Sunday, March 28, 2010

#45: Ubik, #111 God Emperor of Dune


“We are served by organic ghosts, he thought, who, speaking and writing, pass through this our new environment. Watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life world, elements of which have become for us invading but agreeable splinters of a substance that pulsates like a former heart.”
“He felt all at once like an ineffectual moth, fluttering at the windowpane of reality, dimly seeing it from outside.”  
“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 wind-up toy.” 

Ubik is known as one of author Philip K. Dick's greatest novels. It seems to be up there with, say, The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and maybe A Scanner Darkly in what is widely regarded as the top tier of Dick novels. (I don't necessarily agree with the esteem placed on every one of these titles, but that's for other reviews...)
For a short book, this novel is INSANE. This is the only word to describe Ubik, insane. It is set in the near future, in which telepaths run their own businesses and can be hired for out for the purpose of snooping into other people's affairs. This and a few other inventions make Ubik Sci-Fi; Man has colonized the moon, but has not yet gone outside the solar system in the world of Ubik. Snottily intelligent furniture such as couches and doors charge people small amounts of pocket change to open them or sit on them, and refuse people into their own apartments with attitudes usually only associated with humans. Another vital technology that has emerged on Earth is "half-death" --when a relative of someone is near death, that person can choose to put the dying person into a stasis tank where they will be held in suspended animation for as long as that person can keep up the large flow of money required to rent a stasis tank out. The "half-dead" person can be communicated with, but they cannot physically do anything.
The main characters of Ubik: Joe Chip, Glen Runciter, and Pat Conley, are anti-telepaths, people of a corporation that is hired out to block regular telepaths from snooping. If you've read Dick before, you know that story-line: mixing the supernatural with practical shallow consumerism and greed is pure PKD. On a trip to the moon, Runciter, the boss of the anti-telepath company, is seemingly killed by his competitors in the telepath business. Joe Chip, his second-in-command takes over, and returns to Earth, but soon after, extremely strange things start happening.
One classic scene of many: Chip is pulled over for a traffic ticket, and when he reads the ticket, it is a note from Runciter, the dead man, not the cop. He is alarmed and shows it to the cop, who does not see anything out of the ordinary. Chip and the rest of the anti-telepaths come across messages scrawled in extremely unlikely places, and that's when the sinister stuff starts happening.
Soon you start questioning, "Is Runciter really alive, and the rest are all dead...or what?" And just when you think you've figured things out, at around the end of the book, PKD drops a bombshell in the last chapter that is, no other way to describe it, amazing. Dick plays with the reader's head so much in this book, and I can't recommend it enough.
Read it quickly, or in one sitting, and be prepared for a helluva lot of insanity, mystery, craziness, dark humor and mayhem. It's a great intro to PKD, and only the second PKD book I'd ever read. It's a masterwork of science fiction and plays with your head like no other novel that I have read thus far. You just have to read this book and I promise --you'll be hooked on Philip K Dick. 

God Emperor of Dune:

“Most men go through life unchallenged, except at the final moment.” 
I never thought it would be easy to serve God," she said. "I just didn't think it would be this hard.”  
“In all of my universe I have seen no law of nature, unchanging and inexorable. This universe presents only changing relationships which are somtimes seen as laws by short-lived awareness. These fleshy sensoria which we call self are ephemera withering in the blaze of infinity, fleetingly aware of temporary conditions which confine our activities and change as our activities change. If you must label the absolute, use its proper name: Temporary.” 
Many Sci-fi fans know and respect Frank Herbert's Dune as one of the greatest works of Science Fiction ever written. Star Wars ripped off of it shamelessly, and all "space opera" in its wake probably owes something to Dune, the best-selling SF novel of all time. 
However, its sequels do not get much respect. Indeed, very few people seem to even be aware that Dune even has sequels. God Emperor is, in my opinion, almost on par with the original Dune, and it is definitely the best of the five other novels in the Dune Chronicles.
God Emperor of Dune is the fourth book of six in the Dune Chronicles. It focuses mainly on the God Emperor, Leto II, who has led humanity onto a Golden Path of peace and relative stagnancy. He rules from the desert planet, Arrakis, and is able to live for 4000 years to oversee the success of the Golden Path and humanity's survival because of his symbiosis with a sandworm, a creature of the desert planet Arrakis.
You many get great philosophical musings, along with some extremely original action scenes, throughout this somewhat melancholy novel.
The opening scene is exhilarating and tense: a wild, almost primordial chase scene that ratchets the tension up repeatedly to an almost unbearable level as one by one, Siona's friends fall victim to Leto's strange, mutated wolves. I also love the attack of the Face Dancers on Leto II, a scene that shows the ingenuity of Duncan Idaho and injects action into the plot forcefully and startlingly.
Overall, the plot of this novel mostly concerns a rebellion against Leto, whom some consider a Tyrant; others, the savior of humanity. Much of the book deals with Leto's explanations of life, the universe and everything to his servants and enemies alike --explanations that are ripe for detailed analysis. It was extremely interesting for me to read about --Dune fan and philosophy buff that I am. It might become tedious for some readers, but there is a decent amount of action in this book to balance out all this in-depth philosophizing.
Of the main characters, I especially liked Duncan Idaho, Anteac, and, of course Leto. Leto's character is up there in the ranks of SF as one of the most full and complex in my book. Love him or hate him, he's certainly a character that you get to know pretty well throughout the novel's length.
Personal opinion is always a factor, and I especially would stress that with this book, which some seem to adore, and others seem to hate. As for me, I cannot recommend this hidden gem enough. The sequels to Dune are all quite well-done, but I think this one especially stands out. If you like deep thinking, and "the big picture" of the human race, you'll love it. It's hard to believe that this novel, which is in the same series as one of the best SF novels of all time, is barely paid attention to in larger genre SF circles. But amongst most hard-core Dune fans, it remains beloved.
If you read it as an open-minded, philosophy-loving SF fan, I think you'll enjoy it. If not, at the very least, you will find one or two of the many detailed musings in this book to be interesting in some way. 

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