Ubik: Use only as directed

science fiction book reviews Philip K. Dick UbikUbik by Philip K. Dick

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 — (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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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. Kieran /

    Definitely one of Dick’s best (though not quite on the same level as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Now Wait for Last Year). It’s also one of his most tightly plotted.

  2. I have not read Now Wait for Last Year. I’ll have to put that on my list.

  3. I went through a huge PKD phase about 15 years ago. Ubik is one of my favorites, together with Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

  4. I’ve just finished a large collection of PKD’s 1952-1953 stories. Sub Press is collecting all of his shorts in, I think, 5 volumes.

  5. Kieran /

    @ Stefan: Flow My Tears is great though I got the feeling Dick kinda lost interest at the end. No arguments about Three Stigmata though.

    @ Kat: I think I have the same collection too. With all the various editions floating round I’m finding it quite hard filling the gaps in my collection without getting a lot of stories I already have with the ones I don’t. Eh, c’est la vie.

  6. @Kieran – good point re: the various collections. Someone should put together a definitive and COMPLETE set of his short stories.

    Thought of two more of his novels I really liked, but rarely see on people’s lists of favorites: “A Maze of Death”, and “Martian Timelapse”. I wouldn’t consider either of them his very best work, but they’re some of the first ones I read and that initial impression has always lingered for me.

  7. I believe that Sub Press’s collection is all of his stories in chronological order over 5 volumes. That doesn’t help Kieran at this point, but it’s nice for those who are looking for everything in only 5 volumes. The first one is already out (King of Elves) and the second (Adjustment Team, 1952-1953) will be published at the end of July. I will post a review — it’s a great collection!

  8. Kieran /

    @ Stefan: I like Martian Time-slip quite a bit too though it wouldn’t be one of my favourites (in fairness I like pretty much everything I’ve read of his). I don’t think I’ve read Maze of Death yet. To the “to read pile” it goes!

  9. @ Kieran: I genuinely think Martian Timeslip was the very first PKD I read, and that may be why it hit me so hard and stuck with me for so long. I remember the first time that gubblegubblegubble showed up where it wasn’t supposed to be, and literally having to close the book and walk away for a bit. Of course, now I know that PKD liked playing that type of tricks with reality and perception, but that was the first time I encountered it.

  10. I’ve read Ubik several times, and it blows my mind every time. You always get something new out of it every time you read it.

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