Philip K. Dick, “We Can Build You” (1962): We Are All Mentally Ill

We Can Build You links many of Philip K. Dick’s most common themes.  The border between human and artificial is considered in a very straightforward and upfront way here, via conversations with the characters.  The growing insanity of everyday life is the surprising major theme of the text, which is ostensibly about androids.  The setting provides a clear picture of Dick’s ambivalence about post-scarcity, if it is based on technological or corporate dominance over humanity.  Finally, through the protagonist’s treatment, we are even given a brief look at an alternative reality.  Is it too much?  Maybe.  The systematic reader of Philip K. Dick might find that the way he throws ideas on the canvas and fails to develop those ideas adequately before moving on an irritation.  He may not have known it, but he is actually foreshadowing the intellectual anxiety and restlessness of late capitalism.

WeCanBuild1WecanBuild2

Plot
There are actually three stories in We Can Build You.  The first is the story of a company fighting against a corporate behemoth.  The little man is Multiplex Acoustical System of America (MASA Associates), specializing in mood organs and musical instruments.  The principals in the company are the protagonist Louis Rosen, his partner Maury Rock, Rock’s daughter Pris Frauenzimmer, and the mechanic Bob Bundy.  They (Pris is the real engineer) develop a simulacrum, that is able to be programed with the memories and knowledge of another.  Their prototype is Edwin M. Stanton.  Their original plan is to refight the Civil War with robots who are not play-acting but really think they are the participants.  They later build an Abraham Lincoln robot but Lincoln’s real-life mental illness makes him a different type, but as we will see mental illness is as commonplace as automobiles in this world.  The land developer Sam K. Barrows wants to steal this technology.  He uses Stanton’s autonomy and Pris’s idealization of Barrows to help acquire it, although his effort (a crude John Wilkes Booth) is inferior.  Barrows wants to use these androids to settle the moon.  The corporate shenanigans take up much of the novel.  The second plot line involved Louis Rosen falling in love with Pris.  Pris is a schizoid (an anti-social personality disorder that would – interestingly – turn someone into an emotional robot) and schizophrenic and has spent most of her life in institutions or as a ward of the government.  Rosen is conflicted, since Pris is clearly incapable of emotion.  The Abraham Lincoln robot seems more capable of emotional expression and empathy.  His anxiety over this leads him to even question if he is not an android.  When Pris leaves MASA for Barrows, Rosen becomes unhinged, planning to assassinate Barrows if he does not “release” Pris.  The third plot line explores Rosen’s descent into insanity.  The last quarter of We Can Build You sets aside the androids and considers Rosen’s treatment.  His treatment involves the creation of alternative realities (the equivalent of a Rorschach test since the world is created from the patient’s subconscious).  These mental realms tend to involve Rosen living a peaceful middle-class life with Pris, an utter impossibility in real life, considering Pris’ manipulative, anti-social, and cruel tendencies.  Pris’ final return to the asylum after earlier being successfully treated and Rosen’s final realization that his mental illness may have been simply a rouse or too minor to waste the institution’s time.

Setting
Like many of Dick’s novels, We Can Build You is set in a world of corporate dominated post-scarcity.  Rosen and Rock are worried about the labor market glut and are desperate to save the company, which is why they turn to building androids.  Despite an overabundance of labor, there seems to be no shortage in the consuming potential of America.  The original plan was to re-fight the Civil War with anrdoids.  This is only possible in an economy well past scarcity.  We are, however, given two models of post-scarcity.  One reflected by Pris and the MASA Associates which takes post-scarcity and uses it to invest in craft.  The androids they create are works of art.  They are fully realized individuals and indistinguishable from the originals.  They do not even realize the difference until it is explained.  Barrows, looking for chattel to populate the solar system, wants to work in planned obsolescence for long-term profits.  The Booth simulacra is not even capable of reciting Shakespeare.  Rosen asks how long it took him to build that inferior product.  “Where’s any painstaking fidelity to detail?  Where’s craftsmanship gone?  All that’s left is schlock, the killer-instinct planted in this contraption.”

Rosen is well aware that Barrow’s model is winning.  He talks with Pris about how to destroy a yellowjacket nest.  Pris tells him that the best way is to cover it in sand.  The yellowjackets will work to clear the entrance but forced to bring the sand into the nest, they will gradually suffocate themselves.  Pris says in conclusion: “We wake up.  Why is there no light?  We heard fo rthe entrance.  All those particles, they block it.  We’re frightened.  What’s going on?  We all pitch in; we try not to get panicked.  We don’t use up all the oxygen;  we’re organized into teams.  We work silently.  Efficiently.  We never see daylight, Louis.  No matter how many grains of sand we haul away.  We work and we wait, but it never comes.  Never.”  We decorate our prisons.

