A review of UBIK by Philip K. Dick


After slogging through Wealth of Nations, I decided to give myself a break with some science fiction. I included some early scifi 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 years ago, and enjoyed it, but a recent survey of SciFi I read (off-list, don’t ask) positioned Dick as one of the most important writers in the genre, so I added him to the list. 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, or that my reality is a product of my own imagination, and I’m 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, and 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 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 becomming an old am radio—and things seem to be aging very quickly around them. The mystery of this takes up the remainder of the book, as they attempt to find the malevolent forces behind this, 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, and quite good on its own terms.

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