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Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Ubik (1969)

by Philip K. Dick

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This one was weird -- the kind of weird that makes me feel like it was a first draft that ended up different than what the author imagined at the start. For such a bonkers book it felt pretty uninspired.

Ubik is an almost Van Vogt-esque series of plot twists that don’t read like they were planned. The beginning of the novel is set up as a conflict between a group of telepaths and precogs used for corporate espionage, and a counter-corporation of “inertials”, who nullify the gifts of the former group. But every few chapters, the plot turns around, time travel is introduced, and a new series of concerns takes over the main stage. What starts as a futuristic telepath corporation on a lunar mission ends in an American hotel in 1939 where telepathy is entirely irrelevant, with a “plot twist” that really is an infodump out of left field. (The infodump is another reason I suspect this novel was largely unplanned.) There’s an aimless critique of sorts of capitalism that runs through the novel, but it all peters out into nothing of substance.

Ubik was written in the late sixties and I found it dated in many ways. For one thing, its future setting with colonisation of the solar system and organised psi power corporations is the year 1992. I tried, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief: in 2019 more years have passed since 1992 than there were years between 1992 and 1969, when this book was published (27 vs 23). Then there was the ostentatious drug-taking, and the madcap clothing choices -- I couldn’t take that seriously either. There are also many plot devices that have been done to death since the sixties, including the big twist at the end, where it turns out everything takes place in someone’s headspace.

In addition to being a very 1960s book, this was also a very American book, and a number of factors would have more of an impact on me if I were either from the US or had lived through the sixties. For instance: the USA have ceased to exist as a nation, having been absorbed by the North American Freedom Confederation; the fact that the former US is now called a Confederation; the Confederation’s currency is routinely accepted in Zürich, Switzerland; taking drugs -- both uppers and downers -- is an entirely normal part of daily life. Also, the time travellers can tell what year they are in by looking at car models and the kind of brands for sale in shops, and those sections were very nostalgic for certain kinds of americana. All that felt decidedly part of the unexciting American wallpaper to me, a 21stC European.

So yeah. This one was not really for me: I found it pretty lacklustre. The Van Vogt-esque plot was not entertaining, and many other things were either too dated or too American for me. ( )
  Petroglyph | Mar 6, 2019 |
An opportunity to witness Dick's imagination at its most interesting and possibly wildest, but he isn't willing to do the grunt work to make the story convincing. Too many questions unanswered, including apparent contradictions within the story left unexplained. It's as if he needed money and wrote it over a weekend. Compare to something like Hyperion, where Dan Simmons must have spent hours and hours plotting, outlining, and researching, or to Children of Time, where the author has obviously taken the time to learn his subject matter. This is not in the same league. ( )
  ShadowWraith | Nov 22, 2018 |

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

Over-the-top zany madness, Philip K. Dick’s 1969 acclaimed work of science fiction opens in the year 1992, by which time humanity has colonized the Moon aka Luna and individuals having various psychic powers are commonplace, so much so some companies hire men and women (called “telepaths” or “precogs”) based on their power to predict the future and other companies hire individuals (called inertials) who have the psychic clout to block the future-telling capacities of those telepaths and precogs. If this sounds wild, you are absolutely right – novel as sheer craziness, a book defying any straightforward synopsis. To share a glimpse into the world of Ubik, here's a round of zaps from this outlandish fictional zip gun:

Glen Runciter – Crusty, lovable head of Runciter Associates, a “prudence organization” which employs inertials to counter evildoing telepaths and precogs who go about snooping into other people’s stream-of-consciousness in order to predict the future. Glen is a man of integrity, forever attempting to uphold individual freedom and dignity, the kind of guy you would always want around even if he were murdered. Yes, that’s what I said – to better understand the dynamics of the novel’s unique cycle of life and death, please read on.

