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Ubik

by Philip K. Dick

Reviewed 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.  
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