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In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

Annihilation is the first part of American author Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, focusing on the mysterious region known as Area X. It’s been awhile since I’ve read any science-fiction, reviews had been mostly positive and the book was released in 2014 (it occurred to me recently that I haven’t actually read that many books from the 21st century).

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The trilogy focuses on a dystopian future in the location known as Area X, a quarantine zone cut off from the rest of the continent. Within is a wild and thriving ecosystem filled with scientific anomalies, unusual wildlife and unexplainable, almost supernatural, events. Little is known of what caused this catastrophic change in the environment, but the government has been sending expeditions to the area to document and record their findings. Each expedition has ended in disaster; one group ended up shooting each other to pieces, another came back with aggressive forms of cancer and died, another all committed suicide. The narrative focuses on the twelfth expedition, an all female group consisting of a surveyor, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a biologist. It is from the biologist that the perspective of the story is told.

It really is a fascinating premise. VanderMeer does well to create a scenario where a chunk of the world is now unchartered, due to circumstances not explained to the reader (at least, not yet), eliciting wonder and tension and unknowing. And Area X is a bizarre world. There are a few science-fiction cliches to be found, but generally I found the concept to be original and was key to drawing me towards the book in the first place.

But unfortunately I was disappointed. VanderMeer can clearly write – his descriptions of the events transpiring in Area X are creepy and suspenseful for the most part. My biggest gripe was that the protagonist, or point of view, was never particularly interesting. She is not even underdeveloped – there is a lot (maybe too much) that is spelled out to us about her as a person, about her past, the links between Area X and her husband (who was part of the previous expedition and eventually returned a changed man). Nothing about the biologist gripped me to read on. As I was reading I considered other narrative styles that may have worked better. Perhaps switching between members of the team, focusing on their increasing paranoia towards each other, but ultimately the angle VanderMeer went for could have worked so much better if the protagonist was a little more compelling.

I have absolutely no problem with the open ending, the scores of unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries of Area X; it is a trilogy after all, and some aspects are all the more intriguing the less we know of them. Overall, my desire to uncover the mysteries of Area X was undermined by a bland and meandering cast. Some highlights for sure, but I don’t think Annihilation did enough to make me want to continue with the Southern Reach Trilogy – not any time soon at least.

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In the near future, Substance D, aka Slow Death, or Death, is a highly addictive and dangerous drug which has 20% of the population of the United States hooked. It causes wild hallucinations and severe brain damage, where the two hemispheres of the brain compete with one another, causing paranoia, schizophrenia, and finally, death.

Bob Arctor is a user of Substance D, and lives with his addict friends Barris and Luckman in his suburban, rundown house in Anaheim, California. Together they spend their days under the influence of various drugs, taking part in a number of inane conversations and arguments, often escalating quickly due to the group’s shared paranoia. But Bob Arctor is living a double life, also working as an undercover narcotics officer, one of a network employed by the government, along with invasive and advanced surveillance techniques, in a desperate attempt to fight back in the failed war on drugs. When Arctor is required for reports at the police station, he must wear a “scramble suit”, a high-tech costume that constantly changes the wearer’s appearance, to keep his identity private, and is assigned a code name, “Fred”. All the narcotic informants must wear these, even Fred’s superior, Hank, keeping their identities protected even from one another.

“We’re all dreaming,” Arctor said. If the last to know he’s an addict is the addict, then maybe the last to know when a man means what he says is the man himself, he reflected. He wondered how much of the garbage that Donna had overheard he had seriously meant. He wondered how much of the insanity of the day–his insanity–had been real, or just induced as a contact lunacy, by the situation. Donna, always, was a pivot point of reality for him; for her this was the basic, natural question. He wished he could answer.

