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[821] Ubik – Philip K. Dick


“Here’s what happened. We got lured to Luna. We let Pat Conley come with us, a woman we didn’t know, a talent we didn’t understand—which possibly even Hollis didn’t understand. An ability somehow connected with time reversion; not strictly speaking, the ability to travel through time . . . what she does . . . is start a counter-process that uncovers the prior stages inherent in configurations of matter.” (Ch.14, 191)

Set in the Northern American Confederation in time when interstellar commute is common, the book is largely told from the perspective of Joe Chip, who works for an agency of “anti-psis” that stops telepaths invading other people’s privacy. Society is such that every individual’s thought process can be monitored and that any thought can materialize in the mind. This prudence organization is run by a man named Glen Runciter with the assistance of his wife, who has died physically but is preserved in a state of “half life” in cryonic condition at a specialized moratorium.

Runciter’s agency dedicates to fighting a rival organization of telepaths, headed by Ray Hollis, that uses its psychic power to undertake corporate espionage and cause trouble. He lays a rat-trap for Runciter and Joe Chip in Luna where Runciter is killed by a self-destruct humanoid bomb. Those who survive the blast, upon returning to Earth, experience a curious deterioration process. But they realize they, and not Runciter himself, are the ones who are slowly perishing, by turning incredibly cold and drying up.

But this is where the mystery of time-slippage thickens. There seems to be an underlying, vicious force that aims for their death. The story takes a rather mind-boggling turn to a state of confusion that suggests it was actually Chip, not Runciter, who almost died in the explosion on the moon. But it’s this confusion, or deception, in a sense, that makes Ubik shine. Like reality, what we see as reality, anyway, does not make much coherent sense. The unease, the difficulty, the contradictions, the multiplicating realities, are partly the point. It’s about realizations that are not what they seem.

I find the plot less interesting than the characters, the theme, and the virtuosity of the writing. Dick’s explications of his fractual reality look easy to accomplish, but they really aren’t. It questions whether this thing we call reality might be just a collective hallucination.

224 pp. Orion Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[671] Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury


” It’s perpetual motion; the thing man wanted to invent but never did. Or almost perpetual motion. If you let it go on, it’d burn our lifetimes out. What is fire? It’s a mystery. Scientists give us gobbledegook about friction and molecules. But they don’t really know. It’s real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences. ” (Three: Burning Bright, p.109)

Set in the future, beyond year 2022, Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel in which the world is piteously bankrupted of fine actions rooted in emotional meanings. It presents a future that would be horrific for any reader—a future in which books cannot be read. The title refers to the supposed temperature at which book paper combusts. Today the message of Fahrenheit 451 has grown more relevant than ever before—not so much about the physical burning of books but the snubbing of them, which destroys culture.

One of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn’t, certainly. So it looked as if it had to be Montag and the people he had worked with until a few short hours ago. Somewhere the saving and putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people’s heads . . . the world was full of burning of all types and sizes. (Three: Burning Bright, p.134)

The short novel revolves around Guy Montag, a fireman in the most ironic sense, who is responsible for setting fire to books that are found. The future world is one such that books, known to have corrupted minds, are banned. Houses are fireproofed, and yet when there’s suspicion that a household is hiding a book, firemen will arrive and douse the house with a flame-thrower. Burning books hardly makes Fahrenheit 451 dystopian, that people stop thinking for themselves does. No more emotional investment. Instant gratification replaces sentiments. Criical thinking is purged; family takes the form of wall-to-wall TVs.

Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magic in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us. (Two: The Sieve and the Sand, p.79)

Fahrenheit 451 is sci fi-cum-allegory. It’s a book that critiques group-think and mass establishment that controls how society functions. In waiting for controlled information to be made available to them, people lose control of their mental faculties. There’re plenty of sentiments Bradbury could have expounded upon, and yet they are just glossed over. But Bradbury has more than suffice to convey the significance of written ideas because they are the way we transit our stories and our thoughts from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history—lose much of what makes us human.

250 pp. Simon & Schuster. 60th Anniversary Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[627] Watchers – Dean Koontz


” From the first, the dog and The Outsider had possessed a special awareness of each other, an uncanny instinctual awareness of each other’s moods and activities even when they were not in the same room. Davis Weatherby had suggested, more than half seriously, that there was something telepathic about the relationship of those two creatures. (Part I, 5.6.224)

Part suspense fiction and part science fiction, Watchers in the core is a story of love and how it transpires our lives. Thirty six-year-old Travis Cornell, ex-Delta Force man, successful real estate broker, is a loner of a tragic past. Since adolescence, his brother and parents succumbed to illness or accident, one by one. On a day hike Travis stumbles upon a stray golden retriever that seems to possess an uncanny intelligence as well as a degree of self-awareness. The dog leads Travis to Nora, a beautiful former recluse who never experiences the warmth of companionship.

