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.

Kim Stanley Robinson and Jonathan Lethem interviewed about Philip K. Dick

I wanted to share a video interview from YouTube that I really enjoyed watching today. Kim Stanley Robinson and Jonathan Lethem are interviewed about how Philip K. Dick influenced their work. Each author appreciates entirely different things about PKD’s work.

PKD is one of my favorite authors and it was  interesting to learn that both authors appreciated the same novel of PKD’s lesser or “cracked” works — Now Wait for Last Year. I am instantly adding it to my to-be-read pile!

[Edited to add — Jonathan Lethem edited the three-volume (thirteen novel) Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick, which I proudly own. Fortunately, this novel is smack, dab in the middle of the second volume]

Building a Speculative Fiction Library

I am very excited about my recent purchase: the Library of America’s Philip K Dick collection. Included in the collection are thirteen of his greatest novels:

  • THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
  • THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH
  • DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?
  • UBIK
  • MARTIAN TIME-SLIP
  • DR. BLOODMONEY, OR HOW WE GOT ALONG AFTER THE BOMB
  • NOW WAIT FOR LAST YEAR
  • FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMAN SAID
  • A SCANNER DARKLY
  • A MAZE OF DEATH
  • VALIS
  • THE DIVINE INVASION
  • THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER

I am hoping a fourth book will come out with his short stories, which are critical reading for any PKD fan.

The Library of America has other SF titles as well and I am hoping and suspecting that this is a trend that is going to continue. There is a short story collection of H.P. Lovecraft, two volumes of Kurt Vonnegut novels, and a two-volume set of classic science fiction novels spanning 1953-1958. This two-volume series includes:

  • Frederick Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants
  • Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human
  • Leigh Brackett, The Long Tomorrow
  • Richard Matheson, The Shrinking Man
  • Robert Heinlein, Double Star
  • Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination
  • James Blish, A Case of Conscience
  • Algis Budrys, Who?
  • Fritz Leiber, Big Time

 

Another popular literary series is the Everyman’s Library, equal in quality with beautiful hardcover books. Like the Library of America, it features prominent fiction and non-fiction classics. There are a sprinkling of SF titles in this series as well.

This collection includes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ray Bradbury’s short stories, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, H.G. Wells novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. In addition, there are several other authors who push the boundary of speculative fiction in this collection (George Orwell and R.L. Stevenson to name a couple).

It is nice to see speculative fiction being recognized in the company of other classics. Some of the other collections that I haven’t mentioned are the Modern Library collection (a large and diverse series of collections similar to the Everyman’s Library, both in hardcover and paperback), the SF Masterworks collection (a paperback series published by Gollancz), and the Fantasy Masterworks collection (also published by Gollancz).

For those who want a speculative fiction library, there are so many ways to go. The books I mention above are a great place to start, or one can individually seek first edition or collectible books from the novel’s original publishers. In addition, I have seen some beautiful editions of the The Lord of the Rings and I am sure there are many other examples of collectible science fiction that I am unaware of. Happy collecting!