Book Review – Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Ubik, written in 1966 and published in 1969, is widely regarded as one of PKD’s best novels. But if you were to read the first 70 pages or so, it would be hard to imagine why. More on this later. At the time of Ubik‘s composition, PKD was living with Nancy Hackett, who would soon become his fourth wife and bear him his second child, Isa. Thus his life was relatively stable, which is a surprise, as Ubik is nothing if not a train-ride (some might say train-wreck) through a realm of uncertainty and despair.
The start of Ubik is unpromising. In the year 1992 (a mere 26 years into PKD’s future), a man called Glen Runciter heads an organisation that employs telepaths, precogs (as in precognitive), inertials and other people with psionic powers. Okay. Runciter’s organisation is engaged in a struggle against a rival organisation for control of the psionics market. Right. Runciter’s young wife Ella is in ‘cold-pac’ (a form of cryogenics) in a facility in Switzerland. There’s another boy in cold-pac called Jory who is starting to invade the half-life world of Ella Runciter. But the main focus is on Joe Chip, one of Runciter’s employees who appears to be Dick’s attempt at self-parody.
Joe Chip is in fairly dire straits. His life is a mess (he’s indebted to his front door, among other things) despite the fact that he is in Glen Runciter’s employ. There is an amusing interlude in which Joe has to argue with his door over the need for it to open. This seems to prefigure the kind of humour that Douglas Adams would make famous in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Part of Joe’s job is to interview new talents, such as Patricia Conley, who apparently has a unique gift: she can alter the past. This would make her of great interest to Runciter. Pat is a typicial PKD ‘dark-haired girl’: a young and attractive, but emotionless and manipulative woman. This is pretty standard PKD fare. Pat decides to alter the past so that she and Joe are married, although it goes without saying that she does this to gain control over him.
I’m making this sound a bit more promising than it actually is. To illustrate my point, I want to give an example of how PKD describes G. G. Ashwood, a minor character: “Square and puffy, like an overweight brick, wearing his usual mohair poncho, apricot-colored felt hat, argyle ski socks and carpet slippers, he advanced toward Joe Chip.” (p 25) This is surely a crime, not just against fashion, but against correct grammar as well. The other characters are dressed in similarly ridiculous garb. PKD isn’t taking his novel seriously at this stage. There’s nothing in the first five chapters to suggest that Ubik is going to be anything other than another PKD potboiler. To this stage of the novel, it’s pretty much on a par with The Zap Gun, a completely undistinguished PKD romp. But then something happens. Before I go on with the plot, I want to discuss a couple of side issues.
PKD often spoke about the idea of the ‘God in the gutter’ or finding jewels (or insights) in the trash. This is an important idea. He recognised that his novels are trash, but that he fashions this ‘kipple’ (a neologism from another novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) into something worthwhile. You can actually see this process at work in Ubik. It’s almost as if PKD has piled up all this SF detritus deliberately, only to transmute it into something worthwhile. But it’s a mistake to think that Ubik is deliberately poor in its first third. One must keep in mind that PKD was churning out novels through the 60s in order to feed his family. Many of these novels are poorly written (Ubik included), and many are just poor. Ubik totters on the edge of a writerly abyss that would consume many other PKD novels. But then something happens: “Squeaking in his metal-insect voice, Stanton Mick floated to the ceiling of the room, his arms protruding distendedly and rigidly [...] His rotund, colorful body bobbed about, twisting in a slow, transversal rotation so that now his feet, rather than his head, extended in Runciter’s direction. [...]The bomb exploded.” (p 67)
The situation preceding this explosion is quite dull. Runciter decides to send a team to the Moon to do a job for Stanton Mick, a shady character who may in fact be Runciter’s competitor. Joe Chip is to lead this team. But the explosion, which is curiously reminiscent of a moment in the film Total Recall (which is based on one of PKD’s stories), signals the real beginning of the novel. To gain an insight into Ubik‘s composition, we will briefly turn to Emmanuel Carrere’s ‘biography’ of PKD: I Am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. Carrere’s book is a curious attempt at getting into the mind of PKD. Overall it seems somewhat less successful than Lawrence Sutin’s biography Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. One major (and I think warranted) criticism of Carrere’s book is that there are no footnotes, endnotes, bibliography…in short no references at all. Thus it is difficult to tell where ‘fact’ ends and Carrere’s opinions begin. But there are some areas in which Carrere’s book is superior to Sutin’s: namely with regard to the genesis of Ubik.
Carrere speaks of the ‘kipple’ that had invaded PKD’s own life, of the ‘termites’ that he got to write his novels for him. By this, Carrere means that PKD had learned to write novels on auto-pilot, completely devoid of soul. The beginning of Ubik was written by termites, then. But the termites did such a poor job that the novel threatened to collapse entirely: “The program wasn’t working. What point was there trying to pile up the words, one on top over another, only to have them come crashing to the floor, as his letters were doing now, with a hostile recalcitrance that terrified him. [...] And if he didn’t get them moving, his zombies would be stuck on Luna forever” (p 162). Apparently, PKD got up in the middle of the night to write the section after the explosion, and wrote in a trance-like state. I know from experience that writing in this kind of state can be very effective, but it’s not a state of mind that you can just simulate.
