Takeaway: Is anyone better at writing paranoid fiction than Philip K Dick?
Philip K Dick was brilliant and deeply troubled. Which seems to make for a good science fiction writer. Ubik, a 1969 novel, is set in 1992, when psychic powers are common. Joe Chip works for a ‘prudence organization’. Prudence organizations specialize in helping people or businesses protect themselves from psychics. So they use anti-telepaths to protect people from having their minds read by telepaths or other anti-psychics to counter the variety of different psychic powers.
The other plot point you have to understand is ‘half-life’. In this future, when people die, if they can be preserved in time, they can live in ‘half-life’, a sort of preserved life of the mind. You cannot life forever this way, but your body is preserved and you can communicate with people outside your preservation chamber. But at some point you sort of fade out and are reincarnated.
There is basically no way to discuss this book without spoilers, so if you don’t want any spoilers for this 45 year old book, you should stop reading because I am going to disclose pretty much the whole book.
There is a common idea in books that items or people are not introduced into a story unless they will be used. So if someone mentions a gun, then that gun will probably be used later in the story. Philip K Dick (and many others) play with that convention by introducing lots of things to throw the reader off from predicting what is really going on. This book is filled with both used and unused plot points.
Joe Chip works for Glen Runciter’s prudence organization. Early in the book Runciter visits his wife who is in half life to ask for business advice. Runciter has a long feud with a business competitor Ray Hollis. Chip and Runciter and 11 other anti-psi staff go to the moon for a job, but a bomb was set on their ship (presumably by Hollis) and Runciter is killed.
Chip now has legal responsibility for the company and the responsibility toward his friend to get him into half life (hopefully with Runciter’s wife Ella.)
But strange things start happening. Ubik is described by Lev Grossman as a horror book. But that seems wrong to me. It is suspenseful, it has strange turns, it questions the very nature of reality, but I don’t think of it as a horror book.
One of the false points is a newly hired staff, Pat. She has the previously unknown ability to undo any event. She does not go back in time, but just makes the event not happen. So a false trail is created when Joe suspects Pat is trying to kill them all and that she may be working for Hollis, because they all seem to be gradually going back in time.
First perishable food starts going bad immediately. Then their money starts changing and the vehicles and buildings start reverting back to older forms. A couple of the original 12 (not including Runciter) die. But then messages seem to start showing up from Runciter. The money starts showing his face, advertisements from Runciter start showing up. Later graffiti that appears to be written by Runciter comes.
So Joe and the rest (separately because they get separated) head to Iowa, where Runciter is from to try and see if they can communicate directly with the dead Runciter and find out what is going on.
It is here that I wonder if the creators of the TV show Lost had read Ubik. (And I am not the only one, I found a couple of other reviews of the end of Lost that asked the same question.) Because we eventually find out that it is not Runciter that is dead, but everyone else. Runciter was the only one to survive.
So Runciter got everyone into cold storage and they are all in half-life. It is only at the end that the reader starts to figure out what is really going on. Jory, another person in half life, at the beginning of the book blocked Runciter from being able to finish talking to Ella.
Joe eventually figures out that Jory is the one behind the strange time reversion. They are all living in a construct that was created by Jory. And Jory has slowly been ‘eating’ the others to keep himself alive in half-life.
Throughout the book until this point have been commercials for Ubik. You are never sure what Ubik is because the commercials seem to indicate it could be anything. But it is Ubik that Joe has to use to keep himself alive. If he weakens too much, Jory will be able to eat him as well. Ella and a number of others created Ubik to fight off Jory.
Ubik is treated as a strange metaphor for god, although it is a god that is a creation of other people. This was written around the time of the Death of God movement. The focus on was on god as a human creation. So it is not too far of a stretch to think of Jory as a satan being that is slowly eating away at everyone and only by appealing to Ubik can we be energized enough to carry on.
The final scene is with Runciter who after having saved Joe in half life, leaves the storage area and goes to pay and realizes that his money has an image of Joe on it. (Previously in the book all of Joe’s money had Runciter on it as a way of getting Joe’s attention.) So maybe Runciter is really dead, or maybe everyone is dead, or maybe the whole thing didn’t happen.
This is a book that in the end seems to be about the nature of reality. Reality doesn’t really exist except as you experience it. As with all Philip K Dick books, Ubik is deeply strange. It is dated in that Dick’s projections of the future are very unlike our present reality. There are payphones instead of cell phones. Everything is computer or robot controlled and every thing costs money. You have to pay every time you open your door to go outside, or open your door to come back inside. Everyone is nickel and dimed to death.
In spite of his missing much of reality of the future, the idea of losing control of reality is not so different from many other future books. On the whole, if you like weird books, Philip K Dick is an interesting author. Most of his books are available in KindleUnlimited.