Since starting his most recent assignment, Fred/Arctor has become addicted to Substance D, and formed a strong bond with Donna, a cocaine addict and supplier of Substance D; Arctor had hoped to be introduced to her supplier, getting further up the supply chain in an attempt to gain a lead. At his next review Hank informs Fred that, due to the information from an unknown informant, his next assignment is Bob Arctor; Arctor essentially has to begin spying on himself. The narcotics division installs hidden surveillance equipment throughout Arctor’s house while the group are out, and Fred must analyse the footage for anything that could incriminate Arctor, while getting an external viewpoint of the life that he and his drug addict housemates lead.

The paranoia and uncertainty that affects Arctor and Fred is jarring as the effects of Substance D addiction loosens his sense of reality. He is even called in for medical analysis several times, where doctors coldly tell him of the damage that is taking apart his brain.

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.

The New Path rehabilitation centre, and Arctor’s severe brain damage from coming off Substance D in the final few chapters of the book were difficult. It showed the damage withdrawing from the drug can hold, as Arctor is essentially a scrambled mess, barely able to perform simple tasks and utter short sentences.

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The film adaptation, directed by Richard Linklater, is pretty good. Its distinctive animated style perfectly captures the schizophrenic and paranoiac tone of the book.

It is revealed that Donna was also an undercover agent, like Arctor, and is aware that Arctor was used by the police. The intention all along was to get Arctor closer to Barris (the real target of the surveillance in Arctor’s house), to get him hooked on Substance D, to get him into NewPath, It is strongly suspected that NewPath themselves are behind the manufactures and distributors of the drug are NewPath themselves, growing little blue flowers on farmlands across the United States. It is hoped that eventually Arctor may regain his mental capacities and provide evidence against NewPath; but this is in no way a certainty.

Donna said, “I think, really, there is nothing more terrible than the sacrifice of someone or something, a living thing, without its ever knowing. If it knew. If it understood and volunteered. But” – she gestured. “He doesn’t know. He never did know. He didn’t volunteer-”

“Sure he did. It was his job.”

“He had no idea, and he hasn’t any idea now, because now he hasn’t any ideas. You know that as well as I do. And he will never again in his life, as long as he lives, have any ideas. Only reflexes. And this didn’t happen accidentally; it was supposed to happen. So we have this…bad karma on us. I feel it on my back. Like a corpse. I’m carrying a corpse – Bob Arctor’s corpse.

A Scanner Darkly isn’t Dick’s best work, and it isn’t my favourite book of his (that will remain Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) – but it is still a great read, for its message and the emotional impact. The poignancy of the author’s note at the end of the novel is traumatic, bringing you back into the reality of a world where addiction is a problem, and the repercussions are severe.

If there was any “sin”, it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever, and were punished for that, but, as I say, I feel that, if so, the punishment was far too great, and I prefer to think of it only in a Greek or morally neutral way, as mere science, as deterministic impartial cause-and-effect. I loved them all. . .

. . . These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The “enemy” was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.

If you are unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick then you may not know that he had an amphetamine habit in the 1970s. It didn’t last long and I don’t believe he was as heavy a user as some of the characters in this book, but he did once state in an interview, “Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw.” Some of the aspects of drug culture are brilliantly realised and truthful. I have no doubt Dick saw some extraordinarily dark times.

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In the theatrical adaptation Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, Robert Downey Jr. plays Barris and Woody Harrelson plays Luckman.

Note: When I finished reading A Scanner Darkly last week I immediately sought out the film adaptation. I really enjoyed it; a much more faithful adaptation that we might be use to seeing, in terms of plot anyway. There were no jarring changes; one reveal towards the end, which wasn’t actually detailed in the book, made a lot of sense but was a nice twist. Check it out, alongside the book.

Anyone unable to understand how useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.

Like all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, Cat’s Cradle is typically difficult to nail down in terms of genre. To define his books as science-fiction is like calling Moby Dick an adventure book; there’s much more to them than that. It is science-fiction, but there’s a hearty dollop of satire. And while it’s a tragic tale, the way its written reads more like a comedy. Vonnegut’s fourth novel, the book was published in 1963.

