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Book #64: Ubik


You’ve gone and done it, Philip K. Dick.

You’ve gone and made me write a review in which I can’t ramble about how much I dislike science fiction.

You see, I hated Neuromancer. Snow Crash had its moments but left me feeling like I was reading a the script for a cheesy 1980s Schwarzanegger movie.

But Ubik? Not that bad.

I enjoyed Ubik because of two reasons.

1) Philip K. Dick, despite his well-documented mental instabilities, was a fabulous writer. He’s a succinct storyteller, and his dialogue is outstanding–not overdone like William Gibson’s in Neuromancer.

2) Though the story was obviously in a futuristic, science-fiction setting (1992, actually) it was almost believable. The people were normal and relatable, for the most part. Dick crafted strong characters that, even in the short space of 240 pages, I began to identify with.

So, yeah, I liked Ubik. There, I said it.

So what’s it about?

In this world, when someone dies, if they are quickly placed into a “cold pac,” they enter into something called a “half-life.”  While in half-life over a long period of years or decades, the deceased can communicate with the living in special moratoriums that store their bodies in half-life.

Back in the living world, psi powers are common. Think of mind readers and such. As a result, corporations are under attack from people with these psi powers. To counter them, outfits called “prudence organizations” (one of them led by protagonist Glen Runciter) contract people with the ability to block the psi powers to these corporations.

A powerful businessman with a corporation on the moon hires Runciter, who in turn contracts 11 people who have these powerful psi-blocking capabilities. From there, things go haywire and you’re left wondering which characters are alive, and which characters are in half-life. Not only that, but the book takes a strange time travel turn, taking you all the back from 1992 to 1939.

Now, for a sci-fi hater like myself, all of that just sounds wacky as I write it. How in the world could I like a story as far-fetched as Ubik sounds?

But that’s the thing about this novel. While you’re reading Ubik, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. You actually believe it. You actually believe that something like this could happen.

And that’s all because of Dick. He’s masterful at what he does.

You remember when I posted Dick’s articulate description of the “butterflies in my stomach” feeling a guy gets when he’s attracted to a girl?

Here was the passage that describes how Joe Chip feels about Wendy Wright:

“It did not seem possible that Wendy Wright had been born out of blood and internal organs like other people. In proximity to her he felt himself to be a squat, oily, sweating, uneducated nurt whose stomach rattled and whose breath wheezed. Near her he became aware of the physical mechanisms which kept him alive; within him machinery, pipes and valves and gas-compressors and fan belts had to chug away at a losing task, a labor ultimately doomed. Seeing her face, he discovered that his own consisted of a garish mask; noticing her body made him feel like a low-class wind-up toy.”

That descriptive sentence, “noticing her body made him feel like a low-class wind-up toy,” is such an original way to describe the feeling of inadequacy. I love it.

And then there’s the way he describes someone who is slowly dying and losing their sense of reality:

“He felt all at once like an ineffectual moth, fluttering at the windowpane of reality, dimly seeing it from outside.”

That’s a lot of what you get with Philip K. Dick. Perhaps because of his mental issues, he was a very unique, imaginative man, so his writing reflects that.

Ubik is also interesting when you think about it in relation to a lot of the privacy issues we have today. Here in the U.S., in recent months we’ve found out about flying drones and the NSA being all up in our business for the sake of “security.”

Most of those privacy issues happen through the internet, of course. But in Ubik, it’s all inside the mind. Essentially, these people who have a “special talent” that allows them to block someone from reading minds–those are very sophisticated firewalls.

Philip K. Dick (Wikimedia Commons)

Philip K. Dick (Wikimedia Commons)

In that way, Ubik can be viewed as an observation on privacy, much like 1984.

The “ubik” substance in the novel, which comes in a spray can, might actually be connected to a god or god-like being. The word “ubik” comes from “ubique” which means “everywhere.” God, or Ubik, is everywhere.

On the flip side, the novel is entertaining and easy to read because of Dick’s style, but it isn’t anything memorable. It’s a book that I enjoyed reading, and had an easy time getting through, but it’s doubtful I would ever read it again. Dick’s other novels, though? Sure, I would check those out.

Overall, I liked Ubik. But where does it fall in the not-so-grand scheme of things that is my completely subjective and totally meaningless rankings?

