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.