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Philip Dick’s novel Ubik made the TIME list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005, one of the few genre novels on the list (and, I’m guessing, a book for which Lev Grossman stumped). I’d read nine other Dick novels, putting The Man in the High Castle – the least sci-fi of any of the books I’ve read from him – on the Klaw 100, but hadn’t read any of his work in close to a decade before picking up this title.
Ubik is typical Dick in that it involves reality turned on its head, where he changes the fundamental conditions of our physical existence, then inserts relatively ordinary people and sees how they act and respond. This time around, there’s a new scientific process that allows people who have died to be placed in a state called “half-life,” where they remain physically dead but their brains can continue to function when they are, in effect, plugged in, a period amounting to a few hours in total between physical death and brain death. So Glen Runciter, who runs an anti-psychic operation, can communicate with his dead wife for a few minutes when he has to make a critical business decision (how terribly romantic), although he runs into trouble early when one such session is interrupted by a neighboring half-lifer who manages to invade the signal.
Joe Chip is one of Runciter’s employees and he, Glen, and ten other employees embark for a highly lucrative mission that goes very wrong when a bomb explodes and somebody dies. What is not clear to the reader is who has died: to the employees, it appears that they all survived but Runciter died, but their world begins acting oddly and they receive messages from their old boss that indicate that they are in half-life and he was the only survivor. The primary mystery of the book is whether or not Joe and his dwindling team are actually alive or in half-life, and they try to chase Runciter’s clues and figure out what they need to do to (half-)survive, with a secondary thread surrounding who is actually controlling their new, unpredictable environment. And the title, a play on the Latin word, ubique, meaning “everywhere” (present in our word ubiquitous or in the Spanish verb ubicar, “to be located”), turns out to be a substance that combats in the rapid physical decay that starts to overtake the members of Joe’s team.
The chapter intros, advertising all manner of products under the Ubik name, usually with comical product warnings, reminded me of the epigrams and fake quotes before chapters in Jasper Fforde’s novels, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear Fforde was a Dick devotee. (Stop laughing.) I also thought the idea of a world being created to order for the person(s) experiencing it has been reused a few times, including The Matrix and one episode of 1980s revival of “The Twilight Zone,” at the least.
Dick uses a few early misdirects to keep you guessing about the real explanation behind the bomb and the weird possibly-half-life world, although the result does leave a few plot strands hanging. I also thought the final chapter, barely over a page in length, felt like a cheap add-on, one that undermined a fairly strong if slightly conventional conclusion in the prior chapter. And it takes a good 20-25 pages for Dick to set up his universe, explaining in often dry terms the various forms of psychic abilities in use as well as the whole half-life phenomenon, a section that took up about 10% of the book. Overall, though, it’s a clever, mind-bending novel, and following Joe (the main protagonist) through his confusion about the changing world and then his attempts to save himself, if not others on his team, was compelling.
The question I have is whether this merited inclusion as one of three true sci-fi novels on the list (along with Neuromancer, a decent novel worthy for its prescience; and Snow Crash, a good read but a poor selection for the 100), along with a pair of fantasy novels and a comic book. I’m not an aficionado of the genre, but I could make a case for the Foundation trilogy (they did give The Lord of the Rings a spot, as well as A Dance to the Music of Time), and would argue for Dick’s alternate-history work The Man in the High Castle as more literary and seemingly more serious. And there’s a separate debate over whether six entries out of 100 is too much for the combined sci-fi/fantasy genre, not including works like Never Let Me Go, A Clockwork Orange, or Animal Farm that used elements of altered reality to tell much more serious stories. I liked Ubik and would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind a little sci in his fi, but as a top 100 candidate it fell short for me.
Next review: I don’t usually review Agatha Christie novels, but Taken at the Flood interested me enough that it’s worth a few grafs.