#9: Ubik (1969), by Philip K. Dick

“It wasn’t like any dream I’ve ever had before. A great hand came down from the sky, like the arm and hand of God. Enormous, the size of a mountain. And I knew at the time how important it was; the hand was closed, made into a rocklike fist, and I knew it contained something of value so great that my life and the lives of everyone else on Earth depended on it. And I waited for the fist to open, and it did open. And I saw what it contained.”
“An aerosol spray can,” Don Denny said dryly.
“On the spray can,” Francesca Spanish continued, “there was one word, great golden letters, glittering; golden fire spelling out UBIK.”


What is Ubik?

I finished this book almost two weeks ago and, though I thought I read it closely, I still don’t have any real idea of what it means. I’m not so sure I’m supposed to. Ubik is a novel that practically demands a second read, but even if I gave it one, I suspect I wouldn’t get much closer to cracking the code. It’s a shape-shifting riddle that always keeps its true objective at arm’s length.

It is also a great example of why I chose to work through this particular list of books over certain others. I am not a science fiction aficionado (not by a long shot), so Ubik is a book that would never have been on my radar otherwise.* It seemed obvious that the Time 100 was aspiring to encapsulate as many different publishing movements from the last century as it could, so disregarding science fiction would have been criminal.** Whether Ubik really is one of the 100 best works written in English since 1923 remains to be seen, but I at least understand why it would have been included on this list.

Because I generally enjoyed my reading experience with Ubik. Knowing very little about Dick (henceforth PKD, as his acolytes call him) other than the many movies that have been adapted from his books, I was able to launch into Ubik with virgin eyes. What I found was an author less interested in traditional character development and linear plot and more in throwing ideas at you seemingly at random, the narrative barreling ahead with reckless abandon. Critic Hazel Pierce pretty much mirrors my feelings here***:

The novels of Philip K. Dick elicit ambivalent responses from readers, responses such as: “I don’t like this novel, but…” Behind that last word lurks the intuitive realization that Philip K. Dick demands more of a reader than such a superficial affective response would indicate. True, one may be annoyed by a weak plot line, by scientific inconsistencies, or by the cavalier way in which Dick introduces, then summarily dismisses, some of his characters. Any reader with a strong urge to impose a firm and logical sequential structure on the events in Dick’s novels will fight a losing battle.

Whatever its shortcomings, I can’t deny that Ubik rolled along on bizarre momentum and quirky humor, the latter of which is in ample evidence throughout.

The story takes place in the future (1992, actually), in the shadow of America, now part of something called the North American Confederation. Since 1969, we have discovered how to prolong our conscious life following bodily death, allowing the living to converse with us until our half-lives expire. Everything has become commodified such that opening your front door or turning on your coffee machine requires a coin payment. And mind-reading is prevalent, leading to an industry of “prudence organizations” that firms can hire to block others from spying on them.

One such prudence organization, Runciter Associates, employs our protagonist, Joe Chip. When the company’s services are requested on another firm’s lunar base (yes, we now do business on the moon), Joe and several other Runciter associates (including Glen Runciter himself) take the trip, only to find a rival has set them up. An explosion kills Runciter, and the team scrambles to return to Earth so they can place Runciter in half-life. But strange things begin happening.

Suddenly Joe’s cigarettes crumble in his hand and his freshly-bought milk turns sour. His front door won’t accept modern currency. His telephone is now a rotary. Time, it appears, is moving backward.

But if Runciter is dead and time is reverting to a more technologically primitive age, why is the man now appearing on television screens offering cryptic messages to Joe?

As Joe finds himself back in 1939, PKD mines it for all its comic potential.  There is a funny exchange he has with a driver who, aware that Joe works for a company that purports to see the future, asks him to predict what will happen globally. “The American people aren’t interested in fighting England’s war or anybody else’s war,” the driver says, confident that another world war will be averted.  “You’re not going to enjoy the next five years,” Joe tells him.

It turns out Joe’s trip down memory lane  is just one twist. There will be several others. In just more than 200 pages, PKD careens from one revelation to another, not unlike a spy novel whose allegiances keep shifting. Like maybe Runciter isn’t the one who died. Like maybe Joe and his colleagues died on the moon and it’s Runciter who’s alive. The plot twist on the very last page is the kind that casts all the preceding events in doubt and, as I said before, double-dares you not to turn back to page one and start again.

Which leads me back to the original question: What is Ubik? Appearing in various forms throughout the book, it prevents the decaying process when the user applies it on himself; it rejuvenates the user, at least for a while. Judging by the cheeky commercials preceding each chapter (“Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavor of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow!”), one gets the feeling that Ubik is everywhere (it is short for ubiquitous, after all).

According to Wikipedia, one of PKD’s wives believed Ubik is God, which has some credence since it’s the only thing that can counteract the devilish figure that seems to be orchestrating the whole mess. There’s certainly some level of religious connotation to Ubik.

More likely, though, Ubik isn’t supposed to “be” anything; it’s whatever you want it to be. I get the sense that PKD loved throwing ideas at the wall, one outrageous scenario after another, and was not terribly interested in attaching fixed meanings to them. He gets your mind racing and leaves you to tease over the significance.

Paraphrasing Ms. Pierce above, I can’t say I loved this novel, but: it was often a lot of fun to read, and it did cast an eerie spell on me once it got rolling. This was my first trip into the weird, cultish world of PKD, but it won’t be my last.

*It wasn’t on list co-creator Richard Lacayo’s radar, either, who fully admits he’d never heard of Ubik before Lev Grossman sought to include it.

**You don’t have to look any further regarding the legitimization of science fiction as an accepted form of serious literature meriting serious study than Dick himself, whose seminal works have now been bound for posterity by the esteemed Library of America.

***Hazel Pierce, “Philip K. Dick’s Political Dreams,” in Philip K. Dick, edited by Martin Harry Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander, 1983, pp. 105-135. Excerpted in Contemporary Literary Criticism Vol. 72, p. 106.


Up next: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird!

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