Philip K. Dick, “The Crack in Space” (1966) – The World We Live In

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.

6 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “The Crack in Space” (1966) – The World We Live In

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “Introduction” | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. I don’t see why Dick should be against abortion.He was very libertarian and as such would have welcomed the freedom of choice it would have allowed,I’d have thought.It would have provided the means to fight against the repressive capitalism that would otherwise impose the often difficult institution of family life,especially larger families,that it doesn’t provide enough income to support.This is the trouble in countries where contraception is absent or it’s people ignorant of it’s benefits,as well as abortion;they are oppressed of course because of it,and live in poverty because of the capitalists you rile against.

    As a modern thinker against repressive regimes in his maverick and radical thinking stuff,it seems to fit in neatly with his “ideology”.It such a shame that this wasn’t one of his best books,and worst,very far from it! It was written at a time when he had completed some really very good or excellent novels,and not long before he wrote “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”.He was burning the candle at both ends by trying to write too much,and this seems to be the “devastating” end result.The composing of TTSOPE for a more “prestigious” company,allowed him to slow down and consolidate his output.

    It is true though,it is a very good book in relation to the relevant themes you quote in your final paragraph,a dark picture of decadence.The trouble is,it’s not powerful enough for the reasons I laid down above.You worry about the more fantastical elements,but it’s not fantastical enough I’d say and his inventive battery was on low charge.Dick had often tackled real issues in some quite weird scenarios that his metaphysical and ontological themes allowed and they were always quite concrete.In this case the metaphysics and ontology were weak in regards to the parallel world,and came over as rather bland.He’d worn himself thin through over production.

    As I’ve said,I admire and enjoy your blog,but sometimes have to disagree.It’s all done in a spirit of exciting exchange and discussion though I hope.

    • To know why he opposed abortion read my article in this fan magazine.

      I see it as part of his critique of the gerontocracy, bot a women’s rights question (something he never really takes on).

      “Crack in Space” is his best and clearest accounting of the tragedy of post-scarcity. I enjoy Dick most when he is grounded in the world that we live in. Others likes him best when he is in the fuzzy realm. The metaphysical speculation is weak in this book, yes, but that is what make its social critique so powerful.

    • And if you mean Dick is a libertarian as in the ridiculous co-option of the term by the American Right, you have a wild reading of him. He was anti-capitalist to the core, as any good libertarian should be.

  3. I’m sorry,I’d forgotten his somewhat polemical short story on the subject,”The Pre-Persons”,which of course I have read.He received a nasty letter from sf author Joanna Russ,who misunderstood the meaning of the theme.In the collection in it first appeared,”The Golden Man”,he said in an afterword,that it was love he felt for the children,not hatred for those who would destroy them.In this case it makes sense.

    Your logic is alright concerning Dick’s earthiness.Other books written about the same time,of which “Dr Bloodmoney”,”The Simulacra” and “The Penultimate Truth” are prime examples I think,do quite well without a strong metaphysical strangeness.I just find them stronger novels in terms of literary quality than TCIS.I often make preference for “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” because of the intellectual freedom it allowed him away from the restrictions imposed on at Ace,rather than a “far out” psychedelic weirdness.

    Dick was no hippy,and hated any oppressive regime that took away anybody’s rights,which included capitalism obviously,so I have no qualms in disagreeing with you.His statements about the growing fascism in American society,occuring in small,seemingly innocuous ways,bear this out,and should I have to say,women’ rights,including being able to have an abortion on moral and health grounds.

    It was his style that I loved and always drew me back for more of him.If that included exploring ordinary moral and political issues,it made it all the richer.The ontological and metaphysical aspects made these all the more exciting.

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