Top 100 Book Review: Ubik – Philip K. Dick (1969)

Unbalancing Thriller That Makes You Question

Science fiction at its best: taking advantage of temporal-spatial qualities to take advantage of our intuitions. 

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My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

I really think science fiction, the genre as a whole, is under appreciated. There is some really good writing out there, and just because the settings might be geeky, futuristic, or entail allusions to higher level math, it gets disregarded. The format allows authors to explore things that just wouldn’t otherwise be possible; when you don’t have to worry about what is plausible, you are free to explore the human condition unabated without typical restraints.

Where this can go awry is that things can get too zany when authors get drunk off the power of not having to tell a tightly-knit story. This can be a delicate thing to balance, using the unconstrained conventions of the genre but still having to tell a coherent narrative that can be appreciated.

Fortunately, Ubik does both of these well and gets the most out of both sides.

[Spoilers] The beginning of the Ubik’s story is simple. It follows Joe Chip, a technician, that works for the futuristic company of Runciter Associates, ran by Glen Runciter. This company helps to protect clients from the nefarious folks that use their telepathic powers for bad, an anti-pyschic organization of sorts. Things go wrong during one of their contracts as it was a set up by their arch rival and a bomb goes off injuring Glen. This leaves Joe and his other associates rattled as they high-tail it back to Earth in hopes of getting Glen into half-life before he dies — a sort of cyrogenic chamber that allows prolonged life in exchange for living in a dream like state.

And here begins the distortion.

From this point on in the book, it’s hard to really discern any form of reality.  The story starts to change focus from a linear plot to an unhinged alteration of forms and scenes. Time begins to flow backwards and old products and goods from the 40s and 50s start to reappear that would have been meaningful for those reading the book at the time of its release. Glen begins showing up everywhere to the characters, whether it on television, through secret messages, or even on the money the characters carry in their pockets. One by one, Joe Chip’s team of associates start dying, leaving us wondering where Glen really is, whether a bomb ever went off, and who really is antagonist.

This transition is where Phillip Dick succeeds the most. Even with such a jarring narrative switch, he pushes the story forward, and I wanted to keep reading to figure out exactly what was going on. There were times I was concerned that things had become too wacky, but Dick was able to resolve these with resolutions that were plausible enough. This is to be expected form the person who’s work has been used to create Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, and The Adjustment Bureau.

Philip K Dick writer
Phillip Dick

As I see it, there are two major themes of Ubik: reality and consumerism.

Joe Chip goes through several conversions in the book as each new chapter removes a prop that was holding up a certain perception of events. As these things continue to tumble, we start to feel like Joe does in the sense that without the coherency of our environment, we don’t really have an identity ourselves. We become just as rudderless as he is in attempting to figure out where we fit in all of it.

Throughout the novel, the future is highly monetized — to even open your own apartment door, it requires a payment. Ubik itself is featured in each opening chapter, reframed as some sort of new product with typical 60s copy editing. We don’t find out what Ubik is really for until the end, but combining Ubik’s etiology, a play on words of ubiquitous, and the constant push to sell us it is a reflection on consumerism. Just like the characters, we are bombarded daily with products that are meant to modulate how we feel, and this constant sell we are exposed to each chapter should be a reminder that most of the products being sold to us today are being marketed on the same false pretense: there is only so much you can sell in a can. 

Unbalanced till the very end, I enjoyed the shifty narrative of Ubik. Once you finally think you had a handle on what happened, the narrative flips one final time: Glen is alive and well and reaches into his pocket to find a coin, but this time it has Joe Chip’s face on it. All is thrown out the window and you get to consider it all again — what is real?

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