Review: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

pkd setTitle: Ubik

Author: Philip K. Dick

Publisher: Library of America

Format: Hardcover

Where I Received the Title: Purchased

Review:

I have long-been a fan of Philip K. Dick, but I am ashamed to say that this is my first read of his wonderful novel, Ubik. It is one of his more popular titles and certainly one of the highest rated — and for good reason. Ubik is a psychological science fiction novel that crams so many ideas into a weird and mind-bending narrative that leaves you slack-jawed the whole way through.

The novel is about a technician by the name of Joe Chip who works with an organization that employs people with the special ability to block spies with parapsychological talents (such as telepaths and fortune tellers) in the sake of privacy. Chip is nearly broke when a woman by the name of Pat comes to his door, offering an unprecedented talent — the ability to change the past. Chip is wary of her, but is pressured to agree that her talents are too great to ignore. Shortly after their encounter, a large contract comes through, sending some of the corporations most-talented “inertials” to luna. Their trip results in a disaster and Joe Chip finds himself lost in time, not knowing who to trust or if the reality he is experiencing is even real.

I really can’t say enough good things about this novel. I LOVED it. I loved how every step of the way — just when I thought I understood what was going on — PKD peels back another layer, revealing a twisted and intricate world that Joe Chip has no prayer of figuring out. His friends around him are dying and the world and its contents are devolving from a “futuristic” 1992 to regressed and often useless products in 1939. Joe Chip’s discernment is top-notch, but he struggles at every turn to know who to trust. Heck, he doesn’t even know who is alive and dead.

I often see criticism of PKD’s prose, with a back-handed compliment applauding his story-telling while remarking that it’s no great literary work. This is a completely unnecessary comment and is as relevant as when I hear that epic fantasy writer, Brandon Sanderson, isn’t a great stylist. Some writers seek to wax poetically, describing vivid settings with lurid prose and alliteration. PKD cranked out fiction at a manic pace, throwing in so many great ideas that were harmonious in his story telling and he did this as a very capable and talented writer. I enjoy his prose — making use of quick scene changes and off-the-cuff dialog — which he demonstrates effectively in Ubik.

There are few writers who can pull off this mash-up of ideas. Iain M. Banks comes to mind, blending diverse future technologies in his Culture novels. Neal Stepehenson may be another. But more often, science fiction posits a future that could be, rather than bending reality and technology to make a story that barely leaves the reader with any familiarity to hold on to. This is my kind of story. One that tiptoes the line between utter confusion and brilliance. I haven’t decided if Ubik is my favorite novel of PKD’s works, but it’s darn near close.

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New SF Books for My Library!

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Fresh in the mail came two new collections to add to my small, but cherished library.

1.) Library of America’s American Science Fiction — This two-book collection, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, collects nine of the greatest science fiction novels of the 1950’s.  I read much of the electronic ARC for this set (reviewed here), but found the hardback collection irresistible. It looks even better sitting next to my three-book LOA collection of Philip K. Dick novels. I really hope Mr. Wolfe is commissioned to do another SF collection for LOA, perhaps the greatest novels of the sixties (Stranger in a Strange Land, Canticle for Liebowitz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Left Hand of Darkness). Only caveat would be that Dick and Vonnegut would have to be omitted, having their own collections.

2.) The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith — I love short fiction as much as I love novels and one cannot be an SF fan without being acquainted with the works of Cordwainer Smith. I have actually not read much by him, but plan on getting caught up.

There are many other books that I would love to have in physical copies. I am a big fan of Library of America and the Everyman’s Library. Just today, I came across another publisher of beautiful books — the Folio society. Browsing through their online collection, I am finding many great SF books that are filled with illustrations. Notable SF titles include The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Dracula, Farenheit 451, The Foundation TrilogyHis Dark Materials, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The SilmarillionThe Last Man, The Vampyre and Other Macabre Tales, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Bolded titles are the ones I would like to add to my collection.

Review of Classic Novels of the 1950s by Gary K. Wolfe

Title: American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950’s

Editor: Gary K. Wolfe

Rating: 

Publisher: Library of America

Format: e-Galley

Review:

One of my most recent purchases was a beautiful Philip K Dick collection, published by The Library of America. It is a 3-volume hardcover set containing thirteen of Dick’s greatest novels. Considering that he is one of my favorite authors, this set has become a cherished treasure.

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the classics of science fiction. I had just read a couple of Isaac Asimov titles and Joe Haldeman’s, The Forever War, when I came across a new collection of science fiction stories from the 1950’s. Not being well-versed in the era, I was uncertain what to expect. After all, science fiction is one of those genres that can become easily dated.

