Jul 1, 2010

SF Masterworks: UBIK - Philip K. Dick

I've always been deeply in love with Philip Dick's paranoid worlds. I love his books, I love his short stories, I even love things like Our Friends From Frolix 8. There is something raw and razor-sharp, almost clinical in Dick's writing, something that transcends style, ideas and story. You can always tell that a part of him - and it might very well be a dominant part - not only believes in what he writes, but lives it.

I haven't read all of Dick's books. I haven't even read half of them. Still I've read most of those whose names everyone knows, and I have read enough to think that even a genius of his magnitude would be hard pressed to write anything quite as good as Ubik twice. If I had to point at a single one of Philip Dick's works as his magnum opus, that would undoubtedly be it.

As Michael Marshall Smith aptly puts it in the forward of my edition of the book, there is a mind-boggling number of SF ideas in Ubik: time-travel; psychic abilities and their corresponding anti-abilities; the dead being kept in a state of "half-life" where they could be reached by the living; alternate realities and reality revision; futuristic space-faring society; dystopian economic system. Many authors would spin a book around any ONE of those, but for Philip Dick it's always what's underneath the flesh that matters, so he casually presents them ALL in the first ten pages of his novel.

In Ubik's world technology has advanced to the state where colonization of the Moon and other worlds is possible. Psychic phenomena are common and many people employ psychics in their business ventures or shadier dealings. And since no law could control such powers, the so called "prudence organizations" have appeared. Those who work in them have the ability to negate one psychic power like telepathy or precognition. Meanwhile, people could be put in "cold-pac" after death - a half-life existence that slowly diminishes until the person dies again, this time - forever.

The main character, Joe Chip, is a technician for Glen Runciter's prudence organization. When a client hires twelve agents to negate telepathic spies in his lunar facilities, Runciter and Chip travel with them to the Moon. The assignment turns out to be a trap, possibly set by the company's nemesis Ray Hollis (who leads an organization of psychics), and Glen Runciter is killed in the ensuing explosion. The party quickly returns to Earth to put him in cold-pac.

But afterwords the twelve agents and Joe Chip begin to experience strange reality shifts. Food and drink deteriorate prematurely, and the world seems to regress into the past. What's more disturbing, they all receive messages from Glen Runciter, implying that it is actually he who is alive, and they who are in cold-pac. And above all is the ever-present Ubik, appearing in commercials on TV and radio. Nobody knows what it is, but it is everywhere. And it is important.

Then the deaths begin...

Ubik is a deeply unsettling book. The characters' hold on reality is at best loose, and the uncertainty they feel as to the nature of their very existence seeps into the reader's own mind, turning the novel into almost a horror story. When the action and the race (quite literally) against time begin, you are almost grateful for the opportunity to evade the disturbing questions concerning what's real, what's not, and which one is more dangerous. Dick's misleadingly simple language and the traditionally schematic relationships between his characters, only seem to accentuate the unnatural events he is painting.

Philip Dick is a master of multiple realities that intertwine and overlapp until the mind's ability to grasp it all simply fails, and madness begins. As Paul Di Filippo says in a review of the book, "No reality is priveliged". Nowhere is Dick's ability to test the limits of perception and self more strikingly demonstrated than in Ubik. And even if you take nothing from the book, but the amazing mystery and suspense filled story, it would still have been one of the most satisfying reading experiences you've ever had.



  1. I loved Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and I've been eying this one lately as well. You've put me over the top and now I've gotta get it. Thanks. :)

  2. I loved Do Androids Dream... too, but to me Ubik was far superior to it.

  3. That's great to hear, I'm excited to jump in.