Dick’s “Ubik”

“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 am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.” (Introduction to Ch. 17)

As I write this blog post, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly just happened in Ubik. I’m baffled. Though it took me a couple of chapters to figure out what was going on, once I did I finished the book very quickly because I enjoyed reading it so much. I love the plot, and I love the consideration of reality it portrays. From the moment Runciter’s image and words began to appear to the group, every page begged the question “what is real here? Who is experiencing what reality?” In ways that reminded me of The Matrix, Dick portrays these strange realities where one isn’t sure what’s going on.

By the end of Chapter 16, I thought that everything was neatly and thoroughly explained. As Myra Laney explained to Chip, Ella Runciter and other half-lifers who were threatened by Jory invented Ubik. It was used to protect themselves from being destroyed by Jory and others like him. Chip and the others were in half-life. The rest had been destroyed by Jory, and now Chip had to use Ella’s invention to protect himself for the remainder of his half-life. I found that a nice, clean ending. The only thing that seemed really odd to me was how the half-lifers created something so powerful that had so many uses in the outside world (as seen in the introductions to the chapters.)

Then, along comes the introduction to Chapter 17 (quoted above.) If that quote is true, then Ella and the other half-lifers couldn’t have created Ubik. I wasn’t sure what to think of it. In some ways, it seems like Ubik is God. The implications of the above quote are fascinating: if Ubik was man-made, had it reached sentience? Did it think it was all-powerful? And if Ubik was not truly man-made, then where did it come from?

These questions nagged at me as I began to read Chapter 17. However, as in most of the book, the chapter didn’t talk about Ubik at all. Instead, it showed Runciter trying to pay with a coin that had Joe Chip’s profile on it. Throughout the rest of the book, in Chip’s presumed half-life, Runciter’s face consistently appeared on money. So what does it mean that Chip’s face was now appearing on Runciter’s money?

“He had an intuition, chillingly, that if he searched his pockets, and his billfold, he would find more. This was just the beginning.”

Through the end of the novel, I had assumed that everything being explained was reality; Chip and the rest of the group were in half-life and Runciter was outside trying to reach them in as many manifestations as possible. This, however, challenged that. What was Chip doing on Runciter’s money? With my mind blown, I began to consider that perhaps it was Runciter who had died in the blast. But if that’s true, then what was really going on with the rest of the group? Was everything that happened to them in Runciter’s mind? On a much broader scale, this book introduced really fascinating and terrifying questions; what is reality? How can we define it? How is it perceived?

I have no answers. In fact, I don’t think there are any absolute answers. Like the movie Inception,┬áthere is no way to know with absolute certainty what is reality and what is an imagined figment of someone’s imagination. And like Inception, Ubik‘s lack of a clean ending is perhaps its greatest characteristic. I finished the book and yet I can’t stop thinking about it and the questions it posed. This post is somewhat scattered because I still haven’t managed to sort through everything I’m thinking about this book and what it represents. Ubik‘s brilliance is in it’s ability to conjure up all these hugely important questions and let us figure out the answers (if there are any) for ourselves.

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One Response to Dick’s “Ubik”

  1. Greg H. says:

    I just finished re-reading Ubik. I read everything I could find by Phillip K. Dick in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Chapter 17 is a twist in the plot as you say. My impression is that Runciter died between chapter 16 and 17. Perhaps he was injured by the bomb? The world that he sees in half-life is a construct of Joe Chip, who is now a powerful half-lifer aided by an unlimited supply of Ubik. A great book. When I read this and others in my youth, there was no one I could talk to about alternate realities etc. I really like the current, internet reality.

    All The Best.

    Greg

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