While for many advocates of post-scarcity economics, including many anarchists, productivity is a path to human liberation.  For Dick, the production/consumption cycle is simply one most chain enslaving people.  Yet, Dick does provide the potential of resistance.  They are able to prevent Barrows from stealing the simulacra technology.

Human-Technology Divide, An Asylum on Every Corner
Dick places the theme of the universality of insanity alongside the troubled human-technology divide. This works for me on a couple of levels.  On one, does mental illness make us more like machines?  In the case of Pris, her schizoid personality disorder does make her incapable of normal human empathy and interaction.  Stanton and Lincoln are capable of strong emotion and empathy based on their emotional history, placed in as part of their programming.   Dick also introduces the question of slavery.  (Using Lincoln as a character makes it clear that Dick did not want us to miss the significance of this.)  When approaching Barrows, MASA Associates makes the case that they cannot own Stanton because of the laws against forced labor and slavery.  Barrows sees machines and non-human and therefore his ownership of Stanton is not affected by those laws.  In contrast to this, Pris and Louis feel like slaves within an endless consumption-production cycle.  Both were placed in an authoritarian institution.  Internally, the asylum is not significantly different from the prison (Erving Goffman, Asylums).

In the world of We Can Build You, mental illness is not a rarity.  One in four spent time in an asylum.  Later, a psychiatrist points out that 1 in 9 is actively mentally ill.  Mental illness is the primary public health concern of the state.  We are not far from this now.  As soon as the ADHD epidemic seemed to be moved to the back-burner we now have an epidemic of Asbergers.  All the while, millions of sex addicts are living their sorrowful lives (Shame, Black Snake Moan).  I suspect we will have a new personality disorder in a few years that will require another generation to be medicated or institutionalized.  I am not an expert on this stuff.  Just an observer but I have real concerns about the potential of human freedom when mental illness becomes indistinguishable from yearly fashion trends.  At least our passion for consumption can be contained by a simple purchase and does not require dependence on an institution or mind-altering medication.

Note on the Project
I am preparing to move to Taiwan, probably permanently.  I need to have all my books boxed by the end of April.  If I am skipping some major works for now (Ubik, VALIS, Scanner Darkly) it is because I have those on my Kindle and can work on them while I deal with the transition.  It may not be until the end of June that my library follows me to Taiwan.  I also took some works off the my master list.  This is because neither I nor my library system own a copy.  I may get back to them later.  At this pace, I will finish up with PKD around mid-May and return to my work on The Library of America.  What I work on will depend on the library situation in Taiwan.  I know I can get some of the LOA in Taiwan via libraries but I never saw them in stores there.  I will probably need to have them shipped.  As long as there is not a shipwreck, I should have enough volumes to last me a couple years before it comes to that.  By then the People’s Liberation Army may very well have made this blog moot.

Advertisements

Philip K. Dick, “Confessions of a Crap Artist” (1959, published in 1974): Insanity of the Bourgeois Marriage

As everyone knows, Philip K. Dick wrote several non-science-ficition novels in his life.  He had hoped to make a career in “mainstream” writing but never quite escaped his branding as a science-fiction pulp writer.  Thankfully these novels that he wrote have been published.  The division between his science-fiction and “mainstream” work is dubious.  Many of his science fiction tales deal with mundane questions of marriage, work, and politics.  This is why his work always seems so familiar to us.  Eye in the Sky is set fully in this world.  Most of Time Out of Joint is set in a familiar world.  Even publishers fail to make the distinction, perhaps for marketing purposes.  In the Vintage publication of his work, Confessions of a Crap Artist, is labelled as Fiction/Science Fiction.

crapartist1

In Confessions of a Crap Artist: A Chronicle of Verified Scientific Fact, 1945-1959 we are confronted with the adaptability of the apparently insane and the real insanity of the apparently rational bourgeois relationship.  As I brought up in my musings on Counter-Clock World, Dick was personally and artistically ambivalent about monogamy.  Confessions of a Crap Artist is one of his several dissertations on this question, and perhaps the most fully developed.  His argument, a balanced, scientific examination of a middle-class, suburban, typical marriage reveals that such a marriage can only be sustained by psychopathy.

