[There are significant spoilers for the entire novel in this review.]
Author: Philip K. Dick
Publication Date: 1969
Producer: 2014 Brilliance Audio
Narrated by: Luke Daniels
Recording Time: 7 hours, 56 minutes
Glen Runciter runs a corporation that employs “inertials,” people who are able to negate the powers of telepaths or “psis.” Runciter’s company works for clients who are attempted to work off corporate psychic espionage. Runciter’s company is opposed by powerful psychics led by a man named Ray Hollis, these psychics primarily being employed for the purpose of espionage. Glen Runciter’s wife, Ella, is deceased, however, he is able to continue communication with her, in “half life,” at a moratorium. There, her consciousness lives on and can speak with Glen when he wants. Jory, a fellow half-lifer, who is “stored” near Ella, interferes with her ability to communicate. Both Jory and Ella express concern to Glem about the strange disappearance, recently, of many telepaths.
Joe Chip is a “tester” for Runciter. He meets a powerful anti-psychic named Pat Conley, an attractive young woman. As an inertial, Pat has the ability to alter time, reverting matter and people to earlier states, thereby changing the present. Joe brings Pat to Runciter, warning him via a hand-written and coded note, that she may be dangerous.
Meanwhile, Runciter obtains a business proposition from Stanton Mick, a wealthy and powerful businessman. Mick communicates through an intermediary that telepath have infiltrated his operations. He says that he needs Runciter Associates to help. Runciter, blinded partly by the huge sum of money, agrees to put together a team of inertials and send them to Mick’s moon base headquarters on Luna. The group who goes includes Joe and Pat, along with ten others.
After the group lands on Luna, they are attacked. A bomb explodes and initially it seems to kill only Glen Runciter. The group rushes Runciter to a half-life facility, in an attempt to continue communicating with him that way, but they do not get him there in time. To make the situation worse, since the explosion, time and reality begin to shift for the survivors, causing some of them to age rapidly and die, and others to perceived the world around them as drifting backward in time. They begin to question whether Runciter was the one who died, or whether it was the rest of the group. Runciter’s face begins to appear on some of the team’s coins.
Wendy, the first member of the team to die, does so in Joe’s hotel room. Her body is found and is abnormally sunken. This happens again to another team member, causing Joe to suspect that Pat and her unusual powers may be responsible. When Joe finally begins to die, the same way as the others, Pat follows and mocks him as he crawls away to die alone in his hotel bed. She leaves him at the room door, and when Joe enters, he finds Runciter mysteriously inside his room, where he then sprays Joe with a can of Ubik. Ubik restores him. Joe was already aware of the existence of Ubik, as messages about it have been appearing in his altering reality. However, his every attempt to obtain Ubik have been thwarted by time shifts when change the Ubik into a non-aerosol form that does not work. Runciter explains that Ubik is a substance that reverses shifts in time and reality, including the inertials’ rapid aging. He also explains that he is still alive and that the entire team of anti-psis are all in half-life together, including Pat. This means that Joe and the rest of the team are all dead, but that Runciter has been trying to establish communication with them. He finally succeeds with Joe.
After Runciter leaves, an inertial named Don Denny enters the room with Joe and sprays himself with Ubik. Don then transforms into Jory, the half-lifer who has been interfering in Runciter’s ability to communicate with his deceased with Ella. Jory explains to Joe that is the one behind the shifting reality and rapid aging of his teammates. Jory vampirically sucks the energy of other half-lifers to maintain his own half-life energy. Joe leaves Jory and tries to get away from him, hoping that distance will strain Jory’s abilities to keep the artificial reality he has created in place. As he flees, and knowing that his Ubik is wearing off, Ella appears. She gives Joe a lifetime supply of Ubik spray. Joe attempts to go purchase more at a pharmacy. Unfortunately, Jory appears there and reverts the remaining cans of Ubik into useless Ubik powder. Joe tries, mentally, to bring the Ubik powder into a can form, and in so doing, he accidentally summons a girl who brings him a usable can. She then explains that she can be summoned like this at anytime. This helps Joe to believe that he may be able to survive and defeat Jory.
