It is normal when talking about Philip.K.Dick to start by mentioning he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep on which the film Bladerunner was based. So lets not do that. Ubik is much less well known and I doubt very much will ever get made into a film. It clearly falls into the science fiction category being set in the nineties, which at the time it was written were thirty years in the future.
So with the passage of time Ubik has now become an historical artefact. It gives us an idea about what people in the sixties thought was going to happen in the future. As such it now merits the attention of historians.
I won’t describe the plot. For a start it would spoil it if you were ever to read it, and it is a book I would certainly recommend reading for its entertainment value. Also the plot is indescribable. I suppose you could call it a thumping good extra sensory perception thriller set in mortuary if you had to give it a thumbnail description.
It is also the first book I can think of since Dante’s Divine Comedy where a large number of the active participants in the plot line are actually dead for most of the narrative. But as I say, I don’t want to give too much away.
And as I say the reason Ubik is interesting from an historical point of view is that we see the author looking forward 30 years and making some predictions. He is remarkably prescient but needless to say he gets a lot wrong.
He was writing when the Apollo moon landing programme was underway but before it had been completed. He anticipates space travel reaching a level way beyond what has actually happened. The main action early in the book actually takes place on the Moon, and colonies on other planets are referred to. Now that looks much less likely than it did then. He also suggests that we will have tapped into our currently hidden psychic powers. Well that hasn’t happened either.
But other predictions are closer to the mark. There are computer based news machines that select the news the person who requests them might want. If he had foreseen interactive screens he wouldn’t have been that far off the internet.
The other thing he got right was the increasing commercialisation of life. There is no sign of the idealistic hippie dream. Kettles, toasters and even front doors are all coin operated. It might differ in detail, but it is certainly in the spirit of privatisation and the unquestioned free market where everything has to make a profit for somebody. Nobody had heard of neoliberalism in the sixties but Ubik foresees its logical conclusion.
But its most prescient note is spotting the omnipresence of advertising. A striking feature are the ads that run through the book as chapter introductions for various incarnations of Ubik. Ubik (as in ubiquitious) is a brand that does everything. In addition to popping up at the top of the chapter it is inserted throughout, much like the context sensitive ads we all see when browsing online. This is product placement for the paranoid. Ubik does everything, but there is always the hint of menace.
Here is a typical example.
Has perspiration odour taken you out of the swim? Ten-day Ubik Deodourant Spray or Ubik roll on ends worry of offending, brings you back where the happening is. Safe when used as directed in a conscientious programme of body hygiene.
Ubik is a baffling, fascinating and ultimately disturbing portrayal of a world where nothing is quite what it seems. It isn’t remotely realistic, but it somehow catches something about the world that is both true, and that we would rather ignore.
I’ll be back to proper history next time, but in the meantime thanks for listening.