The story begins by introducing us to the crap artist, Jack Isidore.  Jack seems to have some mental illnesses, but if he is insane, many of us are.  He is a collector of odd ideas, unverified scientific theories, and bizarre eschatologies.  He is an admirable figure as an autodidact, but that led him to lack an objective teacher who can correct his heresies and delusions.  One does not need to spend much time on the Internet to realize that we are all in dangers of falling into the excesses of autodidactism.  Every bizarre theory now has its own wiki, internet community, and Facebook page. Is this an American perversion.  It seems that Europeans were mostly capable of becoming secular without filling the gap left with religion by bizarre theories.  In the United States, the religious are becoming nuttier and those who leave the religion of their birth often choose to become eclectic heretics grabbing a bit of New Age, deep ecology, Buddhism, and UFO cults.  In a significant sub-plot to the novel, Jack meets Claudia Hambro, one of these Californian cultivators of New Age cosmologies.  She and her group just borrow whatever craziness seems to work.  Someone like Jack is open to these claims, lacking the filters created by a rational education.  Here is part of Claudia’s message.  “Over the house there was a huge blue light hanging, like cracking electric fire.  I laid on the ground and that fire consumed me, from that spaceship. The whole house became a spaceship ready to go into space. . . . It’s the force that’s pulling us all together.  Throughout the world.  There’s groups forming everywhere.  The message is the same: suffer and die to save the world.  Christ was not suffering for our sings, he was suffering to show us the way.  We all have to suffer.  We all have to ascend the cross to gain eternal life, each in his own way.  Christ was from another planet.  From a more evolved race.”
It is not just Americans.  We find this craziness around the world.

And do not take it the wrong way.  “Loving Hut” is my favorite vegan restaurant in Taiwan (my new home), but these people are nuts.

Jack move into the home of his sister and brother-in-law, Charley and Fay Hume.  They have two kids, a nice home, and an ideal bourgeois marriage.  In other words, they are completely insane.  Virtually every interaction they have is framed in capitalist logic.  They compete with each other for money, for friends, for connections, and for leadership.  They are good friends with an academic couple Nat and Gwen Anteil.  Both Charley and Fay assume the other is out to get them (and neither would be wrong).  Their marriage exists only for the material benefit, image, and propriety.  Charley has a heart-attack, which he immediately blames on Fay’s machinations.  For what good is a bourgeois marriage without paranoia.  He is not wrong to be a bit paranoid, Fay does take her husband’s hospitalization to seduce Nat Anteil.  Why does she do it?  Does she just want to break up the Anteil’s marriage?  Does she want to revenge on Charley?  Does he truly love Nat?  Whatever her motives are, Dick is convinced that they are psychopathic.  At one point, Fay suggests to Nat that if her husband would die, she would remarry Nat.  Interestingly, Charley does not care about the affair when Jack brings it up (with a full scientific documentation).  He does want to ruin Fay, however.  This he finally achieves by killing himself and writing Fay out of half of the marriage property, giving it to Jack.

In all of this craziness, Nat seems to us to be the one character with authentic motives.  He seems to truly fall in love with Fay.  But when his internal monologue struggles with committing to the affair with Fay, we learn that he was attempting to express his autonomous will.  “Then he asked himself why he was doing it.  I have a really wonderful wife, he thought.  And I like Charley Hume.  And, he thought, Fay is married and has two children.  Why, then? Because I want to, he decided.”  While refreshing compared to the mind Jack, Charley, and Fay it is not much of an improvement.  Why does Jack believe that sunlight has weight?  Why does Claudia follow UFO cults?  Why does Fay choose to torture her husband? Why does Charley kill himself?  These are all expressions of the characters triumph over rationality.

In Confessions of a Crap Artist, Philip K. Dick is giving us a close look at the world of bourgeois liquid modernity.  Like the worlds of his science fiction novels, this one contains flexible realities, dubious loyalties, false facades, and psychopathy instead of humanity.

Vintage, trying to make it look all science-fictioney.

Vintage, trying to make it look all science-fictioney.

It seems to me that there is evidence that Dick is assaulting a particular form of marriage, that he saw in suburban America of the 1950s.  We are presented with a healthier, more natural, more rational, and more cooperative marriage with Nat and Gwen Anteil.  When learning of the affair, Gwen does not seek revenge but approached the situation with objective rationality.  They are not concerned with appearances to the level that the Humes are (their income could not allow it).  Standing on a real education, they are also apparently immune from the crazy sub-cultures and heresies that infect Jack’s mind.  Ultimately Dick is calling for relationships based on solidarity and love instead of social expectation, image, and wealth accumulation.

 

Philip K. Dick, “Counter-Clock World” (1967)

I am actually not sure how the reverse time schema (Hobart’s Phase) is supposed to work in Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World.  For instance, the dead come back to life, smoking and eating are in reverse, and at the end of your life the sperm and egg separate (and this requires a sex act).  In other ways, the reverse time is institutionally enforced, as with the Library.  This is actually a reverse library.  Instead of acquiring information, they destroy it as the creators of books reach the age (in reverse-time) that they created the work.  The reason people do not die in their graves after being resurrected is that agencies called Vitarium try to predict when people will awaken, work with police to get them out of the ground, and profit from their rebirth, not unlike how funeral agencies profit from our deaths.  People do not relive their lives backward.  Indeed their lives can change, taking on new lovers or new careers.  The United States remained politically divided between races; black nationalism was victorious in this timeline.  People still talk in a linear fashion and people still seem to live with an eye to their “future”.  It seems to me that Counter-Clock World is Dick’s attempt to play with the themes of religion and resurrection, creating a universe in which a religious leader can literally return from the dead.  The reverse-time structure he uses requires a soul.

