Absurdity

Finished up four courses of Phillip K. Dick: Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich and The Man in the High Castle. Wrote a bit about The Man in the High Castle earlier, but Ubik is what’s on my mind right now.

There’s a lot to like about Ubik. In this future Earth, death isn’t the end. You have some time left after your body dies, and for the right price, you can be kept in storage so your friends, family and business associates can continue to consult you for years to come. It’s not immortality; your essence will eventually move on to whatever is beyond. It is also a time of mutants, people with special mental powers, both to act on the minds of other unsuspecting people and to block the mental powers of those who would prey on the unprepared. So you can see the potential for darkness, to alter the reality of anyone or prevent such reality-bending trickery … for a price.

What Dick does that’s really impresses me – in this bleak landscape of wavering reality – is to turn it on its head with two extreme absurdities: outrageous outfits of the characters and the fact that everything is coin-operated.

The fashion of this future Earth is a mixture of all of the fashion that preceded it … usually on one person’s body … all at the same time. Want to wear penny loafers, leg warmers, a poodle skirt, a Michael Jackson zipper jacket and a football helmet? You can, but that’s what your neighbor’s wearing today. How about six-inch stiletto heals, bell bottom jeans, a tube top, a bow tie and a top hat? Sure, but when you see your dental hygienist in the same outfit, it’s going to be awkward. No matter how formidable the character or how much power they have, they dress like doofuses. It’s a goofier Dick than I’m used to, and provides for great visuals.

When I say everything is coin-operated, I mean everything. Want to go to the bathroom? That’ll be a quarter. You’ll need a roll of nickels if you plan on drinking a bunch of coffee in the morning. Time to go to work? Don’t forget your dime to get out the door. Not kidding. It’s hilarious and occasionally creates tension, particularly for one of the main characters who is consistently short on money. One of the more fun aspects of reading sci-fi is seeing how writers get the future right or veer off into something altogether its own. In this case, Dick missed … but just by a bit. We don’t pay for everything coin by coin as he envisioned. But he wasn’t far off in that everything costs something. It’s just in 2011, we usually pay for everything by putting up with the over-saturation of advertising displayed everywhere and beamed out to multiple platforms, instead of payment coming directly from our own pockets.

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