The Pequod Review:
Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Ubik is set in the near future — 1992, or twenty-three years after the book was originally published. It begins as the story of a corporate rivalry between Ray Hollis (owner of Hollis Talents) and Glen Runciter (owner of Runciter Associates). Hollis employs a group of telepathic psychics who are hired by clients to spy on others. Runciter employs a team of anti-telepaths (including Joe Chip, the book’s protagonist) who are able to block psychic surveillance. When Runciter and his team are hired for a job on the Moon, it turns out to be a trap set by Hollis; an explosion at the site appears to kill Runciter while leaving his fellow agents unharmed.
Following this explosion, what had been up to this point a rather pedestrian narrative takes off to become one of the most inventive of science fiction novels. Runciter’s surviving agents begin to notice odd events and shifts in reality: time reverses, consumer objects devolve into older models, and cigarettes immediately turn dry and stale. Meanwhile, Runciter’s face shows up on coins, and scrawled messages from him to his agents appear on bathroom mirrors. One of those messages (“I’m the one that’s alive. You’re all dead”) seems to indicate that in fact Runciter survived the explosion — and it was the agents who died. Runciter communicates telepathically with the agents and supplies them with a mysterious spray-can substance (Ubik), which temporarily prevents entropy. The book’s whirlwind plot comes together in an uncertain way, as Runciter notices the face of Joe Chip on a coin, and reality has shifted once again.
Philip K. Dick builds the world of Ubik with rich and detailed features. An advanced form of cold storage allows the dead to temporarily retain limited consciousness — at least until other “cold-pacs” invade and sap the energy of these half-lifers. Psychic powers are commonplace, but telepaths have a range of abilities, including the power to alter the past. And the market has extended its reach even into the opening and closing of doors; in one of the more humorous moments, Joe Chip’s coin-operated apartment door won’t let him in until he settles his past due Magic Credit Keys account.
There are few works of science fiction that so effectively capture the uncertain nature of reality. Philip K. Dick has created an entirely original world — paranoid and dystopian, but yet recognizable and even humorous — where nothing is what is seems. His plot keeps the reader off balance, and it is never fully clear (even at the very end) who is alive and who is dead. And the presence of the all-powerful substance Ubik gives the novel a religious and spiritual dimension that is so crucially missing from other comparatively sterile works of science fiction. While Dick’s prose is written in a crude pulp style that will not be to everyone’s taste, Ubik is his most accomplished novel.