My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow! Ubik was a wild ride, even by Philip K. Dick’s standards. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is the book meets the high standards he creates for his works, and then some!
As the book begins, we meet Glen Runciter, head of the world’s top anti-psi agency (to combat all of the psi organizations that have arisen now that it is 1992 — heh!), located in New York City. He confers with his late wife, Ella, who is dead and buried in a Swiss moratorium, where she is in a suspended state of “half life,” through “cold-pac” — something like our cryogenics. The world’s top psi’s are disappearing, and Runciter wants his wife’s opinion on what to do. She thinks they should advertise more.
We then go off to met Joe Chip, Runciter’s top man, who is dirt poor and in debt. A Runciter scout has brought a young woman named Pat by to meet Joe. Pat has an unusual ability to nullify events before they even happen. Her psi tests are off the charts, and Joe marks on her report that she should be watched, that she could be dangerous.
Runciter has a visitor from a businessman with a business on Luna (the moon?), in need of immediate anti-psi help. Runciter agrees to overlook some typical preliminaries, since it’s an emergency, and soon he’s leading Joe, Pat, and nine others to Luna to save this company. Where they’re sabotaged. A bomb goes off in the room in which they’re gathered and Runciter takes it the worst. He’s pretty much dead, and the team rushes to get him into cold-pac in the spaceship so he can be saved and consulted with his wife. Joe starts planning on how to get back at their enemies from that moment forward. And from that moment forward, things start unraveling. It gets really Dick-like as alternate realities are discovered and time moves backward. Joe starts receiving odd messages from Runciter while members of the team start dying off, decomposing quickly. Soon the surviving members find themselves back in 1939 in Des Moines IA — Joe has to get there by bi-plane. They’re there for Runciter’s funeral, but by now, Pat is under deep suspicion for being behind this, plotting with their enemies, and Joe’s really ticked. Soon the reader doesn’t know who is dead and who is alive!
I won’t give away the ending, but I’ll just let you know that it’s a typical Dick mind-f*** which is immensely satisfying while still being a bit confusing. It’s a lot to swallow at once. Ubik rears its head at the beginning of each chapter in the form of an unusual ad for an unusual product, and Ubik plays a real role at the end of the book, but it’s a bit mysterious at that. Suffice it to say that it’s a miraculous spray can that is Joe’s only way to stay alive.
Dick’s eye for minutia is especially good in this novel as he highlights magazines from 1939 (real ones), early cars, etc. And this book is a fast paced thriller too. I read it in less than a day. I couldn’t put it down. No wonder Time magazine chose it for inclusion as one of their “100 best English-language novels!” No argument there. I don’t know if this is my favorite Philip K. Dick book, but if not, it’s close. It’s got the usual PKD themes like unreliable and alternate reality, time running backward, precognition (Minority Report, anyone?), telepathy, paranoia, hallucinations, and even spirituality. It’s got a fantastic ending. It’s a great introduction to Dick, if you’re unfamiliar with him, and if you’re a fan, it’s a must read. You won’t be able to put it down. Highly recommended.
About Scott C. Holstad
Scott Holstad is the poetry editor for Ray’s Road Review.