Philip K. Dick, “Dr. Futurity” (1960): Surrounded by Corpses

Dr. Futurity is one of the final novels of Dick’s early period, before the success of The Man in High Castle expanded his position within America’s science-fiction universe.  The novel tells the story of a physician sent forward in time four hundred years, by a band of people who express an affinity for Native American life.  They are engaged in a continual time-traveling war, hoping to prevent the European conquest of North America.  (We can imagine the murder of Cook and Magellan during their explorations to be victories in these efforts).  In response, the established power of the future protects or in some cases takes on the persona of these early modern conquerors.  The physician, Dr. Jim Parsons, eventually plays a critical role in these activities before returning to his own time.

dr. futurity

The first setting, is a typical 1950s image of the future, a suburban, professional community.  Most industries have been nationalized, but the professions remained independent.  “During the last decades the technocratic and professional classes had gradually gained control of society.”  We do not learn much about this world but it is familiar enough from Dick’s other works, particularly with the rise of a technocracy.  Dick rarely wastes our time with petty tyrants or even ruling parties.  Power, for Dick, is enforced through institutions.  This makes him one of the most relevant science fiction writers for our time.

The bulk of Dr. Futurity is set four hundred years later in a world that has either come to terms with Malthus or Darwin (or both).  Eugenics is not an unpredictable future for us, particularly in a Malthusian era, where films like Idiocracy gain cult status.

What we find in this novel is a policy of eugenics combined with a death cult.  The gametes of the most successful (sometimes determined by success in tribal conflicts) are stored in a giant cube.  All births come from this cube.  All men are sterilized in their youth.  The population is static so these gametes are not transformed into embryos until someone dies.  Fortunately, this a common occurrence.  There are no physicians and suicide is encouraged by the culture.  Most people seek out death willingly.  Instead of doctors, people employ professional euthanors when ill or injured.  The result is that the average age of people hovers around 15.  Society advances, in part because of the increasing intelligence of the population made possible by the aggressive eugenics policies.  Some people resist this death cult and hope to change it by preventing the European conquest of the Americas.

Finally, I should add that whites were eliminated at some point in the future, leaving everyone a mixture of the other races.  That these survivors establish a strict eugenics policy is striking, given the racist, pre-civil rights world that Dick was born into.  Virginia’s eugenics policies, made legal in the 1920s under the Buck v. Bell decision were not overturned until 1974.  Interracial marriage was not made legal across the USA until 1967.

Jim Parsons arrives in the future and is optimistic that he will find a place in the new world.  He can quickly acquire languages and everyone needs doctors.  The youthfulness of the society is striking to Parsons.  He meets some residents, members of a tribe.  After a girl is injured, Parsons saves her life to the horror of everyone present.  For this crime he is arrested and exiled to Mars.  Before this, the rules of the new world are made clear to him, including the elaborate, centralized reproduction policy which is capable of maintaining a static global population.  On his way to exile, Parsons is captured by a group of resistors who engage his skills to save the life of an elder shot with an arrow.  This leads to a complicated story of time travel – really a temporal war like that explored in Fritz Leiber’s Big Time.

World as  Death Cult – Life and Age as a Crime
In Dr. Futurity, Dick simply takes the concept of planned obsolescence and applied it to people.  We are close to this point now.  The skills one is educated in will have little impact on the job market in the future.  Older workers need to seek re-education (a form of professional rebirth) simply to remain useful to society.  The life cycle of many professionals is not much longer than that of a new computer or gadget.  Age and long life are in themselves a potential crime against progress.  How many younger academics look on their older colleagues as simply dead wood, getting in the way of their professional progress.  We see this phenomenon in almost every area of life, from technology, to fashion, to television series, and to philosophical trends.  We are surrounded by the corpses of obsolete things and the worst thing that can happen to any of us is that we get identified with the last model.  Those that are left behind are subject to scorn or put forth as a warning.

Dick is an anti-Malthusian in a Malthusian era.  Many significant science fiction novels since 1950 presuppose scarcity (this is a big shift from the assumption of post-scarcity in much pre-war fiction).  Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar are two of the more important examples of the literature of scarcity.  In non-fiction, neo-Malthusian arguments were becoming more common.  Paul Elrich’s work, The Population Bomb, came out first in 1968 and he was part of a large group of thinkers looking on non-Western population growth as a potential catastrophe.   Dick predicts that the paranoia about population and the goal of zero population growth, will eventually lead to a philosophy that embraces death as preferable to life.  Dick thinks that sustaining zero population growth (or any steady state) will require either a strong state or a perverse culture of death.  Perhaps, with the culture of planned obsolescence in technology, ideas, and people we may have the mental groundwork laid for such a death cult.

Here are some useful clips on population that are not infected with pro-life arguments.

One response to “Philip K. Dick, “Dr. Futurity” (1960): Surrounded by Corpses

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

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