Ubik by Philip K Dick (1969)

In the year 1992 the abundance of precogs and telepaths has made it necessary for some who value their privacy to employ "prudence organizations" -- companies who provide anti-psis services to protect information.

Gene Runciter runs Runciter & Associates, one of the largest telepathic protection services in the world, but recently some of his anti-psi agents have gone missing, and he doesn't know whether they are defecting to his competitor, or being knocked off. He goes to the Beloved Brethren Moratorium where his wife Ella, who has been dead the past three years, is kept in a state of half-life where he can occasionally thaw her out and talk with her.

Meanwhile, Joe Chip meets Pat Conley, who is applying to work for Runciter and Associates. She has the ability to rewind and re-route time, effectively negating precogs. Joe, who is a technician and partner of Runciter, decides to hire her, but makes a note "watch this person. She is a hazard to the firm."

Runciter is approached by a representative for interplanetary speculator and financier Stanton Mick. He wants them to assemble a team of anti-psis to scrub his Luna base of any telepaths. The team of six women and five men, plus Joe Chip and Runciter arrive on Luna, only to discover that Mick is a decoy, a remote-controlled bomb, that explodes and kills Runciter. The team grabs Runciter's body and escapes back to Earth, leaving the dead man at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium.

At this point the story goes crazy. Cigarettes, fresh out of the box, crumble to dust. People, starting with Wendy Wright, one of the team of antis, start dying, leaving only bits of dust their collapsed bodies. Coins show antique dates, or Runciter’s face. Manifestations from Runciter invade the world. At one point Joe Chip picks up a phone to hear Runciter's voice coming over the line in a monologue, apropos the bombing, but not as a conversation. Al Hammond finds a message from Runciter in a random cigarette carton in a random store in a random city, and they ask “How are these messages coming through?” And it seems that the only way to solve the problem is to find a spray can of Ubik.

I last read "Ubik" over twenty years ago when I was in college. Reading it now the characters at times felt stilted, like much of Dick’s dialog. In an interview in Rolling Stone magazine Dick said that most of his books from before 1970 were written on speed with little or no revision, and I must conclude that many of the characters are speaking in his own voice -- the voice of the creator and the editor that occurs while writing. How else can you explain, in moments of high tension, little asides like the following:

Joe said, "But we're not dead. Except for Wendy."
"We're in half-life. Probably still on Pratfall II; we're probably on our way back to Earth from Luna, after the explosion that killed us - killed us, not Runciter. And he's trying to pick up the flow of protophasons from us. So far he's failed; we're not getting across from our world to his. But he's managed to reach us. We're picking him up everywhere, even places we choose at random. His presence is invading us on every side, him and only him because he's the sole person trying to-"
"He and only he," Joe interrupted. "Instead of 'him'; you said 'him.'"

Why does Dick write this ungrammatical sentence, then correct himself? Perhaps he’s making it up as he goes along without editing -- or, editing himself on paper?

The plot of "Ubik" feels like that: it starts, and doesn't stop until the end. For the first 100 pages, each chapter of the novel lurches in a new direction. There are some familiar science fiction tropes of mid-century: telepaths and precogs, but there's also there's also the paranoia and faltering reality themes that make this book different. In particular, I like the dreamlike way reality shifts during the story - he may have been making it up as he wrote, but it works in a compelling way.

Chapters 8 through 13 spend most of the time with Joe Chip trying to rationalize his situation - whether it’s the fact of his own death, or the death of his boss, or the demise of reality as he knows it. In this part of the story the characters also have to deal with retrograde time, but it’s dealt with in a much more interesting way than in “Counter-clock World.” Instead of trying to logically explain how a reversal of time’s arrow might work, Dick succumbs to sliding the characters through time much as an artist might paint with watercolors: pushing the paint but accepting the result as the colors soak into the page. Impressively, both the result and the story’s resolution are satisfying.

A reader innocent of PKD might find “Ubik” either opaque, or completely mind-blowing, but experienced Dickians know that it’s one of his common themes, first explored in “Eye in the Sky” and revisited often: a group of people travel together through a (false?) reality, trying to adapt to a changing situation. The book “In Pursuit of Valis” collects quite a few of Dick’s notes, and in the chapter “Interpretations of His Own Works” Dick acknowledges and discusses this.

The info conveyed chronologically in the sequence of books is interesting.
1). EYE plural and subjective worlds.
2). JOINT world as simulated deliberately
3). STIGMATA plural hallucinated worlds concocted by an evil magician-like deity
4). UBIK messages of assistance penetrating the simulated world(s) "from the other side" by/from a salvific true deity
5). MAZE simulated worlds fabricated by us, to escape an intolerable actuality
6). TEARS the nature specifically of that actuality (an intolerable one -- the BIP ACTS)
7). SCANNER buried memories connected with lost identity; & protospeech breaking through, not into world as in UBIK but inside a person's head. Two psychoi one in each brain hemisphere, each with its own name & characteristics.

...EYE, JOINT, 3 STIGMATA, UBIK & MAZE are the same novel written over and over again. The characters are all out cold and lying around together on the floor, mass hallucinating a world. Why have I written this up at least five times? Because -- as I discovered in 3-74 when I experienced anamnesis, remembered I'm really an apostoic xtian, & saw ancient Rome -- This is our condition: we're mass-halucinating this 1970s world... {1978}

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Dick’s revisitation to this theme is that all the stories have a similar premise, yet they all reach different endings. Much like Joe Chip in “Ubik”, Philip Dick in his own life has gone to great extents to try to rationalize reality as he perceives it. Unfortunately, the date he mentions, March 1974, is when all explanations for reality broke, and he suddenly perceived a different reality. Whether this was madness, a stroke, after-effects of drug usage, or a true change in perceptions, it opened up a new world that he couldn’t explain.

From cover flap of the 1969 Doubleday Hardcover edition:

If he was alive why was he riding in a 1939 Willys-Knight on his way to his boss’ funeral in Des Moines, Iowa? If he was dead why wasn’t he beginning a chilly half-life in the year 1992?

What had begun as a crucial Luna mission for Joe Chip and ten of his colleagues from Runciter Associates had ended in a living or dying fiendish nightmare. Gene Runciter was dead -- murdered. But was he really dead? Joe was receiving ominous messages from the other side of the grave from Gene, and all were warning of a plot of the most hideous nature.

At every turn Joe was being confronted with treachery and terror. How could he find answers in a time and city where the Depression was still a way of life and telepathy wasn’t even a word with meaning? Was the traitor amongst his colleagues, who had been spiralled back in time? There was Pat Conley, the telepath with the unique power of reversing time - backwards. But she was living through the same ghastly adventure and as incapable as the rest of them to return them all either to a grave or the future world of 1992. And still Runciter’s ghostly messages kept appearing - in sky-writing, on traffic tickets, graffiti, matchbook covers -- anywhere, everywhere. And their key word was alway UBIK. But what was it? Joe had never heard of it, either in 1939 or 1992. He know, however, that if he could discover the secret of UBIK he would at long last be approaching the end of his surrealistic existence. But if it were to end in certain death, did he really want to know the answer?