Before the universe was, I am – Ubik review by Sigfrid

SFFDen_ubikA significant turning point in Dick’s back-catalogue.

It is 1992, and some sections of humanity have developed psychic capabilities, while others have developed the ability to suppress the capabilities of others. When Glen Runciter, the boss of an anti-psychic company is apparently murdered by business rivals, time appears to start regressing, and manifestations of the dead businessman start appearing to his employees. Is Runciter really dead?

This was a mesmerising and disturbing novel. In many ways this is a horror story. Supernatural events appear to start ganging up on our group of unlikely protagonists, backing them into corners and threatening to drive them insane. We even get some spooky writing appearing on bathroom mirrors! I got the sense of the author firmly turning his back on his early hard sci-fi work, and striking out into far more unexplored territory, incorporating supernatural, fantastical events with an undeniably sci-fi flavour.

Interestingly, there is no attempt to document or explain the rise of psi powers, or the half-life technology. While hugely ambitious technologies and mutations are nothing new to Dick, there is usually some background provided. Consequently, this book requires us to suspend disbelief more so than, say, Dr Bloodmoney. This adds to the sense of mystery and intrigue, and allows the reader to be fully immersed in the confusion and terror of the characters.

The development of psychic powers has had an interesting impact upon the world. While it appears to be a complete game-changer, in many ways there is a sense of ‘business as usual’. The laws of supply and demand have seamlessly leapt into action, creating two rival industries of psychics and anti-psychics, who both rent their services to companies paying gigantic bills. Anything is still available if the price is right, and even your own front door will refuse to function without a pay-off. This could even be read as an early anticipation of the cyberpunk genre, as the strong arm of the law has absolutely no impact upon the criminal actions of companies and their employees.

SFFDen_PKDMainA commonly recurring theme in later Dick novels, Dick places his characters in situations which force them to start questioning whether or not their experiences are real. The key to this is the technology required to keep someone’s conscience in communication with the world long after their death: a kind of virtual reality, long before the computer age. As with many virtual reality novels, characters become lost within their new confines, unsure of what is real and what is not. The second half of the novel in particular seems, to me, to have been a huge influence upon Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and the novel and film share an almost identical final scene.

On top of being a highly entertaining and disturbing read, this novel also marks a significant turning point in Dick’s back-catalogue, and is vital reading for any ‘Dickhead’.

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2 thoughts on “Before the universe was, I am – Ubik review by Sigfrid

  1. I have so many Dick books on my ‘need to read’ list and now, add 1 more. 🙂 I’m intrigued by the rivalry you describe–I don’t suppose Bakker borrowed any of that for sorcery and aporos? I wonder how much of this book was influenced by the Cold War?

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  2. Hi bakkerfans and thanks for your comment. I must admit I have not read any Bakker, so I cannot say.

    As to the Cold War, so much of Dick’s earlier work was inspired by the Cold War – I recently churned my way through Beyond Lies The Wub, his earliest volume of short stories, and the vast majority deal with atom bombs and global wars between ideological rivals. But I can’t say I found that particularly with Ubik. Ideology seems fairly settled planet-wide, and the main flashback is to the 2nd World War. My opinion (having not read that much Dick, to be fair) is that by the late 60s Dick had decided to move away from Cold War, bombs, fallout etc, and focus instead on far more speculative technologies and psychic abilities.

    I really cannot recommend this book enough, it was a pleasure to read – once you have read it I would love to hear your thoughts!

    Nick

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