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Review: Ubik by Philip K. Dick and The Langoliers by Stephen King

Ubik
By Philip K. Dick
202 pp., hardcover. Doubleday – May 1969. Original retail price: $4.50.

The Langoliers (originally a novella in Four Past Midnight)
By Stephen King
Total book pg. count: 804, hardcover. Viking – Sept. 1990. $29.95.

Those concerned about the world energy situation have long been preoccupied with the second law of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy. Entropy is a measure of the energy lost as waste heat whenever energy flows from higher concentrations to lower ones, as it always does when left to itself. An oft-cited example is the cooling of a cup of coffee left at room temperature. It’s a vital principle to grasp in thinking about energy resources, because it explains why the “replacements” for oil won’t cut it. In addition to its definition in physics, however, entropy also refers to how systems in general tend to wind down and become less complex over time. Indeed, Guardian columnist George Monbiot has called life itself “a struggle against entropy.”1

This preoccupation with entropy has inevitably made its way into fiction and other creative pursuits—especially within the science fiction genre, with its affectation for mysterious, ever-shifting realities. Two cases in point are Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik and Stephen King’s novella The Langoliers. Each shows a group of people struggling to become oriented in a rapidly deteriorating reality that feels as if it’s dragging them into oblivion like a bog of quicksand. Each is also at once a gripping thriller and a haunting meditation on the impermanence of all things.

Ubik, published in 1969, depicts a world in which trips to the moon are commonplace, the United States has been subsumed by the North American Confederation, psychic powers are widely recognized and psychics are employed for their talents. The human life cycle has also been extended by a new phase following death known as half-life. Transferring a deceased person to half-life involves placing him or her into a cryonic suspension in which the mind remains active even though the body no longer is. The person can still communicate with the living and can interact with fellow “half-lifers,” as they’re called. Ubik plays ingenious games with the line between this half-life and normal life, constantly leaving us in doubt as to what's real and what's illusory.

The main characters are employees of a company named Runciter Associates. The company deals in “anti-psi” talents, or psionic abilities that cancel out other psionic abilities (for example, an anti-precog thwarting a precog’s ability to see the future). The head of the firm, Glen Runciter, has just landed a big contract ridding a lunar settlement of unwanted psychic activity. But shortly after he and his team arrive and get to work, they realize that they’ve been set up for assassination—a bomb detonates in their midst, mortally injuring Runciter and inflicting shrapnel wounds on the rest. The survivors retreat and rush to get their boss into cold-pac while he still has enough brain activity to pass into half-life. They take off for the Beloved Brethren Moratorium in Zürich, where Runciter's late wife is a half-lifer.

Their troubles with reality begin with the mundane: spoiled cream, cigarettes that crumble at the slightest touch, antiquated money and out-of-date phonebooks. But soon people begin complaining of feeling old and wearied, and not long after that one of their number turns up dead, her body ravaged into a wispy husk. Joe Chip, Runciter’s right-hand man and now the company head, fears that they were all severely irradiated during the bomb blast. One by one they’ll succumb to similar grisly deaths. This reasoning doesn't hold up, however, because it explains neither the obsolete phonebooks and coins nor the even stranger phenomena that follow shortly.

The level of entropy rises to Kafkaesque heights. After becoming separated from the others in order to visit the company headquarters, Chip finds reuniting with them no easy matter. On his way to the airport, modern-day elevators revert to iron-cage ones operated by conductors. Automobiles also drastically regress: his ride to the airport is a 1939 LaSalle. Once there, he sees that the airplanes have devolved into antique tri-motor planes. Because his money is worthless, he offers to trade the car for a plane ride. The one pilot who is receptive to his offer turns to see only a 1929 Model A Ford where the LaSalle had been seconds earlier. “I don’t see any `39 LaSalle,” he tells a crestfallen Chip.

Amidst this chaos Chip and the others also begin receiving cryptic messages on matchbooks, traffic tickets and bathroom stalls. They eventually realize that they’re from Runciter, and that he’s trying to tell them that he’s alive and they’re the ones who are dead. The freakish events of late, insists Runciter, have happened not in the real world but in the dreamlike existence of half-life. It seems that “world deterioration” is a common experience for half-lifers. The newly disembodied mind remains strongly tied to physical reality, so a “lingering universe is retained as a residual charge, experienced as a pseudo environment but highly unstable and unsupported by any ergic substructure.” Runciter says that since the tragedy on Luna he’s been at the moratorium waiting tensely for his charges to be revived into half-life. But has he really, or do we have still more surprises coming?

Peter Nicholls, in the authoritative Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, describes Dick as being probably the first author to popularize entropy within the genre. Nicholls points specifically to Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later made into the classic film Blade Runner), in which entropy takes the form of “kipple”: “useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself...the entire universe is moving towards a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”2 Yet Dick was also, without knowing it, looking ahead to a time of increasing concern over depleting energy resources. Ubik’s reversions to more rudimentary forms of technology mirror the technological backslide that many see as inevitable with the decline of oil.

