Safe when taken as directed.

Safe when taken as directed.

“At three-thirty AM on the night of 5 June 1992, the top telepath in the Sol System fell off the map in the offices of Runciter Associates in New York City.”

I’ve always been faintly amused by ideas of the future held by those in the past. During the Space Race, it seems that every week a magazine somewhere in the world published an article about “The Home of the Future” or something, which invariably had a nuclear family wearing silver foil uniforms, living on the Moon and spending their days eating food tablets, playing anti-gravity sports and going for jaunts out in their flying cars. The ideas were in all aspects of society; perhaps most obviously in Back To The Future II, which takes place in what was then the far off future of 2015. As we can now report back to Marty McFly however, our shoes don’t lace themselves, the Jaws franchise wasn’t quite that successful, and we are still sorely lacking in hoverboard technology.

These encroachment of the present on the past I’ve discussed before on the blog, but I’ve always found it funny when we surpass the future predicted of us. 1984 is probably the most famous example, and even Doctor Who has done it a few times, even having episodes first aired in 2005 set in the future of 2012, which is now our past. With this book we have a particularly good example. Although written in 1969, it takes place in 1992, suggesting that Philip K Dick had more faith in the speedy advancement of the human race than anyone else.

Ubik begins in this alternate (to us, anyway) 1990s where humans have established easy-to-access colonies on both the Moon and Mars, everything from your oven to your front door requires payment to work, and psi technologies are so commonplace that there are whole organisations in place to provide you with anti-telepaths to protect your privacy. One of these companies is run by Glen Runciter, assisted by his dead wife Ella who is kept in a state of half-life in Zurich. This is a commonplace procedure now and, for large sums of money, anyone can be frozen and contacted from beyond the grave.

Joe Chip is one of the technicians for the company and also one of Runciter’s best friends. When he is introduced to a new agent, Pat Conley, things begin to get interesting. She has a unique ability among those with psychic powers, in that she can change the past causing events to never happen. Although wary of her talent, Runciter has been called upon to get a team of his greatest agents together and help business magnate Stanton Mick protect his company. Unfortunately, when they reach the moonbase where they are supposed to do their work, they find that it’s a trap. A bomb goes off and kills Runciter, leaving the others struggling to return to Earth. When they get there, however, things go from bad to worse. All the money they have is suddenly obsolete, food begins to decompose, and their own bodies slowly degrade as the world falls back in time until it resembles 1939. Now in charge of the company, Joe has to work out what has happened, how Runciter is still managing to communicate with him, and just what exactly this Ubik product is…

ubik2Science fiction can be a mixed bag and while this certainly isn’t hard science fiction, there are some strange things about it. The explanation of what Ubik is comes too late to care, although the book ends on a wonderfully disturbing note. The previous pages are laced with signs that the future hasn’t strictly gone the way humanity wanted, and definitely not the way our real world did. The idea that all services must be paid for seems rather strange (at one point, Joe doesn’t even have enough money to pay his front door to let him out), but perhaps it is merely Dick’s vision of the way the future was going.

As usual with things written about the future, there are numerous things missing. There’s no Internet, but there are videophones, and there are still physical newspapers and phone books, both of which would probably be absent if this was written now about a time thirty years hence. The idea of cryogenics is interesting and the idea that the bodies can be recalled to impart knowledge and memories at any time is good, although the implications of this are enormous.

Perhaps strangest of all is simply how fast technology must’ve progressed in Dick’s universe. The 1939 we see is identical, for all intents and purposes, to our one, and the outcome of the Second World War is described as the one we know, which implies that all the changes in medicine, communications, transport and technology all happened in less than fifty years. And these are big changes, such as people no longer seeming to age the way we would expect. Fashion has also changed in ways we can’t imagine, and each character has their outfits described in curious detail. Among other fashion choices displayed we have Joe in “pinstriped clown-style pyjamas”, one man in “his usual mohair poncho, apricot-colored felt hat, argyle ski socks and carpet slippers” and another in an “electric-yellow cummerbund, petal skirt, knee-hugging hose and military-style visored cap”. To each their own, I suppose.

It’s a strange book. I liked it, but be prepared to deal with a lot of words that aren’t explained and as such may take a while to understand. I’ve read people say that it’s deeply unsettling, and I suppose I get that, but it didn’t affect me as much as it seems to affect others. It’s creepy, certainly, and if you enjoyed the film Inception, then in particular this may be of considerable interest to you. It belongs in the canon of classic science fiction, quite rightly, but there is that feeling that stays with you once the book has closed, when you think that maybe the world you see around you isn’t quite the one you thought you knew…

If you like to be unsure about what’s going on beneath the surface or behind the curtain of the world, check out my interpretation in my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus and see what horrors exist just beyond where you normally see.