Ubik. Period.

Ubik: First Edition Cover (1969)Here are two paragraphs from near the end of Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel, Ubik:

Presently he stood before it, experiencing physically the tidal tug of the amplitudes; he felt himself drawn back, then ahead, then back again. Pedestrians clumped by, taking no notice; obviously, none of them saw what he saw: they perceived neither Archer’s Drugstore nor the 1992 homeart outlet. That mystified him most of all.

As the structure swung directly into its ancient phase he stepped forward, crossed the threshold. And entered Archer’s Drugstore.

Dick uses a lot of semi-colons, but these two paragraphs, in particular, are a great example of the power of all kinds of punctuation. Let’s take a closer look:

Presently he stood before it, experiencing physically the tidal tug of the amplitudes; he felt himself drawn back, then ahead, then back again.

There could be a comma after Presently (notice the comma after obviously, a few sentences later) and a period, instead of a semi-colon, after amplitudes. Although it’s not punctuation but an adverb, physically could also come before experiencing. The sentence(s) could be:

Presently, he stood before it, physically experiencing the tidal tug of the amplitudes. He felt himself drawn back, then ahead, then back again.

However, that has neither the right flow nor conveys the right relationship between the descriptions of the sensation the character is experiencing. The comma after Presently becomes a false-start, making us lurch instead of being sucked in, and the semi-colon, unlike the period, forces us to understand that the drawing back is the real manifestation of the metaphysical tidal tug.

Pedestrians clumped by, taking no notice; obviously, none of them saw what he saw: they perceived neither Archer’s Drugstore nor the 1992 homeart outlet.

The comma after by is standard, but another semi-colon follows—again creating a relationship—and the second comma strengthens obviously. The pedestrians didn’t just obviously see something different than what Joe saw; obviously, they saw it differently. Now comes the colon, which leads us to expect a description of what it is that Joe saw and the pedestrians didn’t. Here, however, things get tricky, because Joe is actually seeing two things, twin realities, an old and a new: Archer’s Drugstore (in the past) and a 1992 homeart outlet (in the future). Writing that from Joe’s point of view is surprisingly difficult. We can try, but:

Pedestrians clumped by, taking no notice; obviously, none of them saw what he saw: Archer’s Drugstore and the 1992 homeart outlet.

That sentence means that the pedestrians didn’t see the drugstore and the outlet, but it leaves open the possibility that they saw either one or the other, which is false. Hence, Dick follows he saw with a colon, but follows the colon with an accurate description of what the pedestrians didn’t see rather than what Joe did. That may be a tad clumsy. A semi-colon would have done the trick, too.

Moving on to the finale:

As the structure swung directly into its ancient phase he stepped forward, crossed the threshold. And entered Archer’s Drugstore.

That should all be one sentence.

As the structure swung directly into its ancient phase he stepped forward, crossed the threshold, and entered Archer’s Drugstore.

if not, the two sentences “should” be rewritten as, for example:

As the structure swung directly into its ancient phase he stepped forward and crossed the threshold. And he entered Archer’s Drugstore.

So why did Dick write it the way he did? Because he wanted to emphasize Joe’s entering the drugstore, the change in the environment, the break in time, and the stepping into silence from a busy, noisy street. By “misusing” punctuation (in other words: by using it perfectly well), he was able to do that. Precisely because the break is jarring—we feel what Joe feels, including slight disorientation and the notion that time and place are a little bit wonky and more than a little malleable. The period in place of a comma is what communicates that.

Sadly, the trend in contemporary writing is away from even basic punctuation, like commas. Colons and semi-colons are dead and buried. If Dick had sprayed himself with Ubik, been alive today, and written these sentences tomorrow, his editor would have gottten out a red pen, then put it away because we all use computers now, and made the following corrections:

Presently he stood before it physically experiencing the tidal tug of the amplitudes. He felt himself drawn back, then ahead, then back again. Pedestrians clumped by taking no notice. Obviously none of them saw what he saw. They perceived neither Archer’s Drugstore nor the 1992 homeart outlet. That mystified him most of all.

As the structure swung directly into its ancient phase he stepped forward, crossed the threshold and entered Archer’s Drugstore.

Useless bag of shrivelled up bones.

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