Top critical review
A mesh of fine speculation and wasted opportunities
on May 1, 2001
I'm having a lot of trouble figuring out my take on "Ubik". I enjoyed the speculation it offers, where the futures of the afterlife, corporate culture, and advertising are imagined in a very believable (and simply explained) way. I also enjoyed the suspense and mystery elements it offers. Someone has sabotaged Runciter Associates, the world's leading "prudence organization" (telepathic defenders against precognitive corporate raiders; don't trust my explanation, just know that Dick's is much more clear), and now they're slowly dying off. But how, and why? It is an interesting setup and the answer comes slowly and assuredly (except for the ending, which felt like an unnecessary tweaking of the tension, and logically made little sense). These disparate elements were handled well.
The problem is that the elements don't add up to a cohesive whole. Or rather, a cohesive whole that transcends the genre. Science fiction, to me, should speak about grand issues on a grand scale. The issues here were focussed on a very small group of people, and did not really speak to a larger community. I don't feel threatened by a half-life menace, such as the one that stalks Joe Chip and his crew. Although the idea of inertials, precogs, telepaths, etc. does hit close to home, the dystopian future Dick creates just didn't scare me enough. And besides, the characters he creates are quite slight, nothing more than two-dimensional devices around which paranoia swirls.
Another problem is more a result of wasted opportunity, based on personal biases. I truly enjoy works that explore the possibilities and perils of time travel (the second "Back to the Future" movie is my favourite of that series, and a fine example of the fun a warped space-time continuum can provide in a narrative context). When the Runciter gang goes back in time (in a way), Dick only tangentially explores this phenomenon (e.g. Joe Chip discussing the outcome of WWII with a xenophobic pilot), and to me that's not enough. Like I said, it's an opportunity wasted.
Dick does his best work here within the epigraphs that begin each chapter. Set up as advertisements for the mysterious title-product, each is a parody of omnipotent cure-all consumer products. But Dick also throws in a menacing warning line that the unfocused consumer wouldn't pick up on. They provided the lion's share of laughs in the novel.