Review of Ubik by Philip K. Dick

After slogging through The Wealth of Nations, I decided to give myself a break with some science fiction, which frankly I only included because I knew I would need a break after slogging through Wealth of Freaking Nations. I included some early sci-fi on the list, and I snuck in one later entry mostly because I wanted to read some more Philip K. Dick. I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? many years ago and enjoyed it, but a recent survey of the genre I read (off-list, don’t ask) positioned Dick as one of the most important writers in the genre, so I added him. For the record, I removed Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, because I think Erewhon was likely his high point, and I don’t need any more Victorian satire in my life.

Ubik is a fast and fun read dealing with one of the themes found throughout Dick’s work: the nature of reality itself. The question of what is reality is explored here with a fun plot that keeps you guessing, and the philosophy never gets in the way of a good story. How do I know what I am experiencing is reality? How do I know that I’m not a simulation in an advanced computer, that my reality is a product of my own imagination, that I’m not actually in a coma somewhere on life support? Well, I don’t. And neither do the characters in Ubik.

The story begins with a plot that ends up being somewhat tangential. Glen Runciter runs a firm called Runciter Associates that employs anti-psychics to negate the powers of psychics who may have infiltrated a company. Took me several chapters to get my head around this, but in fact it’s pretty straightforward. When Runciter gets a new client with a large budget who wants all of his best “anti-psi’s”, he jumps at the opportunity rather than smelling a stinky rat; by page 80 or so, we learn that the contract was a trap set by the leading firm of psychics, and as soon as they arrive a bomb blows up.

Runciter is killed, but the rest of his team somehow survive, and they are able to get him into cold a pack and bring him to a half-life mortuary. In this world, once someone dies, if you are quick, you can keep their brain activity going at one of these mortuaries, which allows you to communicate with them for a limited period of time. Eventually the dead drift off into full death, at which point they go into the light and are reincarnated.

After Runciter dies, his employee Joe Chip becomes the central character, and we follow Joe leading the anti-psi’s on what turns out to be a hell of an adventure. As they attempt to regroup following this assassination attempt, their world starts exhibiting signs of instability, with objects regressing to older versions—such as the entertainment unit becoming an old AM radio—and things seem to be aging very quickly around them. This mystery takes up the remainder of the book, as they attempt to find the malevolent forces behind it and strategize with the half-life Runciter on how to make it through.

Ultimately, we find the whole thing steeped in religious significance, as there is an evil entity and a benevolent entity struggling over Joe Chip and his associates. I tend to get bored or annoyed when books become religious allegories, but this one didn’t slow things down, and it all fell into place fine enough for me. Good going, Dick!

The writing here was good, in a pulpy, hardboiled style, and the future world he rendered was funny and absurd, and the characters were rendered with decent verisimilitude. I’ve always filed Dick away in my mind as a genre hack, and I think I’ve sold him short. This was certainly no literary tour de force, but it was a far superior book to many books that try the same thing, and it is quite good on its own terms.


Excerpt from Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

“How great is their field?” Runciter asked him.

Joe said, “There is no field.”

“Our inertials are nullifying it? Our counter-field is greater?”

“No,” Joe said. “As I said: There is no PSI field of any sort within range of my equipment. I pick up our own field, so as far as I can determine my instruments are functioning; I consider that an accurate feedback. We’re producing 2000blr units, fluctuating upward to 2100 every few minutes. Probably it will gradually increase; by the time our inertials have been functioning together, say, twelve hours, it may reach as high as-”

“I don’t understand,” Runciter said. All the inertials now were gathering around Joe Chip; Don Denny picked up one of the tapes which had been excreted by the polygraph, examined the unwavering line, then handed the tape to Tippy Jackson. One by one the other inertials examined it silently, then looked toward Runciter. To Stanton Mick, Runciter said, “Where did you get the idea that PSIs hadi nfiltrated your operations here on Luna? And why didn’t you want us to run our normal tests? Did you know we would get this result?”

“Obviously, he knew,” Joe Chip said. He felt sure of it.

Rapid, agitated activity crossed Runciter’s face; he started to speak to Stanton Mick, then changed his mind and said to Joe in a low voice, “Let’s get back to Earth; let’s get our inertials right out of here now.”

Aloud, to the others, he said, “Collect your possessions; we’re flying back to New York. I want all of you in the ship within the next fifteen minutes; any of you who aren’t in will be left behind. Joe, get all that junk of yours together in one heap; I’ll help you lug it to the ship, if I have to – anyhow, I want it out of here and you with it.” He turned in Mick’s direction once again, his face puffy with anger; he started to speak-

Squeaking in his metal-insect voice, Stanton Mick floated to the ceiling of the room, his arms protruding distendedly and rigidly. “Mr. Runciter, don’t let your thalamus override your cerebral cortex. This matter calls for discretion, not haste; calm your people down and let’s huddle together in an effort to mutually understand.” His rotund, colorful body bobbed about, twisting in a slow, transversal rotation so that now his feet, rather than his head, extended in Runciter’s direction.

“I’ve heard of this,” Runciter said to Joe. “It’s a self destruct humanoid bomb. Help me get everybody out of here. They just now put it on auto; that’s why it floated upward.”

The bomb exploded.

Smoke, billowing in ill-smelling masses which clung to the ruptured walls and floor, sank and obscured the prone, twitching figure at Joe Chip’s feet.

In Joe’s ear Don Denny was yelling, “They killed Runciter, Mr. Chip. That’s Mr. Runciter.” In his excitement the stammered.

“Who else?” Joe said thickly, trying to breathe; the acrid smoke constricted his chest. His head rang from the concussion of the bomb, and, feeling an oozing warmth onhis neck, he found that a flying shard had lacerated him.

Wendy Wright, indistinct although close by, said, “I think everyone else is hurt but alive.”

Bending down beside Runciter, Edie Dorn said, “Could we get an animator from Ray Hollis?” Her face looked crushed in and pale.

“No,” Joe said; he, too, bent down. “You’re wrong,” he said to Don Denny. “He’s not dead.”

But on the twisted floor Runciter lay dying. In two minutes, three minutes, Don Denny would be correct.

Copyright © 1969 by Philip K. Dick

 

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