Ubik would certainly make a riveting movie, and the late Dick himself wrote a screenplay for it back in 1974. He envisioned the film, like the novel’s settings, undergoing a process of devolution, from color to black and white to the jerkiness of primitive pictures—until finally the celluloid itself would appear to disintegrate and the projector would wink out, leaving the audience in darkness.3 But Dick’s screenplay proved to be the first of several false starts, and while a movie is currently said to be in development, there's little sign of progress on it. One can understand the reluctance, given what a risky undertaking it is to film such a stroke of brilliance. But the director who pulls it off will have made a major contribution to science fiction moviemaking.

Stephen King’s The Langoliers achieves the same level of fascination and poignancy as Ubik with an unexpected twist on time travel. King’s inspiration, he recalls in the introduction, was time “and the corrosive effects it can have on the human heart. The past, and the shadows it throws upon the present—shadows where unpleasant things sometimes grow and even more unpleasant things hide.” The Langoliers was published in 1990 and was later adapted into an ABC TV-movie. This poorly reviewed movie is nonetheless a guilty pleasure of mine, largely because of the captivating performance of Dean Stockwell. Stockwell is known as the wizened mentor to time traveler Sam Beckett in NBC’s Quantum Leap series, and he fulfills much the same role for the hapless travelers in King’s tale.

The story begins with passengers boarding American Pride’s Flight 29 at LAX, a red-eye to Boston that promises to fly through some unusual weather, including an aurora borealis at an odd time of year. Less than an hour after takeoff a small group wakens to find the plane empty except for them. They also find coins, rings and even surgical implants lying haphazardly where the missing people had sat. The mystery deepens when passenger Brian Engle, who miraculously happens to be an off-duty pilot deadheading to the next airport, takes the pilot’s seat. Unable to raise anyone by radio, he decides to divert to Bangor, Maine. On the way there, no lights are visible from any cities in their path, and upon their landing the airport looks deserted.

The character played by Stockwell in the movie is mystery writer Bob Jenkins. Another central character is über-type A overachiever Craig Toomy, who is furious at the change of course and threatens to sue the airliner and name Engle as primary respondent. Toomy was driven to overachieve at a young age when his terrible father taught him to fear make-believe monsters called langoliers, which he said prey on lazy boys and girls. Bronson Pinchot, perhaps best known as the eccentric roommate from Mypos in ABC's Perfect Strangers, portrays Toomy in the movie, acting with such show-stopping mania that one wonders whether his livid face will explode all over the screen.

Having safely landed the plane, Engle leads the group into the airport to search for others, since “logic suggests” that if they survived the disaster others must have as well. “False logic,” murmurs Jenkins as they proceed inside—and true to Jenkins’ suspicion, they find no one else. The situation steadily grows more perplexing as the characters notice that there are no smells in the air, sounds don’t echo, matches won’t light, food is tasteless and beer is flat. Also, the jewelry, change and surgical implants that lay strewn about on the plane are nowhere to be found here, meaning that these people likely didn’t vanish in the same way.

In the novella’s best scene and most stirring speech, Jenkins presents his hypothesis to the others. “I am convinced that the world as we have always known it is ticking along just as it always has,” he intones, pacing broodingly around the vacant airport waiting room. “It’s us—the missing passengers and the eleven survivors of Flight 29—who are lost.” Jenkins’ assessment involves rips in the fabric of time linked with rare weather phenomena. His plan is for them to take off again and fly back through the aurora borealis that lay in their original path. But for all his deductive prowess, there’s one thing that he hasn’t considered. Just how, asks Engle, will they take off again when jet fuel almost certainly isn’t going to burn in this dead world?

Like MacGyver relying on his wits and the materials at hand, a couple of clever characters work out a way to get airborne again and reverse their passage through the temporal rip. All the while they sense that they're racing against an increasingly frantic clock, their environment continuing to deteriorate, daylight and nightfall coming in quickening cycles that feel like a couple of hours. In the distance at first, but then ever more closely, they also hear an unsettling sound that some compare to static, others to dry, windswept grass or fries sizzling in a deep fat fryer. Toomy thinks that it’s the langoliers coming to pick off the last few lazy people. He may not be far off the mark.

The Langoliers marvels at the mysteries of the cosmos even as it aches with the inevitability of decay and loss. Regardless of how well its explanation as to the fate of the present once it moves into the past holds up to the laws of physics, it’s no more bizarre than many real-life theories about the universe.

As for the movie, I unfortunately don’t seem to be in good company in liking it. Many people can’t see past its low budget, patches of flabby editing or occasionally bad dialogue. I’ll grant these flaws, as well as the nauseatingly sentimental ending, but submit that they’re made up for by the performances of Stockwell and Pinchot. Further, like the book, the movie shines where it really matters: in bringing about that coveted, spine-tingling sense of wonder that one could fairly call the very thrust of science fiction.

1 George Monbiot, "Losing the Battle with Entropy," The Guardian, Jun. 8, 2004, http://www.monbiot.com/2004/06/08/losing-the-battle-with-entropy/#more-8... (accessed Dec. 20, 2011)
2 Peter Nicholls, “Entropy,” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995), 385-6.
3 “Ubik,” Wikipedia, Sept. 7, 2011, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubik (accessed Dec. 20, 2011).



Frank Kaminski is an ardent Seattle peak oiler, a connoisseur of post-oil novels and a regular book reviewer for Energy Bulletin. Email him at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com; visit his site here.

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