In-Flight Reading: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Growing up I had three loves in the world of books: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, and Sci-Fi. The latter was a love both me and my father shared, and he would recommend me books. I don’t know what it is that brought me to Ubik in the first place, the cover for the edition I first read wasn’t the… best.

And come to think of it, Sci-Fi books typically have fascinating covers, and Ubik has some editions that are pretty awesome. Whatever it was, I ended up buying Ubik and reading it within a day and fell pretty damn hard for it. I was inspired to read it the other night after coming home from work and my God, what a trip! It’s been a lot of years since I last read Ubik, and I still knew every little detail. By the time the twist is unveiled in the first third of the book, I was enraptured. I don’t talk about books often so I thought I’d share with you all a recommendation.

So here’s what makes Ubik so special.


The plot


Ubik, written in 1969 by sci-fi master Philip K. Dick, presents us a future (1992, to be precise) in which psychics are real. Commonly seen as the next evolution of humanity, psychics are quickly employed by corporations as a way to get a leg up on their competition. Very quickly though, do anti-psychics come into play. If your business finds its higher-ups having their minds read by psychics, hire an anti-psychic to monitor the premises and block their powers. In a world with psychics and anti-psychics, there are also pre-cogs, those who can see the future, and they all work as contracted help for whoever needs their services.

From here we meet our main characters, Glen Runciter (played by Morgan Freeman in my imagination), the manager of a large company that employs anti-psychics and pre-cogs (called a Prudence Organization because they can keep your secrets safe). A weary old man whose organs have been replaced, Runciter manages the company with his wife, Ella. Deceased in her 20s, Ella remains alive… sort of, in a half-life container in a Swiss moratorium. Whenever Runciter needs guidance on official business matters, he heads over to Switzerland and confers with Ella’s brainwaves. In this way, Ella continues to die, albeit slowly, but one can still talk with the dead.

Joe Chip is our main protagonist, our everyman (in my most recent reading of Ubik, I imagined Joe Chip as Chris Pratt). Joe Chip is what would become an archetype for modern sci-fi men, a man who can’t keep his life together enough to pay the five cents it takes to open his own front door. His house is a mess, his life is in shambles, but he’s good at his job of assessing psychic energy through tools. When chosen to lead an assignment for a lucrative client, Joe, Glen, and a team of anti-psychics and pre-cogs are ambushed. With Glen gravely injured, the group must figure out how to carry on as the world around them begins to warp and change with time going backwards and images of Glen popping up on coins and on tv screens. Throughout the madness a mysterious product known as Ubik keeps popping up, “entirely harmless if used as directed!”

It’s a novel that goes by fast with Suspense, Mystery, and Sci-Fi wrapped into one.


One reason to get into Ubik is that it’s quick. If you don’t read sci-fi and want a taste, or if you don’t have a lot of time, or if you’ve got an 8 hour flight to Spain and you just want something to tie you over, Ubik is the perfect book for you. The copy I read online was 212 pages, and I had hit 100 before I had gone to bed. The mystery of what happened to the team, their mysterious powers, the time-tripping that they’re going through, and whatever the hell Ubik is will keep you speed-reading through it all at a brisk pace.

Classic Sci-Fi/Psychobabble


One of my favorite things about science fiction novels are the worlds that they create for the reader to inhabit. It’s a little different than a standard fiction novel and a lot like a fantasy one: the writer has to show you a world foreign to your own and explain it all to you. Tolkein did it with the Shire, and here Dick does it with Luna and Earth. Here your organs can be replaced with technology called artiforgs, the news is replaced by customizable newspapers called homeopapes, brain energy is quantified by protophasons, and psychic energy is measured in blr. Much of it is mentioned very casually, so there’s an intuitive nature to the writing that doesn’t baby you, but also lets you into the world organically. You can ask the questions as a reader and make the connections on your own. It respects your intelligence.

On the other hand though, it’s worth a mention that this was written in 1969, so there’s a mention or two of a “tall, stoop-shouldered Negro.” Comes with the territory of dated writing.

Sci-Fi as Modern Day Life


Lastly, the best thing about good sci-fi is its ability to act as a mirror to our current life, no matter what future it’s set in. The world of Ubik is one where capitalism has gotten out of control. You pay for your water bill now, but what if you had to pay a quarter for every single shower? Companies want to get a leg up on their competition by violating your privacy online, but what if they violated the most intimate of spaces where you can truly be yourself – your mind? While the science behind half-life may seem like something seen on Futurama, the steps are already being taken for that today. With scientists defining death as a “process, not a moment,” who’s to say that keeping people alive past death is a work of fiction?

The world of Ubik is fascinating to be in, so check it out! It’s a whirlwind of a trip with an ending that’ll have you scratching your head, no, your brain for years to come. And maybe it’ll make a sci-fi fan out of you yet!



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