Something’s gone wrong. The future is here and it’s a nightmare. Instead of flying cars, immortality, and an affable robot working class, the robots are now killer drones and Soylent Green really is people. In stories from the Golden Age of science fiction (spanning roughly the 1930s to 1950s), the future was bright and filled with heroic scientists who conquered aliens while colonising planets. Pioneered by the Big Three—Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke—the Golden Age exalted the superiority of man, scientific progression and peaceful outer-space expansion. Later, though, visions of a different future began to emerge in the bleak reality predicted by New Wave science fiction authors of the 1960s and 1970s. Writers like Ursula Le Guin, JG Ballard and Phillip K. Dick rebelled against the formulaic, wishful predictions of the old school, opting to depict a dark, often highly consumerist and technologically advanced, dystopia of our own making.
In Ubik, Phillip K. Dick’s seminal New Wave novel, this nightmarish vision of the future is shown to us. Written in 1969, Ubik is set in the not-so-distant future of 1992—indicative of just how low Dick’s hopes for the future were. The main character of Ubik, Joe Chip, is a ‘regular guy’ who becomes caught in the middle of something much bigger than himself. He’s a cog in the machine of Runciter Associates, an organisation that uses telepaths and precogs to ‘protect’ people’s privacy. Incorporating time-travel, a corrupt corporation and a powerful, scientifically valuable substance—the titular, ambiguous Ubik—the novel sees Joe caught between regression and progression, as the world deteriorates around him. Like many of Dick’s characters, Joe is at the mercy of external forces and scientific progressions that he uses and lives within, but can’t control.
It’s 2018 and we’re living in a Philip K. Dick novel.
In January of this year Melbourne punk band Ubik released their excellent first EP: a self-titled four-track assault that works as a socially conscious takedown of our contemporary Australian dystopia. Based in Melbourne and comprising members of Masses, Red Red Krovvy and Faceless Burial, among other projects, Ubik’s songs could be speculative fiction, if only it weren’t all true. Vocalist Ash Wyatt spits every word of every reverb-laden song about paranoia, fear-mongering and power, reminding us how warped our supposedly advanced society is. Live, Ubik are an imposing force: a vanguard of women stand onstage as Wyatt wraps the cord around her neck and blasts the crowd for less than 15 minutes per set. She’s flanked by Tessa Tribe on guitar and Nellie Pearson on bass, while Ubik’s drummer, Max Kohane, provides the driving backbeat. There’s no idealism. They’re just relaying Australia at this moment—it’s realism, except reality is terrifying.
Cleverly riffing on classic sci-fi and horror tropes to depict the absurdity and dread of our current times, Ubik aren’t interested in simply referencing these genres (unlike, say, The Misfits, who loaded their music with surface-level allusions). Instead, like David Cronenberg’s 1986 reimagining of The Fly, Ubik is more interested in exploring what horror and sci-fi can tell us about ourselves. So when Ubik reference The Fly—a story about how a scientist is punished for meddling with nature by becoming a hybrid of man and fly—Wyatt only tells us how “Something went wrong.” Yet the inference isn’t merely that something is wrong with Jeff Goldblum, but also with society at large. As the last track on Ubik’s EP, ‘The Fly’ ultimately leaves us with a warning against complacency: be afraid.
In JG Ballard’s short story Manhole 69, scientists tamper with the sleep response in three test subjects and this—obviously—backfires when the subjects go insane. Here, characteristic of science fiction, sleep is depicted as a human frailty that scientists attempt to overcome—a natural process that needs to be beaten into submission. As the opener of Ubik, ‘Sleep’ sets the tone for the rest of the EP: a creepy—also super-catchy—bassline starts off unaccompanied, providing a steady anchor for the song, as it does on all four tracks. The introduction to ‘Sleep’ builds as Tribe’s screaming distorted guitar is layered over the bass, followed by Kohane’s cymbals, all of it building to a cacophony of sound before the song even begins. The drums eventually kick in and Wyatt’s voice, sounding both terrified and manic, screams at us over and over: “I fall / But not to sleep / I can’t sleep / I can’t sleep.” Her vocals are distorted, urgent and desperate. It’s like she’s screaming from another dimension. Why can’t she sleep? Something is keeping her awake in spite of her pleading “I need some rest / Please let me rest.” It’s making her paranoid, less human, unable to separate fiction from reality. This same questioning of reality ultimately persists in Cronenberg’s Videodrome (a film that Ubik reference in their merch, which depicts Debbie Harry in ghastly, glowing green ink): in a world where we’re numbed by constant stimulation, are we asleep or are we awake?
