Wednesday, 31 March 2010

SF Masterworks #26 - UBIK

Another exploration into the great Science Fiction books that I have actually read. Not to say that there aren't more, I've read some pretty fantastic Sci-Fi that as of yet hasn't appeared on this list, though I have to admit I spend too much time on tie-in fiction and graphic novels relative to the classics - anyway, UBIK is another PKD book I've laid eyes on, thanks to a five book bundle I once bought.

UBIK is perhaps my favourite of them all, though I understand it the least - I came out at the end in complete confusion about what I had read (the intention of the author I believe) and also completely satisfied at the story I had just read. Now I'm admittedly not as well read as I should be, but I don't think there are many authors who can leave you questioning everything that happened in the book yet not in the slightest bit disappointed - Christopher Priest is an accomplished head-messer, with The Affirmation and his more famous The Prestige providing similar mental journeys.

Anyhow - I'll leave the review to the professionals at

A review by A.L. Sirois

Glen Runciter's business is beleaguered. The telepaths his telepaths are monitoring -- to prevent them from influencing consumer trends among the population -- are vanishing, and his precogs can't find them. Not even his dead wife can help him, from her stasis tank in Switzerland. Apparently, someone doesn't like Runciter's continuing efforts to get to the bottom of his problems, because he and several of his employees are caught in an explosion that kills him.

Or does it? Before long, Runciter employees, including his right-hand man, Joe Chip, are receiving voice and data messages from the supposedly deceased boss. And their world is warping and changing around them. Is their own time running out? And who is behind it? Joe tails the disturbances past death itself, into the shadowy world where suspended people like Runciter's wife exist. Is Joe able to communicate with her -- and Runciter, or the person posing as Runciter -- because he has been killed, too? Is he himself held in the half-life of suspended animation, where only UBIK, the universal product, can save him? Meanwhile, Joe's co-workers are turning up dead, one by one.

As ever with one of Philip K. Dick's books, the plot -- crenellated though it is -- is less interesting here than the characters, the theme, and the virtuosity of the writing. Dick's explications of his fractal reality look easy to accomplish, but they really aren't. He seems to have taken A.E. van Vogt's self-referential writing a step or two further into territory that even van Vogt, with his own odd grasp on reality, wasn't equipped to explore. Only someone with a very firm grasp on and understanding of their own shifting grip on sanity could map out the less solid nearby terra incognita as successfully as Phil Dick did.

Dick was the first SF writer to really get into playing with the heads of his readers, and getting them to think about the nature of reality and their perceptions. For this reason, his books never really grow stale -- you can come back to them years after the first reading and find new signposts directing you into previously obscure pathways of your own personality. A.E. van Vogt tried to do the same, but from the inside rather than the outside -- he was perhaps too much the product of the pulp era to really be able to focus the glass of his thematic concerns on himself. Whereas that's all Dick could do, after a point.

Dick's better books are less novels than they are explorations of the relationship between reader, writer and story. His explorations became even more pointed after he suffered a mental breakdown in 1981. Whether his breakdown had anything to do with his experiments with drugs remains unclear, but subsequently it became harder to separate Dick from his work. It seems pretty clear that's what he had in mind, or, at least, it's a side effect that he would have found perfectly appropriate.

As a result, reading his stuff is at once a venture into the mind of a highly creative man, and a fictional roller coaster ride -- because Dick's work took on a slightly hysterical apocalyptic tinge as it grew darker. It may be that reading Phil Dick is as close as one can get to the world of the paranoid schizophrenic, without going too far.

It's tempting to point at Dick's work and say, "This is the key to the 21st century," but we ought to resist the temptation, at least for another ten or fifteen years. It may well be that key, but perhaps it doesn't behoove us to examine it too closely for fear of what we might find.

Which is probably what Philip K. Dick wanted.

(By the way, let me add a brief note about the cover art. I can't tell if it's a reprint from an older SF magazine -- it rather looks that way -- but the feral-faced and somewhat sallow woman pressed against what seems to be a grimy spaceport wall in the rain really suits UBIK nicely, although the artwork has nothing at all to do with the books contents.)

Copyright © 2000 by A.L. Sirois

I'd really recommend this one - if you can handle it!!

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