I first heard about this book when reading through Philip K. Dick’s biography, I Am Alive and You Are Dead, which took its title from one of the more chilling lines in Ubik. It seemed to have everything I could ever want: existential crises, meditations on eternity, entropy, and the human spirit, and a mind-bending journey through an illusory world created in the dying psyches of twelve people.
But Ubik reads more like a rushed draft and a splatter chart than “One of Time’s 100 Best English-language Novels,” as my edition claims. So many different rules and plot strands are set up (including Pat Conley’s time-reversion ability, Runciter’s manifestations, and the eponymous Ubik) that seem to hint at a single, mind-blowing explanation, but everything that is built up falls apart about 50 pages later. The effect isn’t, as The Guardian claims, a “squishy” novel that defies explanation and evokes the malleability of reality; the result is book that fails to function as a story, or even a comment on stories.
The front cover blurb from Rolling Stone sums up the disconnect, I think, between the people who see Ubik as an avant-garde masterpiece and people like me, who think it’s a goddamn mess: Phillip K. Dick is “The most brilliant SF mind on any planet.” It doesn’t say anything about being a good writer or storyteller. Books like Ubik can get away with being absolutely incoherent by claiming to deal with big ideas. For all its foibles and shortcomings, Ubik can still claim that its telling a sci-fi story that deals with telepathy, eternity, reality, and the nature of life and death, counting on the sheer weight of those ideas to make it worthwhile.
This is a tough claim to assault because a lot of really brilliant experiments in literature and art fail. You can argue hypertext fiction and House of Leaves failed at their attempts at revolutionizing the format of the novel, but their attempt inspired other writers and maybe some readers to reassess what a story can do. The ideas and concepts they brought to the table, like non-linearity, ergodic literature, and multi-media storytelling, have value, just as Ubik has value in exploring the concepts of reality, life, and entropy. Some passages really stuck out to me:
“One invisible puff-puff whisk of economically priced Ubik banishes compulsive obsessive fears that the entire world is turning into clotted milk, worn-out tape recorders and obsolete iron-cage elevators, plus other, further, as-yet-unglimpsed manifestations of decay.
This is the same looming horror at entropy that was embodied in “kipple” in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This passage sums up the apocalyptic, reality-destroying horror that waits for Joe Chip and his friends, evoked in the material decay of everything around them: milk, tape recorders, even elevators.
“But the old theory–didn’t Plato think that something survived the decline, something inner not able to decay? Maybe so, he thought. To be reborn again, as the Tibetan Book of the Dead says…Because in that case, we all can meet again. In, as in Winnie the Pooh, another part of the forest, where a boy and his bear will always be playing…a category, he though, imperishable. Like all of us. We will all wind up with Pooh, in a clearer, more durable new place.”
This reminds me of the poem Heaven by Patrick Phillips. It’s a surprisingly tender image of an afterlife, apart from all decay and the reality we know. It’s transcendental in the deepest sense of the word.
But none of it counterbalances the seemingly haphazard, half-baked, and frustrating plotting in the book. Good ideas might be able to salvage a badly written book in the eyes of critics and literary theorists, but no amount of avant-garde cred can make Ubik a passable read. The best experimental writers, the ones that deserve the highest praise, learn how to violate the rules of narrative and meaning within their stories and create a piece of fiction that has its own logic and its own intuitive way of reading it, like a dream.
Phillip K. Dick doesn’t accomplish this in Ubik. He sets up a world with a number of rules, but discards them one after another, until he discards everything. So there’s nothing to talk about and nothing to read in Ubik except its profound ideas and its profound failures. There’s no “vivid and continuous dream,” as John Gardner called it. So ironically enough, Ubik, a book about being immersed in a dream world that can’t be distinguished from reality, never tricked me into forgetting, even for a moment, that it was anything more than a bunch of words on a page, written by a man named Philip K. Dick.