Book Review: Ubik by Philip K. Dick


I am Ubik.
Before the universe was, I am.
I made the suns.
I made the worlds.
I created lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there.
They go as I say, they do as I tell them.
I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows.
I am called Ubik but that is not my name.
I am.
I shall always be.

I have a favorite science fiction author. His name is Philip K. Dick. If you find yourself reading this blog or in my company having a conversation about, oh, anything, you may hear me drop his name. His fame has only grown since his death in 1982, roughly one year before my birth. Like other heroes I have come to admire, such as Townes Van Zandt and William Wyler, I will not get to meet him, in this life.

I found one of his more well-known and oft-referenced books, Ubik, at my local library. I checked it out, and I read it. I digested it. For some reason, when I take a book by PKD and sit down to read it, I find my mind wanders. As a writer, his form is not especially bracing, nor is it overly stylized. Often, his books read like the diary of a solitary, washed-up, blue collar worker at or near the end of his rope, as indeed his protagonists are often cast. I think the particular aspect of his writing which causes my mind to wander- vigorously wander, as a top set free from a string- is its prescience. Dick’s incisive wit sizes up our present, evolving situation to an uncanny degree of accuracy. Oh sure, in his vision of the future we might all be flying on rockets to the moons of Jupiter, but the basic structure of human society is vividly realized in a way that seems both plausible and unsettling.

Ubik paints a future where humans have evolved the capacity for psionic powers such as telepathy, precognition, and other fascinating abilities. Think X-Men or Heroes, but without the grandiose notion that the responsibility to serve all mankind- or destroy all mankind- is the primary function of such humanoids. No, indeed, the primary function of such humanoids is to go to work for a firm which specializes in deploying them as agents who will infiltrate target organizations to accomplish the goals of a paying customer. Taking this basic idea of adaptation / survival of the fittest one more step, the book also introduces a subset of humanity with the ability to negate the psionic powers. These humanoids go to work for a rival firm that deploys them as agents to track the psionic humans and perpetually dampen their ability to perform.

Naturally, the protagonist of this book is, drumroll, a normal human being who operates equipment designed to detect psionic fields. He is, of course, a bachelor, and he is destitute and constantly needing to bum a nickel or quarter from a friend or coworker in order to get by. His name is Joe Chip.

The book also concerns a concept of reality that manifests itself in several of Dick’s short stories and novels. Richard Linklater’s film Waking Life is quite possibly inspired directly from this idea. In my opinion, the most eloquent explanation of this concept actually takes place in the fractured internal monologue of Robert Arctor, the drug-addled protagonist of Dick’s latter-day masterwork A Scanner Darkly (which was given the silver-screen treatment by Linklater in 2007, using the same, rotoscoping animation technique as on Waking Life).

This will give me time to think, he reflected as he wandered into the cafeteria and lined up. Time. Suppose, he thought, time is round, like the Earth. You sail west to reach India. They laugh at you, but finally there’s India in front, not behind. In time — maybe the Crucifixion lies ahead of us as we all sail along, thinking it’s back east…

The First and Second Coming of Christ the same event, he thought; time a cassette loop. No wonder they were sure it’d happen, He’d be back.

Ubik, the namesake of the book, doesn’t manifest itself until a good chunk of the main storyline has transpired. A team of inertials (the humanoids with anti-psi powers) is assembled to investigate a serious threat from a rival team of psionics on the moon. When they get there, all is not as it seems…

There is a girl among the inertials with the disconcerting power of being able to alter the past, thus altering the present. The people she involves in episodes displaying her abilities still retain memories from the previous timelines, however they are never quite sure whether these memories are reliable. Various events take place in the story which may- or may not- be caused by a greater power. Writing appears on walls, messages are found inside of cigarette cartons, and a holographic commercial for a product in a spray can, called Ubik, plays for the protagonist. When the inertials start to mysteriously disappear, a sinister purpose is slowly revealed.

Only Joe Chip, the regular human, the one who is perpetually broke and hopelessly single, can muscle through to figure out what is at stake. In the process, he encounters various incarnations of Ubik: a balm, a tonic, and a spray can. He refrains from using it, because, after all, he has no clue what it even does! Meanwhile, currency begins to rapidly lose value, newspapers begin to report older and older news, and household appliances slowly revert to their more ancient incarnations.

This novel actually references and borrows heavily from an earlier PKD short story entitled, What the Dead Men Say. In that story, there are cryonic coffins which recently-deceased people can be put into, allowing their brains to remain alive for decades longer, and for conversations to be carried out with the dead. Technically, these individuals are in a state of “half-life” as the book calls it, and are preserved so that the living may consult them for advice, or just emotional relief. It’s a fascinating concept. The Spanish film Abre Los Ojos borrows on this idea, as well. Joe Chip’s boss has a wife in “half-life” and she is consulted for help. The cryonic “moratoriums” where the dead are filed away are devoid of psionic interference.

Is the narrative of Ubik confusing? Yes, a bit. Dick actually wrote a screenplay version of the novel during his life. It has never been put into production. He had a very interesting idea for how to actually film the story and present it in theaters. Perhaps someday, someone will tackle an audiovisual adaptation with success.

Until then, I am left to imagine the sight of someone holding up a canister of Ubik would look like, though I do have Terry Gilliam.

Terry Gilliam holding PKD aerosol can
From an episode of the BBC show Arena, entitled, “Philip K Dick: A Day in the Afterlife”

I am Ubik

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