The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Ubik: Does literature need to make sense?

A review of the novel “Ubik” and discussion about literary ambiguity
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Christy Childs
Do all novels have to make sense? Photo by Christy Childs, ‘26

What is the purpose of literature? To explore the issues of the day, to explore grander human themes, or just to satiate the human desire for stories and the unknown? It is all of these things in part. But a common theme is that these purposes rely on stories making sense. If a story does not make sense, it is not given much thought because it feels beyond our understanding.

I think that is wrong. Stories need not be easily understandable or not open to interpretation. One book that perfectly exemplifies this is “Ubik” by Philip K. Dick.

“Ubik” is a novel of two parts. The first part is a story of psychic corporate espionage that feels like any normal 60’s sci-fi book. The novel then transitions into a story of warping and decaying realities stacked upon one another. The protagonists are unsure if they are alive, dead, or somewhere in between. The character’s perceptions and realities conflict with one another, sometimes literally, and this produces a sense of uncertainty and unreliability in the reader’s mind. If the characters do not know where they are, then how can we? This transition is instant and jarring as there is no warning and not much to clue the reader into this change.

Several of Dick’s books feature this “personal cosmos” concept prominently, and I think “Ubik” does it the best. “Ubik” is an exploration of how humans perceive reality and its often malignant nature that Dick equates with entropy. The titular “Ubik” is a substance that fights entropy through pseudoscience and narrative necessity. However, that is all we really know, what it represents is open to interpretation. My personal theory is that “Ubik” is representative of a form of divine intervention; this is because Dick is a fan of creating cosmic battles between the purest forms of good/life and bad/entropy. “Ubik” is ambiguous in its nature because God and divine forces are ambiguous. It is an incomplete theory, but almost all analyses of “Ubik” have that problem.

Another theory I like, but disagree with, comes from Peter Fitting in his commentary on “Ubik;” he says that the purpose of Ubik’s ambiguity is to challenge the “Bourgeois” science fiction and the literary traditions therein. He says that the ambiguity in “Ubik” purposefully and actively seeks to be contrary to the normal and established tropes of science fiction such as tight narratives, explained and grounded scientific concepts and popularly understandable themes.

Attributing that level of forethought to Dick’s work is easy, but ultimately not prudent. Dick was an amazing writer—one of the best—but it is unlikely that he was thinking so deeply or consistently about his work. Even my divine interpretation of “Ubik” might be a bit much. The cause of the ambiguity surrounding “Ubik” is that even Dick did not fully know what he was creating, he just wrote the story he wanted to tell without considering its full literary and philosophical implications. It has been said (likely erroneously) that Dick wrote his work “The Man in the High Castle” using the ancient Chinese book “I Ching”, an ancient fortune-telling book. If Dick did not find writing through fortunes disagreeable, then it tracks that he would have no qualms with concepts not being fully developed.

I think “Ubik” is bizarre and ambiguous because of Dick’s nature as an author. He never had the money or inclination to take a lot of time adding total continuity to his work, logically or philosophically. He had ideas after a 15-hour writing stint, then forgot by the morning. For me, this is where a lot of his charm comes from. It is what I enjoy most about his work.

The flip side, however, is that reading Dick can prove to be annoying for people who desire a plot, characters, or themes that do not have much fat. This begs the question, do writers have the responsibility to explain everything and be clear in their writing?

No, do not think so. Having everything spelled out takes away the joy that the literary medium provides. Unlike cinema, for example, literature allows for real alternate interpretations. The scenes and ideas are created entirely within the mind of the reader. The author may have an intended message or theme, but taking meaning from a work comes down to personal interpretation. Some authors try to contravene this fact by reducing the number of justifiable interpretations in their work and some, like Dick, choose to embrace ambiguity.

Literature being hampered by needing to “make sense” is a failure of imagination on the part of readers. Embracing the ambiguous and unknowable in literature makes it more interesting. If readers knew exactly what “Ubik” was, where it came from, and what its symbolic role was then all the mystery would be lost for what, given most of Dick’s other work, would be a satisfying but not exemplary denouement. The philosophical and literary longevity of “Ubik” is in large part due to this ambiguity and its ability to be read in as many ways as there are readers.

I think that most works of literature, be it high literary works supposedly read by high schoolers across the world: or pulpy, prurient, and inconsequential works, would benefit from not adhering to the falsehood that literature needs to “make sense” or be entirely understandable. This is not to say that literature should be unreadable or so bizarre that it becomes a parody of itself, but ambiguity deployed properly is a significant boon to any work.

Literature is a medium of near-infinite possibility, and constraining it through arbitrary definitions of “making sense” is foolish. Being easily understandable only works to make the truly new and avant-garde ideas harder to find and appreciate.

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