It’s probably somewhere in the middle of the pack, maybe slightly lower. For me, the science fiction bar is set so low that it’s easy for a book like this to stand out. At the very least, it’s helped me realize, finally, that there are good science fiction novels out there.

But I knew that. You guys tell me that all the time.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “At three-thirty A.M. on the night of 5 June 1992, the top telepath in the Sol System fell off the map in the offices of Runciter Associates in New York City.”

The Meaning: “Ubik” comes from the term “ubique,” which means “everywhere.” The “ubik” material in the novel, which comes in the form of a spray can, leads you to believe that it’s some type of god-like substance.

Highlights: Though there’s no doubting that Ubik is a science fiction novel, it doesn’t have the overt cheesiness of the other sci-fi novels I’ve encountered. Dick is an imaginative writer who is great at crafting a story and making you feel the depth of his characters in just a short amount of time. Plus, Dick is pretty funny.

Lowlights: Really, there was nothing terrible about Ubik. The worst I can say about it is that the novel wasn’t memorable. I enjoyed it. I moved on.

Memorable Line:  “Seeing her face, he discovered that his own consisted of a garish mask; noticing her body made him feel like a low-class wind-up toy.”

Final Thoughts: Finally, a science fiction novel that I can appreciate. I won’t put this one at the top of my bookshelf, and it’s nothing life-changing or as memorable as a book like 1984, but Ubik is a good, solid novel.

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30 Comments Post a comment
  1. PLS what this study about sir.

    November 25, 2013
  2. This sounds interesting. I’ve read Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep and it is one of the best science fiction stories I’ve read. I’ve added this to be to read list.

    November 25, 2013
  3. That should say I’ve added it to my to read list.

    November 25, 2013
  4. Great review.

    Regarding your sci-fi aversion; have you read Dune, Gateway or The Forever War?

    November 25, 2013
    • No. But Dune is probably one of the first books I’ll read when I have time. I’ve thought I’d probably like it.

      November 26, 2013
  5. I may need to re-read as I remember a slightly different story line. But maybe that is part if the brilliance. The book “felt” like one of my standard nightmares.

    For what it is worth, over the weekend I read his “Minority Report” short story. Dick’s characterizations of “Big Brother” seem perfectly in tune with Orwell.

    Good stuff.

    November 25, 2013
  6. Reblogueó esto en LindaBello.

    November 25, 2013
  7. Interesting. Sounds like a bit of an odd book! Your description of Ubik reminded me of this Russian science fiction novel I read once, called “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin. It’s credited as the novel that inspired Orwell’s 1984, though I wouldn’t say it’s quite as sophisticated. In “We,” the main characters live in a city constructed entirely out of glass so that they can be observed constantly. So kind of a different version of the mind-reading society present in Ubik.

    November 25, 2013
  8. Natasha Musa #

    I have this in my TBR pile and have been meaning to read it for the longest time. I’ve hear so much good reviews on Ubik but can’t seem to pick it up. Maybe this can be my next read. 😁

    November 25, 2013
  9. The line you quoted about someone nearing death is very memorable for me… as is your favourite line about the wind-up toy. Also, this morning I photographed a sewer cover upon which someone had written ‘everywhere’ and it sparked a train of thought for a blog post, to which you have just contributed. Thank you for a well written, thought provoking post.

    November 25, 2013
    • Thanks for reading!

      November 26, 2013
  10. I’ve read Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? by Dick, and while I can’t say it was one of my favorite SciFi novels, it was definitely interesting to read, maybe I’ll look into this one eventually.

    I don’t remember if I commented on your posts for Snow Crash or Neuromancer, but even as a fan of Science Fiction novels Snow Crash didn’t really blow me away, and I haven’t gotten around to reading Neuromancer (started it a long time ago, read a few chapters and then kind of lost interest in it). I think that those two novels are mostly included on this list for how closely they predicted some facets of the internet as well as the way that people use it. From your description of Ubik it sounds like another book that was probably included because of how well it reflects present day privacy issues.

    November 25, 2013
    • Also, after looking back at your review post for it, I said that you really enjoyed Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro, and I consider that to be a science fiction book, considering that the entire premise of the story is based upon a technology that we don’t have yet.

      November 25, 2013
      • Oops, sorry for the third post, but that should say *you* said that you really enjoyed Never Let Me Go.

