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?”


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”:

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

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

  2. You’re determined to avoid all the metaphysical and ontological stuff in your long thesis of Dick.I don’t blame you,and respect what you want to do in your ambition for this project,and as with much of his very unusual stuff,I can understand your propensity in doing this.

    Nevertheless,in TCP,it seems to me much harder to achieve.Can you,with it’s spiritual structure,really ignore something that is built like stonework into the novel?You seem to be very matter-of-fact in comparing the pseudo religious situation in Millgate to the viruses of modern life,as though there’s no difference.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with merging real life concerns with that of more ontological ones.Dick’s brilliant opus is well balanced between the more phenomenal world and dull sundry existence,but I don’t think one can function by ignoring the other.

    TCP was the first sf novel he wrote during his writing career,and was published two years after “Solar Lottery”.It was revamped from an earlier short story,and since I’ve never read the magazine short story,I can’t say which was the better piece.I wonder if it was worth it though and if it was been better at shorter length.I’m not sure if it had enough intellectual muscle worth expanding to novel length,but it was his first one.

    I’ve always thought that his best stuff showed a wide range of everyday concerns that tottered on the edge of surreal “insanity” and metaphysical revelation,to create a strange perspective on our ordinary existence.A good sense of humour is also important.

    Despite what I’ve said,I admire what you do and think it’s great.

    • Thanks for reading again. Yes, I avoid all the ontological and metaphysical stuff. The reason I do that is that it does not teach me anything. The fact that people keep getting amazed at metaphysical confusion, is just more evidence that we are in the bowels of late capitalism.

      My thesis is not that metaphysical ambiguity does not exist, it certainly does. My thesis is that those questions are best placed in the economic, political, and social realm.

      This novel is a good example of that. In fact, our cities do shift beneath out feet, but the reason for it is material and rooted in the institutions of power. Urban planners, developers, rich speculators, and chain stores are the reason our own home towns feel like foreign countries when we come back. if you want to take the Zoroastrian deities literally, that is your choice, but I do not think Dick wanted us to do that (at least not at this point in his career).

  3. Good,I’m glad you think metaphysical ambiguity exists.As I just said,his best stuff will always combine this with our dull everyday matters.You need to be able to laugh at it all though.

    Yes,those awful deities just like to play with it all behind the scenes.Later,Dick would take pseudo religious themes more seriously,but not without a political and social context.

    • And besides, this blog is about anarchism and anarchist themes in American literature. I filtered out those things that I think are counter-productive to the struggle against capitalism (such as New Age woo woo).

      • Brian Aldiss said that Dick was an anti materialist,and assuming this to be true,it sounds like his intellectual aims then were the same as the ones you are dissecting.

      • Maybe. I tend to think Dick’s career and works are divided. Often he is engaged in a very materialistic analysis, such as in the description of the social conditions in “Crack in Space.” Undeniably he got religion (or spirituality) as well. That changes how he goes at questions of class, power, state authority. The Black Iron Prison of RFA and VALIS is no longer simply a material or physical incarceration.

        As for my blog as a whole, I assure you I am a materialist. (I think this world and this life is all we have; I think the location of oppression is physical–case in point, the oppression of women is largely about their bodies-reproductive, sexual, productive labor-not about gender identity; I think the struggle against capitalism must be fought on the streets, fields, and factories). If we mean, anti-materialism in a general rejection of capitalist consumerism–that is I believe the colloquial use of the term–I am on board. Most of the material out there is pretty banal. I say I am materialist because I would trade all the spiritual liberation in human intellectual history for the abolition of work and the end of capitalism.

        I am not sure were Dick would be at the end of his career. Still, in the main, I find him my companion and ally. He is also a much more anarchist writer than most people acknowledge. We need only read him politically to find that out.

        FYI, I think PKD Otaku’s next issue is due out soon. Look for my article on Malthus.

      • One more thing. I may be more sympathetic to “spirituality” in my reviews of William James. I do make an effort there to see religious subjectivity as a source of human freedom. I was rather forced to because of James’ perspective on the question. Check out my Index.

        One interesting thing about this blog has been that I have been forcing myself to find anarchist themes in American writers rather than looking for explicitly anarchist writers to review. The result is motifs and threads in the American tradition. Thus even reactionaries like Lovecraft have it running through them.

  4. You told me you believe metaphysical ambiguity exists,it’s just that you prefer to look at it through the external world of politics and sociology.

    It wasn’t so much religion that Dick got,as religious experience.The one he had in 1964,inspired “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”.It would be exciting if you can find political intrigue behind it,but he was on an amphetamine “binge” at the time.

    Anyway,his interest in pseudo religion,didn’t start in the 1970s or even in the 1960s.In the previous decade,he wrote the excellent “Upon the Dull Earth”,about the afterlife,resurrection and pluriformity,before “Eye in The Sky”,which also showed,albeit a more reserved,interest in the subject.You discussed a political or social context for it in the novel,and did see your page for the short story,but don’t recall much about it now.

    I seem to find myself adrift in a no-man’s-land;I can’t place myself at either pole.I prefer to think he had very wide interests and through it all in,and mixed it altogether.

    • Metaphysical ambiguity exists, but let me give an example so you know what I mean. This is probably similar to the one I give in my review of Cosmic Puppets.

      Times Square used to be a place of open sexuality, a free and relatively safe domain for people of deviant sexualities. Within a few years, it was transformed–through the power of unaccountable forces such as developers, capitalists, and the hidden actions of the mayor–into a clear extension of banal corporate consumerism.

      My childhood home is destroyed by developers. I return to my hometown and no longer feel it as home. I never return.

      My cell phone, which used to serve me well, is deemed obsolete and useless. I upgrade to a machine I do not understand, but within a few months I cannot imagine living without it.

      My boss retools the factory and now–without any input from me–I am making weapons of mass destruction.

      I am a farmer in a developing country. Suddenly, the price of my product crashes. A few months later I am a refugee. A few months later, I am a criminal in jail.

      Some of these may be hyperbolic, but they are all real examples of how the ruling class shifts the ground under our feet. The best theorist of this is perhaps Zygmunt Bauman. He gave a name to this, “Liquid Modernity.”

      As I see it, we are adrift in metaphysical ambiguity. None of it has to do with non-materialistic phenomenon.

  5. This is exactly what I mean and how it equates with Dick’s peculiar stuff.Our everyday reality is a strange place,and we have no control over it.What could be stranger?

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