OK. So there was an explosion and now Runciter needs to be put into cold-pac like his wife. Unfortunately, Joe Chip and co start seeing some strange manifestations that seem to suggest that something is wrong. The air is cold, cigarettes crumble to dust, and phone numbers turn out to be obsolete. Even coins seem to be regressing to earlier kinds of currency. It would appear that some entropic force is working on Runciter’s employees. Concurrently, however, there is another movement: Runciter is trying to communicate with them, even though his body is lying in a half-life coffin. A minor character, Don Denny, explains this dual phenomenon: “I think these processes are going in opposite directions. One is a going-away, so to speak. A going-out-of-existence. That’s process one. The second process is a coming-into-existence.” (p 106) But what is coming and what is going? What on Earth is happening to Chip and co? There’s a scene in which another minor character, Al Hammond, sees an elevator regressing to a 1910 version. Joe Chip sees nothing except a 1990s style lift. This is important: things are regressing at different speeds for different people. One by one, the members of Chip’s team are shriveling up and dying.
There’s a wonderful scene in which Hammond and Chip go to a urinal and see a message from Runciter on the wall: “JUMP IN THE URINAL AND STAND ON YOUR HEAD. I’M THE ONE THAT’S ALIVE. YOU’RE ALL DEAD.” (p 120) This is a crucial message, as we begin to understand why the world is devolving: it seems that Runciter, instead of being the one who died, is actually the only one who survived the blast. It is thought that the ‘going-out-of-existence’ is the entropic process engendered by being in cold-pac, and the ‘coming-into-existence’ is Runciter’s attempts to help them. And Runciter’s tool in helping them is Ubik, which isn’t mentioned in the body of the story until page 127. But what is Ubik? Ubik is another way of spelling ubique, which means everywhere. Ubiquitous. But what, specifically, is Ubik supposed to be in the context of this story? It comes in a spray-can, and later in very different form, but Ubik appears to be a benevolent force of some kind. A ‘coming-into-existence.’
When Joe Chip sees his apartment reverting to one that might have been found in the 1930s, he raises an interesting point: “But why hadn’t the TV set reverted instead to formless metals and plastics? Those, after all, were its constituents; it had been constructed out of them, not out of an earlier radio. Perhaps this weirdly verified a discarded ancient philosophy, that of Plato’s ideal objects, the universals which, in each class, were real.” (p 132) This is where Ubik really warms to the task, so to speak. Time has reverted to 1939 or so. Joe Chip is trying to find a can of Ubik, but even that has regressed to an ‘Elixir of Ubique.’ This is a bad sign, as it would seem to suggest that the forces of entropy are winning. And Joe suspects that it is Pat Conley who is doing ‘this’ to him and the other employees. A word of warning. Nothing in Ubik is clear or easily understood. I suspect that PKD was as much trying to interpret his own strange visions than trying to weave an elaborate web of competing ideas. But it works. On this occasion, it works.
The situation basically boils down to Ubik and Runciter on one side, and entropy and Pat Conley on the other. Joe Chip is the helpless object of this tug-of-war. There’s a magical scene in which Chip tries to buy some Ubik from a drugstore that no longer exists. When he looks intensely at the site of the drugstore, it comes back into existence. This is mysterious and highly effective, but not very science-fictional. Then there’s a second explosion when Chip and co. confront Pat about her role in what is happening. Then we get to the masterpiece chapter: Chapter 14, in which Chip tries to get back to his apartment, harassed at every step by Pat. This is SF as only PKD could write it, and here he has triumphed over the kipple, over the termites that had been writing his novel. Now Ubik soars. Runciter comes to the rescue with a handy can of Ubik, saving Chip from certain death. And then there’s a twist or two in the tail.
For a long time, it had been suspected that Pat represented the forces of entropy that was causing the world to devolve. Now it transpires that it isn’t Pat who has been doing it after all. The antagonist is in fact young Jory, the half-dead boy who was taking over Ella Runciter’s half-life reality early in the novel. This makes sense. If Chip and co. are in half-life, then it follows that Jory should be the one influencing their world. And now it is revealed that the whole 1939 set is being animated by Jory himself. This is where Ubik starts to read like another PKD masterwork, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Jory is everything and he is everywhere. Worse, he is malignant and vengeful. But not omnipotent. Ella Runciter makes a late entry into the novel proper with another can of Ubik. Chip manages to ward off Jory’s attempts to finish him off. And then there’s one more twist, which isn’t explained. The final chapter shows Runciter, in his apparently ‘real’ world, discovering that he now has a pocket full of Joe Chip coins. The end.
What does it all mean? It seems significant that PKD himself did not think much of Ubik at the time of writing. He only began to see its value in later years, when others convinced him of its importance. One French critic claimed it was one of the best five novels ever written. Surely not, but I see what he meant (it’s possible as well that the French translator cleaned up the prose somewhat). Ubik is about two competing forces, one representing growth, and the other decay. In this sense, there’s a smattering of Taoism here, which PKD explored more fully in The Man in the High Castle. The actual manuscript presented as the novel Ubik itself seems to mirror this dual process. I’m sure we’ve all read novels that start well and fade out badly, but how many novels begin poorly and then heat up as dramatically as Ubik does? It’s a shame that PKD did not have time to work on the ms. of this book further, as it is crying out for some revision. PKD would get a second chance at Ubik, however, in the form of a screenplay. Ubik represents a fantastic achievement in the face of grueling adversity. It’s hard not to envy a writer who could produce such luminous work in such trying circumstances.