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.
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.
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.
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.