All rights reserved.

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

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

And what should you make of these?

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


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.


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

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.  
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to reviews)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

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.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Borges, Jorge Luis

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

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.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

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

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

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

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

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

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

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

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

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

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

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

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

Saramago, José

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

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

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

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

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

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Ted Gioia's web site

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
Big Dumb Object
Jospeh Peschel
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction and
its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction