My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Philip K. Dick was one of the most imaginative writers and skilled storytellers of the 20th century. There’s a reason that so many of his stories and novels have been made into movies (e.g. Minority Report, Total Recall, Scanner Darkly, and–most famously–Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [which was adapted into a less quirky and darker film called Blade Runner.])Dick’s works lend themselves to the screen because they lay out novel plots in engaging stories.
Ubik isn’t among the Dick works that have been made into movies, but it’s not for lack of trying. Dick wrote his own screenplay for a film adaptation of the novel, but the project fell through. Over the years, a few directors have talked of Ubik: the Movie, so don’t be surprised if you see it someday.
Ubik deals with the afterlife. It’s set in 1992 (Dick’s future–our past.) (You can’t blame a man who lived from 1928 to 1982 for over anticipating the futuristicness of the 90’s. In the year of his birth Amelia Earhart was making the first solo transatlantic flight by a woman–only a year after Lindbergh became the first ever to do it. The year Ubik was published (1969) the Concorde was making its first supersonic transatlantic flight.)
In the world of Ubik, the moon is being developed for human use, and there are many people with psychic abilities. The protagonist, Glen Runciter, runs a business offering services blocking psychic activity to prevent industrial espionage. He is working for a company that’s building a moon base.
Runciter’s wife is deceased; however, he often consults with her as the dividing line between life and death isn’t so clear in Runciter’s world as our own. There exists a state of “half-life” between life and being fully dead.
The inciting incident is a nefarious explosion on the moon base of which Runciter and his team are victims. At first it appears that Runciter is dead and that his team is alive and trying to rush him back to Earth to get him into a state of half-life (just like his wife.)However, as the novel goes on it becomes less clear who is alive and who is dead. All that is clear is that Runciter exists in a different world from his team members. As the story proceeds there are clues–most notably coins with faces on them that aren’t dead Presidents. Joe Chip (a team member) sees coins with Runciter’s face on them, and later Runciter sees coins with Chip’s face on them.
Ubik is a product that Chip and the others begin to see advertised in their world–which they have come to believe is the afterlife. (Some versions of the book have a spray can on the cover that represents this mysterious product that comes in many forms.) They begin to believe that Ubik is their only hope. There has been a great deal of discussion about the symbolism of Ubik. Its name comes from the word for “everywhere”– as in “ubiquitous”– but what (or who)it’s supposed to be is never clearly revealed. Some have said that Ubik is meant to be God. If so, Dick made an interesting statement because the product is always marketed like some cheesy consumer good.
One test for whether you’ll like this book is whether you enjoy ambiguity in endings. Some readers really enjoy the thought-provocation of an ambiguous ending and the process of thinking out their own conclusions. (I am among this type of reader.) However, there are other readers who feel ripped off if the writer doesn’t tie all the answers up with a neat little ribbon at the end of the book. If you are this type of reader, you will likely hate this book. In other words, if you felt good leaving the theater when you saw Inception you’ll like this book, but if you left shaking your head and saying, “WTF, Chris Nolan?” then don’t bother.