Book Log: Ubik shows Dick at his best and worst

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

My first brush with Philip K. Dick was while plunging into alternative history Wikipedia and discovering the premise of The Man in the High Castle — a novel depicting the world if the Axis won World War II. The book follows a string of characters from different background, each illustrating the differences in this alternate timeline. Man in the High Castle’s pacing moved very quickly, jumping from character to character, while putting forth thought-provoking ideas about identity. It proved Dick’s imagination and musings could support an entire novel. It also showed his desire to innovate on writing through unreliable narration. Late into Man in the High Castle, a point-of-view character is drugged and their narration becomes increasingly incomprehensible as the drugs take hold. The gibberish goes on for roughly a paragraph before Dick clues the reader into what’s going on. It was a neat gimmick that showed Dick was just as willing to experiment with the medium of writing itself, as well as the themes and concepts traditionally covered in fiction released between 1950 and 1980. It was enough to convince me to pursue his other works — it also helps his name is ubiquitous with modern day science fiction, as the man who inspired Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly.

I read Man in the High Castle in 2015 and have since also read A Scanner Darkly. Reading both novels showed illuminated the trajectory of Dick’s career. Fittingly, one book was released toward the beginning of his career and serenely synthesized highly conceptual ideas with great story-telling (Man in the High Castle), while the other was released toward the end of his career and fumbled with dull philosophical babbling. (A Scanner Darkly).  I went into Ubik knowing it was listed as one of the Top 100 American Novels, so likely more approachable and tightly written than Dick’s more experimental works. Other than that information, I wanted to enjoy the experience of discovering where the story would go.

grayscale pkd photo
PKD has earned his place as one of the hallmark names in science fiction.

How was it?

Ubik was written in 1966 and published in 1969 — which in the grand scheme of Dick’s life sits right in the middle of his career. At this point, he was already a heavy user of psychedelic drugs which exacerbated the themes of identity and paranoia that persist throughout all of his writing. The influence of psychedelics is clear in the first couple pages of Ubik.

The story begins with Glenn Runciter — the CEO of Runciter Associates. The company hires telepaths to ensure privacy for its clients since the modern world has run amok with precogs who can read minds and influence individuals’ decision-making. Runciter’s company experiences a crisis and decides to seek out the advice of his wife — Ella Runciter — who passed away a number of years ago and now exists in “half-life,” where her body is cryogenically frozen but her consciousness can be contacted and communicated with for short periods of time. Dick’s books have a tendency to dive right into high concept ideas, and Ubik is no different. The first page drops six or seven terms that are undefined and unknowable without a healthy background in other science fiction stories (for example: a “precog” is easy to understand for anyone who saw Minority Report, but indecipherable to anyone else). Dick is never one to hold his reader’s hand, and I got the impression it’s because he wants to B-line to the surreal ideas in his head, rather than slowly immerse a reader in the world he’s crafted. For example, the second chapter of Ubik has Runciter attempting to discuss a corporation crisis with his cryogenically frozen wife, but she can’t help but get distracted by haunting existential dread:

“‘Aw, Christ,’ [Runciter] said, ‘everything’s going to pieces, the whole organization. That’s why I’m here; you wanted to be brought into major policy-planning decisions, and god knows we need that now, a new policy, or anyhow a revamping of our scout structure.’

‘I was dreaming,’ Ella said. ‘I saw a smoky red light, a horrible light. And yet I kept moving toward it. I couldn’t stop it.’

‘Yeah,’ Runciter said, nodding. ‘The Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, tells about that. You remember reading that; the doctors made you read it when you were —‘ He hesitated. ‘Dying,’ he said then.

‘The smoky red light is bad, isn’t it?’ Ella said.

‘Yeah, you want to avoid it.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Listen, Ella, we’ve got problems. You feel up to hearing about it?’”

Ubik, Philip K. Dick, pg. 12.

If this isn’t ridiculous enough on its own, Runciter’s conversation with his wife is eventually interrupted by another half-life child named Jory accidentally phasing into their conversation — sort of a metaphysical version of bad reception. I found myself laughing at the absurdity of this scene, but it isn’t clear if Dick wrote this passage with humorous intent. His writing maintains a weight to it, reminding unsuspecting readers Dick could deliver a gut punch at any moment. For example, shortly after Runciter’s failed connection with his wife, he meets a young femme fatale named Pat. Her long black hair, confident strut and vaguely manipulative conversational style invokes a memory of his. Dick then ends the encounter by hitting readers with this line:

“’I have a twenty-year-old wife in cold-pac,’ [Runciter] said to Joe and Pat. ‘A beautiful woman who when she talks to me gets pushed out of the way by some weird kid named Jory, and then I’m talking to him, not her. Ella frozen in half-life and dimming out — and that battered crone for my secretary that I have to look at all day long.’ He gazed at the girl Pat, with her black, strong hair and her sensual mouth; in him he felt unhappy cravings arise, cloudy and pointless wants that led nowhere, that returned to him empty, as in the completion of a geometrically perfect circle.”

Ubik, Philip K. Dick, pg. 48.

It is lines like this one that make Dick’s work worthwhile. When I read a book — or consume any art — my only desire is to feel affected by its contents. The early chapters of Ubik delivered on that criteria and propelled my interest in the story. I read the first 100 pages of this 220-page book within two days. Ubik doles out a stream of thoughtful ponderings, interesting characters and bizarre situations. It makes the first half of the book breeze by, but it soon departs from somber metaphysical dilemmas and becomes more of an adventure story following an everyman named Joe Chip. Chip is introduced early-on, and tags along a kind of telepathic A-Team for a mission, but something dramatic happens and we follow Chip as he navigates a world that seems to be moving backwards in time.

There’s technically a plot explanation for Chip’s journey through time, but it’s an excuse for Dick to articulate his thoughts on heaven and hell or the space that exists between those two points of finality. This section becomes quite dull simply because Chip isn’t that interesting of a character. Replacing the reader’s POV from Runciter to Chip may have made it easier to philosophize more generically, but without an anchor to the stakes in the story it reads like a collection of odd occurrences with no real point. There’s not a lot of novelty to a random dude experiencing strange circumstances for a hundred pages. It also doesn’t help that “flowing backwards in time” seems to miraculously come to a halt during the 1950s — an era Dick is intimately familiar with since he experienced it throughout adolescence. When time stops moving, the plot stops as well. Pruning Ubik of all the science fiction elements may make posing existential questions easier, but it also removes what made the novel interesting in the first place.

colored pkd collection
PKD’s other works are more renowned and enjoyable than Ubik.

Final Thoughts

In the context of the modern day, and with Dick’s full catalog available to us all, it’s hard to imagine why Ubik would be recommended over any other novel from his extended works. Later novels, such as Flow My Tears the Policeman Said or A Scanner Darkly, explore concepts about identity more than Ubik and they’re a bit more experimental with their execution too. At 66,000 words, Ubik is an inoffensive introduction to Dick’s style. It shows his strengths at combining complex ideas and implementing them with unique characters, but it also reveals his weakness in staying power. It’s as if he gets deeply involved with a new idea, pursues it quickly, but rather than advance it further he comes up with a new one to take its place — only to abandon that idea just as quickly. With this interpretive lens applied, it makes sense why Dick was known for writing many short stories and novels in quick succession and nearly all of them are relatively short. Before he’s finished one project he’s off to the next. With that criticism in mind, it’s impossible to deny the novelty of Dick’s imagination and ability to merge telepaths, existentialism and corporate greed into a compact novel, but Ubik is more of a sample of Dick’s potential than an example of his best work.


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