Ubik: It’s a Philip K. Dick novel

science fiction book reviews Ubik by Philip K. DickUbik by Philip K. Dick

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.

Ubik — (1969) Publisher: Philip K. Dick’s searing metaphysical comedy of death and salvation is a tour de force of panoramic menace and unfettered slapstick, in which the departed give business advice, shop for their next incarnation, and run the continual risk of dying yet again.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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  1. Warning: Use only as directed. And with caution.

  2. Brad Hawley /

    Bill, as usual, I completely agree with your review–we really seem to have similar tastes in literature AND seem to respond in similar ways to the literature we read. However, as I almost never do, I’m gonna have to make a meaningless gesture and disagree with your rating because it doesn’t agree with REALITY. Okay. I’m joking. A little.

    But first, because I feel like rambling, here are my views on PKD:

    My favorite novel by Dick is The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, but this one runs a close second for me. I always tell my students that PKD is my favorite bad novelist. And I mean by that exactly what you clearly articulate here: The ideas are fantastic–Dick makes readers think more than most authors–but the style, plot unity, and character development really stink. But it says much about his ideas that people still love his work as much as they do even though the writing is so horrendous.

    In some ways, I think of Harlan Ellison. People complain about his personality–and it’s questionable how much of that is just a crafted public persona (and not his REAL personality? hmmmm)–so the fact that he wins so many awards shows how absolutely incredible he is since if all the Ellison haters out there had a say he wouldn’t get much attention. Same is true of Dick–can you imagine any other writer with this bad of style getting this much attention? Or, to continue the comparison, any other writer with a personality like Ellison’s dominating in the accumulation of writing awards.
    But back to rating:ing awards?

    In terms of writing, I’d give Ubik a 3.0. In terms of ideas, I’d give it a 6.3972813.

    I’d be willing to settle on an overall rating of 4.5.

    Perhaps I joke a little here, but I’d seriously give it a 4.5 overall because it falls into the same category of 4.5-5.0 books that I recommend to people regularly.

  3. Yeah, I’d agree with calling him he one of those good-bad writers. My guess (been a while since I’ve read them) is his short stories feel less so as the flaws (transitions, sense of unity, characterization) get magnified over the length of a novel (even his, which aren’t very long by today’s standards). He’s a hard author to rate because there is such a disparity between his craft and his ideas. I’d go higher personally, but it’s also easy for me to see people just giving up because the writing is a chore. I actually read this with my book club and I was the only one who enjoyed it (and it wasn’t even close). Thus the rating–but more than most, I’d say ignore the ratings and just give it a shot.

  4. Paul Connelly /

    The “mysterious substance” Ubik actually lacks all substance. It’s a content-free product that solves whatever need you have, or could be persuaded into believing you have, a great concept that Putney Swope would appreciate. It’s like the Jesus product of a Christianity that has cut all ties to the concerns Christ voiced, or the Catch-22 that allows the military to have more exceptions than rules. Dick obviously knew all the correspondences and their implications, and he plays it to great effect. It’s hard to pick a “best” Dick novel, but this is in his Top Ten.

  5. I also think Ubik is one of PKD’s best novels.

  6. Brad Hawley /

    What I find strange is that I think Electric Sheep is mediocre. But Bladerunner director’s cut I love.And I agree with the comment that Dick has a solid group of novels that are top-ten worthy but are difficult to rank beyond that grouping. I even understand Electric Sheep being placed there.

    For me, Palmer Eldritch is the only one clearly in the #1 spot. The way I look at it, no other title is more representative of Dick’s themes. However, I haven’t read every novel (almost), and I’d like to re-read  some of the titles. A Scanner Darkly and We Can Build You are two other favorites of mine.

    However, I really dislike The Man in the High Castle for some reason. Or at least I’m bothered that it gets so much positive attention. The idea is great and worth a short story, but that’s about all. Maybe it’s time to re-read that one, too, to see if I still have the same opinion of it. Maybe I read it at the wrong time in my life and missed an aspect of the book that really resonates with readers.

     I feel about it the way I feel about Agatha Christie’s novel that is most often taught in high school: And Then There Was None. I don’t care how many times they change the title of that novel, it will not be good. (By the way, if you don’t know the original title, look it up. It’s the title of a very offensive kids nursery rhyme. Then they changed it to another offensive title which is funny because for the second title they were actually TRYING not to be offensive. Oops.)

    On a final note, I highly recommend one of the latest entries in the Philosophy and Pop Culture Series that is dedicated to the works of PKD.  If you aren’t aware of this series, look it up.

    Here’s why I like this series and think it would appeal to the audience for our fanlit site:

    As an academic who is really disgusted with the horrible writing in 85% of the academic essays that are written and published these days in peer reviewed journals, I think this series is a real breath of fresh air. At some point in the 1980s, jargon and obscure, convoluted style and logic replaced the marks of good academic writing before the 1980s: clear, straightforward style, logic, and organization, as well as defining clearly a limited number of key terms necessary to the argument. I do admit that some ideas are so complex they require dense writing to convey to readers, but that’s the exception.

    This series is hugely popular and the essays are written very clearly.  Perhaps they see a little too informal at times, but other than that, the essays in this series are uniformly well-written and interesting. I love the volume on the TV show House. The ones on BuffyTVS, Batman, The Avengers, Inception, and Neil Gaiman are also good. There are also volumes on South Park, Family Guy, Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, The Office, Green Lantern, and on and on.This series is so popular, there are at least 50 volumes and counting.

    The essays generally take one of two approaches: they either explain the show/movie/comic book character/etc. using an aspect of philosophy or explain an aspect of philosophy using the selected subject from popular culture.

    Check one out. 

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