‘Ubik’ – A Pretty Straightforward Review

More Philip K. Dick this week. He’s worth following up, even though I don’t like repeating myself.

Ubik is the story of Joe Chip, a sort of technician working for a company named Runciter Associates. Glen Runciter, his boss, works to ensure mental privacy for clients in a future world where humanity has colonised space, and which happens to be dominated by psychics and mentalists (it was here that the classic PKD vibes hit). On a job that takes the two (plus crew) off-planet, they discover that they’ve been trapped by a competitor; a bomb explodes, and someone dies.

The question is, who? After what feels like five minutes (as usual, the book moves fast) PKD starts blurring the lines between life and death, having characters send messages from beyond the grave, and just playing with time in a genuinely confusing way.

PKD knows how to manipulate tension, clearly; and also knows how to keep an audience engrossed. Part of that is keeping the book short: I read Ubik in one session, which lasted a few hours. But what’s there is so packed with intrigue and interest that for once the length is almost inadequate. I’m a proponent of short books, for the most part, but he could have reasonably made Ubik longer and it wouldn’t have suffered. That is, beyond a certain point, of course.

I do have one criticism, which can’t be voiced without a small spoiler warning: skip this paragraph if you care. Early on we’re introduced to Pat Conley, who through a never-properly-explained process can essentially change the past. I assumed, after she played around by manipulating the universe so that she’d already married Joe, and then undoing it, giving him a set of false memories, that there would be a huge number of tricks having to do with her ability to rewrite history. There weren’t that many. I don’t know if PKD just didn’t know how to handle that power, or if he’d never really planned on it being more than a red herring in the first place.

Ubik feels as though it were written for the purpose of being analysed. It’s classic fodder for interpretation, dealing with the classic Philip K. Dick themes. You’ve got the typical nature of reality question, whether objects have set ‘forms’ as when the world around Joe regresses into an earlier version of itself, and the meaning of human life.

(Interestingly, while the truth about who is alive or dead, and the nature of the ‘half-life’ which preserves humans somewhere in the middle, are major themes, death is almost ignored. It was interesting to see someone questioning life without really bringing up the inverse at all.)

And it’s all done with a veneer of classic sci-fi over it. Aesthetically (as in, in terms of the images it evokes) Ubik is fantastic. The novel starts in a futuristic New York, and an even more futuristic Switzerland, with irritating appliances that require money to operate. The 1930s are also represented in the typical sci-fi manner, with multiple small, dusty towns making an appearance. It’s difficult for me to describe the atmosphere in these towns; if you know what classic science-fiction country towns are like, you know what I’m rambling about. Oddly, even though Joe’s in incredible danger throughout the novel, the locations still somehow manage to feel comfortable and lived-in (ironically) through description.

What does ‘Ubik’ actually mean? It’s a spoiler, so I won’t say much. But it’s quite simple, really, and you’re given some admittedly rather weak clues at the start of each chapter, at least in my print. It’s safe to say, I think, that Ubik is a restorative element, a creative object in the sense that it can reverse natural processes. So Ubik works well thematically because it contrasts the life-preserving machines we’re introduced to at the novel’s beginning. These machines keep Runciter’s wife and others locked away in ‘half-life’ so that they can be sustained for decades on the verge of death, and only brought out on certain special occasions. They’re managed by private companies worldwide, and there’s about as much mention of that as you’d expect – nearly none. The fact does influence the novel’s conclusion, but is mentioned only in the sparsest of terms, both in-universe and in the narration itself.

It’s this commercial element that partially gives Ubik its atmosphere – humanity has stopped taking death so seriously that we allow private companies with occasionally shady practices to keep people alive. The mentions of Runciter ‘running ads’ at the beginning of the novel, and the frequent mentions of how appliances need money, and how ‘normal people’ can be basically preyed on by psychics, all combine to create a world that’s claustrophobic, blatantly commercial, and heartless in regards to the poor. It’s not this content alone that gives that impression, but the way it’s written – Runciter mentions running ads and it feels more like something out of a dystopian novel, as though he’s campaigning and plastering propaganda all over New York rather than just advertising for a psychic privacy agency.

To be honest, this is usually the part where I’d come out with some badly explained observations about the novel and the format it’s in. I’d mention the format of the novel, and use the word ‘framework’ a few times. But I can’t really convince myself to do that with Ubik, because as I mentioned earlier it’s the kind of novel that feels as though it’s made to be analysed – as though we’re meant to look at it and go, for example,

‘Well, obviously Runciter is Jesus, because Joe, his disciple, is unsure whether he’s alive or dead, and he’s the company leader, sending messages and guidance. There are twelve members of the team who journey with Runciter off-planet and fall into the trap – twelve disciples. The explosion is Runciter’s crucifixion, and the malleability of his condition as living or dead calls to mind Christ’s status while in hell, saving the dead (another thing Runciter does is save Joe’s skin constantly.) One of the team members is a traitor…’

And so on and so on. It feels as though to analyse the book is to fall into a sort of trap, because there’s just so much to say. I mean, I thought of all the above a few seconds ago, and barely thought about it, but it seems to make sense. PKD was famous for his spiritual epiphanies, which were probably brought on by drug use, and Ubik is the natural result of that.

Nevertheless, it’s an extraordinary book, and definitely worth your time.

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