Saturday 18 March 2023

Ubik - Philip K. Dick (1969)


Rating: Admirable

Warning: this rather lazy review contains something close to a spoiler, but if you are already familiar with Dick's work, then read on with impunity...

I've been a Dickhead for a long time, a Dickhead among many, and as we Dickheads know Ubik is one of his more revered novels. Having read most of his significant novels, such as A Scanner Darkly (1977) and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974), strangely I have long overlooked Ubik. For a newbie reader of Dick, Ubik would stand as a fine introduction to his work, but as an experienced Dick lover the novel is diminished by familiarity, for me, at least. Set in the early 1990's, the novel concerns a society in which telepaths and pre-cogs have emerged and they are both a menace and a solution. Glen Runciter oversees a company that provides protection for companies or individuals who are being targeted invasively by those with psychic abilities, using his own array of telepaths and pre-cogs in his employ to counteract the abilities of their own type. Also the dead, if attended to promptly, are able to be held in cryogenic suspension (half-life) and can be communicated with for advice and comfort. Oh, and humanity has colonised the Moon. So far, so typical of Philip K. Dick. Also typical are the characters, such as the 'everyman', Joe Chip, down on his luck financially (people have to pay doors in order for them to open for them), yet he is integral to the narrative. The other characters are a mostly crew of eccentric and suspicious characters trying to make their way inside a Philip K. Dick novel, which, ultimately, is unfortunate for them.

P. K. Dick, thinking about getting there first

I did enjoy Ubik, however, as mentioned above, over-familiarity did curtail my appreciation of its prime Dickheadian moments. Dick developed his narrative shtick early on and a great deal of his career as a novelist explored the same theme, that characters believe that they inhabit one very solid reality, only to find that another reality can be found beneath that seemingly solid surface. They work it out, especially Dick's everyman characters (Chip, in this case...), who are at the heart of most of his novels, but then, right at the end, there's another twist and they are trapped in multiple layers of reality, not knowing what the real one actually is. This pretty much sums up Ubik. As an experienced reader of Dick I grokked the clues early on, then it was just a matter of seeing if I was right, and I was pretty close. The cliche about Dick is that his narratives seem a lot like the reality we live in today, which is fair enough. Humans in this era seem to really want reality to be Dick-like, never trusting information or intention, always looking for conspiracy or duplicity, the layers below so-called reality. I wish that he had lived to at least see the beginnings of the World Wide Web era. I wonder whether he would have been disappointed or inspired? Either way, as the Terry Gilliam quote says on the cover of my edition, "Remember: Philip K. Dick got there first."

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