Few novels pull at the strings of reality so elegantly as Ubik.
It’s 1992 and the world is full of people with special abilities such as telepaths, precogs and others with powers. ‘Defending’ the ordinary person from these people are prudence organisations, run by people like Glen Runciter and Joe Chip.
The novel follows Joe Chip as he leads a band of psychics being killed by an unknown force as reality crumbles around them. One of the few constants in this world is the substance ‘Ubik’, which apparently does whatever you need it to.
The novel is one of the more divisive ones in Philip K. Dick’s bibliography, but many consider it one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written. It’s certainly one of the most mind-bending.
Philip K. Dick doesn’t do context
Another novelist would let the reader understand the world Ubik is set in gently. They would take time to introduce to world-build and give the reader exposition explaining how someone can speak to their dead ex-wife while they live in a half-life state. Other authors may try and help the reader understand how the world came to have so many people with telepathic and precognitive abilities in it.
Philip K. Dick just throws the reader right into the mix with little to nothing in the way of context. Similarly, as the world around the protagonists starts to regress and strange instances start piling up, the reader is given only the barest hints as to what might be happening. Like the characters in the novels, we are left struggling with a malleable and changing reality.
The Nature of Reality
Reality and our perception of it is a key theme of Philip K. Dick’s work. In Ubik reality is constantly changing and makes little sense moment to moment. Just when the characters think they are beginning to understand what is happening to them the rules change and they are left stranded in a reality that makes no sense to them.
Reading Ubik reminds the reader how little we understand our reality. We think it makes sense to us, but only because we accept reality as it is presented to us.
In Ubik it is unclear what is real at all. We’re not sure if the characters are experiencing a dream, a hallucination or something else entirely. The problem the the characters have is that they, like us, can only rely on their senses to tell them what’s real and what isn’t and their senses aren’t up to the task. Instead they need to rely on will and faith to help them perceive the world as it is.
The dark humour at the centre of Ubik
Philip K. Dick loved a dark joke. It’s one of the less appreciated aspects of his genius. This is on full display in Ubik.
Joe Chip, an apparent self-parody by Dick, is broke. He’s so broke he can’t afford to open his door. That’s not hyperbolic. In this future every appliance requires a small price before it works. Leading to Joe Chip being literally trapped in his own apartment because he can’t afford to open the door.
This overt humour is in contrast to the black humour that comes from watching people scrabble around for reason in a world that’s stopped making sense. Like in Waiting for Godot, the humour comes from the bleakness and absurdity of the character’s situation.
A Strange God
It’s impossible to talk about Ubik without discussing God. Ubik is a mysterious and ubiquitous substance that runs through the novel and is central to it. It’s also a fairly clear allegory for God.
What’s perhaps more interesting is how the world is impacted by Joe Chip’s faith. He slowly learns, throughout the novel, that faith has a very real power in his reality. Allowing him to change the world in small degrees. This makes the God in Ubik a very personal one, if still somewhat ineffable. Joe Chip also develops a more personal relationship with Ubik and, the more personal the relationship, the stronger his faith becomes.
Ubik is everywhere in this novel and its powers exert a degree control over their reality. This suggests that Dick is saying that, while our senses may lie to us, God can help us see through false realities.
Like most of Philip K. Dick’s work, Ubik is certainly challenging. But it’s ultimately a rewarding read if you’re willing to buy into the central conceit.