And yet he’s familiar. I know him. And then he recognized the profile. I wonder what this means, he asked himself. Strangest thing I’ve ever seen. Most things in life eventually can be explained. But — Joe Chip on a fifty-cent piece?
It was the first Joe Chip money he had ever seen. He had an intuition, chillingly, that if he searched his pockets, and his billfold, he would find more.
This was just the beginning.'
Glen Runciter's 'prudence organisation' offers the services of psychically gifted anti-telepaths and 'pre-cogs' who foresee future events and intervene in order to influence the outcomes they have envisioned to counter the effects of telepaths employed by other businesses.
Runciter, and/or Runciter's team is/are killed having been lured off-world to Luna by business rival Ray Hollis. The novel subsequently recounts the quest of Runciter's technical lead, Joe Chip, to try to determine what has happened as the world around him appears to begin to revert to the early decades of the twentieth century.
It is impossible to determine whether the text is unfolding from the reported point of view of Runciter, or Chip, or whether they are both dead on the basis that all three positions are presented and vie for the reader's acceptance and belief. In this way, the text colludes with the indeterminate nature of the author's intentionality in disorientating the reader: "We haven’t gone anywhere. We’re where we’ve always been. But for some reason — for one of several possible reasons — reality has receded; it’s lost its underlying support and it’s ebbed back to previous forms" (Loc. 2348-50). For example, after a continuous section of chapters constituting more than half of the novel's length, the narrative shifts from Chip to Runciter's point of view with no visual signifiers such as asterisks or a section break to signify the same (Loc. 2899).
Matters are complicated by the fact that Dick wrote Ubik at the height of his addiction to prescribed amphetamines, dispensed as a treatment for depression and anxiety. Dick's world-view appears to imbue amphetamines with health-giving properties, and it makes perfect sense to him that they should be available to Glen Runciter from a vending machine (Loc. 2096-7) at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium where the book begins and ends, and where much of its reported actions may be taking place in the minds of the deceased, suspended in half-life in a cryogenic 'cold pac'.
A further layer of befuddlement is added to the novel's already complex perceptual structure in the person of Jory, a half-life teenage inhabitant of the Beloved Brethren Moratorium whose over-developed psychic abilities may be allowing him to rampage through the intelligence of other residents, influencing and possibly even consuming their minds.
Finally, there is the titular artifact Ubik itself. Each of the work's chapters begins with an advert for Ubik repackaged as some sort of consumer good, be it a foodstuff, a cosmetic or a medication. This alone invites a meta-textual reading of Ubik as a critique of the disorientating, alienating, all-pervasive nature of late capitalism. However, within the context of the narrative, Ubik is presented as something offering a (fake?) redemption, a substance that, if only Joe Chip could lay his hands on a spray can of it, Glen Runciter's messages inform him would stop further temporal regression. For the majority of the work's extent, however, Ubik remains tantalisingly out of reach for Chip, reverting from its spray form to an unusable powder or balm leaving him to 'wonder how much difference Ubik — dangled toward [him] again and again in countless different ways but always out of reach—would have made' (Loc. 2554-55).
Ubik is described in both scientific and religiose ways.
On the one hand, in a description larded with jargon seemingly for comic purposes, a spray can of Ubik is described as 'a portable negative ionizer, with a self-contained, high-voltage, low-amp unit powered by a peak-gain helium battery of 25kv. The negative ions are given a counter-clockwise spin by a radically biased acceleration chamber, which creates a centripetal tendency to them so that they cohere rather than dissipate. A negative ion field diminishes the velocity of antiprotophasons normally present in the atmosphere; as soon as their velocity falls they cease to be anti-protophasons and, under the principle of parity, no longer can unite with protophasons radiated from persons frozen in cold-pac; that is, those in half-life. The end result is that the proportion of protophasons not canceled by anti-protophasons increases, which means—for a specific time, anyhow—an increment in the net put-forth field of protophasonic activity…which the affected half-lifer experiences as greater vitality plus a lowering of the experience of low cold-pac temperatures' (Loc. 3242-48).
On the other, Ubik appears as some sort of self-aware life-force with supernatural abilities:
I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be. (Loc. 3267-69)In summary, Ubik is a work of exceptional interest and an outstanding entry into the SF Masterworks series, offering both a rewarding reading and re-reading experience, and an archetypal example of Philip K. Dick's unique and dislocating craft.