrative contract. There, the group experienced a massive explosion which seemingly killed the firm’s president Glen Runctier. Joe Chip, Runciter’s right-hand man, tried in vain to discover Runciter’s murderer, but over the course of his grief-wracked investigate, reality began to change. First, Runciter’s image and name began to appear on objects including currency. Then, time began to slip in strange ways as the modern world (of 1992) begins to give way to earlier periods. First the the present started to give way to the relatively recent past, but then, the 1940s and 1930s. Like Dick’s alternate world in Time Out of Joint, the flickering past of Ubik created a world in which authenticity is always in doubt. Objects present the most obvious manifestation of this time slippage, although it also effected humans. The only remedy was the mysterious Ubik and only in the form of an aerosol spray. The novel concludes with Joe Chip pursuing Runciter’s murderer through 1930s Des Moines as his own life is subjected to the same chronological entropy as the world around him. Protected only by Ubik, Chip finally realizes that this slippage of time around him is evidence that he is, in fact, dead and Runciter is alive. The only complication to this is that, at the end of the novel, Runciter begins to find coins in his pocket with Joe Chip’s face on it.

Despite the convoluted plot, the continuous juxtaposition of the past and the present reflects Dick’s fascination with authenticity as a archaeological problem. For Dick, objects ground us in the world and anchor us in time, and distorted reality is not simply arbitrary hallucinations, but the displacement of objects in time. There is something archaeological here, of course. The relationships between objects and time structures reality and our ability to locate objects chronologically allows us to discern the authentic from the illusory.  

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