Ubik – Philip K Dick (1969)
Despite it being hailed by many as a work of genius, and certainly in the top ten of PK Dick novels, I have never been that fond of ‘Ubik’. It is not clear why that is. It shares a lot of ground thematically with ‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch‘, a superior and, to my mind, more considered novel. Superficially it should tick all the boxes.
In the beginning Glen Runciter is visiting his dead wife, since in the future, the dead have a limited half-life during which they can be contacted. Runciter consults his wife on business affairs.
On this occasion however, another voice intrudes, a young boy who calls himself Jory.
Then there is a trip to the moon for the employees of Glen Runciter’s anti-psi organisation, who have been hired by the Bill Gates of the day to deal with psi-infestation of their workforce. Runciter’s people have the power to negate ‘teeps’ and ‘precogs’ who are on the books of a rival organisation.
Their client, however, turns out not to be who he claims to be and is in fact a walking bomb which duly explodes, killing Runciter.
Subsequently, Joe Chip begins to find his world becoming odd. Cigarettes are immediately stale; fresh coffee is cold and household appliances begin to revert back to earlier models.
His surroundings decay and he seems to be receiving messages via TV commercials from Runciter, urging him to buy a product called Ubik.
Joe Chip and the other employees go in search of Runciter, or his body, since they are beginning to realise that it is they who are dead and that Runciter is contacting them via the Moratorium in the same way he contacts his wife.
They discover however that their numbers are dwindling, and that those who were separated from the group are turning up as mummified corpses.
In ‘Stigmata’ Dick showed us two Finite Subjective Realities, the world of Can-D and the world of Chew-Z which was controlled by Palmer Eldritch. Here, in the half-life world within which the Runciter employees exist, it is the boy Jory who is in control. He is, given the description of what he does, some kind of soul vampire who feeds on the half-life energy of other stored in the Moratorium.
However, Jory can be neutralised – if not defeated – by the use of Ubik which Joe eventually discovers via Runciter’s dead wife.
The similarities to ‘Stigmata’ are far outweighed by the differences but the underlying themes and messages are there. In ‘Ubik’ Joe Chip has to have faith in Ubik, the product, before he is able to use it.
The sociopathic controller of the realities, Jory, differs from Palmer Eldritch in that he has the mentality of a child and his motivation is to survive by feeding on the life energies of the half-dead. Eldritch’s motives – ostensibly financial ones – are less clear and seem to be more related to power and control for its own sake.
‘Ubik’, like most of Dick’s work is a flawed masterpiece. There is a surfeit of characters, many of whom are surplus to requirements and are not fleshed out enough to hold interest.
Pat Conley, the anti-precog is one of Dick’s fascinating female characters. She has a talent for neutralising precogs by being able to alter the past, and by extension the present and future. Her motives are unclear though and she appears to be a self-centred maverick not able to empathise with others.
The setting is The North American Confederation in 1992, but the background cultural details are somewhat vague. Dick does accurately foresee a future of unrestrained capitalism. Imagine America being run by the owner of Ryanair. Joe Chip has to pay a meter to get out of (and into) his own apartment. In the denouement, Dick again throws a curve ball by showing Runciter examining money with the face of Joe Chip on it. Joe had himself found money with Runciter’s head on it in the half-life world.