Philip K Dick: Ubik
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2000 (1969)
My worry with Ubik was that, as with the metaphor of the onion from Peer Gynt, I would peel away its several layers to find either that there was nothing in the centre or, worse, that I’d discarded its essence along the way. Even after waiting some while, years in fact, after first reading it — to let its ideas marinate, as it were — I find I’m only a little closer to even a vague understanding of its subject matter.
The confusion partly arises from the way Dick places his characters in a complex plot governed by wandering timelines, resulting in altered realities and alternate pasts and futures. His characters are malleable too, so that while nondescript novels might offer us easily identifiable heroes and villains, Ubik‘s characters can present themselves as morally ambiguous.
One way to approach Dick’s conundrum is to consider his appropriation of Elizabethan texts, particularly Shakespeare, in novels such as Flow My Tears the Policeman Said and Time Out of Joint. Here the title Ubik hints at Hamlet referring to the ubiquity of the Ghost, his father: “Hic et ubique? ” he laughs, ‘here and everywhere’? Hamlet might well prove a possible entry to Dick’s textual labyrinth, but I glimpse other portals too.
The story begins in 1992. When Ubik was first published in 1969 the Apollo missions were landing humans on the Moon and it was fully anticipated that space exploration would continue apace, so that setting a key scene on a lunar station twenty-plus years in the future would have seemed nothing unusual. Dick’s attempts (as is common in his writings) at future technobabble now appears just odd, sometimes laughable — protophason amplifier, postcreds, artiforg, teeps, precogs, anti-psi, cold-pack — but, as with the ridiculous costumes his characters wear and the extreme commercialisation existing in this future it’s hard not to assume he’s having a laugh, quite probably at our expense. (The tattoo on rogue anti-psi Pat Conley’s arm — ‘Buyer beware’ in Latin — is a reminder not only of this future commercialisation but also the danger Pat represents, plus the fact that we readers must be wary of what is actual and what is not in this novel.)
It’s evident that various US departments had in the 1950s and 60s run programs investigating paranormal activity so that the idea of two rival corporations vying for ascendancy in a world where paranormalcy exists was a reasonable premise for the author’s purposes; as also were theories regarding cryonics, a proposed solution for keeping humans close to death in suspended animation at low temperatures. Glen Runciter is the head of a so-called prudence organisation, dedicated to countering ‘psionic’ infiltrators within corporations: Runciter’s ‘anti-psis’ (themselves with talents in detecting telepaths and those with precognition) work as ‘inertials’ to nullify resurrectors, parakineticists, animators and other psis. A team of a dozen are called to do just that in a lunar establishment owned by billionaire Stanton Mick, to root out the teeps and precogs planted there by the Ray Hollis psi organisation. But it all goes disastrously wrong, literally blowing up in their faces.
From this point on the comedic SF element of PKD’s future narrative becomes more a mix of crime, mystery, horror and philosophy — all with a generous side helping of fantasy. (There may not be fairies or spell-casting magicians per se but there is magic in this speculative fiction in all but name.)
The familiar Chinese conundrum of whether a man dreaming he’s a butterfly is actually a butterfly dreaming he’s a man takes centre stage. Certain individuals are in ‘cold-pack’, a frozen cryonic state, living a half-life in a Swiss moratorium, their thoughts communicated in a manner that allows living relatives to conduct conversations with them and experiencing the external world as a waking dream. But what at first seems apparent becomes debatable: who survives a bomb blast on the moon and who doesn’t? Why do some individuals become dessicated husks? Why is time regressing incrementally from 1992 to 1939? How does Glen Runciter leave messages for survivors when he is dead? And what exactly is the nature of the panacea called Ubik?
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the Prince returns to Denmark to find the old order changed, with his father dead, his mother married to his uncle, and former associates suspect. His father appears to him as a ghost, unseen by anybody else, with a message that he was murdered by his brother; Hamlet then spends the rest of the play trying to confirm his own suspicions, with support from Horatio and some strolling players. Unfortunately the body count starts to rise, with at least nine dying (and one, Yorick, already dead) by the time the curtain falls. Is Ubik the equivalent of the final Act’s poisoned chalice? So it is with Ubik: we observe Runciter’s designated successor, Joe Chip and his colleague Al Hammond receiving cryptic messages from the deceased head of Runciter Associates, but they’re dismayed by the steady decimation of the team. And then Joe, through whose eyes we observe the action, starts to sense the onset of entropy. And it’s all complicated by someone acting a part that’s not in the script.
In Chapter 8 Joe discerns “no underlying pattern, no meaning” in what he’s observing, and nor do we — until near the end when we start to have an inkling (if that’s not too strong an assessment). In Chapter 10 hints are given by Runciter in a TV ad:
Ubik banishes compulsive obsessive fears [of] as-yet-unglimpsed manifestations of decay. You see, world deterioration of this regressive type is a normal experience of many half-lifers, especially in the early stages when ties to the real reality are still very strong.
Here is a suggestion that the survivors’ existence is not clear-cut, causing Joe to feel “all at once like an ineffectual moth, fluttering at the windowpane of reality, dimly seeing it from outside.”
It’s almost impossible to give spoilers for Ubik as nothing I reveal may be as PKD intended, and his sense of humour may even mean that what you think is certain isn’t at all so. But I fancy I see another prototype for the author’s parable of life, half-life and death.
The hopes that advocates of cryonics expressed was that those so treated might, with future technological and scientific developments, be virtually ‘resurrected’ as some future period. We now know that such a hope is ill-founded, yet resurrection is still fervently believed to have happened at least once. In similar fashion Joe Chip’s initials suggest he is a kind of Christ-like figure: a team of twelve go to Luna, one of whom betrays the rest, as Judas did; Joe is also pedantic where words are concerned, an echo of the divine Logos; in Stanton Mick, with his long hair and ability to float to the ceiling, I sense St Michael, the warrior entity involved in Revelation’s war in heaven; and in Ella Runciter, persisting in a half-life at the Swiss Beloved Brethren Moratorium and who bookends the novel, do I not detect a reference to the elohim, singular eloah, Hebrew for divinity?
I finally want to mention a character who appears at the beginning of the novel, mentioned in an almost offhand way. His name is Jory Miller, a deceased teenager whose thoughts and personality interrupt Glen Runciter’s conversation with Ella, also deceased, via a protophason amplifier. His is a strong personality, as indicated by his surname, referring to the process of grinding seeds of grain into flour to become the staff of life and therefore indicative of his nature. Alert readers will have filed away his casual insertion in the narrative and realised he has a significance beyond mere whimsy.
With PDK nothing is as it first seems, and this novel is no exception to his smoke and mirrors approach. His obsession with life-in-death might partly be related back to his twin sister Jane, born prematurely with her brother but, unlike him, surviving little more than a month. If Ubik is primarily inspired by anything it’s communing with the dead. Like Hamlet hearing from his father, Glen speaks to Ella, and Joe gets communications from Glen, all seemingly out of the aether: hic et ubique indeed, and perhaps how PDK hoped to connect with his sister. How fitting, then, that they are both buried together.
This clever, complex novel deserves more than this review offers — a series of essays perhaps, or a factual study (which I’m sure must exist) — but then it’s not much of an insight to say that almost any PDK novel is deserving of the same.
The parapsychological aspects of Ubik are so akin to magic (how else should one consider telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, necromancy?) that I have no hesitation in assigning it to Wyrd & Wonder‘s celebration of fantasy!