Philip K. Dick was a hack but an odd sort of hack. People love him and people love Ubik. Filmmakers love him, guys in bars love him, graduate students love him. He has a pulpy genre quality combined with the kind of broad and flat philosophical high concept where you can’t figure out whether it’s profound or not, it’s like a cheap pickup line that someone else finds irresistible so who are we to say? If you looked for a closest cousin you’d find Kurt Vonnegutt.
Ubik starts as a hardboiled corporate bust-up between psychics and anti-psychics (“inertials”) in a seedy warped 1992 future of lunar colonies and a cryogenic half-life for the newly dead. A sexy new psychic appears, with the ability to retroactively alter the timeline, and from there the timeline goes sideways then sidways again. Following an assassination attempt, the protagonists flee through a world where objects age, strange messages appear, people waste away and die without warning.
The bite of it isn’t in the corporate gang war. Sex and violence make their cameos but the heart of it is in the perverse care and detail given to the horror of death and dying, languor and decay. The heroes try to make sense of a world that withers away selectively; energy and youth mean life and survival; age and weariness are death. Everything else is trivia.
Ubik itself is a crux. The word appears as a brand name in satirical advertisements at the head of each chapter, 1950s-era jingles. But when it appears in the text - there, it’s a sparkling life-giving elixir in an aerosol can, administered by an angelic presence. So what is Ubik? Consumerist fluff or authentic life force?
From what the text gives us, maybe they’re the same? The living fight and have sex and betray; the dead watch and consume; and meanwhile beauty is beauty and desire is desire and they’re on the side of life.