I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.
In Ubik, a group of “inertials,” paraphysical technicians who make a living neutralizing psychic spies, are sent on a routine business trip to the moon. They experience a reality-shattering event, an explosion which they believe to have survived. Upon returning to Earth, however, they begin to notice strange phenomena of decay: their cigarettes are stale, their coffee goes moldy as soon as they order it, their money is obsolete. These conditions, initially minor, ramp to fever-pitch as forces of decay wreak havok on their world. Reality begins to revert to earlier forms all around them. Formerly high-speed pneumatic elevators turn into brass-caged contraptions staffed by vacant-eyed operators. Automated appliances become wood-burning stoves, flat-paneled televisions morph into old Victrola radios. The changes happen in fits and starts, varying from one individual to the next; for some, it’s 1992. For others, 1939. It’s like a literal version of William Gibson’s overly quoted truism: The future (or, rather, the past) is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
This isn’t time-travel, to be clear: each object in the world and its place remains the same, only in increasingly primitive versions. It’s a subjective withering of modernity, a hefty, sped-up obsolescence. “The past is latent, is submerged,” Dick writes, “capable of rising to the surface once the later imprinting unfortunately–and against ordinary experience–vanished.”
Like most of Dick’s novels, Ubik centers around a group of people trying to make sense of an inconsistent and shifting reality. Why is it suddenly 1939? Will the phenomena continue until the very structure of the world blinks out into nothingness? As the world devolves and entropy laps everything, the inertials desperately seek order, or a cause, among the shifting ruins; science-fiction critics warily familiar with Philip K. Dick refer to this as the “reality problem.” Thankfully, another force seems to be keeping the inertials alive, a mysterious product called “Ubik.” The titular Ubik is a reality support spray that helps shore up the edges of the crumbling world: “One invisible puff-puff whisk of economically-priced Ubik banishes obsessive-compulsive fears that the entire world is turning into clotted milk…plus other, as-yet-unglimpsed manifestations of decay.” This life-preserving force is a fairly transparent metaphor: Ubik derives from the latin ubique, the root of ubiquity, the defining attribute of the Christian God.
Here, more so than usual, the dimensions of Dick’s experiment are metaphysical. Ubik/God, applied sparingly, as the manufacturer indicates, not taken internally, in the recommended dosage, keeps the walls from caving in. It props up that ever-shifty mental construct we call reality. Of course, like God, Ubik isn’t an eternal manifestation of spiritual grace or guidance, but a human invention, a kind of jargony scientific made-up thing, a commercial product, if anything just a totem of the struggle against entropy. So God is the end of the road, but the signposts are manmade, plunking names and measurable boundaries down where there really are only undifferentiated, formless lagoons of reality.
Ubik is a fascinating novel, proceeding at a sensible clip while simultaneously caving in on itself at every turn–really, the purest distillation of Dick’s maddening, anti-literary style. Its mysteries compound on one another in ragged concentric circles until there is nothing concrete left to hold onto, but it somehow retains the formal elements of a propulsive work of fiction. The story works, despite–or perhaps due to–a narrative constructed from contradictory events. Like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, it presents new variations on narrative time: cycles which shade over one another in overlapping shapes, pinned to alternate sources of light, creating a wash of gray. Is regret just nostalgia for a half-remembered alternate timeline?
Not that it necessarily clarifies or enhances a reading of his work, but Dick in the Ubik years had reconciled himself to the belief that we were all living in a static timeline (which happens to be Biblical Judea) masked by a shifting, artificial modern world. Sometimes, he believed, shamans, mystics, and science fiction writers could cut through this veil of Maya and gawk unflinchingly at the stone-cold real shit, where time breaks down. “I have an abiding intuition,” he wrote in 1978, “that somehow the world of the Bible is a literally real but veiled landscape, never changing, hidden from our sight, but available to us by revelation.” There’s an eerie logic to this, and it’s the bottom line of his later work, but then again, he had a hell of an amphetamine habit.
Time is speeding up. And to what end? Maybe we were told that two thousand years ago. Or maybe it wasn’t really that long ago; maybe it is a delusion that so much time has passed. Maybe it was a week ago, or even earlier today. Perhaps time is not only speeding up; perhaps, in addition, it is going to end.