Ubik (1969) by Philip K. Dick has that deceptively straightforward prose style that is as once as engaging as it is profound, a rare combination of a voice that is guile-free but coloured with a zany irascible humour.
‘Dick is comfortable with ideas like psy-phenomenon, the parapsychological, telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis and near-death, in his hands, all made so innocuous you begin to feel at ease with the non-living.’
Dick easily gains our trust, which considering the weird places he takes us, is essential. Not least in Ubik where we visit the Beloved Brethren Moratorium, and get to listen-in on a conversation between a wife in cryonic suspension, or ‘half-life’, and her husband who still needs his dead wife’s advice to run the family business, Runciter Associates, a company specialising in negating the effects of parapsychology:
‘Hi, Ella,’ he said clumsily into the microphone.
‘Oh,’ her answer came, in his ear; she seemed startled. And yet of course her face remained stable. Nothing showed; he looked away. ‘Hello, Glen,’ she said, with a sort of childish wonder, surprised, taken aback, to find him here. ‘What-‘ She hesitated. ‘How much time has passed?’
‘Tell me what’s going on.’
‘Aw, Christ,’ he said, ‘everything going to pieces, the whole organisation…’
Dick is comfortable with ideas that many authors, who like to stay within the known, the rational, would baulk at, so we get psy-phenomenon, the parapsychological, telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis and near-death; in Dick’s hands is made so innocuous you begin to feel at ease with the non-living. Then the real fun begins as Dick has you unsure if it’s the living who are actually in ‘half-life’, while the dead are living.
The cast of characters also helps keep the narrative moving along as they are wonderfully dysfunctional like Joe Chip who has a job at Runcible Associates, measuring psionic activity. He lives in a flat which he struggles to leave for work in the morning as he hasn’t enough spare change to operate its high-tech but cash-operated talking front door, which, as everything else in Ubik’s intensely capitalist-driven society requires a constant supply of quarts. Dick is clearly poking fun at sixties America, which, to fuel its burgeoning economy, demands payment at every turn.
The only way out for Joe Chip is when Pat Conley, a dark femme fatal, lures him and the rest of the employees to ‘half-life’ in 1939. There only the ubiquitous and rather doubtful properties of the spray Ubik stops them all from succumbing to Jory, a life-force devouring super-ego unfortunately also trapped in ‘half-life’. Dick wonderfully has the measure of the USA at its all-consumptive sixties worst, and this story is, to my mind, a parable on how out of sync it is with the ability of its citizens to actually cope with the reality it provides. Desperate for the life-saving Ubik, Mr Chip is told by a pretty teenager who hands him a voucher that it is ‘a free lifetime supply, free because I know your problem regarding money, your, shall we say, idiosyncrasy…’ In the end, Dick seems to be cocking a snook at a consumer economy that seem to offer us a comforting but ultimately worthless experience.