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The narrator of this story is John, or Jonah, who is attempting to write on what Americans were doing on the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We follow him on his investigation into the life of the late Felix Hoenikker, the father of the atom bomb that killed thousands in Japan and brought WWII to an end. To learn more about him he contacts thes the three Hoenikker children, still affected by their father’s life and legacy, and it is through them he stumbles across Hoenikker’s last and most deadly invention, ice-nine. A blue crystal like substance, split into three and owned by the Hoenikker children, that upon contact would crystallise every droplet of water it touched, turning the Earth into a blue frozen tundra.

After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?’ Felix Hoenikker. The bloke who invented the atom bomb. Promising. . .

John’s investigation takes him to the republic of San Lorenzo to interview Dr Julian Castle, where he is introduced to a number of strange and interesting people, including Dr Castle’s son and the owner of the island’s only hotel, Philip Castle, ‘Papa’ Monzano the island’s old and terminally ill dictator, his daughter Mona Monzano, the most beautiful woman John has ever seen, and the three Hoenikker children, Frank, Angel and Newt. And it is through his eyes and writings we witness the end of the world.

“Self-taught, are you?” Julian Castle asked Newt.

“Isn’t everybody?” Newt inquired.

“Very good answer”.

Dialogue throughout is often funny and smart.

“And Father started giggling,” Castle continued.

“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.

“Nope.”

‘Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours”.

Vonnegut goes to town creating the wacky island of San Lorenzo, with a rich cast of characters and strange traditions and the fascinating religious movement, Bokononism. Many of the most thought-provoking quotes are Bokononist teachings, and John reveals during his tale that he too has become a Bokononist through his experiences on San Lorenzo.

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To my eyes there are two main themes within Cat’s Cradle. Firstly, Ice-nine, Hoenikker’s technologically (or biochemically?) bewildering invention, clearly representing weapons of mass production (more specifically atomic warfare given the book was published a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis) and the threat their mere existence poses to humanity. The science involved is astounding. . .but ultimately the vast amount of intelligence and hard work has gone into creating something primarily to kill. And as is shown, accidents can happen – it doesn’t necessarily take an evil madman to destroy the world. What is somewhat amusing in the book, but terrifying in reality, is how easily this ensemble of inadequate and flawed characters have access to a doomsday device that can end humanity. We see how recklessly the Hoenikker children use it to get their wants. Angela, for example, gives some of her ice-nine to the Americans in exchange for a stunningly attractive toy-boy husband. Frank trades some of his ice-nine to Papa Monzano of San Lorenzo to be a Major in Papa’s shambolic army. The poor, poverty-stricken San Lorenzo where fatefully, ice-nine is allowed to be unleashed on the world.

I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same. Vonnegut perhaps warming up his war-weariness for his most renowned work, Slaughterhouse 5.

Which leads to the second major theme of Cat’s Cradle, religion. Bokononism is Vonnegut’s calypso/Carribean themed religion, and the native religion on San Lorezno. The general theme is that we are attracted to certain people and objects throughout life, and those within the same group, a karass, are linked and somehow intertwined through the will of God. Within John’s karass is Dr. Felix Hoenikker and his three children along with many of the characters he encounters in San Lorenzo. Members of the same karass often express their love in the ritual ‘boko-maru’, where the bottoms of feet are pressed against one another. Like a sole-shake.

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before,” Bokonon tells us. “He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.” Bokonon, in the Books of Bokonon, admits that it is all a lie, right off the bat. There is no deceit.

Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!

Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. *foma = harmless untruths

Basically, Bokonon created Bokononism as a relief to those who need it. A lie can be a good thing if it promotes happiness, no? The inhabitants of San Lorezno are thin and dying, starving in poverty. They use Bokononism to make their lives more bearable.

“Papa” Monzano, he’s so very bad

But without bad “Papa” I would be so sad;

Because without “Papa’s” badness,

Tell me, if you would,

How could wicked old Bokonon

Ever, ever look good?

Bokonon’s calypso on Dynamic Tension

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.

