Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
Published in 1969, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik takes place in a fictional future of 1992. The corporate world is plagued by spies from Ray Hollis' psionic agency. The psionics have various psychic powers including telepathy and precognition. They infiltrate organizations to steal their valuable secrets.
Joe Chip is a tester for Runciter Associates, the world’s leading prudence organization. Prudence organizations find “inertials,” people whose psychic counter-talents can neutralize the talents of Hollis' psionics. They’re in high demand by companies that have been infiltrated by psionics and are bleeding information.
Chip enters companies like a consultant and tests to see what kinds of psionics are at work, so Runciter Associates will know which types of counter-talent to deploy. Chip also scouts new employees for Runciter, identifying the type and strength of their counter-talents.
The story opens with the agency head, Glen Runciter, in a state of worry. His agents have lost track of one of Hollis' most dangerous telepaths, S. Dole Melipone. Runciter flies to Europe to consult with his late wife, Ella, who is frozen in half-life in a Zurich moratorium.
Those lucky enough to be cryonically frozen between the moment of clinical death and the moment brain activity ceases go to moratoria instead of mortuaries. Once on ice, their brains can be stimulated so their loved ones can continue to communicate with them, though half-life is limited. Each time you awaken your loved one for a visit, they lose some of their remaining time.
As Runciter receives sage advice from his wife on how to handle the situation, Joe Chip encounters a psionic with a talent never seen before. Pat Conley, a striking young woman from Kansas with an air of untamable wildness, has the ability to turn back time. Not just for herself, but for everyone.
She uses the talent to her advantage when she meets Joe. She wants to be hired by Runciter Associates, but she’s made a bad first impression and Joe rejects her. She accurately reads who he wants her to be, winds the clock back, re-introduces herself, and Joe accepts her.
When he doubts her talent, she shows him the hand-written assessment he had made of her when he rejected her in the first time loop. You see, she says, I went back and replayed our meeting so it would come out to my advantage. Joe sees the note is legit. It’s in his handwriting, on his paper, and it contains a private symbol whose significance only he and Glen Runciter understand.
Joe hires Pat Conley, though he flags her as dangerous and untrustworthy. No one quite knows what to make of her talent, because no one has ever seen anything like it.
Here we have a uniquely interesting setup, and the plot hasn’t even kicked in yet. It gets going in earnest when a woman comes to Runciter seeking help. Her corporate offices on the moon have been infiltrated by Hollis' psionics, who are siphoning off confidential information. She suspects the infiltration is bad and requests as many anti-psis as Runciter can provide.
(Spoilers from here on.)
Runciter and his team walk into a trap on the moon. Hollis sends a humanoid bomb–an android indistinguishable from a real human–to kill them. After chatting for few minutes, the humanoid explodes.
Joe and his team, injured and dazed, make it out alive, but Runciter doesn’t. They haul his dying body back to the ship and put him in cold-pac, hoping they’ve preserved him early enough to keep him in half-life. When they return to Earth, they put him in the moratorium next to his wife and set the staff to work to try to make contact.
Meanwhile, in the world outside, strange things are happening. Inert items age at astonishing rates. Joe’s cigarettes dry and crumble at his touch. Fresh coffee molds instantly. Milk clots as soon as it’s poured.
The process of rapid deterioration spreads to Joe’s associates. One of them ages decades in a matter of minutes, falls dead, and then overnight, her corpse ages a thousand years.
What happened there on the moon, Joe wonders. What did that bomb do to us survivors?
Everything in the world starts reverting to earlier forms. Modern appliances–refrigerators, tape recorders–devolve into their more primitive forms from decades earlier. Rockets revert to jets and then to ancient piston-driven propeller planes.
Pat Conley, it seems, is using her power to turn back time throughout the world. But why?
And why can’t the moratorium establish contact with the late Glen Runciter? Joe Chip needs his boss' advice, but no one can get through to the man in cold-pac.
Runciter, however, seems to be contacting Joe through other means. Messages from Runciter begin to appear on matchbooks, on product labels, on the traffic ticket a policeman issues to Chip in Des Moines.
Graffiti on bathroom walls, written in Runciter’s own handwriting, tells Joe that Joe is the one who died in bombing. Joe is in half-life. Runciter is on the outside, trying to make contact.
It’s impossible for Joe or Runciter or the reader to know which reality is true. Who is alive? Who is dead? Is the world really devolving, or is that just an illusion? All possibilities are equally plausible. Empirical evidence supports all of them. They are all true, even if they contradict each other. Or else none of them are true.
Reality in the half-life is tenuous and brittle. The world’s outward forms keep devolving to earlier, more primitive states. Joe comes to understand that in this world, as in the world of full life, two primal forces are constantly at work against each other, and neither is able to fully defeat the other.
One force is creative, bringing order and vitality; the other is entropic, bringing dissolution and decay. They swirl around each other like yin and yang.
In the half-life, each force has its avatar. Joe meets and talks to both of them.
Dick, the author, spent years abusing amphetamines and taking LSD. In his waking life, the line between reality and imagination was always shifting. He spent years trying to decipher some of the visions and hallucinations that overwhelmed him. Many of his books, including this one and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, present a number of competing, overlapping realities that coexist despite their contradictions.
Dick’s gift is that he can convey this sense of fluid reality so starkly. He makes the reader feel the confusion and clarity first-hand. No writer could do that without having lived through it first. No writer can take you where he hasn’t gone himself.
Dick and Stanislav Lem represent science fiction at its best. When they explore an alternate world, it’s not just for effect. They dig into the deep questions of existence and reality. Ubik gives no answers, but it sure does make you think.