Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavor of just-brewed coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.
There’s a commercial battle between the psychics and the “prudence organizations” that keep them out of paying customers’ heads. Glen Runciter runs one of those prudence organizations with his deceased wife, Ella—the fact that she’s dead isn’t an obstacle, as she’s one of many kept in half-life at a moratorium, existing i cyronic suspension that gives her limited consciousness and the ability to communicate. When a wealthy business magnate has reason to believe his moon-based organization was infiltrated by psychics, Runciter assembles a team of 11 anti-psi operatives, including his main troubleshooter, Joe Chip, and Chip’s newest protege—Pat Conley, a mysterious young woman with the ability to travel into the past and reverse psi-manipulated events. This is all a sham, a means to get Runciter’s best and brightest alone with a bomb.
Glen Runciter is dead—or is it that everyone else died, hallucinating as they enter their own cryonic half-life? Joe Chip doesn’t know, struggling to make sense of increasingly surreal occurrences and keep his team together. There’s the fact that any cigarettes and food they touch is already spoiled, that the money in their pockets is regressing to 1930s-vintage… when it’s not emblazoned with Runciter’s image. And there’s the continual advertisements for the ubiquitous Ubik—an aerosol spray, an elixer, an uncture—which promises to be the wonder-drug that will cure all of their needs. Joe Chip wants answers—what causes the regression, why is Runciter appearing everywhere, who is killing off his team one by one and leaving their withered husks behind—but the secret, and salvation, lies with a heaping dose of Ubik.
Needless to say, this is Philip K. Dick marinating in another surreal melange of paranoia and uncertainty, boiled down to a point where neither the characters or the reader know half of what’s going on until the bitter end… and even then, the answers you got are themselves left in question. Instead of the usual questioning of identity, memory, and/or humanity, though, Ubik questions reality itself. It captures elements from Dick’s ’50s stories, heavy on paranoid protagonists chased by events beyond his control, and his truly psychadelic, trippin’-balls work from the ’70s. It’s more complex and complete compared to his earlier works, but more accessible than many of the ’70s novels turned out to be. And while his prose is still a bit pulpish, and though he couldn’t write female characters worth a damn, the overall effect is impressive. Ubik is something of an existential horror story, an excellent introduction to Dick’s recurring theme, another step in his repetitive cycle of trying to examine and define what is real, what is human, and what is simply an illusion.
One of the core elements of Ubik is capitalism; not quite a satire, but a madcap jumble of what a future dominated by ad-men and coin commerce would look like. The fact that Runciter’s organization is ostensibly competing against a corporation of psychics is pretty nuts, and the lack of any oversight is pure “guiding hand of the market” there—in our post-9/11 world, I think most fictional governments would throw the psychics in concentration camps. Then there’s the Ubik ads, reading like a greatest-hits of vintage advertising or a ’50s ad-man’s worst nightmare. Dick begins each chapter with a new and fascinating ad for Ubik—as instant coffee, a household cleaner, sleep medication, breakfast treats, and various other fast-acting, new-and-improved, solves-all-your-needs products. (Safe when taken as directed.) While the book covers immortalize it as using the most ’50s of delivery methods—the aerosol spray can—it also shows up in a few bottles purloined from a nineteenth-century snakeoil salesman.
Meanwhile, there’s a deep and abiding fascination with coin-operated everythings—it’s a way to point out Joe Chip’s poverty when doors and appliances demand a toll, and lets Dick have the neat trick of money showing up with Runciter’s face on it (another heaping dose of metaphor right there), but it also posits a very strange future. Coin-op television was used as a scare-tactic by broadcast networks, a kind of “pay TV will lead to the end of everything” tactic re-used against cable, but Dick takes that an runs wild adding change slots to everything. That, and his strange future fashion sense, are the kinds of crazed attention to detail that I love about Dick. I’m not sure if he thought he was being prophetic or if it was from his copious use of drugs, but this assortment of screwball details is so blindingly unique that nobody else could have come up with it.
Not too many years ago, Time put Ubik on its list of the top hundred books since 1923, one of the few science fiction pieces to make the cut. It’s recognition like that which keeps Ubik from being overlooked in Dick’s bibliography, even though (unlike Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) it’s potentially unfilmable, and (unlike Man in the High Castle) it didn’t win any awards. I find it hard to be objective about Ubik because it’s my favorite of Philip K Dick’s works, a masterpiece of paranoia that’s strange, surreal, and crazed… but not so much that it’s it inaccessible for a reader. The weirdness keeps up with the pacing, the surprise reveals are unexpected even though Dick has already shown you the pieces, and you leave the novel both disoriented and exhilarated. This is required reading to earn your science fiction fandom badge, a work of pure genius, or pure madness, possibly the result of both working as one.
Editor: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Mariner Books
First Published: 1969
What I Read: SFBC omnibus Counterfeit Unrealities
MSRP: $13.95 pb / $9.99 ebook
Price I Paid: $12
ISBN/ASIN: 978-0547572291 / B005LVR6ZA