Sorry, Inception. Ubik did it first.
Ubik is my second proper foray into the works of PKD, after Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Overall, Ubik is, in my view, the superior work – more coherently written, with more fully-realized characters, and a premise that showcases PKD’s signature thematic preoccupations without getting bogged down in weighty exposition. More than that, however, Ubik is a somewhat more visceral, emotive experience, wrapped up in a succinct narrative package.
Dick’s vision of what the world might look like in 1992 is quite amusing from a modern point of view – there are lunar cities and interplanetary travel is commonplace, but everything is coin-operated and pay-per-use, even the appliances in people’s apartments. More disquietingly, it has become somewhat commonplace to put the recently deceased into cryonic suspension, where they exist in a state of limbo, periodically taken out of storage to commune with their loved ones, with each successive visit inching them closer to true death. Psi abilities have manifested, leading to the use of precogs and telepaths in industrial and military espionage. In response, “prudence organizations” comprising teams of anti-psis have sprung up, offering counter-intelligence services to clients who fear psychic incursions.
The plot centers around one such organization, headed by one Glen Runciter, and assisted by the financially inept psi-field technician (and protagonist) Joe Chip (a name that sounds like it was carelessly and cavalierly appointed by Dick at the spur of the moment). An astoundingly lucrative contract lures them to Luna, where they are ambushed and attacked by the associates of a rival psi firm. Glen Runciter is apparently killed. The rest, led by Joe Chip, escape, but very soon, strange things begin to happen to them. Their reality warps, regressing backwards in time. Objects decay and entropy at an accelerated rate. Joe Chip’s colleagues waste away in this fashion, one by one, their bodies rapidly ageing and decaying into heaps of dry bones. And a strange decoction in a spray can – the eponymous Ubik – seems to be the only thing that can arrest this surreal tide of decay.
Ubik is a strange, riotous blend of the whimsical and the terrifying. It is a deeply unsettling book, one whose hallucinogenic narrative and reality-bending nature evokes a real, creeping sense of the uncanny. That sense arises when the reader cannot trust the surface narrative, nor the validity of the characters’ hasty rationalizations about what is happening to them. There is always an unseen malign force lurking in the next page. The feeling is underscored by the book’s central motif – Ubik – that features at the start of every chapter as the brand name of any number of products whose miraculous functions are advertised with weird, sing-song, alliterative copy. Perk up pouting household surfaces with new miracle Ubik, the easy to apply, extra-shiny, nonstick plastic coating. Each of these little pieces of prose assure the reader that Ubik is entirely harmless when used as directed, which invites the question: what will it do to you when not used as directed? Ubik, short for ubiquitous, seems to be the one-stop promise of restoration, rejuvenation, and vitality – but its virtues are circumscribed in the strange little world in which it exists – a world dominated by jingly advertisements that, in effect, tell you to believe in Ubik’s powers on faith – without even knowing what Ubik is.
The same applies to the Ubik in the main narrative. It is a panacea for the temporal regression that takes place around Joe Chip – which is revealed to be due to the fact that Joe Chip is actually dreaming up a simulated reality while his body resides in cold-pac, fatally injured in the assassination attempt on the Moon – but it is a panacea in a spray can, a magic emblem of jingly, self-assured commercialism, one whose virtues belie a stranger purpose behind it all. The chapter headers are Dick’s way of saying to the reader: we are all living in realities where Ubik-products exist, panaceas to ills, real or imagined, that serve functions for entities other than what is advertised. I’m almost tempted to call Ubik a symbol of modern capitalism, a capitalism that sustains itself on products that generate their own demand through flowery advertising. But, as in Joe Chip’s reality, Ubik can only arrest the tide of decay only so long. The panacea, like everything else, is not immune to the ravages of time and decay.
Dick’s favorite narrative trope is also in play – the multi-layered simulated reality, one in which the reader is never quite sure what substrate of reality the narrative is currently taking place. The novel is supremely ambiguous about this, even when the characters themselves seem to be sure about their place. The novel sort of reveals that Joe Chip and his associates were the ones almost killed in the assassination – not Runciter, and therefore must live out the rest of their half-lives in their simulated, shared dream reality, while Runciter himself is actually alive and in the real world. However, the last chapter of the book casts doubt on this neat conclusion when Runciter begins fishing coins with Joe Chip’s face on them. On first blush, this appears to be a cop-out of an ending, Dick’s attempt to artificially inject some ambiguity into the ending, much like the spinning top scene in Inception. But upon closer study, the book itself doesn’t seem to support the neat conclusion that it has drawn for us. Many aspects of the narrative are questionable. While this could be the result of shoddy plotting on Dick’s part – it was probably more deliberate. For example, how could Runciter, sole survivor of the assassination attempt, drag all the bodies of his associates away from the scene by himself and escape the Moon in time to put all their bodies into cryonic suspension? That part is never quite explained, and suggests that Runciter himself might also be in a simulated reality. But if so, who put them there?
Of special note is Dick’s notion of the sartorial habits of 1992. Which, relative to 1969, isn’t too far off in terms of changing tastes, I suppose, although the direction is somewhat different from reality. One character, the CEO of a major company is described as wearing “fuchsia pedal-pushers, pink yafur slippers, a snakeskin sleeveless blouse, and a ribbon in his waist-length dyed white hair”, on the Moon. Stylish. Other outfits of this age include tweed togas worn with loafers and a purple airplane-propeller beanie, described as a “Continental outfit” and worn by a Swiss moratorium owner. I’d like to see a movie adaptation in which everyone actually dresses like that.
In terms of characterization, this is a step up from Stigmata. It’s more gender- and race-progressive, featuring more relatable female and non-white characters. Our protagonist Joe Chip isn’t as much of a Dick-proxy exposition spouter as Barney Mayerson was. However, Dick still has the tendency to somewhat tell, rather than show, relationships between characters. When Chip grieves over Runciter’s apparent demise, the force of his reaction surprised me, as the dynamics of that relationship weren’t established beforehand, but merely displayed. But overall, characterization is much better this time round, with Dick’s range of characters a bit more fully fleshed than the typical pulp sci-fi ensemble.
Dick’s prose also lends the characters and narrative a bit of a surreal, jerky quality, almost like they are not doing things the way normal people do, or look the way normal people look. Characters are said to perambulate and cogitate rather than walk and think, and some have descriptions that edge over into caricature or the grotesque – case in point: Runciter’s “massive, sloppy head,” “built like a tomcat’s”. Dick’s liberal use of near-malapropisms to describe people and events has a kind of caustic charm to it, a wide-ranging sort of impressionistic gravitas, a – careless sloppiness, like a free-association slurry of drug-inspired metaphors. It’s quite the trip.
Ubik is a riveting, unsettling read, and one of the few books in which plotholes can be said to add to the texture of the narrative, rather than take away from it. One could call it an unreliable reality as recounted by subjectively reliable narrators. The thing about Ubik that speaks to me most, however, is that mysterious Ubik itself, whose role extends beyond the narrative to remind us readers that reality, as we know it, is stranger than we can imagine.
I give this novel: 4 out of 5 Ubiks