"'I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be. ‘“
In “Ubik” by Philip K. Dick
This would feel like a meaningless read indeed if it wasn't, in fact, a very FUNNY one, full of a dry humor. In Ubik the characters are taken in such a subjective maze of crumbling reality, unexpected time-travelling and personal doubts, that it becomes a materialization of the absurdity of the human condition, in the form of an exhilarating fiction. If you are not into the humor of Kafka and Borges, it makes perfectly sense that you are not sensible to Dick's one. What makes Ubik a wonderful read still today? Dick didn't nail everything too tightly to the plot. The result may seem a potpourri but his worlds live and breathe. If he were writing now this book would make him a rebel and, given what he was like, would give most editors / publishers gray-hairs. It also begs the question (of others in the genre): Can you really do that?
I think the current fascination with Dick seems tied to the fact that most of his most popular books have dystopian or control themes. The other worldliness, or just around the corner-ness, of his stories, make it seem fictional, therefore enjoyable, yet also real and possible. I had been seeing a resurgence in sales of his books a couple of decades ago. This is just a speculative thought, but I wonder: If we had really been reading him for a spooky window into the future, then that means that the "seeds of the future dystopia" already started back then. Nixon had been around in Dick's time, but Reagan and the Republican nasties was their second coming. AI was only just poking its nose into things. 2000 was around the corner. Was Dick one of our clues to the future?
What nobody ever mentions when they write so earnestly about Philip K Dick is just how funny a lot of his stories and books are. None of his jokes have made it too small or big screen because they rely on wordplay. So how can one square that with the assertion he was a crap artist unless you have never read his books?
One of the joys of his stuff, and Ubik in particular, is that despite lots of functional detail, there's usually very little decorative embellishment in Dick's writing. Reading it first lets you paint your own pictures which are sometimes, but not always, much richer (and weirder) than what ends up on screen, and I’m just re-reading Phil Dick for the umpteenth time...
Phil Dick is like in a Goldilocks position for tapping into the creative world of the subconscious. He is not so straightforward and representative that you feel like a detail of his prediction being wrong or outdated invalidates the work (Asimov), but he is not so deep into the world of the subconscious that the makes no narrative sense and creates works that cannot be interpreted by many (Burroughs). Interestingly Asimov is more inspirational to people involved with "innovation" in organizations while Burroughs is more inspirational to musicians. Dick also taps into Gnostic Christianity which makes him a distinctive voice like William Blake who worked with similar themes. A lot of people are still Christian so they find something to latch onto him as opposed to the cold technocratic atheism or nihilism of some other fiction.
I’ve read this novel at least 10 times; questions left unresolved:
1 - Ubik- what is it?
According to the body of the novel it's a substance that reverses the disintegration, or reversion to earlier forms, of matter, and a prophylactic against energy vampires like Jory. But according to the comic advertisements at the beginning of every chapter, it's a universal panacea, a solution to pretty much every problem. What are we to make of those ubiquitous adverts? Are they in the 'real world' or in half-life? In our world the solution to almost every problem is digital. Maybe in Runciter's world, the solution to every problem is Ubik, and he just applies it, or uses the name, for a new purpose.
2 - Runciter's body
If Runciter is alive, (and I think we have to assume he is, and all the others are in half-life- that's left pretty unambiguous) what is his corpse doing in a moratorium in the half-life world? His corpse behaves in the same way as the other corpses of the half-lifers, but Runciter's situation is totally different. Is his corpse just a construct created by Jory, like so much else? I think it must be.
3 - Pat Conley- what's her role in the 'betrayal'?
We know that she has a special talent- her ability to rewrite the recent past and thereby reshape the present- and she demonstrates them early on, before the ill-fated trip to Luna. We also know- this becomes clear from the conversation between Joe and Runciter near the end, that Pat is in half-life like the others, that her 'gifts' do not work there, though she thinks they do, and that although she believes that she is in control, actually she has no more power than the others and Jory is the one who is draining the half-lifers of their remaining life, one by one. But it's also clear that she betrayed them all, was involved in the ambush on Luna, and was herself a victim of the explosion. What did her betrayal consist of and did it involve her special talent? My view is as follows: however dangerous her talent was to Runciter et al, her powerful (and unique) anti-precog talent is more dangerous to Hollis and his spies. They therefore lured her, their greatest threat, to Luna with the others. Like so many double-agents, she was double-crossed by the more unscrupulous of her two employers. Let us pity her- she is more a victim than a betrayer.
4 - Joe Chip- what are we to make of the final chapter?
