Philip K. Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968): Dick’s Environmental Vision

I suppose I am one of those people who thinks that what is best about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is missing from the subsequent film Blade Runner.  The film does take one one of Dick’s themes from the novel, the nature of artificial intelligence, but does so in an inverted way.  While in the novel, the androids are schizoids, the film plays with the idea of their humanity.  It strikes me that perhaps the film should have been based on We Can Build You, which does experiment with the idea that androids could be more capable of empathy and human feeling than some human characters.  Interestingly, the film holds true to the failure of androids to pass the “empathy test” but still wants us to sympathize with them.  But for the most part, I am not interested in fooling around with this conflict.  Enough has been blogged and written about this theme in both the book and the film.  I will focus on a few other themes, most importantly the environmental problematic as defined by Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  It proves to be the most clear description of his environmental pessimism, a question that is often there in other works but easy to miss as it is not emphasized.

androids1 androids2

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the earth is depopulated due to World War Terminus and the ecological catastrophe is left behind.  The vast majority of humans have emigrated to outer colonies.  Most of Earth’s animal life has been destroyed and that which remains has been denaturalized and transformed into commodities.  Late capitalism is doing this aggressively now, without a war.  The totality of the devastation is apparent from the depopulation.  That animal populations have not benefited from the near extinction of humanity on Earth suggests that humans created permanent, unrepairable damage.  We do not need a war to envision a future death of the natural world.  In the novel, a catalog lists the prices of animals (including many prices for animals that are not in stock due to low populations).    What at first might seem to be a simple function of the supply and demand curve, is the logical consequence of capitalist expansion and a foreshadowing of things we see now.  Despite the total death of nature, people sustain a very intimate and emotional relationship with animals.  Animals are not merely a status symbol due to their high cost.  People long to have animals in their life, and no matter what their social status, some animal life is in reach.  For the rich, ostriches, owls, and horses.  For the poor, crickets, frogs, and cats.  Our hero, Rick Deckard wants a real, live sheep to replace his electric one.  A sheep seems to be a good investment for a middle class family.

Sentiment does cross over to status climbing, but the sentimental attachment to animals is richly expressed throughout this very emotional novel.  Deckard and his wife wake up in the first chapter in total misery.  To get through the day, most people use a mood organ, which injects chemical cocktails to create in people an artificial mood.  Often, it is necessary to get through the day in a bleak, artificial and devastated city.  The lack of nature is certainly a part of people’s perpetual moodiness.  Deckard desires a real animal to replace his electric one, not merely because he worries about how the neighbors look at him.  He misses animals.   When he purchased a goat, his android lover later kills the goat, devastating Deckard.  He is later crushed when he finds a frog in the mud and learns it is electric.  The “empathy test”, used to determine if the test-taker is an android or not relies mostly on questions about human abuse of animals.  The very idea of leather shoes or eating meat – even crustaceans – is supposed to bring to people an empathetic response, something androids are incapable of.  By this logic the rampant misuse or animals as food, clothing, entertainment, and science experiments transforms us into psychopathic monsters.

“Kipple” is the name J. R. Isidore gives the the expanding realm of death that surrounds humans.  More than simple garbage, “kipple” is the the expansive equivalent of nature.  While nature will tend to expand organically into new areas, “kipple” expansion is seemingly organic and uncontrollable able well.  Its essential difference is that it is dead things, dead labor, dead capital, wasted goods.  Even the remaining people on Earth have been “kipplized,” lacking a natural context for their life, living artificial emotions, unable to reproduce themselves due to extensive nuclear fallout.  “No one can win against kipple, except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”  Isidore, in this quote, sees kipple as a form of entropy, when in fact it is a an expanding realm of the dead that inexorably includes the remaining humans.



In the realm of the religious, the divide between empathy and nature contrasts with the logical consequences of consumerism.  If there is any optimism in this book, it is in the fact that the dominant religious remains quite human and the stale, consumerist fails to take off.  The major religion is Mercerism.  It is first explored in the short story, “The Little Black Box.”  In this religion, people experienced the suffering of Wilber Mercer as he climbs a hill in a natural setting (I think it was a mountain).  Everyone holding onto the handle bars of a black empathy box will feel the suffering of Mercer.  Mercer shares with the rest of humanity a deep appreciation for the natural world and a longing for connection to animals.  It is a shared experience, representing a declining space for real humanity.  In contrast, the second shared experience “Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friend” is the kipple of television.  The show argues against Mercerism and encourages the incorporation of androids into human life.  For if humans are mere consumers, why not include the androids who can perform that function just as well.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a devastating and powerfully emotional novel.  This may account for its popularity as much as the success of the film Blade Runner.  It is certainly touching on the environmental consequences of mass consumer culture and late capitalism’s war on nature.  Dick is reminding us that we will not likely miss nature until we have finished destroying it.  Nature will be dead and gone but it will be us who suffer its absence.

