Friday, December 17, 2021

"Ubik" by Philip K. Dick--Fiction Review

Time for some classic sci-fi Obscurists. Today we’re discussing “Ubik” by Philip K. Dick which is also a sneaky scary story too.

Philip K. Dick

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

“Ubik” is weird—weird even for a guy who came up with the story that would become “Blade Runner.” It’s also a sort of techno-nightmare, which is clearly what I like the most about it as a story.

Without spoiling too much, reality gets real weird real fast in this book, which causes a palpable atmosphere of unease. This drives the plot briskly because the characters are racing against time as the world around them is literally degrading.

I also like the old-timey sci-fi feel of this novel, an effect I’m certain wasn’t intended when it was written. Like most of its contemporaries, there are many fantastic futuristic technologies in its case in the form of; psychics, starships, a certain amount of mastery over death—but it fails to foresee the revolution in computers. There is something quaint about stories from this era because of this blindspot. Like how in “I, Robot,” we’ve somehow managed to master life-like androids but not the personal computer for some reason. Also—to be clear—stories from this era aren’t unaware of computers and their uses. It’s just that they undersell their ubiquity and how they would mesh into every corner of our lives.

What I don’t love about this book:

Overall, women don’t get an excellent portrayal in “Ubik,” they’re not all terrible or useless, nothing like that. But they are less characters than archetypes, which I’m not the first to point out about Dick’s portrayal of women in all of his writing. Once you see it, you really can’t unsee it in his stories.

There is also a whole lot of talk about how a lot of these people have godlike psychic powers or powers that counter those psychic powers, but it’s really much to do about nothing. I’m not convinced that the plot couldn’t have gone on fine by itself and just drop superpowers. They are used a few times for—I don’t know—effect or fun? But they don’t actually contribute a lot to the story because it isn’t about having awesome superpowers. It’s a story about death and what happens after.

The ending of “Ubik,” typically my favorite part of a story, doesn’t exactly work for me. I get the effect, adding one more layer of uncertainty, but it arrives with the same sort of thrill of Freddy or Jason—shone to still be alive at the end of the tale. Great, if a sequel is being planned, but there wasn’t, so it’s just a useless appendix that only raises concerns and questions with no resolution.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

“Ubik” hits the ground running with super sci-fi technology, and we’re introduced to several new innovations of this world. First up, companies employ telepaths and precogs (people who can see the future, and if that sounds like a Tom Cruise movie, that is because it is), and there are companies who specialize in countering those powers. Second, technology is so advanced that the recently deceased can be put into a kind of cold storage and granted a sort of mental half-life.

Anyways, our protagonist, Joe Chip, is a top technician at one of these companies that counter telepaths and so on and so forth, called Runciter Associates, which is run by Glen Runciter and Glen’s recently deceased wife, thanks to half-life. 

Runciter Associates employs special people of their own called “inertials” who have the power to counter telepaths and precogs. Joe Chip brings on a talented new hire, a woman with a powerful ability to alter the past—and thus change the future—right before Runciter Associates lands a big job on the moon. Glen Runciter himself decides to lead the mission to the moon alongside Joe, but it turns out to be a disastrous trap.

After an unexpected explosion on the moon, it looks like Glen is killed, but his team has been spared. Joe leads the group back to their ship, and they try to rush Glen’s body back to Earth so that they can get him into half-life as soon as possible before he degrades entirely. 

They don’t make it in time, and the team is despondent. Joe is especially torn up over the old man’s death and isn’t looking forward to telling his dead wife that they didn’t manage to get Glen into half-life before he was totally gone. Even food and cigarettes don’t taste right to Joe anymore, which turns out to be less about grief than he initially realizes.

Soon, individuals of the team start feeling old and then go off somewhere by themselves, where they are later found by their colleagues mostly disintegrated. To make things worse, the world around Joe and his team slowly changes, regressing back into earlier forms and times. Then they notice their old dead boss’s face on all their money, and Joe even gets two conflicting messages from the dead man. 

