Ubik is a 1969 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. Because of the multiple layers of reality and unreality within the plot and the sheer number of strange science fiction concepts in the book, it is considered one of Dick’s strangest works.
The action starts in the American Confederation, 1992.
The main viewpoint character, Joe Chip, is a debt-ridden technician for Glen Runciter's “prudence organization,” which hires people with the ability to block certain psychic powers (for instance, an anti-telepath can prevent a telepath from reading a client's mind).
Joe Chip has such bad credit that he can't operate the coin-operated appliances in his apartment, not even the door.
The company’s main adversary is Ray Hollis, who leads a group of psychics (Hollis appears only briefly in the novel). Runciter runs the company with the assistance of his deceased wife Ella, who is kept in a state of “half-life,” a form of cryonic suspension that gives the deceased person limited consciousness and communication ability.
When business magnate Stanton Mick hires Runciter’s company to secure his Lunar facilities from telepaths, Runciter assembles a group of a dozen agents. It includes, against Chip's warning, Pat Conley, a mysterious young woman who has begun an affair with Chip and who has an unprecedented parapsychological ability to undo events by changing the past.
When Runciter, Chip and the group reach Mick’s moon base, they discover that the assignment is a trap, presumably set by Hollis. A bomb explosion apparently kills Runciter without significantly harming the others. They rush back to Earth to place him in half-life.
Afterwards, the group begins to experience strange shifts in reality. Consumables, such as milk and cigarettes, begin to expire prematurely. Also, the group sees Runciter's face on coins and receives strange messages from him, in writing and on television. Group members who separate from the group are found dead, in a gruesome state of decomposition.
Eventually, the reality shifts back in time until the group finds itself in a world resembling the United States in 1939. They try to figure out what is causing these strange occurrences, prevent each other from dying and find a mysterious product called Ubik, which is advertised in every time period they enter. Messages from Runciter indicate that Ubik may be their only hope.
While the confusion between real and unreal, obscured by the perception of the main character(s), is common in Dick's work, in Ubik this confusion occurs is more than one way. Given the premise of half-life (no relation to radioactive half-life), one puzzle lies in resolving the false reality of the deceased with the real perceptions of those who are still alive. This is further complicated by Pat Conley, whose ability to change the past (and thus the present) may be causing the reality changes. Plus, the interference of psychics causes further confusion. As a result, the story presents unsettling shifts between realities and timelines and the reader is never certain what is real and what is illusion.
Another theme is the opposition between the twin forces of decay (the regression experienced by the characters) and restoration (Ubik, which reverses that decay).
Ubik features several character types common to Dick's fiction: Chip as the downtrodden, working class protagonist, Conley as the vindictive and alluring woman, and Runciter as a cynical but fatherly old man.
The term Ubik comes from the Greek word ubique, which means “everywhere.” It is also the source of the English language word ubiquitous, which means being or seeming to be everywhere at the same time. This may be considered ironic, considering that Ubik is much sought-after and rare in the novel, but it may also indicate that Ubik is a life-force of sorts.
Ubik also references Plato’s idea of Forms, great universals that define the essence of all matter. When the world begins to seemingly regress in time and all objects in it (such as television sets, refrigerators and automobiles) become that time period’s version of that object, Chip remarks that each is coming closer to barest, simplest Form.
In 1998, Cryo Interactive Entertainment released Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, a tactical action/strategy videogame very loosely based on the book. The game allowed players to act as Joe Chip and train combat squads into missions against the Hollis Corporation. The game was available for Sony Playstation and for Microsoft Windows and was not a significant commercial success.
Attempts to Produce a Ubik Film
In 1974, French film maker Jean-Pierre Gorin commissioned Dick to write a screenplay for a Ubik film. Dick completed the screenplay but Gorin never filmed the project. The screenplay was published in 1985.
Independent producer John Alan Simon currently owns a provisional purchase agreement to write and sell a new screenplay based on the book. It is unknown when and if he plans to write the screenplay.
Possible Influence on Other Works
Though the connection (if any) is unknown, some elements in Ubik have appeared in subsequent motion pictures. The frozen starship captain in John Carpenter's Dark Star is in a similar state to half-life, as is the hero of Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky and its Spanish original, Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).