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Ubik (1969): Smart-alecky Smart Houses

Recommendation: Ubik is a PDK must read, but watch Minority Report first in order to prepare for the blast of ideas about telepathy and reality.

Ubik is a full stop immersion into PDK’s world of telepaths, uncertain identities and realities, smart-alecky smart houses, and Kobayashi-Maru-no-win scenarios, yet a bit more upbeat than his usual fare. TIME declared it one of the 100 best English-language novels published during the magazine’s existence, though at the time publication, Ubik did not any awards. The book explores the fluidity of reality, recalling the world building in Brandon Sanderson’s Hugo award winning The Emperor’s Soul where the protagonist transforms objects into what they could have plausibly been; for example a mundane window in a dungeon becomes a beautiful work of stained glass because in the past the dungeon might have been part of a nicer part of the castle that was later converted to a jail.

I had tried to read Ubik a couple of times and couldn’t get into it. I realized that when I picked it up last month, I could finally get into it because I had been prepped by seeing the movies Minority Report and Inception. Minority Report is an adaption of a PDK story and serves as a gentle introduction to his vision of telepaths and pre-cogs, sort of "PDK for dummies." Although Inception was by Christopher Nolan, it trains the viewer to accept a "what level of reality are we in? just go with it” attitude, which is helpful for reading Ubik.

Ubik is not a classic PDK robot story. In most PDK robot stories, robots serve as mirrors, forcing the protagonist to confront assumptions about his own humanity or those of loves one. The most famous is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which spawned the Blade Runner franchise, but there are other examples. In The Electric Ant, the protagonist discovers he is a robot, not a person. The real kick-in-the-gut is that everyone, including his wife, knew he was a robot and was happy with that- it would be too inconvenient for him to be a real person. Talk about being trapped in a hum-drum life! In Second Variety and its movie version, Screamers, there are non-humanoid robots but they exist primarily to set up the chilling evolution to humanoid.

PDK did consider non-humanoid robots, using them to comment on the extremities of capitalism. His highly regarded short story Autofac (see review here) is about a robot factory and is, if you will, a capitalist version of Ray Bradbury’s There Will Come Soft Rains. Bradbury’s story imagined a smart house running on auto-pilot after a nuclear war, evoking a profound sadness about the death of the family that had once lived there. PDK imagined a factory similarly running on auto-pilot after a nuclear war, but evoking dread as the factory competes with the remaining clusters of survivors for available resources, so that it can continue to make items that areno longer needed.

PDK imagined that smart houses and appliances would be leveraged by capitalism, and played this for semi-humorous effect in Ubik. While not directly about robots, Ubik features a panoply of non-humanoid robots in the background, most noticeably smart houses and the Internet of Things. The protagonist is constantly having to borrow money from friends to pay his smart house so he can open the refrigerator door, get a cup of coffee, or even open the front door to go to work. The constant stream of transactions, and negotiations with the house about paying it back later, forms a running joke through out the book.

Fortunately, PDK’s predictions in Ubik did not come entirely true. On one hand, his vision of a smart house that would control access to all aspects of a house, including doors, is becoming a reality. Smart houses for assistive living are already opening doors for elders or disabled occupants and even lowering kitchen cabinets to make it easier to reach inside. On the other hand, the Internet of Things does not work on a transaction basis; charges for services are either hidden in the cost of the appliance or in subscriptions to meta-services like Alexa and Siri to control them.

To be sure, smart houses are not the point of Ubik; they exist to add to the verisimilitude of a near future. But in real life, smart houses were never the goal of robotics; they are benefits of continuing, general technological progress in robotics. Who knows what other advances will lead to next? Whatever is the next incarnation of robotics into our daily lives, let’s hope it isn’t as mouthy as the smart house in Ubik!


For a video version of this review, click below...

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