While confused with what’s going on, a mysterious product called “Ubik” keeps getting advertised to Joe in many ways and forms, but it’s never clear what “Ubik” does. The survivors gather in Glen Runciter’s hometown for his funeral as reality gets weirder and more primitive. Soon, more die, and they blame the new team member that Joe brought on, accusing her of using her powers on them to cause their deaths by rapidly growing old—Indiana Jones style. She doesn’t deny it and even seems to confirm it as Joe starts to disintegrate, but he manages to crawl back to his room, where he meets Glen Runciter.

Glen uses a spray can of “Ubik” on Joe which immediately fixes him and stops the disintegration process. Then, Glen explains to Joe that he didn’t die in the explosion. Joe and the whole team did and what they’re in is half-life. Glen is trying to help them, but time is limited since he’s outside in the world of the living.

It turns out that Joe and the other half-lifers are all being prayed upon. Their killer is a young man who is also in half-life. He’s a parasite that eats other half-lifers to prolong his own half-life. The new team member wasn’t actually to blame for the disintegration. Joe’s entire team is destroyed, but he himself is saved when he is given a lifetime supply of “Ubik,” which was developed by other half-lifers that had been around longer to protect themselves from the parasite. What “Ubik” is precisely, no one knows, maybe a god or perhaps the God.

Outside of half-life, Glen is still mourning the loss of his entire team when he notices something odd—Joe Chip’s face is on his money.


What I think baffled me the most about this book is—other than Dick’s love for the sci-fi world he built for his stories—there doesn’t seem to be any functional reason for the supernatural elements in this story. It’s a story about telepaths, precogs, and inertials who don’t actually do what they do for any plot-specific purpose.

The whole inciting incident, the conflict between Runciter Associates’ inertials and Ray Hollis and his telepaths, which ultimately kills all of the inertials, and is how they ended up in half-life, isn’t all that important to the story being told. Even when, in half-life, they suspect that the new girl is working for Hollis, and she’s the one using her powers to do whatever it is that’s happening to them—it turns out to be a red herring. She is just as dead as the rest of them.

What is the point of having a telepath in your story who doesn’t do telepath things? 

As much as I enjoyed the existential horror of this book and its “The Matrix” feel to it—a movie series I’m fairly confident is partly inspired by this tale—weirdly, it violates the dramatic principle of Chekov’s Gun. Or, in this case, I guess it would be more accurately described as Chekov’s telepath or precog. Introducing the extraneous detail of psychic powers to not have a plot affected by or even requires psychic powers is to have them just to have them.

Parting thoughts:

I think there is an interesting debate to be had here at the intersection of two different story crafting principles—that can be summed up by one question. When does world-building become fluff?

“Ubik” found that line—for me, at least.

Certainly, I’m a fan of world-building in sci-fi as much as fantasy. But when I think of all the great stories with big intricate fictional worlds, the best ones, in my opinion, make their most fantastical elements—core elements of their central characters, essential to the plot. For example, it would be awfully odd to read a Harry Potter story set after wizarding school where he struggles to get his real estate license. Not a magical real estate license mind you, a muggle one, I guess.

To play devil’s advocate, why not do a story set in a fantastical universe and not focus on the most significant fantastical element of that universe? “The Mandalorian” did it, and I love that show.

But if you scratch away at the surface of what I just said there, it doesn’t hold up. Sure, in “The Mandalorian,” we’re not focusing on the Jedi, the Sith, or the force—at first—but their collective dramatic weight still has a gravimetric pull on the space-western plot. They can’t be easily divorced and tell the same story, whereas in “Ubik,” I think you could excise the psychic powers and still tell the same story about death and half-life.


  1. Maybe the story is similar to the concept of a world within a world like in the movie "Inception" or "Source Code"

    1. Good point, "Ubik" does feel a lot like "Inception," especially when the dream world gets weirder and weirder. I think I have seen "Source Code" before but I just don't remember it very well.