Philip Dick

, /10

Philip Dick

Ubik (1969) is a psychedelic metaphysical puzzle. Dick indulges in both verbal virtuosity and a convoluted plot that never fully finds a rational explanation until at the end it completely unravels.

In 1992 humans have colonized the Moon and telepathy is reality (at the same time, people still watch television, not the Internet, and use coins to pay, not even credit cards, let alone phones, and there are still telephone books for coin-operated land telephones).

Each chapter is introduced by a commercial advertising an Ubik product. Glen Runciter runs a corporation that sells "inertials". Inertials are people who can neutralize telepaths and "precogs". Precogs are people who can see the possible futures and choose one. Raymond Hollis runs a rival corporation that specializes in telepaths and his top telepath is Dole Melipone. One day Glen's technician Joe Chip tells him that they lost track of Dole Melipone: he has disappeared from their radars. It is not the first Hollis telepath that disappears from their radars. Glen panicks and decides to consult his wife Ella, who died at the age of 20 but has been preserved in a state ("half-life" state) that can be resuscitated any time. Ella cannot help him because her field of consciousness is getting weak, overrun by a neighbor called Jory who desperately wants to talk to someone. The doctor in charge of the moratorium, Herbert Vogelsang promises to move her to a better insulated room. Glen's talent scout Ashwood shows up with a new talent: a sexy 16-year-old girl, Pat, whose parents work for Hollis. Pat neutralizes precogs: she can force them to choose a specific future, and she can do it even retroactively. She demonstrates her power on Joe himself by changing something that he just did. Joe scribbles something on a paper and tells Pat that it means the corporation should hire her immediately. In reality, it means that she is a threat to the corporation.

A new client shows up, Zoe Wirt, who works for a corporation that prefers to remain secret. This corporation is being attacked by telepaths so it would like to hire the best antitelepaths that Runciter can offer. Glen activates his resident telepath, Nina Freede, to figure out which is the mysterious corporation: it is Stanton Mick's corporation, one of the most powerful, and it is based on the Moon. This corporation has developed a new system to travel close to the speed of light, which would allow many more people to travel around the universe. Glen understands that the attack must come from all the telepaths that Hollis has removed from his territory. Glen summons eleven of his psychics who are currently unemployed, including Pat. Pat demonstrates her power by abruptly sending him into a different time track where Glen has retired after a heart attack and Joe has married Pat who has made him rich with her supernatural powers. In that time track Glen lost the Moon contract to a competitor. Pat admits that she's done all of this and restores the old time track. Glen meets with the eleven, including Wendy Wright, Joe's personal obsession. One of the eleven, Francisca, has received the information that they have all been moved to another world and then back into this one. Glen, Joe, Zoe and the eleven psychics take off on a spaceship for the Moon.

The mission is a disaster. Joe measures the psychic field and finds that no telepaths is there. It turns out that Glen has fallen into a trap by the Hollis organization: instead of Stanton Mick, they are welcome by a floating bomb. Luckily, the bomb only kills one of them: Glen. Joe takes over command, leads everybody back to the spaceship (amazed that the assassins don't try to stop them), and flies to the moratorium hoping to store Glen in half-life the same way Ella is stored. Somehow Joe didn't think of using Pat's powers to undo the bombing. And Joe feels that something is not right: all the objects in his possession are much older than they can rationally be, including his coins, that are accepted by neither machine nor people because they are no longer in use. Meanwhile, Pat tells Wendy that she, Pat, is Joe's wife and she pays his bills. Joe spends the night at a hotel near the moratorium and hears Glen's voice in the telephone, but Herbert comes to tell you that he has been unable to resuscitate Glen. Herbert mentions that a girl spent the night with Joe there, but Joe doesn't even remember which girl. They find Wendy in a closet, reduced to a decomposed corpse, as if she died years earlier. Joe fears that her death was caused by the radiation from the bomb and that all of them will die the same way. Meanwhile, back at headquarters the team is puzzled by more unexplained facts. For example, they read an ad that talks about Glen being frozen in half-life, but the ad was printed one week before the Moon expedition. They also find coins in their pockets with Glen's face on them. Joe flies back to headquarters and discusses the situation with the team: it looks like there are two processes at work, one that moves backwards in time and one that moves forward in time. In a supermarket where an old lady is complaining that they sold her a newspaper of the previous year, Joe picks up a pack of cigarettes and finds inside a note written by Glen that warns him of danger. It sounds improbable that Glen Runciter left a note in exactly that pack of cigarette in exactly that supermarket. Joe tries to have a tape recorder repaired but an expert tells him that it is forty years old: time reversal is accelerating. The manual of the tape recorder says that it was made by... Runciter. One of Joe's inertials, Al, finds a graffiti by Glen in the bathroom, telling them that he's alive and they are dead. Joe recognizes it as Glen's handwriting and begins to think that they all died of the explosion and they are now in half-life. Al is next to die of a rapid decomposition.