In the final chapter, the story’s perspective shifts to that of Runciter, who sees Joe’s face on a coin of his. This calls into question what we think we know about who is alive, and who isn’t, and what the rules of reality may be.
Ubik is a science fiction novel that ends without the reader getting clear answers as to who lived, who died, how much of the narrative actually happened in reality, or what “Ubik” even is. The vagueness presented is the point – with the reader expected to think through it – though whether someone finds that fun or frustrating is likely an issue of personal preference.
The novel presents a rapidly accelerated scenario, regarding human evolution, wherein humanity learns to harness psychic powers and others then quickly adapt the ability to negate those powers. Some who live in “half-life” – namely Jory – evolve to survive longer in that state by stealing the half-life of others. In response to this, Ubik comes about, and provides protection from the likes of Jory and also works to extend half-life.
To make things even more confusing, the novel also seems to imbue “Ubik” – whatever that is – with God-like qualities of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence.
There are several questions presented by the novel which are left unanswered or open-ended. I’ll list and discuss seven big questions (though there are certainly many more):
- Why would someone with Pat Conley’s abilities allow herself to die in the manner that she died?
The best explanation for this, that I can think of, is that she died instantly without an opportunity to alter what occurred.
- Why does Joe Chip remember seeing Runciter die, if Runciter is the person who lived while Joe in fact dies?
There are a lot of potential answers to this question but nothing solid to hang on to in order to defend those potential answers. It is possible that both men died or that one or both of them experienced false memories. It is difficult to believe that Runciter’s entire team was unable to move him quickly enough to preserve his half-life communication, while Runciter is allegedly able to get his entire team back to earth successfully. That leads me to believe that one of those two narratives, of what happened, is likely false.
- How does Joe Chip appear on Runciter’s coins in the final moments of the novel?
I have no idea but it calls into question all of the events from the novel’s narrative. It is possible that Joe learned to effect the real world from his place in half-life, it is possible that Runciter is really the one who died, and that Joe lives and is establishing communication with him in Runciter’s half-life. It is possible that both men are dead and dreaming in a half-life state and that they may be able to interact with each other anyway. Reality in this novel, as it is presented, is entirely untrustworthy.
- How does Ella avoid Jory long enough to develop the ability to harness and distribute Ubik to half-lifers?
Again… I have no idea. It seems possible (or probable) that this piece of the narrative exists to cause us to question the events that we see with Joe Chip. Did he really meet Ella? Or did he meet someone/something impersonating Ella? A supernatural (relative to the story’s situation) explanation for Ella would go a long way toward explaining “Ubik.” Perhaps the “Ella Runciter” that we meet is not really Ella.
- How does Joe “summon” a Ubik distributor?
He does something not far off from praying for it. Interestingly, the moment he attempts something supernatural, something supernatural occurs to benefit him. Ubik is overtly compared to God within the novel and Joe Chip’s initials, “J.C.” may not coincidentally be shared with Jesus Christ.
- Is Ella being reincarnated when she sees “lights” or is something else happening?
We do not have an answer for this. Though she seems to be more knowledgeable about the afterlife / half-life than her husband Runciter, she seems also to rely on his interpretation of the lights that she is seeing.
- Is it possible that the entire novel is a psychedelic dream of Joe’s?
Yes. Early on, Joe takes psychadelics – he gets “pizzled on papapot” – so the entire novel after that moment may have been nothing more than a dream or a delusion. This theory does bump up against the last few pages of the novel, wherein Joe’s face appears on coins that Runciter sees.
This novel is fun to think through, presenting the reader with a lot of philosophical and metaphysical conundrums. It is impossible to determine, definitively, that almost any part of this novel happens in reality – or even to decide what “reality” really is. I enjoyed it and I recommend to others that they read it and think through it, too.