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.

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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.

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

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

  2. I’m not sure what to say about this one.His next two novels,”The World Jones Made” and “Eye in the Sky”,would make significant leaps,reaching an early peak with “Eye in the Sky”,before writing “The Man Who Japed”,his last novel before retreating from sf to follow a mainstream writing career.His progress since writing SL,had been prodigal,his first published one being I think a dull and slow start,written too quickly,and out of necessity.

    His first novel “The Cosmic Puppets”,written while still a magazine short story author and published two years after SL,had a light airiness,clarity and spring in it,lacking in this one.SL seems self conscious,muddled,and stiff from ill use by the author after too many years writing short pieces at too rapid a pace.TCP,a shorter book,I think had the advantage of being a short story before being transformed into a longer piece,that produced a simple,less complex and readable novel.

    SL then was the first he started from scratch,and is therefore admirable for that I suppose,considering the years of neglect he suffered churning out short stories for magazine publications,slowing his development writing at book length,so I have to try to be contrite.However,I almost shudder at your mentioning of Gene Roddenberry,as you seem to be holding up the novel to scorn! I would hope not,but it does make it appear that you have strong reservations about the worth of the book,and I don’t blame you.

    On the contrary however,I can’t help feeling John Preston has definite shades of Wilber Mercer in DADOES,and is an early model for him.The difference is that Preston was a real character,although dead,unlike Mercer whose only reality is,that he is really an actor.Both though are fakes of one kind or another,but messiahs who engender faith from their followers,and the truth of their “existence” when discovered,does nothing to extinguish it.In DADOES however,it is transcendental,but of course this hasn’t matured yet in SL.

    More importantly,they share “ideologies” that shape the societies created within the pages of the novels,even though it is more underground in SL .In DADOES it is a pseudo religious one,while the other book has a simpler,libertarian ethos,but both offer hope in places of dull or repressive environments.Both though have a strong political backdrop,and Preston,an authentic “historical” figure,is probably communistic,although not of an Orwellian Stalinist sort I hope,even in a work of literary fiction! By the time he came to write DADOES,he had decided on a milder form of resistance.

    This seems to be the more interesting aspect of the novel,and could have been integrated better into the political context of a complex scenario.At a later stage in his career,he would probably been resurrected or manifested by a reality revision,done in a simpler and more concise prose.

    The most interesting factor in the plot of SL,I think,is the prescience of the events that would affect the USA in the next ten years after the book was first written.In an article in a British publication called “Foundation”,many years ago,called,”Philip K. Dick and the Metaphysics of American Politics”,the accuracy of the assassination theme in SL is discussed in relation to true events early in the next decade,and ends by saying that “Dick was a very astute analysis”.I’m sure you know this,so I won’t go into it here,but it could have been handled more succinctly.

    He made great bounds after this slow beginning,and worked well in the tight structure Ace demanded.

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