Book of da Week: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Ubik by Philip K. Dick
Ubik.

Ubik is a 1969 novel from science-fiction genius Philip K. Dick, who we’ve written about before through Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the Man in the High Castle. His high concept sci-fi ideas have been a goldmine for Hollywood – the industry has adapted many of his works into blockbuster films, although Ubik (one of the writer’s most acclaimed works) has yet to enjoy such lofty treatment.

Time Magazine picked Ubik of the best novels of the last 100 years, with much literary interpretation being thumped into the inventive, often bizarre, plot – this features the usual Dickean concept of human perceptions of reality. Everything twists and turns at a frantic rate and, thusly, we have here what can be classed as a metaphysical comedy, with themes of death, salvation, time, reality, and paranoia. Hurray!

Ubik

Whilst Dick was a prolific writer who could conjure up remarkable ideas, his narrative structure and writing would often let him down. When he was on it, however, he’d deliver genuine gold, and Ubik is a fine example of this. It’s one of his best-known works and, certainly, if science-fiction is your thing then this is a must read.

Okay, the plot… here we go! Set in 1992 (which, you know, would have seemed a long way off when Dick was writing this in the late 1960s), humanity has colonised the Moon and far fetched concepts such as psychic powers are now commonplace. Our protagonist is Joe Chip, a technician for prudence organisation Runciter Associates, who is struggling financially – he is so poor he can’t fork out for fundamental bills (such as the mandatory charge to open his front door – the way things are going in England at the moment, we wouldn’t be surprised to see this in place soon).

Runciter Associates employs staff who can block the aforementioned psychic powers in order to stop mind reading antics and reinvigorate the forgotten concept of personal privacy. Company CEO Glen Runciter oversees everything, whilst his dead wife Ella is maintained in a half-life state which allows him to communicate with her, but when he’s blown to smithereens it seems the company will ground to a halt.

Except, despite the funeral which takes place, his staff continues to receive strange, ethereal messages from him. Then the fabric of reality itself begins to distort. On a mission to clear up what’s going on, Chip heads out into a bizarre landscape of transmundane experiences before time runs out.

Transmundane Themes

Okay, so there’s no real way to cover the synopsis in a few words. “A total mind f***” might work, we suppose, but then you can’t put that on the back of a novel. Dick was addicted to prescription drugs, was highly intelligent, and suffered from all manner of hallucinations and psychological difficulties, with these issues clearly influencing his work.

His main theme was the nature of reality, and Ubik delves deep into this and churns up warped ideas left right and centre. What is, reality, then? What is Ubik, even? In the 2006 introduction by Michael Marshall Smith, he includes this quote from Jean Baudrillard’s America which sums up what the novel seems to set out to comprehend:

"Everything is destined to reappear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, woman as the sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. You wonder whether the world itself isn't just there to serve as advertising copy in some other world."

Smith goes on to highlight Dick introduces so many ideas, other authors would have saved a mere few of them for the basis of an entire novel. Rolling out the big guns towards the end, in other words. For Dick, a creative powerhouse, there was no need. He was certainly a creative genius and, for Ubik, he combined all of his skills to create a memorable novel. We don’t think it’s quite the masterpiece some in literary circles have made out, but it’s still a biazrre, invigorating, and enjoyable book many of you would no doubt enjoy.

Failed Film Adaptations

The idea of a novel which is impossible to turn into a film has been covered in multiple films, such as Adaptation (featuring an amazing double performance from Nic Cage – the boy is brilliant when he puts his mind to it), A Cock and Bull Story, and Barton Fink. Clearly, it’s an issue which haunts Hollywood scriptwriters and, to be fair, we can see it being one heck of a challenge.

Thusly, since the 1970s many directors have been brave enough to try and adapt the script. Every attempt has failed. Most recently, in 2011, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michael Gondry had a go, but was disappointed by the script. The project has since been abandoned, to his disappointment. From our perspective, for such a mental piece of work, surely none other than Terry Gilliam is the man for the job? We’ll drop him a Tweet about it!

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