Ella Runciter – Glen’s deceased wife kept in a form of cryonic suspension, a state of "half-life” enabling the dearly departed a degree of awareness sufficient to communicate with their loved ones left behind and other half-lifers. Ella is kept at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium in Zurich since the Swiss have developed a superior method to effectively extend life beyond the grave. Considering the Swiss mastery in manufacturing timepieces, their superiority in cryonic technology makes perfect sense. Ah, leave it to the Swiss!

Joe Chip - Debt-ridden Runciter Assocation technician loyal to Glen, Ella, the Association, truth and justice. An All-American Joe, you might say and you gotta love the name Chip as in potato chip or chocolate chip. As it turns out, Joe takes center stage as main character when he is propelled into the role of an Indiana Jones-style American hero and leader in a unique time travel adventure that could only be concocted from the fertile psychedelic imagination of the incomparable PKD.

Joe Chip is the prototypical All-American Joe

Inertials – Don, Al, Wendy are among Glen Runciter’s top inertials chosen for a special mission to Luna. If they only knew the challenges they will be forced to confront once catastrophe hits - time warps enough to confuse, blur, muddle and cloud the most perceptive minds. What those inertials really need is leadership and guidance from none other than down-to-earth Joe Chip.

Pat Conley – An enigmatic, cagey dark beauty with the unique psychic ability to undo events by changing the past. Having such a unique ability, Glen Runciter decides to include Pat in the critically important mission to Luna. As events transpire, Pat might even be judged a femme fatale along the lines of Phyllis from James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity in the sense that she not only deals with death and dying, she loves death and dying in all its grim, deadly detail. Just the kind of gal you want along when your group starts dying off one at a time in mysterious ways.

Beyond Pay Toilets - The author’s futuristic society includes speaking doors, speaking refrigerators and speaking coffee machines that demand money to be used – one aspect of future technology we can only hope never becomes a reality. I wonder if PKD’s personal experience with the appearance of pay toilet back in 1960s America prompted him to include these obnoxious speaking objects requiring money to operate.

Boom! - From the moment of the explosion on Luna, the group begins to experience strange shifts in reality and time, including a number of chapters in their adventure covering the United States back in 1939. One of the more humorous parts has Joe Chip flying in one of those newly invented two-person single prop airplanes from New York to Des Moines, Iowa. Wow! Now that's a dedicated hero!

Gnostic Cosmology – The further and deeper Joe and the group progresses in their odyssey, the more they become aware that they are living in a universe where the forces of light battles the forces of darkness. But then the question arises: Who or what is the ultimate source of light on one hand and darkness on the other? Enough PKD unexpected twists to keep any fan of science fiction or speculate fiction going right up til the last page.

UBIK – “Perk up pouting household surfaces with new miracle Ubik, the easy-to-apply, extra-shiny, nonstick plastic coating. Entirely harmless if used as directed. Saves endless scrubbing, glides right out of the kitchen!” Oh, yes, short advertisements for Ubik like this one precede every chapter. And please keep in mind that any cosmology, even a dualistic cosmology, might be held together by a unifying underlying metaphysical principle. What is meant by this quizzical statement? You will have to read Ubik for yourself to find out – proceed with caution and take only as directed.

“Wake up to a hearty, lip-smacking bowlful of nutritious, nourishing Ubik toasted flakes, the adult cereal that’s more crunchy, more tasty, more ummmish. Ubik breakfast cereal, the whole-bowl taste treat!”
― Philip K. Dick, Ubik ( )
  Glenn_Russell | Nov 13, 2018 |
So many weird concepts in this one. Another gnostic-reality classic. I think my second favorite PKD novel of the ones IÛªve read after The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch ( )
  michaeladams1979 | Oct 11, 2018 |
To begin this review, I want to say that I'll be including a number of spoilers. It's a nearly 50-year-old book, and you should have read it by now (or before reading such a review). You have your warning.

To start, I will list off the negatives, because I love Philip K. Dick. A friend once shared an anecdote that Dick was always so desperate for money that he never wrote second drafts. Everything he got published was a first draft. I don't know how true that is, but it certainly reads like that. As Stephen King is the author who writes interesting stories with bad conclusions, Dick is the author who writes fantastic stories with awful everything. It's the ideas that count.