Bokonon’s calypso on trying to understand

The very ending of the book shows Bokonon, sitting on the top of Mount McCabe, with a piece of paper containing scrawled handwriting. John approaches him and reads the final words of the Books of Bokonon;

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who. The final sentence within the Books of Bokonon

That is how the book ends. Does this mean, upon reading this, John finishes his account and commits suicide? Is that the end? It seems likely. To discover Bokonon, contemplating his religion. To see him write like this, why did he carry on the charade of Bokononism all this time, if this was how he really felt? Or did he genuinely think he could make a difference, only for ice-nine and the end of the world caused by the events on San Lorenzo shatter his faith in (God/fate/mankind?)

Short and sweet, written simply with a rapid turnover of chapters, Cat’s Cradle is probably one of Vonnegut’s more accessible books. The warnings of humanity’s self-made destruction in ice-nine and the soothing falsities of religion as themes can be as shallow or as deep as the reader wants to take them. Or you can ignore that all together and read about a strange bunch of characters who together bring about the end of the world as we know it.

Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,

And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.

And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,

Why just go ahead and scold Him. He’ll just smile and nod.

Bokonon’s calypso on the end of the world

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

Finally; Winston Niles Rumfoord has put into words his new religion, one that truly can apply to one and all, uniting humankind at last.

Of course, it took a little planning for the Earth to subscribe so willingly to this new, all-encompassing religion. To attain peace on Earth, it took a lot of travelling – but being spread throughout the universe helps. Creating colonies on Mars and leading an army to annihilate and enslave all life on Earth. Ultimately it was a mass suicide, and when the last Martian ship to reach Earth, gleefully fired upon by the Earthlings, was revealed to consist of unarmed women and children, the glorious war was over. Masterminded by Rumfoord, the Martian sacrifice was needed to prolong the horror at the end of the glorious war. A perfect time to introduce his new religion.

“All was forgiven. All living things were brothers, and all dead things were even more so.” The war between Earth and Mars resulted in bringing humanity together, closer than ever before.

It had to be done. Rumfoord should know. He has seen the past and he has seen the future.

The Sirens of Titan, written in 1959 is only Vonnegut’s second novel, yet shows astounding ambition to tackle issues of free will, the purpose of human life and history and insights into the meaning of life.

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Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog Kazak, have travelled through a phenomenon known as a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, located just off the planet Mars. As a consequence, Rumfoord and Kazak are spread throughout the solar system as ‘wave phenomena’, existing along a spiralling path between the Sun and Betelguese, and materialising whenever a planet crosses their path. On Earth for example, he materialises along with Kazak every 59 days in his home town of Newport, Rhode Island.

“Now, you can say your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.” Winston Niles Rumfoord on the nature of facts and beliefs. In the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, it is not always as simple as who is right and who is wrong.

Upon entering the infundibulum Rumfoord became aware of the past and the future. Thus, when Rumfoord makes his consistent, scheduled appearances on Earth he prophesies and predicts, drawing a fanatic following and crowds that come from miles around in an attempt to witness one of Rumfoord and Kazak’s materialisations.

Malachi Constant is a billionaire playboy. Born rich with everything he ever wanted, the luckiest man on Earth. He is summoned to the Rumfoord estate, to visit and speak to Rumfoord personally; one of very few to have such an honour. Constant is told he will be sent to Mars, where he will be bred (with none other than Rumfoord’s wife, who is less than impressed by this latest prophecy), before visiting Mercury, Titan (a moon of Saturn) and finally revisiting Earth again. Clear so far?

What follows is an account of Constant’s life; a life he has no control over, where he loses his identity and memory and is forced to do terrible things. All, seemingly, to greaten the impact of Rumfoord’s new religion, The Church of God The Utterly Indifferent.