Meanwhile the second and strongest track on the EP, ‘Andrew Bolt’s Twitter Account’, imagines what Bolt would write if he did have his own Twitter account (surprisingly, he doesn’t). Inspired by right-wing goons—think Alex Jones and Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro—these villains are straight out of Cronenberg: publicity-hungry egomaniacs who use technology to hold their devoted audiences in their sway, all the while spewing hate masquerading as logic. Wyatt takes on the persona of Bolt—including the fear-mongering and the continuous invocation of ‘free speech’. She sings, “I can say whatever I want / So I’m gonna say whatever I want.” It’s not only a takedown of Bolt, but also a condemnation of an embracing audience. Driven by Pearson’s distorted, dystopian-sounding bass, Wyatt spits venom and barely contains her rage as she picks apart the alt-right mentality that’s seeping into everyday life: “Australians want pride in their country / Faith in their culture / Defiance of media / Contempt for politics and utter determination / Not to import labour from immigrant criminals.” Unlike ‘Sleep’, it’s not desperation that’s the motivating force here, but pure anger.
‘Piece of Mind’ is somewhat of a companion to ‘Andrew Bolt’s Twitter Account’: both songs were previously released on Ubik’s demo in 2016 and sit in the middle of the record, bookended by newer songs. Yet ‘Piece of Mind’ isn’t creepy or dread-inducing in the same way as ‘Sleep’ or ‘The Fly’—instead it evokes a strong female who has agency over herself and her environment. The lyrics could be Ripley’s lines in Alien. In measured, paced-out phrasing, Wyatt recites her instructions: “I need time / I need space / I need power.” Logical and proactive, ‘Piece of Mind’ paints a portrait of a woman in control: she knows what the problem is, and she knows how to handle it. The song is like a direct response to ‘Andrew Bolt’s Twitter Account’, with Wyatt acting out a call-and-response between the two personas.
The pure toughness of Ubik as a unit is on full display here: the driving bass, the radio-transmitter guitar and the controlled drums all work to convey the message of solidarity. “I need a weapon / I need muscle / I need a hand.” As a unit, Ubik demand our full attention (Wyatt literally sings “I need your attention”), and when performing ‘Piece of Mind’ live, the crowd obeys this command. As a woman, watching the band feels empowering, especially during this song.
“I’ve been working on something that / Will change the world as we know it,” sings Wyatt on the final track ‘The Fly’. The song suggests the misguided optimism of left-wing hashtag movements as much as it evokes the film. As a song, ‘The Fly’ uses the body horror of Cronenberg’s movie—“Human teleportation / Molecular decimation / Break down, reformation”—to examine the broader ways that humans try to innovate and improve daily life, only to fuck things up beyond repair: how initially positive ambitions mutate and subsequently destroy themselves. (In 2018, in classic horror-movie style, twists have been revealed: supposedly woke CEOs are discovered to be MRAs, meanwhile apathetic opportunist capitalists make money from Pussy Hats and Black Lives Matter merchandise.)
The songs on the record fit together so perfectly, like four pieces of a puzzle, that the EP feels like a mini-concept album. Song by song, the utopian façade is peeled back—like Jeff Goldblum’s festering skin flaking off—to reveal rotten truths about the world. Oozing a kind of rational paranoia and fear, Ubik focus on expelling raw power and anger, showing us just how easily reality can be obscured.
This understanding of reality—as pioneered by David Cronenberg and Phillip K. Dick—is the deepest root of Ubik’s connection to science fiction. The genre makes us think about how things are different to how they seem: it makes us re-evaluate the world around us and question overarching structures. Similarly, listening to Ubik is an energising experience that is rooted in the empowering confrontation of reality—by confronting what scares or angers us, we’re exercising power and agency. We’re able to control some aspect of the unknown. By putting together the pieces of the puzzle, we can begin to make some kind of sense of the world around us, and to combat the threat: be it insomnia, scientific mutation, or Andrew Bolt.
Ubik – Self-titled EP
Released by Aarght Records in January 2018
Kelsey Oldham is from Western Australia but now lives in Melbourne. She is the deputy editor of Swampland magazine.