Ubik, by Philip K Dick, is certainly my all-time favourite science fiction novel – and another contender for my all time favourite novel of any genre.
Science fiction writers are sometimes said to be ahead of their time. In many cases, though, these writers are prescient not through some special gift of foresight but because they take the trouble to inform themselves about leading edge discoveries and theories. Jules Verne, for example, visited every famous scientist in Paris, as a journalist, and asked them what were currently the hot topics.
Similarly, H G Wells attended what is today Imperial College where he was fortunate to study science under Thomas Huxley – one of the sharpest scientific minds of the nineteenth century. The genius of these writers lay in them seeing the potential of new developments.
More recently still, Michael Crichton kept in close touch with the world of science, making full use of current discoveries and speculations. His wonderful Jurassic Park came about because of genuine scientific expectations that cloning might be possible using fossil DNA.
Philip K Dick, in my view, was ahead of his time not because he made himself privy to the latest discoveries but because he was truly gifted with an extraordinary ability to perceive, as long ago as the 1950s, where scientific trends were taking western society.
Terry Gilliam summed up Dick’s appeal perfectly when he said, “For everyone lost in the endlessly multiplicating realities of the modern world, remember: Philip K Dick got there first.”
Ubik, on the surface is an SF tale involving some far-out ideas (many of which have since come true and some of which are currently hovering on the edge of reality). But beneath the surface of futurology, it is the most perfect exploration and the most economical explanation of the central problem that attracts every intelligent person, that of solipsism. What is outside and what is inside? What is the connection between coincidence and the ‘reality’ of everyday life. Are we asleep, dreaming of butterflies or are we butterflies dreaming of being human?
Dick provides answers so frightening that most people would prefer to not know them. People who are fans of Dick are known, in their own circle, as Dick Heads. I’m proud to be a Dick Head.