Ubik: Phil Dick's Answer to Death After Life
by Charles Carreon
Joe Chip has a problem. He went to the moon with his boss, and got killed in a terrorist bomb attack. Or his boss was killed. He’s not sure, but either way, it’s a problem. It’s 1992 in a world a little different from ours. It’s still earth, and earth is still populated by people. But there are lots of psychics on the planet now, and the moon is colonized.
If Joe himself is dead, he must be in cold-pack in a Swiss half-life “moratorium,” where dead people can spend their half-life in a dreamlike space, and occasionally visit with relatives through a sort of psychic intercom. It’s a common thing to have relatives in cold-pack, and Joe’s boss, Glen Runciter, still meets to discuss business matters with his lovely dead wife Ella, who half-lives in the exclusive Beloved Brethren Moratorium, a Swiss facility that is supposed to be among the best. Ella Runciter died in her twenties, but Glen Runciter thinks so highly of her that he has never considered remarrying, despite his wealth.
Runciter Associates is a psychic security company, and Joe Chip is Glen Runciter’s top man. Although Joe was always broke, his life wasn’t entirely crazy until he met his new girlfriend, Pat Conley. Everything went crazy shortly after Joe introduced Pat to Runciter. Although both Joe and G.G. Ashwood, a renowned psychic talent scout, agreed that Pat had a powerful psychic talent, Runciter questioned whether he should even hire Pat, because he usually hired “inertials,” who block the psychic talents of “precogs” and “teeps” hired by Runciter’s nemesis, the Hollis organization of criminal psychics. But Pat wasn’t a psi-blocker. She displayed a new type of talent, the ability to change the future, not just foresee it. She could send people on alternative reality trips, to places a lot like the present, but with important differences.
Runciter had always refused to take jobs on the moon because of the security risks inherent in being away from earth, far from help. However, ever the businessman, he broke his rule to pick up a big contract job working for Stanton Mick, a plum client Runciter was eager to sign up for a very fat fee. Stanton Mick had told Runciter he needed immediate, massive assistance to block the efforts of a band of psychic spies who were invading the privacy of his lunar planned community. But shortly after Runciter and his inertials arrived, Mick came to meet Runciter in a conference room. Mick acted and talked strangely in a metallic voice in a grandstanding manner, setting everyone on edge. Slowly, it dawned on Runciter and Joe Chip that this wasn’t Mick; rather, it was an android made in his image. Alas, they didn’t figure this out until the android floated off the floor to gain destructive altitude, and an instant later, detonated.
Immediately after discovering that the blast had apparently killed Runciter, Joe Chip assumed control of Runciter Associates. He chartered a rocket and flew the survivors to Switzerland with Runciter’s body, where they booked him into the Beloved Brethren Moratorium, and tried to set up a half-life session. But Runciter wouldn’t revive into half-life, and Joe experienced the pain of losing his father figure.
After Runciter’s death Joe struggles to run the company, but he has some impediments. Like Philip K. Dick, Joe Chip finds himself habitually broke, and regularly abused by the his coin-op apartment door, which won’t let him out without depositing a poscred, and makes nasty remarks when he loses his temper. Sometimes he has to call friends to come by and visit, and pay to get in. Then he can borrow money from them to get himself out. But these problems are small, because one by one Joe’s friends are dying, turning into mummified ragbags of bone and hair. This horrific transformation occurs within a few hours after each individual quietly separates themselves from the group, seeking solitude and stillness.
Not only are Joe’s friends turning into mummies, all mechanical objects, except his apartment front door, are regressing to older models and falling apart. His TV turns into an old tube radio. The elevator in his building regressed from a modern self-serve box to a tiny lift with an accordion steel grate, and seemed to silently suggest: “Take the stairs.” Joe’s car turns into an old car, and even as he negotiates to sell it, the car ages into an even older model of jalopy that is virtually worthless. When he goes to the airport, all he can find to fly is an old biplane.
Due to a series of messages from Runciter that mysteriously appear on bathroom walls and elsewhere, Joe Chip learns that he is probably dead and merely half-living in the Beloved Brethren Moratorium, where Ella Runciter is also in half-life. To reverse the decay of all forms, and prevent himself from turning into a mummy, Runciter tells Joe to get UBIK in the aerosol can. Unfortunately, every time Joe is close to getting a can of aerosol-spray UBIK, he finds only old-fashioned, regressed versions of UBIK that contain toxic ingredients, or in one case, a substantial quantity of pure gold suspended in mineral oil. Fortunately, this last form of UBIK is worth a lot of money in the half-life realm, and Joe is able to trade it for a plane flight for Demoines, Iowa, where Runciter’s funeral is happening. Joe is still not sure that he is dead, so he of course wants to attend Runciter’s funeral.
After Runciter’s funeral, one by one, Joe’s friends just keep disappearing, hiding themselves from their friends so they can turn into psychic tumbleweeds and blow away into the void. The only one who isn’t dying is Pat Conley, Joe’s strange girlfriend. She thinks she’s doing the whole weird trip with her powers, thinks she’s immune from the death that’s stalking him, and drenches Joe with passive-aggressive cruelty while observing Joe’s painful effort to just go to his room and die. But Joe makes it to his room, where Runciter is waiting for him with a can of UBIK aerosol:
Shortly after this rejuvenating Ubik experience, Joe meets his true antagonist – Jory, a malevolent psychic juvenile delinquent who haunts the moratorium’s half-life realm. Jory is a projective psychotic who generates deceptive “realities” that seduce half-life dwellers into unreal realms and consumes the dregs of their half-life vitality. Dick’s description of Jory’s psychic attack on Joe Chip is bluntly physical and eerily frightening:
Shortly after the Jory encounter, from which Joe barely escapes with his life, he sees a pretty girl going down the street, and in a desperate hope to have one last pleasant moment, he strikes up a conversation with her and asks her to dinner. You can almost see Phil Dick counting his Dexedrine pills, getting hungry for a burger after days of speeding and typing, and figuring out he’d better finish this story up quick, before he consumes the last of his inspiration. The story picks up pace immediately after the unexpected encounter with the girl, which leads to the hasty revelation that she is Runciter’s dead wife. Ella Runciter tells Joe that his friends have been killed by Jory, but that, good news – he’s been granted a perpetual supply of UBIK. She explains to him that an aerosol can of UBIK is actually “A portable negative ionizer, with a self-contained, high-voltage, low-amp unit powered by a peak-gain helium battery of 25kv. The negative ions are given a counter-clockwise spin by a radically biased acceleration chamber, which creates a centripital tendency to them so that they cohere rather than dissipate.” UBIK, at 212 (Vintage 1991).
Immortality in a spray can? What else would we expect
from Phil Dick?