by Philip K Dick
224 pages, Gollancz
Review by Pat Black
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The only certainties in life, Philip K Dick says, are death and taxes. And advertising.
Ubik, his weird and typically twisted sci-fi novel from 1969, isn’t as well known as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, the works that led to the iconic films Blade Runner and Total Recall respectively. But it may well be his masterpiece.
A product of its time, Ubik is an LSD-soaked exploration of the themes of telepathy, precognition and time travel. Advertising and decay are two of Dick’s favourite themes, and they’re apparent from the opening lines. But the book also explores Taoist or Buddhist lore, too – the kind of stuff that George Harrison was getting into at round about the same time. This provides us with an uplift that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Philip K Dick novel. It’s powerful stuff, that Ubik.
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Set in an alternate 1992, Ubik starts by following Glen Runciter, the head of a Prudence organisation. Such groups exist to counteract the activities of those with psionic talents, such as predicting the future or reading minds. As you can imagine, being able to guess which decisions business executives or people in power are going to take before they actually do will have a massive effect on your business’ performance. And that’s where Prudence organisations come into play: these seek to find people who have contra-psionic talents, the ability to block these telepaths and precogs, and employ them as security on behalf of companies.
Dick paints these anti-psionics as a simple extension of nature. It’s like when an insect grows wings and learns to fly, as one character reasons; sooner or later, another creature will learn to spin a web.
This queasy paranoia, the idea that someone can actually tap into your mind and steal what you’re thinking for their own ends, will be familiar to anyone who watched the movie Inception last summer. Mental invasion by outsiders is an important theme for Philip K Dick, who was noted for his use of LSD (among other drugs) and his concurrent symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.
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Another idea Dick explores is the notion that almost everything we consciously experience may not actually be real or what it appears to be at face value, an extension of the philosophy of Berkeley or Wittgenstein. We are made to confront our perceptions of the real world almost from the start, when Runciter visits his almost-dead wife. She’s been frozen in a state of half-life, her death delayed by a finite set of instalments, meaning that Runciter can revive her now and again and hold conversations with her, before packing her off to sleep again. This is important for a man like Runciter, as he runs his Prudence outfit with her help. And I’m sure he misses her, too.
But there’s a disturbing moment for Runciter in his new consultation with his wife, Ella, at the start of the book, when her personality seems to have been temporarily replaced with that of a 15-year-old boy called Jory, a free-floating, similarly undead entity who has a habit of intruding on the half-lives of the other refrigerated corpses.
Confused yet? We haven’t even met the main character.
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Joe Chip enters the fray in chapter three. A man with no psionic abilities at all, he is nonetheless vital to Runciter’s firm as one of the best psychic testers in the business, able to measure and interpret the mental fields generated by people with such extraordinary abilities. It’s made clear to us that he’s hopelessly in debt, unable to scrape together the coins needed to operate doors, coffee machines and other household items in this nightmare vision of a future where almost everything except breathing costs you something.
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Joe’s introduced to Pat Conley, a striking-looking young woman with the ability to focus on past events and change them – either in actuality or in people’s minds - in order to rearrange the future. We’re given a stunning demonstration of this power when Joe introduces Pat to Runciter, and the two men grow confused and enfeebled at sudden inexplicable changes in circumstance. First of all, Joe comes to understand that himself and Pat are married, even though he’s only just met her that morning. Then all the other anti-psionics who Runciter has invited to take part in a big contract on Luna disappear, never having been invited to any meeting in the first place. The sly, feline Pat rearranges everything in time, and is promptly hired by Runciter. It’s an amazing, subtle demonstration of the kind of strange powers that Dick is trying to describe, and a deft bit of writing too. The reader is in no doubt whatsoever about what Pat has done; the confusion is all on the part of the affected characters.
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Once our minds are given space to recover from this thorough rogering, we’re then floored again by a bomb blast after Runciter’s psionics team are double-crossed as part of the big assignment on Luna. This shocking volte face is classic Dick, and recalled for me another great “You what?” moment - the scene in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? where Deckard suddenly realises that his helicopter pilot is the man he’s been chasing all along.
