Dick: Ubik
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For most of his life Philip K. Dick was a rather obscure figure. Although he wrote novels and short stories in extraordinary numbers, producing more than thirty novels between 1955 and 1970, he never became rich or established more than a cult following even within the field of science fiction. Many of them were not published until after his death. (The French, apparently, took him seriously -- as they did many of the stranger manifestations of low American culture). He won a Hugo Award for his 1961 book The Man in the High Castle -- one of the finest works of alternate history ever to be produced. In the 1970s Dick picked up a growing following among academic critics, joined by an increasing popular readership during the 1980s following the success of the film Blade Runner (based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). He died in 1982, spending his final years in the grip of a belief that he was the recipient of some kind of divine enlightenment.

Ubik is among his most highly regarded novels. Like most of his books, it deals with ordinary people placed in outrageous conditions. Technology has a mind of its own, reality crumbles under us, the forces of order and chaos battle beneath the surface of the world. The book sits between the concerns of his earlier work (1950s America and nuclear war) and those of his later work (theological struggles between light and darkness). He takes many standard themes of 1950s science fiction (space colonies, PSI, androids) and twists them into something strangely personal. Be warned that the beginning is somewhat clumsy -- the story Dick seems about to tell us turns out to be merely a set up for an entirely different one. Everything shifts in chapter six, including the tone. Stick with it, and remember that it's very funny.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is actually going on? Do you care?
  2. The relationship of Dick's hero, Joe Chip to his world, and to the technology around him, is very different from that experienced by the heroes of the other books. How would you characterize the differences (give examples)? Do you identify in a different way with the characters?
  3. Does half-life have any theological parallels? Is this a religious book? How does it fall between the attitudes to religion displayed by Miller and Herbert?
  4. What is Ubik anyway? What are we to make of the explanations on page 127 and 212? What is Dick doing with all those adverts at the start of chapters (look at the last one, particularly)?
  5. Particularly at the beginning of the story, many late-1960s themes are apparent. How does the novel's vision of 1992 reflect the time at which it was written?
  6. The book is in some ways a puzzle story -- both the characters and the reader are trying to figure out what is really going on. In this is similar to the Asimov stories. What are the parallels, and (more importantly) how does it ultimately differ for reader and characters alike?


bulletPhilip K. Dick is the subject of numerous websites, such as www.philipkdick.com.
bulletHere is a nice essay on his life and work.
bulletHis books are summarized and listed here.
bulletSomebody made a rather funny website based on Ubik as a product.
bulletThere's a rather unhinged page about Ubik from someone who seems to have written a masters thesis on it.
bulletAs well as Blade Runner, Dick stories have been filmed as Total Recall and Screamers. Imposter (apparently dreadful) just came out, and The Minority Report is underway with Spielberg and Tom Cruise. Oddly, all of these are based on short stories rather than novels. However, Dick did turn Ubik into a script.
bulletA few years ago the early part of the story inspired a video game.

Page created by Thomas Haigh. Last edited  01/12/2002.