BOOK REVIEW: Ubik by Philip K Dick (The Folio Society Edition)

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Philip K Dick is in my opinion and many others the master of science fiction. His works seems to drip off the tongue when one mentions said genre, such works as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Man in the High Castle, Time Out of Joint, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly – the list is endless. But his masterpiece, his finest work, in my opinion, is the little novel called Ubik.

Ubik in my view is Philip K Dick at his finest, he takes the reader on a reality twisting ride, whilst bending perspectives into an unrelenting tsunami of a story. The novel, as like most of Dick’s works asks some pretty big questions, questions about God and the afterlife, but where this differs from the rest, is that it has a witty humour and satirical, pessimistic tone throughout, sprinkled like seasoning for all to enjoy. This is Philip K Dick with the shackles off and everything is fair game!

Dick’s canon usually bounces between a few different genre tropes, which if you love Philip K Dick you will already be accustomed to. If you pick up one of his novels, you pick it up expecting one of three outcomes. You have the contemporary setting, reality as it were, but slightly displaced with such books as The Man in the High Castle and Time out of Joint. Then we have his hallucinogenic books such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and A Scanner Darkly (there are a load more believe me). Then finally, his masterpieces (not that all of his work aren’t masterpieces in their own rights) set in a future with mouth-watering and mind-blowing technological advancements such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Minority Report and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.

So, in theory (my theory) all of his works could and can be separated into each of these categories and for me Ubik sits pride of place with the latter, a future full of technology, precognition, scientific wonderment, telepathy and a future where we can escape the inescapable – it’s like he’s made a novel of his greatest hits, a mixed tape to end all mix tapes.

Ubik focuses on largely on Death. But Dick has changed it up, he’s written a tale where death can be overcome, a tale where death has lost its sting. In Ubik death can be delayed, but the freedom from its clutches can only be tasted for a brief period of time, before we succumb to what is after. Dick describes a world after death which is an odd half-life, where those who pass can be suspended, a hibernation as it were, and can only be engaged in conversation for a short amount of time, but with each engagement, each turning on, their ‘soul‘ degrades further towards the grave. So, strap yourselves in for one hell of a ride.

Illustration ©2019 La Boca from The Folio Society edition of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

We have to remind ourselves when reading Ubik that Dick is talking about the future (Ubik was published in 1969) and he paints a dark and satirical picture of the future in 1992. I’d say he’s about thirty years out of hitting the nail right on the head! From the pages we read, it is not too much of a stretch to look into our near future and see all of what is discussed, coming about. All of Dick’s details can be seen in the society we life in today. For example the pay on demand and subscription services we are all signing up for, commercialisation and our ever increasing I want it now culture – are all true. Are we not just following our protagonist Joe Chip into the den of inescapable capitalism, consumerism and debt?

Joe Chip, by the way is our flawed protagonist, our anti-hero of Ubik – and boy is he a relatable character. Dick revels Joe Chip to us in a delightfully subtle ways, we learn that he is suffocating with debt, disgusted with the establishment, and for all the world wants to break free from its talons that have pierced his flesh and wont let him go. But Joe can’t escape – because he’s broke, and to even open his fridge to quench the hunger and thirst in his body he needs to pay, everything is pay on demand now. Even if he wants to leave the house he’s got to pay. So, he’s trapped, trapped by the system, trapped by the normality of the day, trapped by his job – and his careless fiscal situation.

Dick’s writing is hilarious in Ubik – the humour in the pages is a delight to behold and I believe it is more visible in this work, than any of his others. At one point Joe Chip wants to get out of his apartment, but doesn’t have any change,  the door continues to demand he pay to open it. Joe goes to check his contract that he signed. Soon realising that it’s true, it’s not a payment as such, but a continual gratuity for the rest of his days. So, with his desperation to get out, and not having the funds to pay, he decides to take the door apart, screw by screw.

“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out.

Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”

The whole book is littered with these smart and witty observations and conversations (many of which are with the computer technology which is built into the fabric of the society Dick paints so well) which make Ubik like no other book Dick has written. I do feel that Joe Chip is one of his finest protagonists Dick has ever written and someone, that anyone who reads Ubik can instantly relate to and champion – for at the end of the day, are we not all just as flawed and trying to survive the greedy hands of capitalism and debt, are we all not just trying to survive?

‘One of these days,’ Joe said wrathfully, ‘people like me will rise up and overthrow you, and the end of tyranny by the homeostatic machine will have arrived. The day of human values and compassion and simple warmth will return, and when that happens someone like myself who has gone through an ordeal and who genuinely needs hot coffee to pick him up and keep him functioning when he has to function will get the hot coffee whether he happens to have a poscred readily available or not.’

Illustration ©2019 La Boca from The Folio Society edition of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

When I look at the state we and the world is in today, I can’t rubbish the idea of our everyday items being pay-per-use, can you? What with the state of fossil fuels, the destruction of nature, the consumerism we all show, the continual hiking of energy prices, the cost of food. Plus, our as mentioned subscription services, on demand television, the fricking cloud  – are we not already there in a way. What’s not to say that the things we own will end up owning us, end up just becoming the norm and we are sadly having to pay to flush our toilet and turn on our lights, riding the bus – we pretty much are paying for all of this now anyway (but a bill is a little easier to swallow than looking at it like a pay-to-use / subscription service). We could actually, quite literally be in the pages of Ubik.

Joe like many, answers to somebody. He works for the business tycoon Glen Runciter at a anti-psi security agency who specialise in an ‘anti-psionic’ service to stop telepathic and paranormal meddling (good old Philip K Dick moving us into the science fiction realm) – here I couldn’t help think of the precog’s in Minority Report. The story turns up a notch when a huge contract goes belly up and Runciter dies in what we are led to believe is some type of assassination attempt. It’s here we get a bit of a thriller and horror vibe – kicking Dick’s already immaculate sci-fi setting into new and uncharted territory which is bold and unbelievably fresh – it’s almost a new genre altogether, proving Dick’s mastery in the written word yet again.

But with each resuscitation into active half-life, into a return of cerebral activity, however short, Ella died somewhat. The remaining time left to her pulse-phased out and ebbed.
Knowledge of this underwrote his failure to rev her up more often. He rationalized this way: that it doomed her, that to activate her constituted a sin against her.

In the chaos that Dick creates following Runciter’s death he expertly shows the reader a society unravelling from its chains of bondage, as if in some way we are returning to the simpler of times, returning to the dust as it once was. We soon discover that cigarettes are becoming stale and brittle and disintegrate into dusk, coins are outdated and no longer legal currency, and when Joe Chip orders a coffee with cream, it arrives but is cold and old, and his milk soured and lumpy – as if the fabric of society has changed. It even  seems to be dissolving before Joe Chip’s very eyes –  It is as if Dick is saying are we all not just ash, carbon, and soon, what we have been worshipping will be gone, advancements, technology, money and in the end we will all be made equal.

What with this being a Philip K Dick book, and the labyrinth of which he has led us down, you would be foolish not to think there is a sting in the tail, a barbed throng waiting to stab us, and you would be correct. The final few chapters take everything we expected and turn it on its head – giving Ubik the ending to end all endings!

A masterful work by the genres leading figure and the author anyone and everyone writing science fiction wants to emulate. Ubik is a thing of legends and this edition does it justice. The internal artwork by La Boca is eye-wateringly spectacular and works so well with the words on the page, it’s as if it were one living, breathing organism. The illustrations work in tandem with the prose in projecting this already phenomenal book into a masterpiece, not only of art, but also literature – and this edition is a great way to honour Philip K Dick.

A breathtaking book – and a must have for all!

The Folio Society edition of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, introduced by Kim Stanley Robinson and illustrated by La Boca, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

Philip K Dick

Philip K. Dick lived most of his life in California. He was born in 1928 in Chicago. In his career PKD wrote 36 novels and five short story collections between 1952 and 1982 when he died in Santa Ana, California.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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