By now, science fiction author Philip K. Dick's flirtations with reality are legendary. His best-known novel—1962's The Man in the High Castle—depicts an alternate reality in which the Allies lost WWII and the former United States is ruled by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. (Season 4 of a television adaptation of that classic is due later this year.) He's written numerous stories over the course of his influential career in which he presents either alternate realities or, more commonly, dubious ones. Dick seems more at home with the latter, presenting reality as something that should be questioned. Case in point is his multifaceted 1969 novel Ubik, which fulfills multiple roles: it's an unpredictable science fiction story, it's humorous satire, and it's a delicious mind trip—all rolled up into one great read.
As a science fiction story, Ubik pulls all the right levers. It's set in Earth's future amidst a culture of psychic corporate espionage. Joe Chip, the main protagonist, works as a low-level repairman for Runciter Associates, a so-called "Prudence Organization" available for hire. Glen Runciter employs a team of anti-psychics called "inertials" whose job is to detect and nullify the effect of telepaths and precogs, who are predominantly employed by Runciter's enemy, Ray Hollis. A new prospective Runciter employee is Pat Conley, whose powerful, world-changing anti-psi abilities are unlike anything anyone has ever seen. When Runciter and his team accept a new, high-paying job on the moon, catastrophe strikes. Runciter is killed in the explosion and Joe, Pat and the other employees must escape back to Earth and deal with the aftermath.
There are a lot of science fiction buzzwords in that description and there are even more sf tropes to be found in Ubik. Glen Runciter's wife Ella, for example, "lives" in a post-mortem cryogenic state called half-life where Runciter is able to communicate with her and consult her on the running of the business. The team's escape from the moon is actually driven by an attempt to get Glen Runciter into half-life with his wife before it's too late. This is where the next role of the novel comes to the fore: the mind-trip.
When Joe, Pat and the rest of the team return to Earth, they begin experiencing strange events. Their reality, it appears, is shifting, at times regressing into the past. They begin receiving messages that come from beyond, information from Glen Runciter himself that he cannot possibly know. Psychic forces are rightfully assumed to be at play here, but this is a Philip K. Dick novel and that means anything is possible. The fun part of the book is figuring out exactly what's causing the strange events and what's really going on. The portrayal of a questionable reality is the author's sandbox and at times the book feels like a good-natured game between author and reader. Few books offer that kind of relationship.
Lending to the malleability of reality in Ubik is the author's at-times bizarre sequence of events and dialogue. Rather than lessen the effect of the novel, it actually works to elevate it, turning the story into something of a metafictional brain puzzle. The clues are there, you just have to see them for what they are. At one point, Joe is described as feeling "like an ineffectual moth, fluttering at the window pane of reality, dimly seeing it from outside." Like Joe, the reader feels it too, but in all the right ways. This is a book that will keep you guessing until the very end and you'll still be happily wrong.
Ubik also stands up as social satire about consumerism and advertising. This is used to hilarious effect in an opening scene in which Joe, low on funds and attempting to leave his apartment, engages in an argument with his coin-operated door. In the future, it seems, everything is a pay-as-you-go service. Then there's Ubik itself, an all-purpose product, usually an aerosol spray, that solves every problem that exists. Each chapter in the book is prefaced with one of its many miracle-working uses and the disclaimer that it should be used only as directed. Ubik ends up being a central component to the science fictional and reality-bending aspects of the story.
By delivering the goods on multiple fronts—as a non-traditional science fiction story, as a wonderful mind trip and as satire—Ubik becomes something of a masterpiece. By the end of the novel there could exist multiple theories about what is really going on, all supportable by incidents in the book and all contradicting one another. But then that's the meta-level fun of reading Dick's fiction; trying to figure it out which version, if any, is real.
It seems fitting that a masterpiece of fiction deserves a first-class edition. I had the pleasure of experiencing Ubik in the best way possible: through a spectacularly packaged new edition from the Folio Society, purveyors of upscale books. This is the fourth Philip K. Dick novel they've published. (They have equally stunning editions of The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly.) For Ubik, they've adhered to their usual high-quality production standards.
The design of this eye-popping edition of Ubik aligns with the story's satirical look at merchandising. Its die-cut, neon pink slipcase is attention-grabbing, inviting you to extract the similarly-neon green hardback book and open it. When you thumb through the sturdy pages, you'll notice a collection of spectacular illustrations from the design firm La Boca. (For a closer look, go behind-the-scenes of Ubik's illustrations.) The book also features an insightful introduction by author Kim Stanley Robinson in which he talks about the metaphysical stages of Dick's later years and the effects it had on his writing. Taken together, the Folio edition of Ubik is a must-have treat not to be missed. Ironically, words can't accurately describe the luxuriousness of this edition, so here's a video showing all the goods.