Mr Philip K. Dick does not need our praise, but he’s going to get it anyway. Written in 1969, Ubik envisages a 1992 in which there is no internet (thank goodness, it would have only slowed things down) but there are “Psis”, (telepaths, precogs, animators, para-kineticists) and their nullifiers, called “inertials”. A powerful telepath (S, Dole Melipone (don’t bother, it’s not an anagram)) is no longer on Terra and does not appear to be on any of the world colonies, either. The counter-Psis employed by Glen Runciter, of Runciter Associates (an “anti-psi prudence organisation”) lurch and lope into action. It is their job to know where every one of the para-normal spies employed by Ray Hollis (who seems to be just a head) are, so as to maintain the privacy of Runciter Associates’ clients.
So far so strange? Well, Mr Runciter has agreed to involve his wife Ella Runciter in all of the more important business matters. For some time now Ella has been kept upright in a “transparent casket, encased in an effluvium of icy mist”. Yes, she’s dead; but she can be resuscitated into “half-life’, during which time her husband can consult her and obtain her always incisive and far-sighted advice. These communions with half-lifers are not unusual, but are not always as useful. A young man calls into the Beloved Brethren Moratorium in Zurich to consult his grandmother. The moratorium owner checks the long-dead old lady out :-
“When he located the correct party he scrutinized the lading report attached. It gave only fifteen days of half-life remaining. Not very much, he reflected; automatically he pressed a portable protophason amplifier into the transparent plastic hull of the casket, tuned it, listened at the proper frequency for indication of cephalic activity.
Faintly from the speaker a voice said, ‘…and then Tillie sprained her ankle and we never thought it’d heal; she was so foolish about it, wanting to start walking immediately…'”
Runciter is described. “He chuckled, but it always had an abstract quality; he always smiled and he always chuckled, his voice always boomed, but inside he did not notice anyone, did not care; it was his body which smiled, nodded and shook hands. Nothing touched his mind which remained remote; aloof, but amiable…:” Don’t be misled. Runciter cares deeply about his crew, particularly Joe Chip.
Joe Chip (a “Norm” who, using some Ghostbusters-type electronic equipment, measures psi-fields) is lonely, alcoholic and impecunious. He can’t pay the nickels which doors, kettles, cleaning machines, automated retail assistants and amphetamine dispensing machines demand. (They’re used to Joe, they don’t take credit. They can get pretty smug and sarcastic. When tampered with, they threaten to sue). Again appearances can be deceiving. Joe is in fact Mr Runciter’s second in command. He leads the Runciter Associates rag-tag assembly (including a very shady woman with a never-before-seen power(whose underused potential is a weak note in this otherwise excellent story)) to Luna.
From there the plot gets weird.
The light-hearted tone changes:-
“The proper time hasn’t come; something has hurried this up – some conniving thing has accelerated it, out of malice and curiosity; a polymorphic, perverse agency which likes to watch. An infantile, retarded entity which enjoys what’s happening. It has crushed me like a bent-legged insect, he said to himself. A simple bug which does nothing but hug the earth. Which can never fly or escape. Can only descend step by step into what is deranged and foul. Into the world of the tomb which a perverse entity surrounded by its own filth inhabits.”
Death, half-life, life, messages from the other side, retrograde time, Plato’s forms, the Tibetan Book of the Death, reincarnation, Winnie the Pooh, Ubik, it’s all there. Or not there.
Dick skilfully weaves profound meditations and suspenseful action into a terrific read. Not a word is wasted. Do not read any plot summaries first. Ignore the few sexist bits. Read this book in one time-phase. Buy Ubik..