Book Review: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

UbikUbik by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the SF Masterworks Reading Challenge and the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club here on Goodreads.

So far, my acquaintance with PKD has been strictly through this determination of mine to read through the entirety of the SF Masterworks imprint, which has spawned the book club and three annual challenges. So far, for all the hype, I haven’t been as impressed as I hoped to be. Dick is a writer who happens to have become the darling of the literary world, who claim that he’s “so original.” What that tells me is that literary critics are too snobbish to read science fiction and have absolutely no understanding whatsoever of the field.

Because, part of my education in the course of reading this list was to read the only two novels that Alfred Bester gave to the world, The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man; and it seems to me that Dick made a career mostly of rewriting and reworking ideas from those two novels.

This is not to say that I don’t think PKD is a brilliant writer, because he really is! His style is clever and engaging. His understanding of people is excellent! He does exactly what a good writer is supposed to do. One of my other favourite writers, Stephen King, is no different. He has made a career out of rewriting and reworking ideas from classic sci-fi novels. And I think he’s brilliant too.

No, it’s Dick’s critics and the snobbish fools who think that sci-fi is all about alien invasions that piss me off. Why are all the prestigious awards given out by these people, who continually award people for “originality” when they’re just putting out things that have been done before?

I mean, if they were being rewarded for damn good writing, I would have no problems with that. It’s damn good writing. It’s a pleasure, as someone who writes, to read such a master of the craft. I’m coming to like PKD for the same reasons I like Stephen King and Margaret Atwood; they can really turn a phrase and their acute understanding of people makes them tell a hell of a story.

But they’re not that original! All three of these writers have made a career of reworking stuff that’s been done before. Like this book, which is a reworking of ideas out of The Demolished Man, sprinkled liberally with a certain “70s future-cool” style that looked familiar after I read Stand on Zanzibar (which, incidentally, was written a year earlier than Ubik; I checked.) By that I mean that a lot of attention was paid to the dominion of the corporate ideal where absolutely nothing, not even opening the door, is free; drugs and sex of all kinds are available for liberal purchase almost anywhere, which sounds good but is especially jarring when blended with early 70s sexism; and a great deal of undue attention is paid to odd invented slang and the weird things people wore for fashion, which was clearly intended to be as outlandish as possible from 1969’s perspective. On that level, it was extremely clever satire! But yes, Stand on Zanzibar was doing that too.

This is not to say that I didn’t like the book, because I really did! I’m not even going to get into the plot because it’s too convoluted, and if I said anything that wasn’t in the blurb I’d just spoil it for you. You had no idea what was going on, right until the very end, and even then there are different ways to interpret it. It was a hell of a good read that kept me turning pages quickly, just to solve the mystery. I was deeply invested in the fate of the characters as well.

And speaking of Stephen King, I can tell that this was one of the sci-fi classics he’s read, because a lot of what was going on centered around a cleverly-rendered (and yes, in this case, original) sense of temporal decay that looks somewhat familiar to me from One Past Midnight: The Langoliers. Not identical, but there are enough similarities that I recognize its footprint.

I believe there is no such thing as an original idea, and every idea grows out of another one. Which is why I can say that I enjoyed Dick’s writing, even while I think many of his literary critics are either jerks or fools. And this is an example of PKD at his best. I see why it has earned its place in the SF Masterworks.  Other works of his have not done as well (see my review of Martian Time-Slip and my review of A Scanner Darkly for comparison.) So I do heartily recommend it!

All I ask is that people who claim to be literary critics give credit where credit is due, instead of denying credit that others deserve by giving it to other writers they like better.

View all my reviews

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