Death, the final frontier, the one inescapable and inevitable fact of that we call life, or is it? What if even after you died you could come back for a limited time and in some limited form to once again see your loved ones and experience the linear existence we so often take for granted. In the vision painted by Philip K Dick here the living can, for a very brief period talk to those who haver passed from the mortal coil; although they are restricted to meeting them in a sort of future version of a mortuary, a virtual storage building for the souls of the departed. Eventually though time runs out even for those who live in this "half-life" and once this happens the dead just fade away.
Philip K Dick's works tend to favour two different approaches, those that use only one trope of the genre, otherwise set within our contemporary reality (such as The man in the high castle and Time out of joint) and those that are clearly set in the future with plenty of technological advancements (such as Do androids dream of electric sheep or Minority reports). Ubik is firmly placed within the latter, a reality with lots of future technology, telepathy and precognition, a future where even death itself can be overcome for brief periods.
Upon this canvas PKD paints a dark, satirical picture of a future 1992 (Ubik was written in 1969) and introduces us to Joe Chip, a debt ridden technician and the everyday (anti-)hero of the story. There is a brilliant sketch at the beginning of the book that not only allows the reader to meet Joe but provides a great example of the humour on display. Joe is at home and completely broke which in this future means he can't open the fridge or even the front door (they both demand a payment per use) and when visitors show he's part-way through dismantling said door:
"I'll sue you," the door said as the first screw fell out.
Joe Chip said, "I've never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it."
No one else could manage to describe such a scene quite like PKD, a sense of future tech that manages to parody the ever increasing commercialisation of society. I sincerely hope that we never get to that stage where even the everyday electrical items are "pay-per-use" but my natural cynicism in capitalism fears it may come to pass eventually. Joe works for the business tycoon Glen Runciter at his anti-psi security agency who provide an "anti-psionic" service to block unwanted telepathic snooping and paranormal dirty tricks.
The story get's moving when a big contract on a settlement of the Moon goes pear-shaped resulting in the death of Runciter. Things get pretty strange after this with messages appearing on walls, tickets and labels that are seemingly from Runciter himself. Even stranger though is the fact that reality seems to be unravelling, Runciter's face suddenly begins appearing on coins, cigarettes become stale and crumble to dust while adverts start showing everywhere for the hard to find panacea Ubik. Everything seems to be ageing and transforming into older, simpler versions. I love how the author manages to create drama and tension with the simplest of acts, with the ordinary which manages to emphasize the extra-ordinary quite effectively. There is a degree of subtle horror to the story too, something I've not seen before in the authors work and it's all the more powerful for it's subtlety.
Of course this being a PKD novel nothing is quite as it seems and just when you think you've got it all figured out the story throws a few curve-balls and reality shifts to a new perspective. Ubik also has just about the best ending I've yet seen in a PKD novel, right at the end when you think it's all worked out the last few lines again cast everything into doubt - absolutely brilliant.
The main theme of the novel is that of solipsism, how can we define that which is "real" and that which is not, how can we be sure that which we experience outside of our mind is in fact reality? Are we simply dreaming that which we experience or are we perhaps a result of someone else's dream? Theme of religion makes an appearance too and as ever with PKD, these ideas are left for the reader to take sides with rather than being weighted either way.
Ubik is Philip K Dick at his finest, a reality twisting, perspective bending rollercoaster of a novel that manages to ask some big questions without taking itself too seriously, a true masterpiece in literature.
Written on Monday 13th August 2012 by Antony Jones.
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