Friday, 11 January 2002

Philip K. Dick: Ubik (1970)

Edition: Panther, 1973
Review number: 1034

In many of his novels, the power of Dick's writing and the vitality of his ideas are diffused somewhat because of the lack of a unifying theme. Ubik, however, is one of his best and most concentrated works, as he skilfully moulds together seemingly disparate elements.

In a world where telepathic talents are commonplace, Runciter and Associates is one of a number of corporations which make money by countering them; certain people, usually children of telepathic parents, have developed a dampening effect, and their services are hired by those who don't want their private thoughts detected or their actions predicted.

This unusual idea is only really used as the setup for the novel, by providing the motivation for a kind of corporate warfare between the telepaths and the inhibitors; the major event of the novel is a bomb attack on a group of Runciter employees. This offhand use of an original idea which for many writers would be the central theme of an entire novel is typical of Dick.

The second idea, which turns out to be more central, (and unites the novel because of its dominance) is communication with the dead. Those who are not too far deteriorated and whose relatives have sufficient money can be stored, not, as some are today, in the hope of later resuscitation, but because a means has been found by which the living can communicate with them, to hear the wisdom of their ancestors (in a science fiction equivalent of the spiritual beliefs of many animist cultures).

This is brought together with a third idea, which is a kind of philosophical panic situation: how can human beings live in a universe which has ceased to be rational or consistent, where it is (more specifically) possible for the technological items around them to regress spontaneously to their equivalents from years in the past? For example, a modern electronic lift will turn into a cage lift with an operator. Dick's interest is partly derived from novels like Lem's The Futurological Congress (where different versions of reality are accessed by taking different hallucinogenics), but is more frightening than its sources because it is connected by him to one of his two major obsessions as a writer, the idea that the universe is controlled by a capricious transcendental entity. (In case you're wondering, his other major theme is how to differentiate human and non-human, as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.)

In Ubik, this is treated in a way which shows Dick to have been a forerunner of the inventors of virtual reality. Indeed, it pinpoints an issue which I have not, even now, seen raised anywhere else: what might be the psychological effects of a seemingly realistic yet disturbingly inconsistent virtual environment? The idea of a VR simulation which could send someone insane through overstimulating their pleasure centres is quite commonplace, but Dick;s writing here makes me feel that it would be possible to achieve the same end in different ways, including the philosophical angst of Ubik.

Dick doesn't carry his idea as far as this, being more interested in the related issue of how we know what reality is - adding yet another to the list of important and interesting ideas which are part of this fairly short novel.

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