CCW

I was also reminded of Origen of Alexandria.  He believed that all of creation (including the devil and all sinners) would return to God at the end.  It seems, that given a fallen world, Dick’s Hobart Phase would provide a means for this to happen.  The fact the plot here involved the resurrection, albeit non-miraculous, of a religious leader leading to a epic religious conflict lead me to think Dick is more mindful of the resurrection of Jesus than the eschatology of an early Christian thinker.  The resurrected spiritual leader, Anarch Peak, even comes back with a spiritual message from God.  It is not clear if this is not something that all of the “old-born” experience.  Other “old-born” reference certain mystical memories from their death.  The chapter epigraphs are all religious in tone and source, suggesting again that Dick is trying to make a theological argument.  Here is a bit.  “Eidos is form.  Like Plato’s category–the absolute reality.  It exists; Plato was right.  Eidos is imprinted on passive matter; matter isn’t evil, it’s just inert, like clay.  There’s an anti-eidos, too; a form-destroying factor.  This is what people experience as evil, the decay of forms.  But the antiedos is an eidolon, a delusion; once impressed, the form is eternal–it’s just that it undergoes a constant evolution, so that we can’t perceive the form.  The way, for instance, the child disappears into the man, or, like we have now, the man swindles away into the child.  It looks like the man is gone, but actually the universal, the category, the form–it’s still there.” Dick is presenting what could be the heart of his rebellion against the liquid world of late capitalism.  This conflict can actually best be looked at through Dick’s conflict with monogamy.  On the one hand, it seems that the liquid world means flexible relationships and loose commitments and given that challenge, perhaps it is absolute loyalty that provides a means of resistance to our displacements.

Origen- An early proponent of inverse time?

Origen- An early proponent of inverse time?

Philip K. Dick was clearly conflicted about monogamy.  This marital dilemmas often are honestly retold in his novels.  The fact that he married five times tells us he had a deep personal commitment to at least the concept of monogamy, having married most (perhaps all) of the women he slept with.  Of course, these marriages did not tend to work out well for Dick.  Counter-Clock World is one of his novels that explores the nature of relationships.   A major subplot of Counter-Clock World covers the broken marriage (due to adultery) between an owner of a Vitarium, Sebastian, and Ann Fisher a philosophically-inclined associate of his.  Significant amount of ink is spent describing Ann’s attempts to convince Sebastian that his marriage is failed and that he should go to bed with her.  “I see no barrier to our relationship.  Lotta is shacking up with someone else; you’re alone.  I’m alone.  What’s the problem?  We’ve done nothing illegal; your wife is a phobic child, scared by everything–you’re making a mistake, taking her neurotic fears seriously; you ought to tell her, swim or drown. I would. ”  The woman as seducer, the mentally ill wife, and the failed marriage comes up again and again in Dick’s work.  Staying on the theme of Philip K. Dick’s relevance to our world today, I wonder if even Dick’s conflict with monogamy is not prescient.  We are still bombarded with images telling us that monogamy is natural and ideal.  Most of us will marry at some point in our lives, despite growing divorce rates.  I am convinced that many of these divorces are due to the inevitable crisis between the ideal of monogamy promoted by culture, education, and family meets a brutal reality of a liquid world.  Relationships lack permanence because we are incapable of establishing ourselves anywhere.  We change careers, like we change partners.  Forcing monogamy and marriage on such a structure seems foolish.  Dick may have been on the edge of defining this dilemma.  Dan Savage is close to making this point.

I will try to come back to this question in later posts.  I will leave you with a photo of Dick with one of his wives.  He divorced the old one before moving on, so we do not have a photo of all of them together.  Such a traditionalist.

dick1

Philip K. Dick, “Eye in the Sky” (1957)

Eye in the Sky is set almost entirely in the characters minds, but it is one of the most grounded of Dick’s works.  It also does not speak to me about late capitalism the way many of the other works by Dick that I have been reviewing.  Eye in the Sky functions as a strong polemic against the Cold War security culture that defined not only the politics of the 1950s but also manifest in everyday life through loyalty oaths and blacklisting.  At the same time, Philip K. Dick is making a case that ideology matters (in a sense accepting the Cold Warriors’ position on the threat of Marxism in the post-war world).  Through a voyage through four fascinating and playful worlds, Dick shows that the mental realm we live in shapes how we act and shaped the world we live in.

