Philip K. Dick’s fascination with what is real and what isn’t real is inextricably linked to his fictional and non-fictional dealings with aspects of the mind—psychosis and mind-altering drugs especially. The fascinating thing about Ubik is that it is illusive. Who is actually dead? Is it Runciter or Joe Chip? Or are both of them dead? Or perhaps nobody is dead, but they all think they are dead? Dick has taken liberties with the story for a good reason: to give you an ending which defies everything that had happened previously.
On the one hand this produces a cyclical effect. If Joe Chip really did die, then at the end Runciter has died as well and the manifestations of Joe Chip in his half-life “reality” are nothing more than markers of what it is to have died—for Joe Chip it works in the opposite, with manifestations of Runciter being bizarre semi-hallucinations. The result is a recycling of the previous theme—of death and not-death—and a return to the beginning of the turning point in the original plot—the explosion on Luna. On the other hand this leaves the reader never quite sure what exactly happened. The ending is nothing short of illusive. The reader is left with those lingering questions about what is going on, but there isn’t any closure. This doesn’t necessarily come as a flaw, but more as a mind-bending moment that any attentive reader would be partially exploding cartoon question marks from their cerebellum. I can’t answer the questions any better than anyone else and the only person who probably can answer the questions—Mr. Dick himself—is no longer with us, since he died in 1982. Perhaps the true answer is meant to remain illusive, or perhaps the answer is hidden in the non-fiction and I have yet to see it. Regardless, the life-and-death themes are fraught with the real and unreal dichotomy.
When looking at Dick’s introduction of “half-life”—a sort of suspended animation for the dead where the “soul”, or whatever Dick wishes to call it, is kept rooted on the Earth for past loved ones to peruse like zoo attractions with at least some measurable, though minor, ability to speak up for themselves—there is an impression of two worlds colliding: the real world of tangible, physical beings made of flesh and bone and living in a world of life and death, and the spiritual world, possessed by what would be considered hallucinations or manifestations of quasi-realistic worlds that only exist in the state of the mind. One could look at half-life as a psychosis, except that the characters experiencing the half-life dream world are perhaps fully aware that it isn’t real and that they are in fact dead—or at least they become aware of this fact eventually, depending on the circumstances. But during this point where they are unaware it plays out very much like a psychotic episode. Manifestations and hallucinations of things that normally could never happen are perceived as real. Money doesn’t magically change to the face of your former boss, whom you think is dead, and neither does the world around you regress on the time scale from the 21st century to the early, pre-WW2 20th. Yet to the people who experience this strange happening it is nothing short of real. They experience it as if they were experiencing any normal day.
It’s left unclear whether these half-life “realities” are really common place or if they are only due to the influence of Jory—a half-life vampire. If they are only the work of Jory and no half-lifer is capable of existing in spiritual realities, then what is it that a half-lifer does to pass the time? They are caged animals in every way imaginable. They live in makeshift capsules that keep their bodies on ice for as long as the soul can live and, basically, they are trapped that way until someone pulls the plug or their half-life souls degrade and disappear. There must be something more to this life, otherwise who would ever volunteer for it—presumably Jory volunteered and his family keeps tabs to make sure he can continue to consume other half-lifers. Who would volunteer for the life of slavery, to be called up for a “chat” whenever a loved one, or someone with the appropriate contacts and funds, desires it?
The novel’s focus on the real and unreal is probably the most important aspect, as mentioned. For Dick there are consistent representations of this dichotomy—such as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? where Mercer appears as a spiritual guide to Deckard. The jolt for Joe Chip into the world of half-life is so abrupt it remains invisible. We’re not aware of it anymore than Joe is. Runciter’s appearance is nothing more than one of a plethora of oddities that Joe has to figure out. Dick also takes the time to let us know that we’re already in a world of metaphysics by introducing psychics and people with bizarre psionic powers—such as Pat Conley, who can alter the past. And perhaps the ending is yet another attempt to try to tell us that there isn’t really a real, that maybe what we once thought of as the real world of the novel was nothing more than an un-reality. Maybe it’s all just a dream, and an elaborate one at that.