Ubik: U Bet!
Philip K. Dick wrote Ubik in 1969, well into his career, perhaps as its acme; the storytelling and reality-bending are that good. In 2009 the book found its rightful place on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, not that Dick fans needed that validation. The road to fandom with Philip K. Dick can strike like lightning or creep up on you slowly. Once you’re on it, the originality and genius of sci-fi’s modern master loom ever larger.
Why wouldn’t they? Frequently enough, Dick infuses his work with philosophical interests of vital importance to him at the time of writing. In the case of Ubik, he was deeply engaged by the Tibetan Book of the Dead (aka the Bardo Thodol), which basically maps the terrain that consciousness travels after death during the bardo state, the interval between death and one’s next rebirth, a Buddhist point of view involving reincarnation and how to manage it wisely.
Assuming its own spin on that system, Ubik presents a near future in which psychic abilities have a corporate presence in the world, and big business depends on talented mediums both for gaining an upper hand on competitors and for protecting against surveillance by them. All the active characters in the book are part of a dominant company that offers such protection: Runciter Associates. Together, they stumble into a giant misadventure that warps all notions of living versus limbo.
That skillful erosion of assumed reality is where Ubik really shines. It simultaneously puts its cast and its readers through a disorienting discovery process with no obvious resolution ahead, raising plentiful questions along the way. You may find yourself asking how safe it really is to trust the things you are typically entirely certain about, such as being who you think you are in the life you think you lead. Because the book is also very funny, it somehow elicits this grave introspection in a way that feels playful and liberating, not morose or heavy. Yes, the word “grave” in the prior sentence is a smashing good pun.
Do I recommend this book? Yes. If you want to go for a superlative ride in the fine mind of an American master at the top of his game, Ubik is a unique sci-fi offering that perfectly combines philosophical sophistication with pulp sensibilities. It leaves no loose ends in terms of answering to its own suspense, yet the answers it provides also touch on greater metaphysical speculation. In fact, the ending is so correct that it fully cements the novel’s resident spirituality. I read this book again immediately after finishing it. I might thrice.