        November 25, 2013
      • Interesting. I haven’t really thought of Never Let Me Go as sci-fi, but I can see what you’re saying. That was a very thought-provoking, emotional book.

        November 26, 2013
  11. After reading your conclusion about the novel, that it is a good solid novel but nothing life changing or memorable why do you think it was put on the list? After all, there are so many good solid novels that were written in the twentieth century and not on the list.

    November 25, 2013
    • I honestly don’t know. I’m guessing Lev Grossman really liked Philip K. Dick and wanted to include something from him. Not sure why Ubik over Do Androids Dream…

      November 26, 2013
      • Just my take on the list, not on your reading it: I think limiting the list only to English language books is the problem, considering some of the greatest books of the 20th century were written in other languages, books such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Old Capital by Kawabata, The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki, 100 Years of Solitude, Death in Venice. Also I don’t think there are any Australian writers, such as Peter Carey and Thomas Kinneally who wrote Schindler’s List, and to leave off Robertson Davies what a shame. Also the amazing number of Indian who wrote in English and South African writers like Coetzee, Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer. The list is really American and British writers. Looking through the list is much of a disappointment considering that even Hemingway’s best novel, A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea, were left off. I am surprised they didn’t put Atlas Shrugged on the list. I detested the novel but it has been so influential on so many I think it should be on the list, especially if Gone With the Wind is going to be there.

        I do applaud you for reading through the list. I hope you continue with novels that are not on the list. It does give you a good foundation to go onto other things.

        As far as Science Fiction novels, I think you have been exposed to only the bad stuff. Some of my favorites are The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey is based on this one), Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. One of the reasons so many of us grew to love science fiction was its exploration of ideas.

        Also it would be great to see a list of the best short stories, and short story writers in the twentieth century. There are so many good ones, like Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway, H. E. Bates, William Trevor. I think this is where English language writers truly shined in the twentieth century.

        November 26, 2013
  12. Lovely review. And, how could you not like science fiction? Haha. But seriously. Maybe reading some Ray Bradbury will change your mind? Or Aldous Huxley? Science fiction is basically a kind of realistic fantasy set in the future. It’s all glorious possibility. Sorry. Just an avid science fiction fan here. Love your blog.

    November 26, 2013
    • Haha I felt the same – how could someone NOT like science fiction? Or fantasy?

      November 27, 2013
      • I know! But I suppose each to their own. You have any favourite science fiction novels?

        November 27, 2013
        • I really like the Maddaddam Trilogy (although I haven’t read the most recent installment yet) by Margaret Atwood. 1984 by George Orwell, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I’ve tried Isaac Asimov’s Foundation when I was younger.

          November 29, 2013
  13. I am so curious that Asimov’s Foundation and Robot series, and Herbert’s Dune series is not on this list. Or was it, and I missed it? To me, those books are the very definition of science fiction.

    November 26, 2013
    • I remember being a very confused junior high student trudging through Asimov’s Foundation (guess what made me read it? A passing mention to it in the Garfield comics I owned). I also remember trying to read “Dune” but I don’t know if I finished it. I probably will be able to understand it better if I read it now.

      November 27, 2013
  14. I love your book recs! They’re so valuable! I am a proud owner of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and reading your review made me impatient to get started on that book!

    November 27, 2013
  15. I read a lot of science fiction when I was young. The reason I read less now is not so much a change in me as a change in the genre, and that may be why you don’t like it either. SF used to be _speculative_ fiction. It started from the present, or from a real historical situation, and asked “what if?” What if an innocent alien landed on Earth and had to make sense of the 1960′s? (Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land) What if human beings landed on a planet where the indigenous species possessed various psi powers and interbred with them, and stayed isolated from the rest of humanity for centuries? (Bradley’s Darkover series? That approach gave good writers room to explore the human mind and the nature of society. It was truly literature.

    Unfortunately, a lot of current SF is commercially oriented. The writer postulates a different world–usually an inaccurate copy of Europe during the Middle Ages–and fills it with stereotyped characters and magical quests. No one book can stand by itself: they’re intended as series from the conception. That leaves me cold too.

    Thanks for reading Ubik,/em> and spurring me to read it too. I would say the book not only comments on today’s surveillance state. It also prompts reflection on what it really means to be alive, and why we want to live on after death, even in memory. That may be part of the reason it’s on the list.

    December 7, 2013

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