Sunday, June 07, 2009

Ubik - the classic of philosophical sci-fi

Were it not for a recommendation from my son, I probably wouldn't have discovered Philip Dick’s novels and his most famous one - Ubik.

Popular ranking puts Ubik and most of his other books into the “Science-Fiction” category. On the surface it is true – the book describes events in then-future (was written in 1969) i.e. in 1992. The main plot revolves around a strange company (Runciters Inc.) whose principal business is to protect its clients from unwanted interference from some telepathic “criminals”, who by use of psychic field, may interfere with humans brains (There was no Internet then, but Dick’s imagination was like a prediction of spam. BTW - Dick, in some sense, predicted the web – as a customized source of information via a "pape machine").

Another pillar of the novel’s plot is the “half-life” – the state into which a person could go after death of her/his physical body. The idea of possible contact of real people and people physically dead, done via interception of residual brain activity – plays an important role.

However, that’s enough about the plot in my review. I’m not going to spoil it for the future readers. The whole point in the reading of the book is about surprise, about incredible interleaving of time and space in such a way, that reader is often totally lost as to where the plot happens and in what time. There are amazing descriptions of time going backward into the past – and descriptions that do leave us with total uncertainty about the temporal and spatial frames of the plot.

The book is also deeply philosophical, and in this aspects, Dicks style reminds me of Lem’s writings. As with Lem, Dick transmits deep philosophical thoughts about time, space and human will. However, he does so in a very sincere way - free from any pathos or elation. There is nothing like bombastic moralization – and if you do not buy his philosophy – you can just ignore it. The reading is still a thrilling experience.

The last pages of the book, with an invocation of some ironically biblical tone, and the very last sentence of the book says something fundamental of humans condition – about freedom and almost Machiavellian will to exist, to survive, to prevail.

And last – but not least – the language of the novel. There are sentences and figures of speech of unprecedented beauty and wit. Read this:

“The chill debased the surfaces of objects; it warped, expanded, showed itself as bulblike swellings that sighed audibly and popped. Into the manifold open wounds the cold drifted, all the way down into the heart of things, the core which made them live. What he saw now seemed to be a desert of ice from which stark boulders jutted. A wind spewed across the plain which reality had become; the wind congealed into deeper ice, and the boulders disappeared for the most part. And darkness presented itself off at the edges of his vision; he caught only a meager glimpse of it.”

If you like good sci-fi – read it, if you do not like – read it anyway. Dick’s writership transcends any attempt to pigeonhole it.


  1. Guess I will now have check out Ubik. This is a great article; glad I found such a good recommendation for reading a novel. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This novel is a romantic action adventure in space; it is also more about the characters than the technology. Take care and thanks for the tip.

  2. Sharon, Thanks for the post and recommendation.

    Is your book available in audio? Being too busy in my life, I read by listening.