A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavour of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.
Glen Runciter is dead. Or is he? Someone died in the explosion orchestrated by his business rivals, but even as his funeral is scheduled, his mourning employees are receiving bewildering messages from their boss. And the world around them is warping and regressing in ways which suggest that their own time is running out. If it hasn’t already.
I will admit that when I read the above blurb on the back of the latest book chosen for my real-life book group, I winced. Flights of fancy, fantasy, and anything that is decidedly Not Real aren’t my thing. I like big fat storylines, good solid plots. As I put it to a good friend only last week, there ain’t nothing wrong with a linear narrative. And now here I was holding something that was so far removed from my comfort zone, that I really just wanted to put it down and run away. “Warping.” “Regressing.” “Is he really dead?” Who cares, bring me some realism, stat.
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The opening pages didn’t do much to sway me. References to telepaths, inertials, teeps, and ident-flags just made me long for a nice Victorian pot-boiler. But I stuck with it, because I’m nothing if not annoyingly determined. We quickly learn that in this version of 1992 (the novel is set some 30-odd years after it was written) humanity is divided into those people who have developed telepathic powers, and those who are able to block the use of those powers. Whole businesses – interplanetary corporations, indeed – have been built around these skills and competition is fierce. Glen Runciter runs one of these firms, and often consults his young wife on the future of the business. Except his wife is dead. Oh did I not mention that? Technology now allows the recently deceased to be stored and their brainwaves tapped into periodically in what is called the half-life. The half-life is finite and eventually true death will occur, more quickly if you “talk” with them too often. The thing is, if you’re stored too close to another person, there is the chance that your brainwaves can get crossed, and poor Mr Runciter occasionally gets interrupted by the chap next to his wife. This is somewhat problematic when you’re trying to do business.
Meanwhile, Joe Chip is a bit down on his luck, and can’t even afford to pay his own door. (The door isn’t best pleased.) So when a spot of work with Runciter comes up, he’s there. Then the aforementioned explosion happens, and everything goes a bit wonky.
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It wasn’t looking good. I had to read it, it was for book group. Weird words, shifting times. Oh no no no. But then something even weirder happened: I couldn’t put it down. I read it all in two days, which is good going when you’ve also got a full time job and a toddler. The thing that surprised me most was how funny it was. I actually laughed out loud. Literally LOLed. That never happens to me. Yes, it took a bit of time to understand what all those inertials and teeps were up to, but once I got used to it, the plot was fast-moving and kept me interested in just what on earth was going on. It’s a fine line, I think, when you’re dealing with concepts unique to a particular book between intriguing and baffling your readers.
So, I confronted a prejudice, and in the end, I probably liked Ubik more than anyone else in my book group. I’ve even bought a couple more novels by PKD.
But what exactly is Ubik, and what are those funny little paragraphs (sampled above) that head up every chapter? Well, that’s one of the things that you’ll just have to read to find out…
Philip K. Dick: Ubik (London: Gollanz, SF Masterworks, 2000 edn.) ISBN 9781857988536, RRP £4.99