Okay, now to the positives. The contents of the book is intriguing. The premise is that there's a way to temporarily preserve consciousnesses after death. So the metaphysical is already the topic of the day. The characters openly introduce the Tibetan Book of the Dead and talk about a red light, rebirth and all that jazz. I don't know too much about buddhism other than the basics, but I'm not sure Dick knows that much, either. I believe that it was a very common phenomenon of that period (the late 1960s) to feign knowledge of the alternate philosophies, especially eastern or the like. This is somewhat mirrored in Joe Chip, the protagonist, and his disdain for modern technology and its greed.

I believe it's supposed to be played for laughs: the door that won't open on its own, the space-plane that requires payment after landing, Chip's rant about how homeostatic machines are keeping the man down, his troubles with money, all that stuff. But then there's the more intriguing aspects of time regression once they revert into what may or not be half-life (as its termed in the book, the post-death experience of being on ice). Chip still has his money problems, but he seems to get along much better in certain aspects when the world reverts to 1939. I believe that it's a bit of Dick complaining about his problems in real life.

Let's move on to the meat of the story and the part that the author wants forefront: the cosmological confrontation of Eastern, Western and Middle theology. I say middle because there's a strong hint of Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism in his approach. The whole deal with psychics/precogs/anti-whatever/Pat and her weird talent doesn't seem to last very long. After the first act is complete, all of those shenanigans are dropped except for a brief mention near the end, but it doesn't warrant much attention in my opinion. Psychic/supernatural phenomena seems to be mortal or mundane reflections of godliness or perhaps the over-bearing 1960s philosophy how technology would unite wordiness with God (or god), much like the proliferation and machine-dispensed drugs. See also the Lathe of Heaven for how much old Science Fiction writers liked drugs being common. We're still holding out for that to happen.

So we have Chip, Glen Runciter, Ella Runciter, Pat Connor and Jory as the four forces in the book. Chip is normal, so he's there to represent humanity, the author and you, the reader. It's pretty simple, and it's kinda obvious with him being the protagonist.

Glen Runciter is the lamb of God. He goes up to the moon with 11 disciples and is blown up by a bomb, seemingly a Judas. I didn't really pay too much attention to the various side characters because they were only briefly characterized at all. They do feature more sexual diversity than the actual apostles, however, so that's nice. Then he shows up obliquely for the vast majority of the story, as hints or 'manifestations.' In what felt like the most obvious part of the allegory, Glen is dead three days before he shows up again.

At the end he comes again and helps, but he doesn't have all the answers. Chip even corrects him on some things and informs him (and us) of developments, so we can see that this isn't the traditional Christian morality tale.

Ella Runciter is the father of the trio. She only shows up at the beginning (maybe at the conception) and towards the end with a solution to the antagonist, Ubik. According to wikipedia and Dick's ex-wife, Ubik is the old testament God. That makes sense in some ways because Ella is human, dead and moving onto a new reincarnation (no longer in the realm of Christianity, or so it seems). And it does make sense that Ubik acts in mysterious ways, often hung out as the solution, and Chip only achieves his connection with it towards the end.

However, going against that is that Ella reveals towards the end that it was invented by her and other residents of half-life. To me, it sounds a lot like heaven or enlightenment, an instrument of Buddha/God.

Then let's get on to Pat and Jory. Now, because I'm much more aware of Christian and Jewish dogma, my knowledge fails me. These two characters are the antagonists, and they both seem to somewhat occupy the space of the devil. Pat is a temptress (a big fault of Dick is always having a woman of the same characteristics being a part of or the enemy), and she (not very subtly) has a tattoo of "caveat emptor." I believe she is the aspect of the devil that buys souls and such, being financially endowed and all-powerful in her somewhat mysterious way.