But at Banodyne, it harbored a fierce hatred of the dog, worse than what it felt toward people. When Yarbeck worked with it, constructing a sign language with which to communicate complex ideas, The Outsider several times expressed a desire to kill and mutilate the dog, but it would never explain why. (Part I, 6.6.295)

The golden retriever they call Einstein is the product of a top-secret genetic engineering experiment and the central character of the book. The K.G.B., through a hired professional killer who believes he can attain immortality by inhaling the last breaths of the dead, has just rubbed out all the scientists involved in the project, and Einstein, along with a monstrous creation bred to kill, are the escapees. The mutant killer, evil as Einstein is good, loathes its own ugliness and has a penchant for decapitation and a compulsion to gouge out eyes.

We have a responsibility to stand watch over one another, we are watchers, all of us, watchers, guarding against the darkness. (Part II, 9.2.526)

So Travis and Nora, against the pursuit of the crazy hitman, government agents, and the beast, assume a new identity—one that stands up to inspection—in order to protect the remarkable dog that has become more than just family and friends. Koontz is an amazing stylist and story-teller. Despite the sometimes pedestrian, heavy-handed writing, he keeps reader interested, intrigued, and guessing. Watchers is a pulse-pounding adventure, filled with many twists. Blending science fiction, horror, and thriller, it also concerns the importance and benefits of civilization, the longing for acceptance and a meaningful existence. The darkness is not so much the violence of the beast as the human beings who want to take over the world at the expense of animals.

611 pp. Penguin. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[300] Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

” That is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny. ” [1:26]

Through genetic design and subconscious sleep-learning, the people who govern the World State in Brave New World seek to control human beings for the sake of social harmony, stability and happiness. They might not be sane, but they are not madmen. Their aim is to take advantage of technology, but not the extreme of science, which is a danger, to achieve stability, in a form of happiness made possible by scientific and empirical truth. From uterus to grace, one’s conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run. The subconscious messages inculcated to babies in designated castes mold lifelong self-image, class conscientious, social outlooks, habits, tastes, morals, ambitions, and prejudices. In other word, social stability and harmony is maintained by cloning, and have no room for individuality.

The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; but they are blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. [16:198]

These civilized people are immune to unhappiness, sadness, and other emotional turmoil because they are overprotected and superinsulated by the society. There exists no familial onligations or intimacy, although sex (promiscuity) is encouraged as a social recreation. What really appalls me is that women and a piece of furniture have the same physical characteristic. In Brave New World, human sexuality has been degraded to the level of a commodity, as “everyone belongs to everyone else.”

The World State prioritizes happiness—a genetic and chemical-induced happiness—at the expense of truth by design. The Authority believes that people (are they even people, or just emotionless clones of flesh?) are better off with happiness than with truth. This truth is such that is raw, unaltered and untainted by soma, a popular hallucinogen that provides an easy escape from the hassles of daily life and is employed by the Authority as a method of control through pleasure. Until the challenge of savage, who grew up outside the World State, the civilized people, who lose their true emotion, morals, values, and dignity under state control, have seen themselves better off than others. The desire for authentic emotion is enough in itself to cause convulsions in a society that adopts John the Savage as a fearful curiosity. But the message from the novel is that there is no escape from anxiety and struggle unless one is ready to forfeit love altogether. These emotions belong to truth and individuality. The technical (biological) aspect at the beginning of the book is somewhat of a slog, but the story only gets better in the middle. I neither dislike it nor do I enjoy it tremendously.

231 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Reading Notes: Creepy New World

I have never read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a Modern Library’s top-100 novel in the 20th century, even though it’s widely taught in high school and college. Piqued by what George Orwell believed that Huxley derived the book partly from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, I pick up the book. Huxley was able to use the setting and characters, most of whom inspired by his trip to the United States, from his science fiction novel to express widely held opinions, particularly the fear of losing individual identity in the fast-paced world of the future. The more I read about socially-managed contexts, the discouraged individuality, the subconscious messages to mold child’s lifelong self-image and tastes, the more the book creeps me out. In a sense it’s gradual brainwash, very much like what a religious cult does to its members. I’m halfway through but cannot decide whether I dislike it or just not enjoy it. One bright point is what I get out of the reading: Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Do you ever feel compelled to read something because it’s revered by critics?