On Mars he is Unk. He is controlled by a pain-emitting antenna surgically implanted in his skull. He has no recollection of his life as Malachi Constant. He has raped Rumfoord’s wife (now known as Bea, and now similarily amnesiac like Unk/Constant) and fathered the resulting child, a German kickball prodigee named Chrono. He watches as the entire fleet of Mars launches a terribly ineffective assault on Earth, leaving thousands, almost all Martian, dead.

He is directed via spaceship to Mercury, hidden deep underground for several years with just Boaz and the harmoniums for company. Boaz used to control Unk’s mind with a device, but now they are equal and Boaz keeps his peace of mind by attending the needs of the harmoniums, simple and small, peaceful creatures that feed off vibrations.

“I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I’m doing good, and them I’m doing good for know I’m doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.” Boaz, on Mercury and the Harmoniums.

Any clearer?

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Obviously I’m skimping on the plot, and I would dread to think that anyone reading this is getting the impression that I found The Sirens of Titan a confusing read and Vonnegut an unclear narrator, because that’s simply not true. It is so readable and accessible, as so much is when written by Vonnegut, even when dealing with some complex and heavy themes.

What I would say is that you are constantly waiting for some sort of payoff – an explanation to these events. This is not a complaint – the book builds slowly and there is a sense of epic expectation. I felt such sympathy for these characters, despite some obvious flaws. After all Constant was a greedy, lazy man, undeserving of his great wealth which he so gladly attributed to luck, he raped a woman and murdered his best friend Stony Stevenson. But, as he later says, I was a victim of a series of accidents. As are we all.

I felt for Rumfoord’s situation of being spread across the solar system, and I despised Constant for his air of superiority. Then I despised Rumfoord for his god-like status and omniscient arrogance and sympathised with Unk’s struggle. Constant is used superbly by Rumfoord…but then we realise Rumfoord himself is being used by a higher agent, which emphasises the lack of free will for these characters.

The final act which takes place on the titular moon of Saturn – Titan – is simply breathtakingly good fiction. We meet Salo, a stranded alien from Trafalmadore, who has been travelling the universe for millions of years with one mission and one mission only – to deliver an envelope containing a message to a worthy but unknown and unspecified destination far far away.

The subject of free will, which is a strong part of Slaughterhouse 5, definitely plays a big part here in Sirens. There are several wonderful ironies. Salo, a machine, has more free will than Rumfoord, a human who has seen the past and the future. Salo, a machine, is programmed to keep his message sealed until he reaches his goal. Yet he reveals it in order to appease a friend. What does that say of free will?

Even Rumfoord, the man who has seen the past and future, is distraught to realise that even he has been used – by a robot, sending out a distress call to its home planet, requesting a spare part for its broken down space ship. We learn that the purpose of human history was to communicate to the stranded Tralfamadorian on Titan. Monuments such as The Great Wall of China and Stonehenge were built by civilisations being controlled by messengers from Tralfamadore.  They were reassuring Salo – letting him know that help was on the way. He just needed to be patient.

The characters within the book are all so varied; the main differences are their beliefs and philosophies, none more valid than another. What does seem to be emphasised, is the meaningless of it all. The utter pointless nature that is life. But it is also reinforced that it does not matter, as long as one makes their own life have meaning in their own terms and values, which is of course different for us all.

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The Sirens of Titan is an intriguing and beautiful piece of science fiction. It is transformed by its final act into a grandiose work of immense scale and immaculate ambition. I found it heartbreaking and humbling but stunningly beautiful. I apologise; I don’t think this post has done the book justice. Scattered and lacking depth, it’s taken me a few weeks to finish writing on it. I loved the book, and I hope that has reflected here as I’ve found it difficult to analyse it coherently.

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.” Bea / Mrs Beatrice Rumfoord, and her thoughts and philosophies after a tiring life of confusion and hardship.

“When you get right down to it, everybody’s having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everyone. And the hell of it is, nothing seems to help much.”

“Take care of the people, and god almighty will take care of himself.”

