Warning: Use only as directed. And with caution.
Written in 1969, Ubik is one of Philip K. Dick’s most popular science fiction novels. It’s set in a future 1992 where some humans have develop psi and anti-psi powers which they are willing to hire out to individuals or companies who want to spy (or block spying) on others. Also in this alternate 1992, if you’ve got the money, you can put your beloved recently-deceased relatives into “coldpac” where they can be stored in half-life and you can visit with them for years after their death.
As Ubik begins, Glen Runciter, the head of one of New York City’s top anti-psi organizations, discovers that all the operatives of the top psi organization (whose telepathic fields they like to keep track of) have disappeared. This means less work for Runciter’s employees and he’s concerned about how they’re going to get paid. When Runicter’s company is offered a big job on the moon, he figures they’ve found the missing telepaths and he’s eager to hire out as many of his inactive inertials as he can, including the new one who has a strange and disturbing power: she can nullify events before they happen. But when Runciter’s inertials get to the moon, disaster strikes, and when they return to Earth, they find that life is not how they left it. In fact, time seems to be going backward and something is killing them off one by one. The only thing that might help is Ubik — a mysterious product in an aerosol spray can… If only they can find it!
Ubik is a fast-paced SF thriller full of classic PKD themes such as an unreliable reality, time running backward, precognition, telepathy, paranoia, drug abuse, hallucinations, and spirituality. The story is quite funny in places and includes a bit of horror, too.
There are several plot twists in Ubik, including a big one at the end, which means that the reader is as unsure about what’s going on as the characters are until the big reveal and, still, there are some questions left unanswered. Mainly we’re left contemplating what PKD is suggesting about death, salvation, and God. Ubik is one of those books where, at the end, you have to review the plot in light of your new knowledge just so you can try to put it all together.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version read by Anthony Heald. Heald successfully handles a rather large cast of alive and dead humans, not to mention the talking appliances and doors. Thanks to Heald’s skills, Ubik on audio was thoroughly entertaining.
Ubik has been named by Time Magazine as one of the Top 100 English-Language Novels From 1923 (list compiled by Lev Grossman). I can’t say that I agree with this accolade, but I can say that I enjoyed Ubik and can recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction. For Philip K. Dick fans, Ubik is an essential read.
Ubik, by Philip K. Dick, is, well, a Philip K. Dick novel. By that, I mean it has just what one would expect from PKD. Characters, and readers, lost as to what is real and what is not? Check. Sense of world and time out of joint? Check. Characters who feel something is after them, some malevolent force? Check. Drugs. Psi-powers. Attacks on consumerism. An ending that leaves you even more confused. Check. Check. Check. And oh yes, check.
Summarizing a Dick novel can be an exercise in futility. Without experiencing it in its entirety, it can sound wholly absurd (not that Dick shies away from the absurd, mind you). But here goes anyway. Glen Runciter runs the best anti-psi business going in 1992, with an especially worried focus on his arch-nemesis Hollis, who seems to run the best psi (telepath, pre-cog) organization going. At the start of the novel, many of Hollis’s top telepaths have disappeared, leaving Runciter extremely anxious as to what Hollis is planning. After a quick visit to talk with his dead wife…
[Um, see what I mean about summaries? OK, the dead aren’t wholly dead, they can be put on “coldpac” in moratoriums as “half-lifers” who can still communicate with people, though each communication accelerates their inevitable movement toward full death. It also turns out that communication can get muddy, as happens when his wife was stored too close to this annoying half-lifer kid named Jory who kind of horned in on her frequency and co-opted her conversation with Runciter. Still with me? Moving on… ]
After talking to his dead wife, Runciter is handed what appears to be a great job on the moon, which is where he believes Hollis’s psis have gone. Collecting a dozen or so of his best anti-psis, including Joe Chip, his chosen heir, and a strange new anti-psi named Pat, he heads off to the moon. Things, however, take a turn for the worse and when the group returns to Earth, they find that time seems to be “regressing” — sleek futuristic cars begin turning into subsequently older versions of themselves until by the end they’re puttering around in late Model-T type cars. Worse, an accelerated regression effect begins to strike them personally, and as they begin dying off one at a time, they start a frantic search for Ubik, a mysterious substance that allegedly holds the key to stopping the time regression.
Now, people have differing views on Dick’s style. Personally, I tend to enjoy him more for his ideas than his writing craft, and the same holds in Ubik. Exposition can be clunky, dialogue more so. The first 50 pages or so are hard to get into thanks to said clunkiness, but also due to a lot of unfamiliar terms being tossed the reader’s way and many abrupt shifts between scenes. The terms start to become more familiar or better integrated, though the scene shifts never really get handled smoothly, nor does the exposition/dialogue improve much. There are certainly some plot holes, or at least, some possible plot holes (when reality itself is questioned it’s hard to be sure). And there is also the potential problem, always the case with older science fiction/fantasy, that experienced readers may come away thinking “I’ve seen this sort of thing before; it’s not so original.” At which point I can only say, “yes, you probably have. But that’s because Dick did it first and so yes, it actually was original. Oh, and get off my lawn you kids.”
