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Book Review

Book Cover

Ubik (Folio Society Hardback)


Author: Philip K. Dick
Illustrations: La Boca
Publisher: The Folio Society
224 pages
RRP: £39.95
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Publication Date: Available now

Philip K. Dick spent the whole of his life trying to figure out the nature of reality, how we know what we know and how can we prove it. René Descartes could not define it further than ‘I think, therefore I am’, but even that requires a belief that everything you feel and know is proof of your only supportable reality. But what if even this was not the case.

In two of his most famous books, The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), Dick firstly explores the idea of people living in a fake history, the second examines fake people, animals and the nature of perception. Things are only real when there is a consensus, but when that breaks down terrifyingly interesting things can occur. The theme is so strong that, like an M. Night Shyamalan film, the reader is looking for the twist from the first page.

A lessor known, but no less impressive, Dick novel is Ubik (1969, reprinted by Folio Society 2019. 224 pages).

Ubik constructs a future world where there exist many people with psionic capabilities. Some are telepaths, some precogs with the ability to see variable potential futures, which allow them to pick the best one. Many of these are used in industrial espionage. To counter this threat Glen Runciter runs a company offering people with counter-talents which can neutralise psionic abilities.

Dick often uses the structure of a major and minor protagonist. In this case Runciter is the major character, but just as important is Joe Chip, whose job is to find those gifted with counter-talents. He is introduced to Pat. The first thing he notices about her is her Latin tattoo ‘Caveat Emptor’, Buyer Beware. She can dip back into the past to change the course of reality choices, meaning that she has control over everybody’s reality. This makes her the most powerful of her type and potentially a dangerous character.

Another strong theme in Dick's books was the idea of cheating death, or more accurately circumventing the inevitable end. To this end the world of Ubik has perfected a way of keeping the recently dead in a state of suspension, hanging between life and death. In this state of half-life the dead can be temporarily reanimated so that their love ones can talk to them. This is not a permanent state and the more they are awoken the shorter their remaining time becomes.

When Runciter is killed he is naturally placed into suspended animation, but this event has a dramatic effect on everybody else’s reality. His face starts to turn up on coins and the world appears to be regressing and decaying. Ok! There is a twist in all of this, but it is not for me to spoil the ending.

The new version from the Folio Society is treated with their usual loving care. The book comes with six colour plate illustrations plus a frontispiece, all by La Boca, an independent design studio established in 2002, who have done a lot of work in literary science fiction.

The introduction is written by Kim Stanley Robinson, the American, multi-award-winning science fiction author, probably best known for his Mars trilogy. It’s an honest assessment of Dick’s work and his influence on science fiction.

The hardback book measures 9˝ x 6¼˝ and comes in a die-cut slipcase, with the word Ubik cut out, through which you can partially see the book. The book itself is bound in blocked vinyl-coated paper. The colours chosen are either going to be viewed as arresting or clashing with the slipcase a kind of pink and the main book green.

Personally, I think that this was a deliberate choice as it reinforces the idea of disorientation and illusion, as evidenced by the pattern on the front of the book which creates a physiological illusion. The overall package also contains a secret of its own waiting to be discovered.

So, what you have here is the last of Dick's great books, shot through with dark humour and biting criticism of the over commercialism of the world. In the end what is Ubik will be up to the reader, a universal panacea or a vain attempt to stop entropy.


Charles Packer

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