UBIK 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 Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow and
Nabokov.  But Dick’s star continues to rise – in fact, it is hard to think of another
writer, in any genre, whose reputation has enjoyed such an unexpected
turnaround during the last quarter century.

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 chapters.

And what should you make of these?

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

or

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.

or

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 directed.  

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.