eyeinthesky1

Eight people fall into a particle accelerator, or something.  This knocks them unconscious and causes massive injuries but also thrusts them into shared realities that manifest from the delusions of the accident victims.  They leave one only to enter another.  As one character questions: “Until we have telepathy and can get into people’s minds, we’re going to have to depend on this statistical stuff [to find out if someone is a communist].”  The accident creates this honest look into other people’s mind.  We think of telepathy as a simple snapshot of anther’s stream of consciousness.  As Dick shows in Eye in the Sky, people’s mental realms are often so different from our own, often relying on entirely different rules, telepathy could never be as simple as mind reading.  Every attempt would involve an entrance into another world.  This is an extremely pessimistic view, casting doubt on our ability to really communicate across minds.

The eight victims reminded me of a children’s picture book teaching young readers about the different types of people in the town.

Jack Hamilton – A technician at a government military contractor, a talented scientist.
Martha Hamilton – His wife, an alleged communist but in reality a harmless liberal.
Charley McFeyffe – A policeman who we first meet as an investigator into the actions of Martha Hamilton, yet he likes to pose as their friend.
Arthur Silvester – An old soldier
Joan Reiss – A young businesswoman
Bill Laws – An black tour guide and physics graduate student
Edith Pritchet – A mother
David Pritchet – Her son

The novel opens with McFeyffe’s investigation of Martha Hamilton as a possible communist.  She attended one to many lefty meetings and read too many communist leaflets.  For this Jack Hamilton is forced to either quit his wife or quit his job.  Later that day, the Hamiltons, along with McFeyffe, attend a demonstration and tour of a particle accelerator.  They fall in and are zapped into these alternative realities.

Delusion One: Second Babiism.  This is the invention of Arthur Silvester.  Second Babiism is a form of Islam that attracted Silvester during one of his visits to Chicago.  The world he “created” (this is a poor term, what is really going on is that his mental construct is imposed on all others) assumes that prayer works, that God is real, the sun orbits the earth, and that faith and points toward salvation are currency.  Hamilton’s company is transformed from a military contractor into a company investigating the technologies of theophonics (communication between man and God).  The character escape this delusion and instead of waking up, they enter another delusion.

Delusion Two: Neutered Puritianism.  This world is the construct of Edith Pritchet, who desires that anything unseeingly is removed.  This includes sex, prostitutes, certain animals, and illnesses.  Pritchet has complete control over what is excised from this world.  She also has the goal of expanding culture to the masses.  Hamilton’s company is now engaged in this effort.  “Our purpose is to turn the immense resources and talents of the electronics industry to the task of raising the cultural standards of the masses.  To bring art to the great body of mankind.”  In this world, Sigmund Freud argued that “in the healthy, uninhibited human, there is no sexual drive and no curiosity or interest in sexuality.  Contrary to traditional thought, sex is a wholly artificial preoccupation.”

Delusion Three: Paranoia.  Joan Reiss is responsible for this world.  She is mentally ill and suffers from paranoia and anxiety.  In this world, everything that happens is the product of an external conspiracy.  Although mentally ill, Reiss’ delusional construct is the closest to reality of the 1950s Cold War paranoia.

Delusion Four: Class War.  We assume at first that Martha Hamilton created this caricature of America as envisioned by radical Communists.  In fact, it was from the mind of McFeyffe, the policeman and Cold Warrior.  “The Communist idae of America — gangster cities, full of vice and crime. . . and the rural areas.  Indians, wild killings and lynchings.  Bandits, massacres, bloodshed.”

Race did play a role in all of these delusions.   Bill Laws’ role, diction, and characterization changed based on how the mind of each construct’s originator viewed black people.

The characters finally escape the delusions.  Hamilton attempts to prove that McFeffe is an implanted Communist agent but is unsuccessful since he lacks evidence (contrasted with the booklet produced on Martha Hamilton).  The Hamilton’s choose to leave and start their own business.

The exposure of McFeyffe and the innocence of Martha Hamilton, especially considering that McFeyffe’s leftism was a true threat and Hamilton’s closer to liberal curiosity, is enough to make this novel a significant polemic against the Cold War security culture.  As Hamliton says at the end: “I’m trying to say that a man can be all those things and still be a dangerous subversive.  And a woman can sign peace petitions and subscribe to In Fact, yet love the very dirt this country is made of.”