Well, I think the final chapter, short as it is, is a master stroke. It reaffirms the ubiquity and all-powerful nature of the enigmatic Ubik. It brings the novel back to its starting place- the Zurich moratorium. And, like the ending to Gillam's film "Brazil", it introduces a moment of existential doubt, or ambiguity, just in case we thought we had a happy ending. My view is that Runciter here is still alive, he's become a regular visitor to the moratorium. Up to now artifacts from the "real" world have appeared in half-life world: Runciter money, the television commercials, the graffiti, and most importantly, Ubik. But the reverse communication is more limited: the only way half-lifers can affect the "real" world is by speaking through the moratorium's telephone equipment. Up to now. When he sees the Joe Chip money, Runciter realises that this is the beginning of something new.
Look at Joe Chip's initials. J.C. The initials of Jesus Christ- in Christian tradition the first man to die, descend into Hell, do an important job there, and come back (albeit briefly) to the "real" world, having changed the status quo for the rest of us mortals. Michael Moorcock used the same initials for his "Eternal Champion". Is it too much to see Joe Chip as the first person who is able to break free from the prison of half-life and infiltrate the "real" world. Considering how hopeless he is with money, it's kind of satisfying that the first manifestation of his power is his infiltration of Runciter-world currency.
5 - Ambiguity- flaw or strength
I think all these ambiguities make the novel stronger. If it was a detective novel, they might be flaws. But uncertainty, paradox, and concepts that give you a headache if you think about them too hard, are crucial to Dick's world view. Actually, the plot of Ubik is, on the whole, despite some of the obscurantism on this thread, pretty clear. If Dick leaves a few loose ends untied, I see that as reflecting the essential “unknowability” at the heart of life, rather than any oversight on the part of the writer.
As a footnote, I have been puzzling over why objects regress at different rates, e.g., the bottle of Ubik inside the car, and can't quite figure out why that would be. I wondered if it had something to do with Einstein's theory of Relativity but can't quite work it out. I'm also wondering if Phil was using the idea that consciousness of a dying person recedes in a nonlinear manner and so the time regression acts similarly. If you think of a person with dementia as well where the access to memory and the capacity make new memories fluctuates over time. There may be a further corollary in terms of how such a person is perceptually on occasion going back in time with kinds of distressing thoughts for example of for example of an 85 year old wanting to leave a nursing home in order to not be late home for the meal that her mother has prepared. Objectively unreal to all around her, this event has all the emotional impact of its veracity and immediacy to her.
Phil Dick had some interesting ideas about time and the evolution of man. He appears to believe that human beings will ultimately reach an enlightened stage where time becomes irrelevant and we gain awareness of all past lives, a bit like Buddha. Don't ask me how that is all supposed to work, but Pat, indeed, all the paranormal people in Ubik, may be intended to represent a stepping stone in that process.
I can't help coming to the conclusion that Phil Dick's beliefs might not be necessarily understandable, based as they on a rehash of fragments from religious texts and the ideas of many philosophers and psychologists throughout history. The resulting mix emanating from Phil Dick's far from ordinary mind is very complex and contains some elements that seem to be mutually incompatible. I think that probably goes a long way to explaining why his novels are so difficult to unravel in terms of plot and symbolism.
Bottom-line 1: For me, Ubik works as a theophany, an expression of the will and power of an omnipresent sentient being from outside our reality, and also a way of merging man with god, creating a saviour figure in the form of Joe Chip/JC. For me, the biggest question in Ubik is possibly, who is Dr Sonderbar, the founder? Ella and Jory may be the end of the chain of entities, representing as they do the forces of good and evil, rational and irrational. Then again, maybe not. For Phil Dick, reality seems to be like the layers of an onion. There are a lot of eye watering bits to peel away before you get to the middle, if you ever do.
Bottom-line 2: The writing is somewhat pedestrian, the characters are not fully developed and it is blatantly sexist. However, I don't agree that the novel should be dismissed purely on those grounds, even though in the vast majority of cases any one of those would be considered a terminal flaw. I've always thought that the envelope of human understanding is not expanded by those of us with average minds, sitting safely tucked in the middle. On the contrary, it's the people struggling on the boundaries of genetic diversity that enable change. They can connect the dots of existing knowledge in new patterns, and sometimes they make sense and sometimes they don't, but it is a skill the vast majority of people do not possess. The more I read of Phil Dick's work, the more I realise he had one of those rare, extraordinary minds. As my Granny used to say, don't throw the baby out with the bath water.
NB: And where's the film of Ubik??? Of all the Phil Dick books that have been adapted I'm surprised no one has had a go at making Ubik in to a film or mini-series as I think it would be great even though the plot is complex. He was a master of world-building and fantastic technological concepts, which is why his stories translate so well to Hollywood. They can hack and slash the characters and plot as much as they like, and it doesn't matter. The worlds and MacGuffins endure and give the breathtaking element.