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Ubik: The Screenplay
Philip K. Dick
Subterranean Press, 182 pages

Ubik: The Screenplay
Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928. While attending UC at Berkeley, he dropped out rather than take ROTC training. He went on to write some 36 novels and 5 short story collections. He won the 1962 Hugo for The Man in the High Castle and the 1974 John W. Campbell Award for Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. He died of heart failure caused by a stroke in 1982.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Human Is?
SF Site Review: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
SF Site Review: The Zap Gun
SF Site Review: The Simulacra
SF Site Review: Lies, Inc.
SF Site Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
SF Site Review: Time Out Of Joint
SF Site Review: The Game-Players of Titan
SF Site Review: Minority Report
SF Site Review: Now Wait For Last Year
SF Site Review: Dr. Bloodmoney
SF Site Review: Beyond Lies the Wub and The Father-Thing
SF Site Review: Second Variety
SF Site Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Martian Time-Slip and A Scanner Darkly
SF Site Reading List: Philip K. Dick

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

The late 60s was an interesting time for Philip K. Dick. He had begun to experience some of the mystic revelations that would preoccupy his later years, but these were only obliquely feeding into his fiction. It was perhaps most overtly recognised in Ubik, one of his best if most complex novels, in which reality is constantly being undermined and questioned.

In 1974, five years after Ubik had been published, a French film producer approached Dick with the idea of turning Ubik into a movie. This was a decade before Blade Runner, and Dick had not yet become Hollywood's novelist of choice. Dick was, understandably, enthusiastic, and in three weeks produced a script, an intensive but not unusual work rate for him. But the French producer disappeared from the scene, the film never advanced beyond the idea stage, the script was put away and forgotten. Then in 1985, three years after Dick's death, the screenplay was published by a small press. It was, naturally, a big hit among fans and copies are now said to change hands for more than $100, but it has never been republished, until now.

It has to be said that Dick was not an experienced scriptwriter. He had tried his hand at some radio scripts in the 50s, and once, on spec, wrote a script for The Invaders TV series, and that was all. The inexperience shows: this screenplay is too long and too cluttered with detail. There are long passages detailing clothing, background, even the music that should be playing, all of which would normally be absent or much abbreviated in a screenplay of this nature. But it is the detail that makes it interesting.

Dick's novels are often heavy on conversation, Ubik particularly so, and much of the dialogue has simply been lifted wholesale from the novel. But in the scene setting and sometimes in the simple description of actions, it is as if he has reimagined the novel afresh. Some of the comic asides of the novel, the ludicrous and garish clothing that suggests a whole society has gone colour blind, for instance, has been cut out. But much more has been added. In particular, the novel is remarkably light on descriptions of the characters, but in the screenplay we learn, among much else, that Runciter's manner "is that of an American, old-fashioned, fatherly captain-of-industry: personal rather than... cold and efficient," an insight that is denied to readers of the novel. What was surreal and deliberately exaggerated for comic effect is now toned down, more realistic; while the characters, particularly Glen and Ella Runciter and Joe Chip, are actually more fleshed out than they are in the book. In an interview with Paul Williams, Dick reported dreaming scenes from Ubik even before he was commissioned to write the screenplay, so that working on the script he only had to describe what had already played out inside his head. The effect, curiously, is to make the undercutting of what we know and take for granted even more dramatic and unsettling.

The story is pretty much the same in both versions. Dick has tightened some scenes for the screenplay, elided some others, and, curiously, adds G.G. Ashwood, the rather sleazy agent who discovers the wildcard talent Pat Conley, to the list of characters who take the fateful trip to the Moon, though Ashwood plays little or no part in subsequent scenes. But in general the structure of the story remains the same. The anti-telepaths, who work for Glen Runciter, go with Runciter and his second-in-command, Joe Chip, on an urgent mission to the Moon. Among them is a new member of the group, Pat Conley, who has the strange and unique ability to rewrite history, a talent she has already employed to good effect in persuading Joe Chip to employ her. But the Moon trip is a trap, there is an explosion, Runciter is killed and the rest of the group hurriedly get his body back to Earth where it can be cryogenically frozen in such a way that his personality might be accessed, just as Runciter has already accessed the personality of his dead wife Ella. Back on Earth, however, the group find that reality starts to decay around them, modern items turn into earlier forms, they start to slip back into a 1930s USA. As, one by one, the members of the group wither and die, it is up to Joe Chip, one of life's losers, to find a way of holding onto reality,

The only major change in the story comes at the end, with the screenplay cutting down on Joe Chip's encounters with Jory and with Ella Runciter, then introducing a new step that is hinted at but never explicit in the novel. There is a sense in the novel that Dick himself wasn't altogether sure how to bring it to a close, or indeed what sort of close there could be for such a layering of unrealities in which, at some point, every single one of the major characters is dead. As Tim Powers points out in the Foreword to the screenplay, between the publication of the novel and the writing of the screenplay Dick had one of the pink light experiences that he wrote into VALIS. Powers suggests that this experience did not inform the revision of Ubik, but I'm not so sure. The Ubik dreams, the way that Dick was looking again, more intensely, at the events of the novel, make me think that he was prepared to make more explicit the relationship with the divine that always hovered behind the novel. The new ending in the screenplay, brief though it is, does just that, making overt the circle of death and rebirth that is covert elsewhere. And then, just as he does in the novel, he adds in one more momentary incident, Glen Runciter looking at a handful of coins, that abruptly overturns the new, secure reality that we thought had concluded the story.

Ubik was one of the finest novels Philip K. Dick wrote, his distrust of reality put at the service of one of the most complex but fully realised plot structures he would ever devise. Yet if anything the screenplay, its alterations subtle but significant, is even better. So the reappearance of the screenplay, after more than 20 years, is welcome indeed. Though we must ask why the new publishers have chosen to retain the Foreword by Tim Powers, but omit the long and informative introduction by Paul Williams and the superb illustrations, replacing them with a brief and pointless Afterword by Tad Williams.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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