One of the greatest novels by the late Philip K Dick, 1969’s Ubik contained many of the preoccupations and pet themes that he’d written about since his earliest novels of the 50s – an atmosphere of paranoia, bewilderment, and a constant interrogation of what is real and what is false – and fashioned them into a story that is both satisfying and unsettling.
Set in a future world (actually an alternate early 90s) where intellectual privacy is protected from psychics by counter-telepathic organisations, Ubik introduces Joe Chip, a luckless technician for an anti-psi company who, after a bizarre assassination attempt on the moon, finds time thrown into reverse, with food, cigarettes and even colleagues perishing around him, and a mysterious omnipresent substance (the Ubik of the title) perhaps the only thing that can reverse his slide into oblivion.
Ubik is a book filled with Dick’s usual mind-bending narrative shifts and unexpected distortions in the fabric of reality. But what also jumps off the page is the fabric worn by its protagonists. Few other books describe their characters’ clothing with such detail or imagination, and Ubik‘s fashions are some of the most outlandish in all science fiction.
Joe Chip, the character from whose perspective much of the book is written, is one of the book’s loudest dressers. Early on, he’s described as wearing “pinstriped clown-style pyjamas” and later dons “a sporty maroon wrapper, twinkle-toes turned-up shoes and a felt cap with a tassel”.
A character called Ashwood, meanwhile, sounds disturbingly like a badly-dressed SpongeBob SquarePants: “Square and puffy, like an overweight brick, wearing his usual mohair poncho, apricot-colored felt hat, argyle ski socks and carpet slippers.”
Elsewhere, an advert shows “A husband home from his job at the end of the day; he still has on his electric-yellow cummerbund, petal skirt, knee-hugging hose and military-style visored cap.” Exactly what this unlucky fellow does for a living isn’t explained.
In Ubik, even the bombs wear loud clothes. Some seventy pages into the book, a mysterious character introducing himself as Stanton Mick is described as both “pot-bellied and thick legged”, with a nose “like a New Delhi taxi horn”.
His clothing, meanwhile, sounds like something Jim Henson would have picked out of the wardrobe for one of his Muppets. “He wore fuchsia pedal pushers pink yak fur slippers, a snakeskin sleeveless blouse, and a ribbon in his waist-length dyed white hair.”
Stanton Mick then, in an unnerving turn of events typical of Dick, spontaneously explodes, killing Chip’s boss and apparently creating the rift in time mentioned earlier. But even as Chip’s world decays around him, Dick still finds time to painstakingly outline Chip’s clothing choices for the day.
At one point, the character opts for “black oxfords, wool socks, knickers, cotton shirt, camel’s hair sports coat and golf cap”.
His later choice for a more formal outfit sounds, at first, worryingly conventional, consisting of “a pinstriped, blue-black, double-breasted suit”. But then, just to add a bit of colour to his get-up, adds “suspenders, wide floral necktie and white shirt with celluloid collar”.
Dick’s constant references to clothes, apparently a meaningless detail at first, take on a greater significance towards the end of the book. As the devastating effect of the bomb takes its hold on Joe, his clothes begin to fall apart, their once vibrant, harlequin colours fading to grey. It’s a scene that is both surreal and unexpectedly moving.
“The fabric tore. Dried and starved, the material parted like cheap gray paper; it had no strength… like something fashioned by wasps. So there was no doubt about it. He would soon be leaving a trail behind him, bits of crumbled cloth.”
In Ubik, Philip K Dick created one of his most gripping and disturbing explorations of reality and its fragility, and offers a typically oblique meditation on topics such as existentialism and the nature of God.
In terms of fashion, Ubik also offers a quieter, but no less pertinent message: never, ever trust a man in fuchsia pedal pushers.