So Ubik is not the most fluid or sophisticated of literary works from a craftsman point of view. But I enjoyed it all the way through nonetheless for its ideas and the world(s) being presented. As is almost always the case with Dick, the characters struggle with identity, with just who they are in this world, as well as struggling with just what world this is. Or even if this is a world. Reality is continually being questioned and I like that both as a game between reader and author and also as a more metaphysical question to explore. Sometimes you just want to take poor Joe Chip and shake him up, but you also feel for him as he is assaulted by all these questions. What is reality? Who am I? Does the “me” I am change if the world around me does? What forces make me who I am? Are they malevolent? Benign? Wholly, coldly indifferent to my existence? Am I, in the end, truly and solely alone? Or can my existential isolation be broken through? And so on.
The fact that such questions are wedded to an interesting narrative, a murder mystery, some neat physical effects such as artifacts regressing, and that they are also surrounded by some classic Dick humor surrounding where modern society is going (one running gag is how everything in this society is coin-operated — including the door of one’s apartment, which won’t let you out of your own home unless you scarf up that money). In addition to the big questions, Dick wonders about all this modern “improvement,” having Joe Chip react positively to some of the regression changes in objects — the nicer feel of a cowhide wallet versus the plastic one it had been, the purr of an old gasoline engine.
Ubik can be a rough read in terms of writing style, but it’s mostly a quick one: fast-paced, relatively focused, driven by urgency. Though not my favorite by Dick, it does get at many of the foundational questions in his work and so I think it’s an important one by him. But a better reason to read it, beyond its “importance” in a major author’s output, is that it is both enjoyable and makes the reader think. Sure, the writing is rough, but two out of three ain’t bad.
“The worlds through which Philip Dick‘s characters move are subject to cancellation or revision without notice,” sci-fi great Roger Zelazny once wrote, and it strikes me that Dick’s Ubik is a perfect example of that statement. The author’s 25th science fiction novel since 1955 (!), Ubik was originally released as a Doubleday hardcover, with a cover price of $4.50, in May 1969. It finds Dick giving his favorite theme — the mutability of reality — a thorough workout in a wonderfully well-written, at times humorous, increasingly bizarre story. Indeed, the book may be Dick’s “spaciest” outing since 1964’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and had me wishing that I had originally read it back in my college days, while under the influence of some, uh, psychotropic substance!
In the book, the reader makes the acquaintance of the various members of Runciter Associates, run by Glen Runciter and his half-dead wife, who is able to give business advice although in cryogenic “cold pac” in a Swiss “moratorium.” Runciter Associates is comprised of special individuals who almost come off like very unusual members of the X-Men, except that these individuals, rather than commanding superpowers, possess what must be called antipowers; that is, they can cancel out the fields put forth by telepaths, clairvoyants, telekineticists and so on. During a promisingly lucrative business venture on the moon, Runciter, his assistant Joe Chip, and 11 of the various antitalents are ambushed in an explosion, orchestrated by Glen’s enemies. Runciter himself is gravely injured and put into cold-pac storage, while the other team members scramble to find out how this attack transpired. But wait… why does reality itself seem to be changing? And why are various objects reverting to earlier forms, such as a modern (1992) stereo in Joe’s apartment suddenly morphing into a Victrola? And how is it that everyone suddenly seems to be living in the year 1939, while one by one the team members crumble to dust? And just what is up with Ubik, a miraculous spray can that seems to be their only ticket to salvation? Dick certainly had his imagination working on overtime when he plotted out this one, that’s for sure, and the wonder of it all is that, ultimately, the story DOES hang together coherently and ingeniously. It is a bravura piece of work, and one that Time magazine chose for inclusion in its “Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century” article. No argument from me!
Ubik really is a consistent pleasure to read. The aforementioned humor pops up in many guises (Kat is quite right in mentioning the many humorous instances that pop up in this remarkable book), from throwaway remarks (such as a reference to a Supreme Court ruling to the effect that a man can murder his wife if he can prove that she would never grant him a divorce; the five-times-married Dick giving vent to some pleasant daydreaming, perhaps?) to hilarious turns of phrase (a man is said to be wearing a dress “the color of a baboon’s ass”) and to the truly outlandish outfits that all the characters wear (the moratorium owner sports a “tweed toga, loafers, crimson sash and a purple airplane-propeller beanie”). As in so many of Dick’s other novels, amphetamine and LSD use are spotlighted, and the author’s empathy for the plight of his characters is strongly pronounced.
Dick also gets to show off his knowledge of 1930s minutiae in this tale, whether from in-depth research or by dint of having been an 11-year-old himself in 1939 America. His details are not ALWAYS spot on, however; a 1939 issue of Liberty magazine is said to contain a famous story entitled “Lightning in the Night,” although that story actually appeared in the August 1940 issue; the Ford tri-motor plane is said to have come into existence in 1928, whereas 1925 would be closer to the mark. Still, these are the merest quibbles. Ubik is basically extraordinarily clever, mind-blowing entertainment. It may cause some to furrow their brow in bewilderment — “very confusing,” Joe Chip thinks to himself at one point — but I can’t imagine anyone not being bowled over by this amazing piece of work. It is, quite simply, Philip K. Dick at his best, and modern-day science fiction doesn’t get too much better than that.