However, the real antagonist of the book turns out to be Jory. He's a much more corporeal and understandable evil. He is stuck in half-life with everyone (beside Glen, kinda, more on that later), but he kills others to prolong his life. Ella says that, even if Jory himself were to be killed, there are a million like him. So that gives the idea that he's a human who has become all-consuming. So humans are the real evil, I guess? Or he could be the evil god of Zoroastrianism. I have no idea. His motives are definitely way more relatable than Pat, who seems to be a mystery the whole time.

As far as characters and their meaning, I have no idea going on with them. I think Dick didn't really know what was going on either. I remember a quote somewhere from some author about how if they had all the answers, they wouldn't be writing books. I like that because I don't have any idea in my own books either.

So, as an addendum, I want to talk briefly about the levels of existence. There is the real world and half-life. I believe the real world to be heaven or the afterlife and the half-life to be the real world. It's where the action of the book predominantly happens, for starters. Glen exists on the outside, too, has limited ways of interacting with half-life, and there is one other important character there, the owner of the moratorium. He seems to be like a Charon or something. Or maybe it's another Zoroastrianism thing.

The big twist comes in the last chapter, about a page long. Glen, on the outside, starts to receive the same hallucinations that Chip had as an indication of him being in half-life. I don't know, and I'm not going to worry about it too much. Off the top of my head, I could cite a few things: a reversal indicating that the real world actually is that, an indication that no one (not even Jesus) is immune to the pressures of the world, the coming of the end of the world, that the layman is salvation, etc. Whatever!

As with many of Dick's works, don't go in expecting to find answers because no single explanation will give you the answers you want. But it'll get you thinking, and that's why I read them. ( )
  Ben.Horowitz | Sep 5, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (24 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dick, Philip K.Authorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Adams, MarcCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bishop, MichaelIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Daniels, LukeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dorémieux, AlainTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Espín, ManuelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Frick, JohanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heald, AnthonyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jones, PeterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Langowski, JürgenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Laux, RenateTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lem, StanislawAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martin, AlexanderTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moisan, ChristopherCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moore, ChrisCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pagetti, CarloTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Podaný, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rauch, PeterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Robertson, IanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, Michael MarshallIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Ich sih die liehte heide
in gruener varwe stan
dar suln wir alle gehen
die sumerzeit enpahen.

I see the sunstruck forest
In green it stands complete. 
There soon we are all going, 
The summertime to meet.
For Tony Boucher
First words
At three-thirty A.M. on the night of June 5, 1992, the top telepath in the Sol System fell off the map in the offices of Runciter Associates in New York City.
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Disambiguation notice
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Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679736646, Paperback)

Nobody but Philip K. Dick could so successfully combine SF comedy with the unease of reality gone wrong, shifting underfoot like quicksand. Besides grisly ideas like funeral parlors where you swap gossip for the advice of the frozen dead, Ubik (1969) offers such deadpan farce as a moneyless character's attack on the robot apartment door that demands a five-cent toll:

"I'll sue you," the door said as the first screw fell out.

Joe Chip said, "I've never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it."

Chip works for Glen Runciter's anti-psi security agency, which hires out its talents to block telepathic snooping and paranormal dirty tricks. When its special team tackles a big job on the Moon, something goes terribly wrong. Runciter is killed, it seems--but messages from him now appear on toilet walls, traffic tickets, or product labels. Meanwhile, fragments of reality are timeslipping into past versions: Joe Chip's beloved stereo system reverts to a hand-cranked 78 player with bamboo needles. Why does Runciter's face appear on U.S. coins? Why the repeated ads for a hard-to-find universal panacea called Ubik ("safe when taken as directed")?

The true, chilling state of affairs slowly becomes clear, though the villain isn't who Joe Chip thinks. And this is Dick country, where final truths are never quite final and--with the help of Ubik--the reality/illusion balance can still be tilted the other way. --David Langford, Amazon.co.uk

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:36 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A dead man sends haunting warnings back from the grave, and Joe Chip must solve these mysteries to determine his own real or surreal existence

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