Set in the near future, Ubik opens with a crisis in a security company, Runciter Associates, which is having difficulty tracking individuals whose extraordinary psychic powers make them dangerous information thieves. The band of these psis is headed by Ray Hollis, an antagonist who never appears in the novel. Glen Runciter, president of the company, and his chief tester for psionic fields, Joe Chip, attempt to account for the strange, sudden invisibility of the telepathic individuals.
In Ubiks world – information is central, and it is made fragile by Telepaths, parakineticists, precogs, resurrectors and animators an assortment of abilities to act at a distance through brain power , abilities that today, we might note, are simulated by a variety of information technologies.
Runciter Associates is solicited by companies to counter the effects of the telepaths. It employs inertials, individuals who, for example, make it impossible for those who see the future to decide which future is most likely to occur. In these unusual encounters, to understate the matter, Ubik anticipates the collapse of privacy that today is achieved through machines.
No one is safe from the prying minds of the psis. There is no interior space that provides a safe haven for information, desire, anything one might rather not make available to others. In addition to telepaths, society is composed of another group who act through brain power alone, the half-lifers.
These are individuals who have, in our sense of the term, died but whose brain is kept in a minimal state of activity, enough so that they are able to communicate by the help of cold-pac, in a manner of speaking, with living humans. Cold-pac is a process by which the dead can be reached for communication by their family and friends as long as their waning cerebral activity is retained.
Again the novel presents a group whose bodies, like the psis, have little importance. Like Hans Moravec (1988), who would have us cast off our meat and upload our consciousness to the Internet, Dick explores states of being which minimize the importance of the body. Glen Runciters wife, Ella, exists in such a state in what Dick calls a .
The action continues when Runciter is approached by a woman who wants to hire his ?rm to counter an alleged breach of security in a company located on the Moon. Runciter believes the psis that are missing from his intelligence maps are engaged in this information attack. He takes his telepaths to the Moon. But the job is actually a trap set by archenemy Hollis and Runciters people are killed by a big explosion, or more accurately reduced to cryogenic half-life.
From the social world of information security issues, the novel at this point shifts focus to the world of the half-lifers and to the communication between them and those who are alive in the normal sense of the word. It must be emphasized here that Dick makes undecidable who is in half-life and who is not.
From this point, the concept of fragmentation in postmodernism takes places in the novel.
The crisis is due to the inability of Joe Chip and his colleagues to comprehend the changing faces of reality that surround them. Reality begins to lose its hold on the consciousness of Joe Chip and the others. They begin to recede into the society of 1939. They discover objects and individuals around them in a process of regression. At first, mainly objects are affected. The characters are confronted with dry cigarettes, a two-year-old phone book, sour cream, stale coffee and a “brand new tape recorder, completely worn out” (9:114): commodities originating from their stable world which now all of a sudden display signs of old age and decay. Soon, characters are affected as well. The inertial Wendy Wright at first feels old, yet shortly after that not only dies, but becomes a “huddled heap, almost mummified” (8:99).
While one character after the other suffers Wendy’s fate, the decay of objects turns into regression. Money, the essential element sustaining the capitalist world of the first five chapters of Ubik, does not grow stale but obsolete. A coin Joe Chip carries in his wallet turns out to be 40 years old, of merely numismatic interest. Objects revert to earlier forms, rather than growing old.
Among the nominally half-life individuals is a teenage boy, Jory, who sustains himself by eating the brain activity of the others in the Moratorium, the storage facility for half-lifers. Earlier, when Glen Runciter visited his wife, his communications with her were blocked by Jory, who displaced her weak brain activity with his own. Jorys prey have only one defense against him, a product known as Ubik, a reality support that protects the half-lifers by emitting substances into the atmosphere that interfere with Jorys predations. Since the half-lifers sustain only mental activity. The last third of the novel concerns the efforts of the half-lifers, Joe Chip in particular, to defend themselves against Jory.
They are assisted by Glen Runciter who manages to communicate to the half-lifers across reality systems about the great powers of Ubik. There is another subplot that is essential to understanding the book. Ubik includes a beautiful young woman, a dark-haired girl, who attracts the protagonist, in this case Joe Chip, and appears to threaten him at the same time. In Ubik this character is Pat Conley, a person who has the extrasensory ability to move time backwards and thereby change the future. After the attack on Runciters employees on the Moon the world appears to be in a state of regression. The telepaths appear at once to age very quickly, suggesting that time is ?owing rapidly into the future, and to experience external reality as moving into the past, suggesting a process of entropy so dear to Dicks understanding of physical reality. The reader and some of the characters think that Pat Conley is responsible for these disastrous happenings but that turns out not to be the case. Jory is the villain. The ageing and regression are effects of the condition of half-life. They do not affect external reality. They are only the perception of the half-life population as they undergo death at the hands of Jory. Ubik is, even for science ?ction, a strange work, combining such as telepaths and half-lifers with the temporal objects of commodity culture. I suggest that it offers a picture of the hyperreal world.