To say that a Philip K. Dick book is mind-bending is an understatement as well as a bit of a cliche by this point. Philip K. Dick books are so much more than that; they are challenging, philosophical, cerebral as well as visceral, and are sometimes quite beautifully written. I’ve read a handful of his books (his oeuvre is enormous), and I thought by now I knew what to expect from one of his novels. Ubik dashed my expectations quite abruptly.
Ubik isn’t content to be a novel about artificial intelligence or a conspiracy theory. This one takes as its focus life itself–and death. The plot revolves around death and what comes afterwards, and by that, I mean moments afterwards. The setting is a future society where companies have harnessed the ability to keep the mind alive after the body has died, but it’s not an ideal bargain, as the mind begins to deteriorate during their “half-life.” The main characters are Glenn Runciter and Joe Chip, two important members of a half-life company who become embroiled in a corporate espionage scheme with a rival company. Along with a few other co-workers, they go out on an ill-fated business meeting where a bomb detonates in their faces. In the explosion, Runciter dies–or does he?
What follows is a hugely complex story about the survivors of the blast. After Runciter has died, Joe Chip receives messages from him in the most unusual of places, like television commercials or in cigarette boxes. Joe Chip then begins to wonder, is Runciter dead? Or is he himself in suspended half-life, receiving messages from the one member who survived the blast? Or is that what the other side wants him to think?
Philip K. Dick is a chessplayer style of storyteller, similar to Stanley Kubrick and Philip K. Dick. He plots his characters movements in advance, and his opponent is the reader. It’s not that he’s trying to be cruel to us, but that he wants to create stories that will be riveting, ones that we won’t puzzle out way in advance–or at least, that would be my guess as to his intentions.
In an earlier novel Philip K. Dick used the I-Ching as both thematic material and to determine the plot. Here, he uses a similar sacred text, the Bardo Thodol, also known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. If you haven’t heard of it, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a sort of guide for Tibetan Buddhists that specifically relates to navigating the afterlife. Often, people on their death beds would request the Bardo Thodol be read to them. I have read portions of the book, and I have to say, from a Western perspective it’s pretty frightening stuff. For instance, you always hear the saying “Go into the light,” in tv and movies spoken by friends to people who are dying. According to the Bardo Thodol, the “light” is a sort of cosmic trick, leading the soul into rebirth. For some buddhists, rebirth isn’t the answer, instead they wish to escape from the suffering that life engenders.
This is pretty heavy stuff for a sci-fi novel. But then, there’s been some contentious debates about whether or not Dick should be called a sci-fi writer or a speculative-fiction writer. If he’s the latter, then this definitely fits the bill of speculation. I for one don’t particularly care what Dick is called. He was a fantastic writer, just as important to me as mainstream writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Salman Rushdie.
If you like Ubik by Philip K. Dick, make sure to read my favorite book by him, Time Out of Joint.