I saw that Library of America was making an e-galley available to reviewers and I snagged the opportunity to read some of the collection. There was not a single title I had read before (and I call myself a science fiction reviewer — how embarrassing). I loved Richard Mattheson’s short stories and I am Legend and thoroughly enjoyed reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Both of these authors have a novel in this collection. Alfred Bester’s, The Stars My Destination, also made the list — a novel I had been dying to read for quite some time. The collection can be summarized as follows:

Book 1 (Four Classic Novels: 1953-1956)

  • Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants
  • Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human
  • Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow
  • Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man

Book 2 (Five Classic Novels: 1956-1958)

  • Robert A. Heinlein’s Double Star
  • Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination
  • James Blish’s A Case of Conscience
  • Algis Budrys’ Who?
  • Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time

After reading through Alfred Bester’s and Theodore Sturgeon’s novels, I could tell that this really was a special collection. It is not really a “top nine” novels of the fifties, but rather a diverse collection of what the era had to offer in the way of science fiction. There’s space opera, dystopian futures, proto-cyberpunk, and general weirdness in the selected novels. Each author and theme is different. For those who want to learn a little more about the selection process, I recommend listening to Gary K Wolfe on Episode 89 of the Coode Street Podcast. The Library of America has also developed a nice science fiction page that has articles written about the novels by many of the popular genre authors today.

I have not yet seen the physical hardcover books to judge the physical quality of the collection, but I would expect it to be comparable to the high quality of their other books. The covers are fantastic — a clear throwback to the artwork of the fifties. I’m sure there are some folks who will argue some of the books that were omitted from the collection, but understanding the diversity Wolfe was trying to promote, it is difficult to argue with the selection. The novels (and authors) I was surprised to see missing were Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and Foundation or I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. One could easily add a third volume of short stories to the mix, much like the Library of America boxed set of American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to Now, edited by Peter Straub. Short stories were a definitive part of the Golden Age. In fact, a similar case could be made to add a short story collection to the Philip K Dick set.

If I were to summarize my impressions of this collection, I would say that I am pleasantly surprised — it is truly wonderful. There was a lot of thought that went into selecting the titles and they are still very readable by today’s standards. I look forward to getting my hands on the physical copies, putting one of the books on the shelf next to my Philip K Dick collection, and holding the other in my hands as I read through some of the best stories that the greats of science fiction wrote over a half-century ago.

Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Title: The Stars My Destination

Author: Alfred Bester

Rating: 

Publisher: Library of America

Format: e-Galley of American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950’s

Review:

Every so often I come across a novel that catches me by surprise. With a genre like science fiction that is often focused on the near future, novels can quickly become antiquated. This is not the case with The Stars My Destination. Originally published in 1956, as a serialized story in Galaxy Magazine, Bester’s proto-cyberpunk classic transcends time.

The plot is essentially a science fiction version of The Count of Monte Cristo — the revenge tale of Gully Foyle. In the midst of an interplanetary war, Foyle is left drifting through space aboard the Nomad. When a passing ship, the Vorga, fails to rescue him Foyle sets out to exact revenge.

The story takes place in the distant future, when humans have learned to jaunte (teleport) using only their mind. There are also a sprinkling of people with telepathic powers. Governments are largely controlled by megacorporations and despite man’s adaptation of a god-like power, the future is bleak and there is little faith in humanity.

Gully Foyle does not start out as a likable character. He is cynical and thirsty for revenge. His face is tattooed like a tiger with the word “N♂MAD” etched on his forehead. He has no recollection how he was stranded or where he was going and instead of looking for answers, he focuses solely on finding the captain of the Vorga to murder him. Through Foyle’s inquisition, he discovers that the Nomad carried a substance so valuable it could end the war. Despite its value, there is something even more precious that the authorities are after — Foyle himself.

I found Bester’s story to be somewhat comparable to the works of Philip K Dick, an author who I hold with high regard. The Stars My Destination has elements of mystery, adventure, speculation, and intrigue. The writing is artistic, but very readable and as a reader I shared in the self-loathing of Foyle only to gain empathy for his pursuits. Foyle’s character is beautifully complex and the people he meets are also interesting. There’s Jisbella McQueen, a fellow prisoner who helps Foyle escape and remove his strange tattoos; Robin Wednesbury, a telesender who has only the less-useful ability of transmitting her thoughts, but not receiving others; Presteign, the megalomaniac corporate mogul in charge of Presteign corporation and owner of the Vorga; and Dagneham, a detective with special skills in interrogation.

Frankly speaking, I really have no criticisms of the novel. The pacing is good, the mystery keeps unfolding like layers of an onion that draw me in to the next scene, the characters are intertwined and well-developed, and the story is completely satisfying. The Stars My Destination epitomizes everything I love about science fiction. It is filled with wonders and ideas and is upheld with its literary merit. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.