The Crack in Space provides for us a very familiar world. Dick begins the novel with what Zygmunt Baumann identified as “Wasted Lives” – the people surplus to the requirements of global capitalism. In this case, it is a dark-skinned couple (most of the “wasted lives” in this novel are dark skinned), unable to find work in an over-populated world volunteer to become “bibs.” “Bibs” are people placed in cryogenic freezing until the labor market improves, an unlikely proposition. The woman’s pregnancy and insistence on having the child, despite policy and social pressure encouraging abortion to solve the population crisis lead to a bureaucrat sending them away for “abort-consulting.” They are simply one couple among the millions who have gambled their present on a dubious future. This is essentially the world of late capitalism. We simply lack the ability to freeze people. Instead we use slums, prisons, and debt slavery, but the situation is the same.
In the hand of another science fiction writer, we could have been given a model of post-scarcity. One reason there is so little work for underclass is that machines have made much work unnecessary. Edward Bellamy imagined this would lead to prosperity for all. Dick, the eternal pessimist, see the “end of work” as just another means to crush the poor. For example, cooks are rare because food is produced by “Automatic food-processing systems.”
The necessity to separate sexuality from reproduction, leads to the rise of “Golden Door Moments of Bliss” satellite, which advertised sexual services to the men of Earth. With 5,000 prostitutes, any need could be met safe from the commitment and emotion (and unfortunate children) that goes with standard coupling.
Not all people look to this with happiness. The first major African-American contender for the presidency is Jim Briskin (of the Republican-Liberal Party). He is not only opposed to abortion (like Dick), but he wants to see the satellite shut down, creating for himself political enemies with George Walt, some sort of mutant conjoined twin who is one of the world’s wealthiest men by running the brothel. Briskin reminds us of President Obama in some ways. At the start of the novel, his election is in doubt not only because of the activism of CLEAR – a racist organization for the competing reactionary party – but also due to a lack of support among “Cols.” “Incredibly, they were apathetic toward Jim. Perhaps they believed – and he had heard this said – that Jim had sold out to the White power structure. That he was not authentically a leader of the Col people as such. And in a sense this was true. Because Jim Briskin represented Whites and Cols alike.” (p. 24, Vintage Edition)
Briskin is risking his political career on terraforming as the solution to the population crisis. The dream of the frontier as not only a place of freedom, but as a solution to the corruption of urban life has a long history in the American mind, from Thomas Jefferson to Frederick Jackson Turner. Dick, a life-long denzien of suburban misery in California probably saw through this myth but adopted it nonetheless for Briskin.
Dick establishes a few sub-plots in the first part of The Crack in Space. In one of these, a private detective – Tito Cravelli – is looking for the mistress of Dr. Lurton Sands at the request of Sands’ sister Myra. She apparently fell off the planet. None of the well-developed surveillance technology can discover her whereabouts. In a connected subplot, we learn that the famous Lurton Sands has been harvesting the people in stasis for their organs. He justifies it morally as the saving of someone at the expense of only a potential life. (The parallel to abortion is not lost on the reader.) Come to think of it, this is one of Dick’s more morally thick works, even though it does a great job articulating late capitalism.
What breaks us out of this tragic situation is the discovery of a portal to another planet, discovered by a repairman fixing a “scutter” tube. This planet seems uninhabited, is the same size as Earth and shares a similar climate. Briskin uses this to fulfill his campaign promise to solve the “bib” problem. He also sees it as the way to solve the population crisis and allow him to embrace his social conservatism, for without the Malthusian crisis traditional family can be restored and the odious orbiting brothel can be shut down.
At the same time that Briskin is solving the world’s problems, researchers at Leon Turpin’s conglomerate Terran Development investigate the planet and learn that it is actually Earth, but on a different timeline. Whatever their sympathies are toward the plight of the “bibs,” they are there to make money for Terran Development.
In short, the first half of The Crack is Space is an amazingly predictive description of our Malthusian era. In late capitalism, where the value of labor is less and less. Millions of educated men and women cannot find meaningful work, the prisons are full, and “surplus population” anxious, angry, or in open opposition to the structures of power. Politicians, unable to solve these problems propose fanciful dreams. A corporate oligarchy keeps the politicians in check. And technology has become not a means to human liberation but chains. The underclass have literally only their bodies to sell. As in Lynd Ward’s A Song without Words, Dick envisions one of the few forms of resistance to a horrible world is the claim: “I’m going to have a baby.” (p. 5)
The second half of the novel does not give us any easy answers. As it turns out, the parallel Earth is populated by early humans (specifically the descendents of Peking Man). In that Earth, homo sapiens did not rise to be the dominant species. These “Pekes” do not lack technology but its development is more slow and all based on wood. They do not have metallurgy or glass making. Any developments they do have developed slowly over the centuries. The Pekes do not seem to developed in their intelligence significantly. Of course, their presence complicated Briskin’s plan to resettle pips on the parallel Earth. Nevertheless some people move there, including George Walt, the capitalist mutant dual personality.
Dick does fully ponder the potentialities of the restoration of a paleolithic society or the potentials of alternative systems of technology. They are hinted at for us and available for our brainstorming, however. We can wonder whether the wood-based technology of the Pekes, based more on inherited knowledge than on an technocracy, would be more libretory. By the time we get here, Dick has to complete his story and has precious little time to suggest alternatives.
Anyway, in an attempt to grow the rift between worlds to speed up emigration, scientists moved the rift forward in time. Now the rift connects to the parallel Earth, but 100 years in the future. This was plenty of time for the ageless George Walt to establish himself as a god (the Pekes “Wind God’). Also in those 100 years, he shared with the Pekes technology and kills the other early settlers. When the rift reopens he begins a Peke invasion of Earth (of course only a few days passed in the novel). Eventually, Brislin saves the day by pointing out to the Pekes that their “Wind God” is just a human. The invasion stops and Brislin is elected presidency and returns to his original plan of terraforming within the solar system.
Ultimately, the setting we began with, of a late capitalist technocracy, with a growing underclass of “wasted lives” is unchanged. Briskin indeed becomes the first black president but without the hope provided by a new world, he can only look forward to a frustrated eight years as president.
In The Crack in Space, Dick predicts one possible future that is not so unfamiliar to us today. We need to, of course, bracket much of the fantastic elements. The novel is a warning to us that we cannot simply export or forestall the problems of underemployment, inequality, corporate rule, media-controlled politicians, and racism.