More troubling is Dick’s broader point.  Almost any ideology can be dangerous and we all have certain expectations, assumptions, and values that, if imposed on the rest of the world, would be positively horrifying.  Ideology matters because it shapes how we see others, how we interact in the world, and how we interpret commonplace happenings.  We did not get to see the world derived from the mind of born again Christians, free market capitalists, fascists, or new age hippies.  Sadly Dick’s novels are always too short.  But we know enough to assume that they would be no less terrible for those who did not share those assumptions.

Philip K. Dick, “Time Out of Joint” (1959)

Time Out of Joint, published in 1959, extends many of the themes Philip K. Dick explored in Cosmic PuppetsThe settings are comparable.  In both, we find ourselves in a small town of the 1950s.  In both novels, the world that the characters see for themselves is an artificial facade, covering up the reality.  Time Out of Joint is certainty more mature. Here, the powers that a constructing the reality are human.  In a sense, it evolves out of Cold War anxieties of secrete government agencies, the continual threat of devastating war, and the uncertain loyalties of even close friends and neighbors.  In The Comic Puppets, there were supernatural forces that constructed the false reality as part of a cosmic battle.  This makes TOOJ a more politically relevant work and more of a window into the world that we live in.

TJ1TJ2

Plot
Like most of Dick’s early novels, TOOJ has a rather straight-forward plot.  Early in the novel we are introduced to Ragle Gumm, an unemployed man who makes his money as champion of a newspaper contest, “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?”  The contest involves simply choosing from a matrix of squares.  There are clues provided, but these seem to have little impact on the answer.  Nevertheless, Gumm is able to guess correctly continually by observing patterns and maintaining careful records.  As the novel unfolds, Gumm notices strange changes to his world.  He misremember things, such as if the bathroom had a cord-activated light or the newer light swtich.  He also sees small pieces of papers with the name of the thing that should be there.  Eventually, be becomes convinced that the world around him is a sham and that he is the target of a deception.  This turns out to be true.  It is not 1959, it is 1998 and humans are involved in a Civil War between the Earthlings who have restricted expansion abroad and the “lunatics” (denizens of the Moon) committed to interstellar expansion.  Gumm sided with the people of the Moon, but can predict where they will attack next.  Before his defection he worked for the Earthlings making these predictions.  To sustain this role he was placed into this artificial world of his youth.  The newspaper contest is the means by which he will continue to predict where the nuclear attacks will strike.  He, like many of us today, is the unwilling supporter of institutions outside of our control.

The Suburbs and Reality
Dick often places the false, bizarre, liquid, and artificial in the suburbs, the world he knew most well in over-developed suburban California.  The novel begins with an interesting conversation, suggesting that even political loyalties are merely functional in the suburbs.  “Anyhow I don’t think there’s going to be any depression; that’s just Democratic talk.  I’m so tired of those old Democrats trying to make out like the economy’ going to burst down of something.”  When someone mentions that the woman making this claim was a Democrat she replied, “Not any more.  Not since I moved up here. This is a Republican state, so I’m a Republican.” Urban areas are no less man-made than suburbs, but there seems to be a more organic feel to the development of cities.  Suburbs are planned, zoned, and manicured in bizarre formations.  The grass is imported from Germany.  Even the animals becomes domesticated and adapt to the constructed human world.  It is an ideal place for paranoia to set in.  Gumm is the subject of a mass conspiracy, but most of the novel explores his growing sense of displacement.  The realization of the truth is simply an appendix to the story.  This is perhaps what makes The Matrix rather lazy; it jumps immediately to the “really real.”

Dick introduces the idea that the celebrities and heroes of our world are constructed.  I suspect this was a more profound realization in 1959 than it is now, but it is worth pointing out.  “In Consumer’s Digest they’re always telling you to watch out for frauds and misleading advertising; you know, short weight and that sort of thing. Maybe this magazine, this publicity about this Marilyn Monroe, is all just a big bunch of hot air.  They’re trying to build up some trivial starlet, pretend everybody has heard of her, so when people hear about her for the first time they’ll say.  Oh yes, that famous actress.  Personally I don’t think she’s much more than a glandular case.”

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

Exploration
This is not the first Dick novel to explore the conflict between the human spirit’s desire for exploration and new frontiers and the desire of the state to restrict expansion.  In The World Jones Made, the effort to restrain expansion to other systems is a major theme.  In The Crack in Space, the solution to the Malthusian crisis was human expansion but it was never seen as politically non-controversial.  In many of his works, the human settlement on other planets are tools of institutional oppression (Clans of the Alphane Moon) or consciously made crappy (Martian Time Slip).  A lot of energy was put into making expansion undesirable.

