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Literature / Ubik

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Describe Ubik here? Why, all you need to know is that you want it!

But if you really must know, it's a seminal 1969 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick, picked by Time Magazine as one of their Top 100 books of the last century. In the future, the proliferation of psychic talents has led, through the process of natural selection, to anti-psychics who can nullify psychic powers. Glen Runciter runs the foremost "prudence organization" in the world, sending his operatives out to protect his clients' secrets, while occasionally consulting his wife and partner in the firm, who just so happens to be a Human Popsicle frozen at the moment of her death in "cold-pac". This allows him to occasionally consult with her before her half-life ends, whereupon she will begin reincarnating (hey, it was the mid-60s; the Bardo Thodol was all the rage back then).

Meet Joe Chip, our protagonist: a technician working for Runciter who's so perpetually broke he has to argue with his (coin-operated) artificially intelligent appliances to get them to work. When one of Runciter's talent scouts comes to him with a Mysterious Waif named Pat Conley, he finds what may be the most powerful anti-psychic talent the world has ever seen. She can rewrite the past itself to counteract precognitive predictions. Chip hardly has time to process this before Runciter whisks the two of them and a handful of others away to the moon for a lucrative operation against his rival, Ray Hollis, head of a psychic spy firm. But the operation quickly sours when an explosion grievously wounds Runciter. The team heads back to Earth, desperate to save their boss by putting him into cold-pac.

However, as the team licks their wounds and wonders what to do next, strange shifts in reality start to happen, seemingly connected to Pat Conley and her "talents". Objects and places regress to chronologically-earlier versions of themselves. Mysterious commercials from Runciter appear on the television that are timed specifically for when Joe is present. Anyone who wanders away from the group is found withered and dessicated, as if consumed by the force of entropy itself. But despite the world unraveling around them, there is still one constant in the chaos: the mysterious product called 'Ubik' that keeps appearing everywhere in time and space, carrying with it a dire warning: "Use only as directed".

And believe it or not, from there on out things get weirder....

The novel was adapted into a PC and PlayStation game by Cryo Interactive in 1998.

This novel has examples of:

  • Absurdly Long Stairway: The novel makes an ordinary, sixteen-step staircase into one of these, as the character climbing them has had his life-force drained near completely by a local psychic vampire, and crawling up even one step becomes an immense effort.
  • Artificial Afterlife: Human souls reincarnate after death, in accordance with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But science can also artificially lengthen how long souls linger after death, by placing the recently deceased in "cold-pac". The experience inside cold-pac is indistinguishable from living reality (at first), so it takes a while for several characters to realize they were Dead All Along.
  • Benevolent Boss: Runciter.
    "I'm Glen Runciter, I'm your boss and I'm the one fighting to save all your lives".
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The first time Glen Runciter visits his wife in Cold-pac, he finds that another Human Popsicle, by the name of Jory, is trying to get in on the conversation. Jory turns out to be the one draining the protagonists' life force.
  • Dead All Along: Someone probably is. Maybe Runciter. Maybe the rest of the team. Maybe both. Have fun figuring out precisely who.
  • Dwindling Party: One by one, the group are being reduced to withered corpses.
  • Human Popsicle: "Cold-pac", a sort-of mortuary service where dying people are frozen so that their loved ones or associates can talk to them while they live out their "half-life", what few moments are left to them, distended out into years. The process has also proven the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is absolutely true.
  • Jingle: All the chapters start with an Ubik jingle.
  • The Lost Lenore: Ella Runciter to her husband, Glen - though technically she's still in a state of "half-life" following her death several decades earlier, and the two can have limited contact in the form of technologically mediated psychic conversations. However, the fact that Runciter never remarried in the intervening five or six decades, and would still rather talk to Ella than anyone living, says a lot.
    • Wendy Wright to Joe Chip.
  • Meaningful Name: Joe Chip.
    • Also Arc Words "Ubik", which, as some characters fathom, is short for "ubiquity".
  • MegaCorp: The Prudence Societies, such as Runciter Associates, the Beloved Brethren Moratorium, Stanton Mick's businesses, Ray Hollis' Psis.
  • Our Gods Are Different: There are strong hints that Ubik itself is God. The last jingle makes it even more obvious.
    • Dick's wife Tess is the closest we have as Word of God to confirm it: "Ubik is a metaphor for God. Ubik is all-powerful and all-knowing, and Ubik is everywhere".
  • Power Nullifier: Runciter Associates is an organization of anti-psychics.
    • Also Ubik. Jory cannot consume people that have used Ubik.
  • Psychic Powers: Telepaths (teeps) and precognitives (precogs) mostly. Some of Runciter's men are called "anti-parakineticist" and "anti-animator", meaning there're also "parakineticists" and "animators", whatever those do.
    • And it's also hinted that there are psychics who can cure diseases.
  • Reality Bleed: Glen Runciter's image begins to manifest itself everywhere. And then, although the story is set in 1992, the year 1939 tries to get in on the action.
  • Red Herring Mole: As more characters die and history regresses to 1939, the survivors begin to suspect Pat as the cause of the trouble, since she's Runciter's newest employee and could easily be a saboteur. They're wrong.
  • Reincarnation: When Runciter first talks to his wife in cold-pac, she says she'll soon be reincarnating.
  • Retcon: Literally Pat Conley's power. As Runciter puts it, she has "An ability anyhow connected with time reversion; not, strictly speaking, the ability to travel through time for instance, she can't go into the future. In a certain sense, she can't go into the past either; what she does, as near as I can comprehend it, is start a counter-process that uncovers the prior stages inherent in configurations of matter".
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Jory is able to "eat" all his victims in half-life without being removed from cold-pac or being put down due to his family paying very well to constantly keep him in his vegetative state.
  • Techno Babble: Parodied. Asking what Ubik is yields an incredibly long, complicated answer full of all sorts of technical jargon, which Joe interrupts because, if the person giving the answer uses the phrase "negative ions", he figures they probably don't know what they're talking about.note 
  • Ten Little Murder Victims: Pat Conley is strongly suspected of orchestrating the one-by-one death of Runciter's men - all whole ten of them. And then it's revealed that she didn't do it; Jory did. Indeed, it's strongly implied that she was repeatedly using her powers to save Joe Chip to the best of her ability.
  • They Don't Make Them Like They Used To: When Joe Chip is shunted back to 1939, he finds that the technology there feels sturdier and more dependable than that of his own time. Although, given that "1939" may just be an illusion generated by cold-pac, there's no telling how much of it is just in his head.
  • Values Dissonance: In-Universe. Joe Chip is rather uncomfortable to realize that the average US citizens of 1939 has more in common with the Nazis than with them. He even remarks that he's never heard the N-word used before. Of course, he comes from 1992, the real-life year of the Rodney King riots. Dick's post-racial future is probably even more optimistic than the easy lunar travel.
  • Yandere: Pat Conley, to the point she is willing to bend the time-space continuum to marry her mark. Downplayed, however, when it's revealed that she's not the one killing off Chip's party, and it's even implied that she's using her powers to keep him alive.
  • Your Soul Is Mine!: Jory Miller has to consume other people in "half-life" to keep healthy. The results are not nice.