Although science fiction author Philip K. Dick died in 1982 at the age of 53, his sensibility--dystopia, androids, psychic powers, "shifting realities," aggressive high-tech business practices--informs today's science fiction films. Nine movies, notably Blade Runner and Minority Report, have been based on his stories, and many more have been rather obviously inspired by his work.
I've read close to a dozen of Dick's novels. But this month I read Ubik (1969) for the first time. Ubik, a thought-provoking, paradox-riddled burst of weirdness, combines particularly creative pulp science fiction with a mystery to produce one of the great metaphysical novels. Time magazine named Ubik one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.
With a minimum of characterization and emotion, an opening scene of Ubik is nevertheless touching. Glen Runciter, an overbearing and demanding businessman, at least 80 years old and likely sustained by artiforgs--grafted artificial organs--is visiting his wife, Ella, at the moratorium. Ella is cryonically frozen--in "cold-pac"--and surviving only in "half-life." In a consulting room, Runciter can speak to her through a microphone and her thoughts come to him through an earphone. But Ella, in half-life since the age of 20, is drifting away into dreams as her half-life gradually wanes.
Yet Runciter is keeping his promise to consult Ella whenever there is an important business crisis. Runciter Associates is a prudence organization: for a fee, it combats the telepathic infiltration of businesses. Much of the telepathic espionage stems from the arch-rival Raymond Hollis organization. Runciter Associates employs its own telepaths, but principally employs people with anti-psi talents, who can nullify the psychic powers of the rival telepaths.
At this point in the novel, neither Joe Chip, the main character, nor Pat Conley, the young woman with a unique and shattering anti-psi talent, have yet been introduced. Later, a series of strange occurrences. Is this the work of Raymond Hollis? Of Pat Conley? Layers of puzzles lead eventually to the ultimate mystery.
Ubik is open to rich interpretation on topics ranging from What is actually happening? to What does it all mean? I learned, from the Internet, that there is, for example, a Christian interpretation. Dick was a devout, if, to put it mildly, unorthodox Christian. He was also a (probable) paranoid schizophrenic, a drug addict, and, in my opinion, suffering effects of electromagnetic radiation, whether through hypersensitivity or massive exposure. In any case, he was able to create fiction showing the absurdity and transparency of the man-made world and fiction pointing to something else, something other than what it is.
I was initially surprised by the Christian interpretation but had to admit that it made sense. However, there are, perhaps, numerous ways for Ubik to make sense, as can also be said of life. And, there is some question in my mind whether, as with life, there is any fully consistent interpretation. I will be reflecting on Ubik for quite some time.
Copyright © 2008 by Heidi Boudro