Finally, Joe hears on television the news of Glen's death, killed in a terrorist attack on the Moon. He will be buried in his hometown, in Iowa. The screen then changes to Glen's face. Glen advertises a product called Ubik (the same one mentioned at the beginning of each chapter), a product that can reverse the time reversal. Then Glen adds that he knew his killing was going to happen and recorded the commercial 12 days before the fateful day of his death. And he's addressing directly Joe through the TV set. Glen also promised a free sample of Ubik, which gets delivered to Joe's home. This message contradicts the graffiti, according to which Glen is alive.

The other members of Joe's team are already in Iowa for Glen's funeral. Joe decides to travel there but, having regressed so much in time, has to take an old airplane. On one hand he believes that they are all dead and in half-life state except for Glen, but on the other hand he believes that Glen is being buried in Iowa. When he arrives it is 1939 and World War II has just started. Joe finds that the Ubik has reverted too: it is now just a liver and kidney balm. The label on the bottle has changed too and now bears a note from Glen not to give up. Joe finally regroups with the eight surviving members and with Pat, who was his wife but she's undone that. Francisca tells him of a recurring dream: an aerosol can marked Ubik. Glen lies in state, but Joe realizes that his body has already decomposed as if he died decades earlier: the same process that disintegrated Wendy and Al has worked on Glen. But Joe tells them that the opposite is true: that Glen told him that they all died in the blast. Another one of them dies of the same rapid death and decomposition, Edie. At this point the group starts suspecting Pat, who has never used her talent to undo any of these tragic events. Pat claims that her power stopped working on the Moon. Later Joe is stopped by a cop for a traffic violation and is given a citation: Joe reads on it a new warning by Glen, that Pat is lying. Directed by Glen to buy Ubik in a pharmacy that closed ten years earlier, Joe finds more explanations on its label: Glen needs time to come up with a new strategy now that Pat has been revealed as a liar. Joe confronts Pat after showing her the citation with her name on it. Pat insists that she lost her power to undo events. Joe accuses her of working for Hollis to sabotage, and actually destroy, Runciter's business.

Joe starts feeling tired, just like the others who died before him. Pat takes him to a hotel room. Climbing slowly the stairs Joe accuses her of working for Hollis, of having been paid to infiltrate the Runciter organization; and Pat agrees. Joe finds a guest in the room: Glen himself. Glen has a spray can of Ubik that uses to stop Joe's decomposition. Glen confirms that Joe and all the other inertials have been killed on the Moon, including Pat. They are all in half-life in the moratorium and he, Glen, is talking to them via Herbert Vogelsang's devices. The world knows that Glen's inertials have been killed by that bomb on the Moon. Glen is trying to save them in half-life like his wife Ella is. Pat is in half-life too. Glen tells Joe that everybody in half-life experiences that kind of regression, so what has happened to them doesn't require Pat's time-reversal magic. But Joe quickly realizes that Glen himself doesn't know what has happened and why. Glen doesn't even know how he found out that Joe would take that specific room in that hotel. Glen doesn't even know what Ubik is and why it should work. Joe knows that Glen's cadaver is lying in a coffin nearby, vastly decomposed. Joe reasons that there are two forces at work: one that is trying to destry them and one that is trying to rescue them. Joe begins to suspect that the mystery has to do with the only inertial who was not killed by the blast: Sammy, a young boy who has been in a coma since then. Glen needs to rest and hangs up. His lawyer calls because he is eager to file a lawsuit against Hollis, but Glen is too tired after spending the day trying to communicate with Joe.

Joe is alone with Don, who seems to be the last surviving inertial. Suddenly, Don transforms into a teenage boy, the very Jory who has been annoying Ella in half-life. Jory candidaly admits that he is the one who has killed all the others: they were all in half-life (as Glen correctly told Joe) and Jory was eating them in order to stay alive. Jory feeds on half-lives. And Joe will be next, as soon as the effect of the Ubik fades. Joe knows he is going to succumb soon but first wants to find a woman. He takes a cab and spots a woman walking alone. He invites her into the cab and she gives him a certificate for a lifetime supply of Ubik: she is Ella, Glen's wife in half-life, who has been fighting Jory all this time. Now Joe knows who are the two forces: Jory is trying to destroy them while Ella is trying to save them. She has a plan to be reborn and wants Joe to take over in half-time. Joe enters a drugstore to get some Ubik using the certificate but realizes that all reality is created by Jory and Jory can make sure that every drugstore will not have any Ubik left. Joe's mental efforts though manage to materialize a representative of the company that manufactures Ubik, coming straight from 1992 (in fact, coming from the TV commercial), and she gives him plenty of Ubik. She then reveals that Ubik was invented by... Ella. The back of the can has a message, presumably from Glen, that gives him her name and address (she's an attractive woman and that's what Joe was looking for).

Glen at the moratorium is trying to talk with Ella. He has to pay something to the staff and pulls out a coin but it's a weird coin: it has Joe's face on it... And this last chapter doesn't have an Ubik advert but instead an Ubik pronouncement that he is the god who created the whole universe and his universe is not Ubik.

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