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

And finally some thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut himself. The above quotes I found particularly moving and informative of his own views. The turbulent events in his life that could lead him to think he was a pawn, a player in a larger plan. The atrocities at Dresden of which he witnessed first hand, blended with further personal and family tragedy. He was a victim of a series of accidents, as we all are. I see this book as an attempt to give meaning to life, to answer those questions that have plagued Vonnegut and countless others over the years, the reason of our existence, the point of it all. Slaughterhouse 5 may be Vonnegut’s most important and critically acclaimed book in his bibliography, but The Sirens of Titan is my preferred out of the two.

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” Malachi Constant, The Space Traveller, on his return from space and his thoughts on the struggle that is life.

For the first time in my short writing career I have submitted a piece of work to a literary magazine.

The magazine is Lighthouse, a publication of Gatehouse Press. Submissions can include poetry, prose and articles, and is aimed at up-and-coming, unpublished authors. They aim to publish a selection of the best work later on in the year.

Check out their site. http://www.gatehousepress.com/lighthouse/

The short story is called Pynzack Magenta and the Art of Displacement. A short work of contemporary science fiction, where an eccentric space traveller struggles to give his life on Earth relevance. About 4000 words approx. Inspired by recent readings of Vonnegut and Philip K Dick.

The deadline was yesterday; the idea itself only came to me last weekend, and it was a struggle to get it written, to a point where I was happy to submit it, in just five days. There have been some late nights but I’ve sent it off, and I said to myself I wouldn’t send it if I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

If I’m honest, I don’t think the piece I’ve written is totally suited to the magazine (although I’ve only read the sample edition available on the website). I’m not expecting anything at all, but merely submitting a piece of work feels pretty damn good.

There are a few more submissions for UK based publications coming up this summer that have caught my eye, and I look forward to writing with more purpose on a regular basis. Exhausting work but enjoyable, and with a bit of luck, rewarding.

Ubik is a dazzling science fiction novel, which is as unsettling and hard to pin down as it is ambitious and visionary. When it comes to creating worlds and futures, imaginative and brave beyond belief, Dick is right up there. His writing may be somewhat lacking in comparison to the greats. He doesn’t have a distinctive style; a relatively simplistic prose that rarely leaves the reader breathless. Rather, he lets his visions and ideas do the talking, and it is these that compel the reader to continue.

Dick describes to us another fantastic manifestation of his wild imagination. In Ubik, the year is 1992 and space travel is commonplace, with humanity capable of colonising on other planets, including the moon. The protagonist is Joe Chip – an employee of the Runciter Association. They are a ‘prudence organisation’, and Joe is a tester, whose job is to measure and verify the potency of ‘intertials’ or anti-psis. These are individuals who can negate the psychic powers of individuals with psionic abilities, who are often hired to commit acts of business sabotage. Joe’s boss and employer, Glen Runciter, runs the association with help from his deceased wife, Ella. Yes – deceased. Another aspect of the future presented in Ubik is the ability to cryonically store the dead and communicate with them, albeit in a slightly limited fashion. This suspension, known as ‘half-life’, allows the dead a limited state of consciousness and the ability to speak to former loved ones, family and friends.

It touches on, but never really investigates this new culture of psychics and inertials. It’s a fascinating subject – and the fact that Dick goes down a path where they aren’t fully explained is bold. Like I said, I would have expect this great battle between Runciter Associates’ inertials and Hollis’ psis on Luna. But on Luna, the situation changes, and the narrative begins to revolve more around the method of half-life.

Personally, there was some slight disappointment that the plot didn’t go in the direction I expected to. But whose fault is that? Certainly not Dick’s. The pieces were being arranged for a battle between Hollis’ psis, and Runciter’s inertials. And we do get that – kind of. But I expected these psychic and psionic abilities to play a much more forward role, and the half-life technology to take a backseat (as interesting and imaginative as it is).

When reading a book, the majority of the time you have an idea of what type of book it is shaping out to be. A hunch of what is going on, who the main players are, where the plot is going. Ubik is different. As a reader, moments are few and far between where you feel ‘safe’. I attribute safe to understanding. Dick is a master at pulling the rug out from under you. But in Ubik, he yanks that rug chapter after chapter. You will feel battered and bruised, and thoroughly confused.

