It’s hard to write about Philip K. Dick in general – what new can be said about a writer who was so influential and who’s inspired so much writing? And that goes doubly for Ubik, one of Dick’s most acclaimed novels. And yet, here I am, trying to describe one of the best novels written by one of the most fascinating and interesting science-fiction writers who ever lived.
Those of us who love Philip K. Dick usually concede that it’s not the craft and the prose that draws us to his work; it’s the complicated, mind-blowing plotting (usually more evident in his short stories) or the rich, thoughtful philosophical musings (a staple of his novels). Ubik is the best of both worlds, though – a head-scratching, dizzying display of plot twists, confusion, and surreal touches that all come together perfectly, all while anchoring itself in musings about the afterlife, causation, time travel, and the nature of consciousness.
Trying to describe the plotting of Ubik is a fool’s errand, but more than that, it would remove the pleasure of unraveling the book’s mysteries for yourself. Suffice to say that the book gives us a future in which company’s provide anti-psychic services in an effort to protect corporate secrets, which has led to what amounts to underground warfare between the psychics and those trying to thwart them. Into this comes a whole new talent that could change the game – but first, a most unusual contract comes across the desk of the leading anti-psychic agency, one that’s going to make the next few days exceedingly strange.
If that sounds vague, well, good – as I said, much of the pleasure of Ubik comes from unraveling all of its disparate pieces and seeing how Dick toys with his audience. But more importantly, for all of its rich plotting, Ubik is packed with fascinating world details, from a society where everything is automated and linked to your credit report to mortuaries where people are kept in a half-life state so you can speak with them for years after their death. And it’s those aspects that make the book so fascinating, as Dick plays with our ideas of the afterlife (here, he’s drawing in no small way on Tibetan beliefs) and how it will play out, but also our own self-awareness. Few authors were as fascinated by the malleable nature of reality as Dick was, and Ubik brings that in spades, as characters unravel, fall apart, and see the world devolving in front of them. The very question of “what is real?” becomes central not only to the plot, but to the lives of our heroes, as they attempt to figure out any sort of purpose or meaning to their existence.
There are better written Dick books out there (A Scanner Darkly); there are richer novels (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is my favorite); but few marry Dick’s playful side with his thoughtful as well as Ubik does. In many ways, it’s the platonic ideal of a Philip K. Dick novel, and maybe an ideal gateway into his work for those who’ve never experienced it. More than that, it’s just a blast of a read, with enough substance to satisfy those wanting a bit more than pure pulp.