Runciter, apparently killed, is frozen in half-life by Joe, who assumes command of the surviving team and flies them back to Earth. The team are, naturally, paranoid that the book’s unseen antagonist, a man called Hollis who runs an outfit of precogs and telepaths, is seeking to assassinate them all. But upon their arrival on Earth, weirder problems begin to manifest themselves. Cigarettes which were once fresh crumble with the slightest pressure; milk cartons from vending machines are putrid, and even the currency in their pockets appears to be changing. Technology also seems to be going back in time, too. Futuristic cars become clunking 1950s and 1930s vehicles, while modern music systems have reverted to older tape decks and finally – gasp! – vinyl record players.
The team’s reality is unravelling and regressing to earlier ages. Worryingly, this strange dissolution also seems to be physically affecting the anti-psionics team, as one by one they wither into decayed husks and die. How much does Runciter – who manifests himself in strange ways, either as a voice on the end of a telephone, as handwriting scrawled across a toilet wall, or even as a face on their dollar bills - have to do with this? Or is it related to the sardonic, maddeningly cool Pat and her astonishing abilities to weld and reshape time itself? Could it be that Joe and the anti-psionics are actually dead, while Runciter still lives?
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I think we can gauge how influential a science fiction writer is by looking at the amount of “zing!” moments they give us, years after the books were written. Ubik is replete with them, starting from the moment where Joe Chip asks his “homeopape” for a printout of the latest news. He hesitates...then slyly accesses the “celebrity gossip” channels instead. Although the homeopape is a clunky device which churns out printed pages, I wonder how many of us went through the same dilemma as Joe when we looked at the online news before reading this very article?
Advertising, too, was something Dick saw as ubiquitous. Each chapter begins with a blurb for Ubik, which seems to be a product which can do wondrous things for people like clean their teeth better than any leading toothpaste, provide them with a bigger hit than coffee, give them an unbeatable loan deal or enhance their bosoms over and above the rate of inflation. I read Ubik as something desired by many but unattainable, a panacea for our ills or issues as humans – and yet also something powerful that can harm us. The substance is revealed to Joe Chip as being a simple spray can which can counteract the chilly slow-freeze effects of the bomb on Luna; when he douses himself with it, his condition begins to reverse itself. His spirit is revived.
What Ubik – the stuff – means is open to question. Clearly, there’s a metaphysical dimension above the earthly concerns of the adverts and blurbs. And the book takes us down some surprisingly spiritual paths before it reaches the end. For a writer who thrived on confusion, distortion and the realm of the unreal, Dick seems surprisingly clear-cut in his convictions. He explores the idea of yin and yang, of forces for good or ill constantly opposing each other – notions of greed and malice, which we realise we should stay away from, and the higher concerns which we should strive for. Finally, there’s an exploration of what might happen when we die. In Ubik, Dick seems to be in no doubt that we progress onto another state – through reincarnation – and for that reason the book is ultimately uplifting.
Dick still has time for a great big Twilight Zone-style shock at the end, though. It just wouldn’t do to banish all confusion.
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Finally, a word about the prose. Although Dick is an acknowledged master of strange ideas and ontological befuddlement, he doesn’t get a lot of praise for his style. I’d argue that Dick is a superb writer – illuminating his passages with sudden brilliant insights or wrong-footing us with lyrical bombs. By way of illustration, I’m going to share with you Dick’s brilliant evocation of how an ordinary man can be struck dumb – can be rendered doolally – by a beautiful woman:
It did not seem possible that Wendy Wright had been born out of blood and internal organs like other people. In proximity to her he felt himself to be a squat, oily, sweating, uneducated nurt whose stomach rattled and whose breath wheezed. Near her he became aware of the physical mechanisms which kept him alive; within him machinery, pipes and valves and gas-compressors and fan belts had to chug away at a losing task, a labour ultimately doomed. Seeing her face, he discovered that his own consisted of a garish mask; noticing her body made him feel like a low-class wind-up toy. All her colours possessed a subtle quality, indirectly lit. Her eyes, those green and tumbled stones, looked impassively at everything; he had never seen fear in them, or aversion, or contempt. What she saw she accepted. Generally she seemed calm. But more than that, she struck him as being durable, untroubled and cool, not subject to wear, or to fatigue, or physical illness and decline. Probably she was twenty-five or six, but he could not imagine her looking younger, and certainly she would never look older. She had too much control over herself and outside reality for that.
All that, and she’s got green eyes too!
If you don’t know Philip K Dick, or if you’ve been put off reading him by that now over-exposed speech by Rutger Hauer about attack ships being flatulent off the wings of Rizla, or something, then take heed: you need to have yourself a little spray of Ubik. *Safe only for use as directed on hungry minds.
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