At this point, it is good to recall Frederick Jackson Turner.  As a Westerner for most of his life, Dick lived the end of the frontier.  I have no doubt that the transformation of the American frontier into suburban desolation influenced his view of extraterrestrial settlement.  I have a feeling that he is a follower of Turner in at least one area.  He seems to think human freedom requires the physical relocation outside of our comfort zone.  In the historian Turner’s view, the frontier was the crucible of American democracy.  For Dick, the decadence of Earth will lead to authoritarianism unless we can freely settle into new areas.  This tension plays its self out in many of his works but is rarely spoken of.  I will point it out in future posts.

“You’re a goon, Mister Loon,
One World you’ll never sunder.
A buffoon, Mister Loon,
Oh what a dreadful blunder.
The sky you find to cosy;
The future tinted rosy;
But Uncle’s gonna spank you-you wait!
So hands ina sky, hands ina sky,
Before it is too late.”

 

Philip K. Dick, “Solar Lottery” (1955): Randomness and Obligation

Philip K. Dick’s Solar Lottery begins like many of his novels, with an alienated worker.  In this case, Ted Benteley gets fired (“break his fealty oath”).  He was part of a massive layoff.  “The first reaction from Oiseau-Lyre Hill to its limited catastrophe was to create total catastrophe for fifty percent of its classified employees.  Fealty oaths were dissolved, and a variety of trained research technicians were tossed out.  Cut adrift, they became a further symptom of the nearing moment-of-importance for the system.  Most of the severed technicians floundered, sank down, and were lost among the unclassified masses.”  Like many companies, Oiseau-Lyre has no problem using a small crisis, like a few employees talking union or a slightly higher marginal tax rate, to begin layoffs or talks of offshoring.  Protected by spreadsheets and the equality provided by the randomness of economics they can avert any moral burden.

solarlottery1

The use of fealty oaths is intriguing.  In other ways the society described in Solar Lottery (Dick’s first published novel) is the logical extension of global modernity.  Winners and losers are chosen at random through a global game of chance, “Minimax.”

The former Quizmaster (a new one is chosen at random among the population at large) Reese Verrick discuss this system in the early part of the novel.  They debate if the game of life is based on chance or strategy and skill.  “They [the mathematicians who developed Minimax] saw that social situations are analogues of strategy games, like poker.  A system that works in a poker game will work in a social situation, like business or war. . . . Minimax was a brilliant hypothesis.  It gives us a rational scientific method to crack any strategy and transform the strategy game into a chance game, where the regular statistical methods of exact sciences function. . . The random factor is a function of an overall rational pattern.  In the face of random twitches, no one can have a strategy.  It forces everybody to adopt a randomized methods: best analysis of the statistical possibilities of certain events plus the pessimistic assumption that an plans will be found out in advance.  Assuming you’re found out in advance frees you of the danger of being discovered.”  I think it is hard to deny that randomness is the experience most people feel in a liquid world.  When a job posting attracts 500 qualified applicants, all with similar applicants, how can we say that the “best” or “most skilled” or “most qualified” candidate received the job.  And if we know in our field that the average position attracts 500 applicants, we send out 500 applications to different companies (all across the country – since we long have cared about retaining our communities).  In a sense, we are accepting the logic of Minimax.  We now have markets that can predict presidential elections with a fair degree of certainty.  Although, still far from random (we do not choose our politicians by chance) we cannot say we are choosing the most qualified candidate.  We are in the realm of chaos theory, where predictability is lost and randomness reigns.  This is the world of fated, atomized, and interchangeable citizens.

Philip K. Dick combines this system of Minimax with what seems to be the exact opposite, the political of personal loyalty.  A type of neo-feudalism shaped the relationship between employers and employees.  When Benteley lost of his job, he had to annul certain loyalty oaths.  When seeking new employment, he had to re-swear loyalty to his new employer.  These are not truly in conflict.  My husband may have come to me by random chance and fate, but I still interpret that relationship through the comparatively old-fashioned concepts of loyalty, vows, and mutual obligation.  It does not matter that I was just as likely to marry another man, or not marry.  Absolute randomness is only palatable if we impose on it the language of choice.  The fact that we make vows and oaths does not mean we have control, anymore than a dog has a choice to be dutiful to its master.