There are a multitude of characters; the nature of the narrative means some are, not underdeveloped but perhaps underused. The focus remains on Runciter and Joe Chip throughout, with a few more key players being introduced later on. Glen Runciter is a well respected, experienced businessman who is admired by his employees. After the events on Luna there seems to be a real sense of shock at the loss of this great man. But he is resourceful and cunning – the trail of breadcrumbs he leaves for Joe and the group allows them to ‘wake up’ and realise the danger and reality of their situation. And Joe Chip – a faithful employee of the Runciter Association, he is clearly talented and rated highly by his boss and friend Glen Runciter. But he is not without his faults. There is a hint of unused potential, and his poor handling of personal finances and disorganised living quarters is a cause for some ridicule and disrespect.

From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.

“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out. Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”

The Runciter Association’s main rivals are run by a man named Ray Hollis, who runs an organisation of psychics. Given a lucrative contract by the powerful businessman Stanton Mick, Runciter organises a party of 11 of his inertials, as well as Joe Chip and himself, to travel to Mick’s lunar facilities on the moon, where the anti-psis will be used to negate the telepaths ability and enforce privacy. However a trap has been set, no doubt orchestrated by Hollis to cripple his rival, and a bomb kills Runciter and leaves the rest of the employees in complete disarray. They panic and flee Luna, desperate to escape with their lives and to get the dying Runicter into ‘cold-pac’, so he can continue to advise and run the Runciter Association from half-life.

When that bomb explodes, everything changes. Runciter is killed. Or is he? What follows is a pseudo- crazy trip through time and the past. Reality is seemingly changing radically all around the group, and it becomes clear that not all is as it seems.

A bizarre state of decay and rapid ageing is following the group everywhere. Stale cigarettes that crumble when taken out the packet. And more grotesquely, dried-up and desiccated corpses of the Luna expedition.

Bizarre, existential questions then start being asked within the group. Was Runciter killed in the explosion? Is it, in fact, the group that died, and Runciter that survived? Did anyone die…or are they all dead, communicating with each other in half-life?

At the same time, it appears Runciter is attempting to contact his former employees. Joe Chip hears him through his hotel telephone. His face appears on currency. And most importantly, Joe Chip witnesses an advertisement featuring Runciter promoting a bizarre product; Ubik. At the start of each chapter, an advertising slogan is featured, praising Ubik as some sort of wonder product that can be used for anything and everything. Yet in the narrative it is not introduced until the last act.

Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavour of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.

My hair is so dry, so unmanageable. What’s a girl to do? Simply rub in creamy Ubik hair conditioner. In just five days you’ll discover new body in your hair, new glossiness. And Ubik hairspray, used as directed, is absolutely safe.

It appears that Ubik is an agent (most consistently found in the form of a spray can) which can ‘restore the effects of aging’, and has possibly been created by those in half-life – as a way of protecting themselves from stronger, hungrier minds that can devour others in half-life to extent their own time in this bizarre limbo.

I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, then do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.

There are several theories but the strongest comes from Dick’s wife Tessa, who in her essay ‘Ubik Explained, sort of’, she wrote “Ubik is a metaphor for God. Ubik is all-powerful and all-knowing, and Ubik is everywhere. The spray can is only a form that Ubik takes to make it easy for people to understand it and use it. It is not the substance inside the can that helps them, but rather their faith in the promise that it will help them.”

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This is a difficult book to write about. Having read some Franz Kafka recently, I would describe Ubik as incredibly kafkaesque. A spiralling sense of confusion and incoherence. The unease you will feel of an impending danger or doom.

Ubik is a book I suspect the reader would benefit from reading more than once. If I didn’t have such a huge backlog I’d probably be reading it now. But it might benefit from a few months on the shelf as my subconscious tries to figure out what the hell just happened.

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.