I've been trying to finish Ubik for several weeks now and finally pushed through it in one massive reading this past Sunday. Do you ever do that? Just pencil in an entire afternoon to finish a book? I find I often have to do exactly that in order to stick to my one book at a time rule. It helped that Sunday afternoon here in the Research Triangle was hot but not exactly humid, so I could sit outside with a few pieces of watermelon and push through what I found to be a challenging read until the last fifty pages or so.
Ubik sits in the upper-pantheon of Philip K. Dick novels and if you check Goodreads you'll find that readers generally love it. One of my all time favorite books is Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the literary inspiration for the movie, Blade Runner, but to be honest, I'd never read much of his other work.
This summer, I decided to change that. I picked up a collection of Philip K. Dick short stories from the Pittsboro library and then I found Ubik on the staff recommendation shelves at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, when I was visiting there for work a few weeks ago. I finished the short story, Minority Report, in one sitting - and didn't care for it. It's speculative science fiction, which I tend to find boring because of its lack of emphasis on characters.
Ubik very nearly lost me too for that same reason. It's less of a story and more of an idea. My brother and husband love this kind of sci-fi, so I get that it has appeal, it just doesn't work for me. At least in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep we get the chickenhead, John R. Isodore, to provide some emotional and character-driven grip to the story. I mean, my god, when Isodore freaks out as the androids snip off the legs of a spider, how can you not feel for him and the poor animal? Androids also sets itself apart with its envisaged religion of empathy, something that's barely touched on in Blade Runner, but elevates the book to genius, in my opinion. (Post for another day: why it's worth both reading Androids and watching Blade Runner, as they're excellent complements to each other.)
Ubik might even be better classified as speculative sci-fi mystery. There's almost no characterization, almost every person sounds and acts the same, and virtually no one is given a back story. Mr. Chip is bad with money. That's about as complex as it gets.
It takes almost eighty pages for the story to even start, in the meantime we're treated to some pretty dry exposition on the status of this world: it's 1992, doors and coffeemakers have been commodified into coin-operated devices, some people have psychic powers, others have what amounts to anti-psychic powers, and those two groups essentially nullify each other.
In the beginning of the novel, we're introduced to the character Glen Runciter who runs an anti-psychic agency in partnership with his dead wife, whom he communicates with using cryogenic technology that extends the "half-life" of the deceased. Runciter is eventually killed as well, sending his anti-psychic employees into a tailspin that is accompanied by a strange time reversal along with perplexing messages from the ostensibly dead Runciter, manifesting as television commercials and bathroom graffiti.
Ubik spends almost a hundred pages just describing this time decay with details that are frankly dull: money goes out of date; elevators turn into the old-fashioned cage type; milk goes sour. It reminded me a lot of that TV movie, The Langoliers, based on the Stephen King novella of the same name. I just don't find it that interesting to watch flat characters ineffectually trying to understand why their world is progressing backwards. It's just a hypothetical question, like, "Hey man, what if time started going...backwards?" Yeah, that'd be something. But I'm story obsessed, not idea obsessed, and if you're the same way, you'll probably struggle with Ubik too (and Asimov for sure).
But I'll say this, Ubik's time reversal mystery turns out to be a major misdirection and the last fifty pages of the novel pick up a lot of speed. I have to give it to Dick for making me believe the story was one thing almost the entire time, and then it shifts it into a second idea, something that was plainly introduced at the beginning, but I didn't suspect until later. It at least made me feel something at last as it brought up some frightening ideas about life after death in the future. I've always read this, but it's true, Dick excels as a spiritual/metaphysical science fiction writer.
I guess it's hard to come up with these sorts of mind-blowers and develop characters at the same time, but I wish it were more common in science fiction. Like I said, I think Androids achieves that, but Ubik most certainly does not. Luckily, the twist at the end was just good enough to keep me from panning the book all-together. It's not 2001: A Space Odyssey twist good, but it's entertaining.
Is it worth pushing through? Eh, honestly, looking back now, it probably wasn't. Not for me. But if the idea of speculative mystery and metaphysical science fiction sounds good to you, if you like having your assumptions thrown back in your face when you read, then yes, Ubik is probably for you.
What was the significance of the Ubik, though? I feel like I was so annoyed by the flat storytelling I didn't give the product, Ubik, much thought. I guess there was a thread of commidification throughout the book, maybe it made sense to also have a banal commodity as a major plot element? But it just seemed sort of thrown out there. I don't know, maybe a commentary on some of the sillier deus ex machina elements in sci-fi contemporary with Dick?
What do you think? What was the meaning of the eponymous spray can featured on so many of the novel's covers?
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