The plot of Solar Lottery is about the rise of the new Quizmaster, Cartwright, and the attempt to assassinate him.  Like the Quizmaster, the assassin is chosen at random and does not necessarily have any political gripes.  Indeed, with an entire system run by Minimax, individuals are mostly irrelevant.  Power exists in the aggregate and in the random.  By the end, we learn that Cartwright is actually a revolutionary figure who seeks to restore individual choice.  He essentially figured out how the system made its choices and took advantage of it.  “I played the game for years.  most people go on playing the game all their lives.  Then I began to realize the rules were set up so I couldn’t win.  Who wants to play that kind of game?  We’re betting against the house, and the house always wins.”    Cartwright realized this and became a follower of John Preston (a shout out to the mythical Christian African king Prestor John?).  Preston gets the last word in the novel and makes an argument for human agency in resistance to systems that chain us to fate.  “It isn’t senseless drive.  It isn’t a brute instinct that keeps us restless and dissatisfied.  I’ll tell you what it is: it’s the highest goal of man-the need to grow and advance . . . to find new things . . . to expand.  To spread out, reach areas, experiences, comprehend and live in an evolving fashion.  To push aside routine and repetition, to break out of mindless monotony and thrust forward.  To keep moving on. . . ”  One gets the sense that reading this out loud will summon the ghost of Gene Roddenberry.  Preston’s dream is not the world we live in.  We live in the liquid world of late capitalism.  Yet, since we can look forward to precious little optimism in PKD’s novels, I will take it for now.  I might need it before this project is done.

solarlottery2

 

Philip K. Dick “The Cosmic Puppets” (1957): “All That Is Solid Melts into Air”

The Cosmic Puppets is one of Philip K. Dick’s early novels exploring the theme of fungible or alternative realities.  Actually, the opening chapters present a common enough problem.  Ted Barton is taking a trip with his wife to his hometown, Millgate Virginia.  He finds his hometown unrecognizable.  Barton’s experience is extreme as any recognizable characteristic in Millgate is dramatically changed.  Yet, this is something that is not uncommon in a liquid world, where the pace of change makes use feel that we do not have a firm setting to anyplace and that changes occur faster than we can process them.  The important people in our lives change year to year.  New construction or decaying communities make our idyllic memories of our youth cruel abstractions, which we cannot quite prove occurred.  Pictures present only dubious, partial suggestions of how things were.  Our memories, collective and individual, are not to be trusted.  If there is one thing surprising in the early chapters of The Comic Puppets, it is that Barton is so immediately sure that Millgate has changed.  Most of us experience the constant plasticity of our worlds with a bit more caution.  “Wasn’t there a building here?  Was that always there?  I seem to recall a parking lot in this district?  What happened to Mr. Zemke?”

cosmicpuppets

Barton is sure that Millgate has changed and despite the resistance of his wife (who spends most of the novel either in a hotel or on the phone with a divorce lawyer – Dick, in real life and in fiction did not mind breaking up marriages), begins to investigate.  He finds that he was supposed to have died at nine, the very age that he left the down. There is even a record of his death due to scarlet fever.  There are two types of people in the community.  Some, indeed most, have been changed along with the town and have no memory of the past structure.  A few others, Wanderers and a gentleman named Christopher, have an awareness that things have changed and formed a bit of resistance to the forces that have transformed the town.  After recovering a park to its original state through the application of his untainted memory.  Barton also meets Dr. Meade

Two children, Peter and Mary, are in constant conflict using proxies (golems, bees, spiders, snakes).  Peter turns out to be an avatar of Ormazd, a Zoroastrian deity.  Mary is Armaiti, the daughter of Ahriman, who has taken the avatar of Dr. Meade.  The battle between these forces leaves Millgate and enters the cosmos, never ending, but leaving Barton’s town in peace.

So, the transformations Barton and the townspeople experienced was not simply a loss of memory but a directed plot by malevolent forces.  In this way, Dick is again describing the world we live in, the world of late capitalism.  Our displacement, mobility, and liquidity are not inevitable realities but the direct result of the institutions that in fact control our lives and our memories.

The possibility of resistance to these realities is not clear.  The Wanderers and Christopher attempt to change things back, but their memories are incomplete and untrustworthy.  Indeed, they seem to be how most of us experience these changes.  In a comical scene, Barton and the Wanderers attempt to reconstruct the town but can only come to the conclusion that Barton’s precision is proof that he is a double-agent for the malevolent forces responsible for the change.  Internally, they can only struggle to come to terms with the liquidity.  Barton has a pure memory because he was led from the town at the age of nine by Mary and allowed to return, despite an artificial quarantine established by Ormazd.  He is a secret weapon because of his pure memory.  Nevertheless, the institutions of late modernity are all powerful, like the Zoroastrian gods Dick conjures to make his point.  Memory is a powerful antidote to plenty of institutional lies.  (No, you do not need a cell phone or iPad or automobile.  Yes, there was a time when salaries kept up with productivity.  We used to get by without millions in the prison-industrial system.)  Historians, however useless most of them are, still have an important role in establishing a collective memory of alternatives to the existing reality.  As the pace of change quickens and “all that is solid melts into air” their role will become more important.  That is, as long as historians do not fall into the ideological constructs of global modernity – which is essentially what so-called “World History” does when it praises the accomplishments of explorers, conquerors, global capitalists, empire builders, and religious leaders.

Here is Zygmunt Bauman on “Liquid Modernity”: