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Ubik

by Philip K. Dick

Essay by Ted Gioia

Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik did not win any of the major
science fiction awards, but it was selected by
Time magazine
as one of the 100 best novels in the English language
published between 1923 and 2005.   At the
time of his death in 1982, even
Dick’s fervent fans could hardly
have conceived his enshrinement
on such a list, alongside Heming-
way, Faulkner, Bellow and
Nabokov.  But Dick’s star con-
tinues to rise – in fact, it is hard
to think of another writer, in any
genre, whose reputation has en-
joyed such an unexpected turn-
around during the last quarter
century.

But Dick’s vindication is also a
vindication for the science
fiction genre in which he toiled so
long, with so few rewards.  The posthumous celebration of this
author is based on a belated recognition that creativity in the
conceptual underpinnings of fiction can be as important as
experimentation with language.   The greatest speculative
fiction excites and dazzles us precisely on this conceptual
level.  This is no small matter.  The ability to de-construct and
re-construct the surrounding reality is a powerful tool in fiction,
perhaps every bit as potent as a hundred Nabokovian puns or
Poundian allusions.  If the novel aspires to unraveling the
psychological, the sociological, the institutional dimensions of
our lives in the context of inspired story-telling, then the tools
of speculative fiction should not be disdained.  

No one delighted more in these conceptual acrobatics more
than Dick.  The ethos of his fiction might be summed up in a
single admonition:  things are never quite what they seem.  
But Dick had a hundred different ways of exploring this
theme.  
Ubik stands out, in particular, as one of his most fully
realized efforts to disrupt our everyday assumptions about
reality, and it ranks as perhaps his most ingeniously plotted
work.  

Sometimes his books lay open their tricks in the opening
chapters, and the readers simply go along for the ride,
reasonably sure what lies ahead.  But
Ubik keeps you
guessing at almost every step along the way, and your
hypotheses about what is actually transpiring will probably
change several times as the story progresses.  From this
regard, the work progresses much like a conventional
mystery, with clues to be deciphered and puzzles to be
solved.  Only here the questions are peculiar ones – not who
committed the murder, but whether a murder actually took
place, not finding the body but understanding what a body
might be and become, not avenging a death but reassessing
the boundaries between life and death.

Such comments may make Dick sound like a philosopher
rather than a novelist.  But that is hardly the case in
Ubik.  
The reader can stop and mull over the theoretical and ethical
implications of the crazy twists in the plot, but Dick relentlessly
pushes ahead with story.  He is bursting out with his tale, and
hardly willing to let anything deter him.  The only pauses are
for the koan-like clues provided in the epigraphs to his various
chapters.

And what should you make of these?

Taken as directed, Ubik provides uninterrupted sleep without
morning grogginess. . . . Do not exceed recommended
dosage.

or

Pop tasty Ubik into your toaster, made only from fresh fruit
and healthful all-vegetable shortening.  Ubik makes breakfast
a feast, puts zing into your thing.

Safe when handled as directed.

or

New extra-gentle Ubik bra and longline Ubik special bra
mean, Lift your arms and be all at once curvier!  Supplies firm,
relaxing support to bosom all day long when fitted as
directed.  

What this has to do with the story is not easy to understand at
first.  The tale builds around Joe Chip who works for a
“prudence organization” – essentially a private security and
investigation firm made up of employees with various psychic
powers.  Chip and his colleagues are engaged in a fierce
battle with a rival firm.  But as the story progresses the conflict
between the psychics is superseded by an even more
pressing concern – the world seems to be altering and
deteriorating in an unprecedented manner.  Food gets stale
at an alarming rate, as do cigarettes.  Strange messages
show up on television broadcasts, on product labels, and in
other unexpected settings.   Some fundamental change in the
basic texture of reality is apparently underway.   Could it be
that this odd consumer product Ubik has something to do with
all this?

This is conceptual fiction at a very high pitch, indeed.   Fifty
pages before the end, the reader still wonders whether the
author can connect all the dots.  Is this sprawling story about
ready to collapse under its own zaniness.   But Dick pulls it off
in stride, pulling together all of the strands of this hallucinatory
story in a very satisfying conclusion.  
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
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Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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