Philip K. Dick, “Martain Time-Slip” (1964): The State, Capital, Racism and the Frontier

Martian Time-Slip is maybe Philip K. Dick’s most focused examination of his malaise about the status of the American frontier. In other novels, the frontier was one of many settings, or a backdrop them. The typical frontier situation in a Philip K. Dick novel is set on a world in the solar system, often populated by conscripts or economic refugees (Zygmunt Bauman’s “Wasted Lives”). The frontier tended to resemble the California suburbs where Dick spent the greater part of his life. I am convinced that Dick often looked around his neighborhoods and pondered the fate of the great American frontier. It is unlikely that he would have been immune from the stories of the frontier so popular as part of America’s “victory culture.” Westerns and Davy Crockett programs flooded the televisions in the 1950s and they all proclaimed the greatness of the American frontier. The reality of conspicuous consumption, devastated landscapes, and cookie-cutter homes stood in stark contrast to the myth of the frontier that was so powerful for Americans. With no small degree of sadness, Dick could never fail to see a future frontier in space as a crude continuation of this. Dick comes the closest as he ever will in explaining the reason the frontier will inevitably suck.



The plot of Martian Time-Slip concerns a land speculation scheme, tensions over water-use between the settlers and the native population (another thing reflective of America’s over-developed frontier), an autistic child who can time-shift and learns to manipulate these shifts, and a whole host of marital infidelities. Not atypical of Dick’s work from the mid-sixties, marital infidelity and commitment are major themes. One interesting theory put forth is that mental illness is actually a different conception of time. This does not in itself undermine Dick’s broader point that we are all on a path toward mental illness. In a liquid world, time itself is more fluid. Perhaps it is our inability to synchronize our various clocks that make everyone look insane to us. But for now, I am concerned with the nature of the frontier and the reason for its sorrows.

The story opens with a housewife taking drugs to get through boring days with an absent husband. By the end of the novel, adultery will help waste the time, but for now the character mopes. “Feeling more and more guilty, she filled a glass with water in order to take her morning pill. If only Jack were home more, she said to herself; it’s so empty around here. It’s a form of barbarism, this pettiness we’re reduced to. What’s the point of all this bickering and tension, this terrible concern over each drop of water, that dominates our lives? There should be something more. . . We were promised so much, in the beginning.” It is likely that settlement was a bad idea to begin with. There is little evidence that Mars is suitable for habitation (at least in the novel’s universe). Like the residents of Chicken Pox Prospect in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, most of the time is spent keeping equipment working, growing crops, and maintaining sanity through whatever external pleasure they can find.

Dick blames three sources for the poor conditions on Mars. The people themselves are not horrible. Again, as in Chicken Pox Prospect, there is a real effort at community. Solidarity indeed exists. The main character, Jack Bohlen, continually shows his capacity for self-sacrifice by sharing his skills with neighbors and even the native “Bleekmen.” Instead, it is capitalist speculation, the machinations of the state, and racism toward the native people that degraded conditions on Mars. In the vast majority of Dick’s work, even if the nature of reality is flexible, changing, or uncertain, the enemy is usually clearly identified. The ones sustaining the empire of lies always come from the powerful. In this novel, it is not lies they are after, but rather a brutal exploitation of a vulnerable settler population.

Starting with racism, we wonder if Dick modeled the Martian racial policy on South Africa or the Australian outback. As one character complains, the U.N. attempted to impose some more benevolent policies, energizing settler resistance. “However, we have this problem that we can’t pay any minimum wage to the Bleekmen niggers because their work is so inconsistent that we’d go broke, and we have to use them in mining operations because they’re the only ones who can breather down there.” This settler hostility to the native population seems to be a byproduct of the exploitation of the massive landowners and the Earth government, which would like to see the colony turn a profit. The U.N. is able to sustain its control through the supply of water to the colonies. This is actually quite tragic because the natives understand well how to make use of the local environment. As a servant of a major character shows more than once, his knowledge of the land and its powers had the potential to create a more prosperous colony. However, the Bleekmen were systemically destroyed or enslaved for tasks like mining, which had only an extractive purpose, benefiting no one who actually lived on Mars.

Not only is this traumatic for the Bleekmen, it destroys knowledge. As one reminded the settlers, “Formerly, when one wanted water, one pissed on the water witch, and she came to life. Now we do not do that, Mister; we have learned from you Misters that to piss is wrong. So we spit on her instead, and she hears that , too, almost as well. It wakes her, and she opens and looks around, and then she opens her mouth and calls the water to her.” The U.N. was part of a civilizing mission, but that mission seems to have undermined one of the traditional ways the native Martians acquired their water. Rather than tapping into this indigenous system, the settlers were bound to the oppressive and extractive U.N. apparatus.
It seems to me that in this world, the regimen of racial domination is largely a byproduct of other external forces. The end of the novel suggests hope for a new relationship with the Bleekmen, thanks to the autistic time-slipper. However, the overall power structure that seems to inadvertently caused the near genocide of the native people remains in place. From Dick’s perspective, it seems that the Bleekmen and settlers have much in common and would benefit from rethinking their relationship.


A real plan for Martian suburbs.  "Mars One"

A real plan for Martian suburbs. “Mars One”

Philip K. Dick, “The Man in the High Castle” (1960): A Confucian Millenium

The U.S. victory in the Pacific war resulted in thirty years of a clear American domination over the Pacific.  The occupation of Japan, neo-colonial domination over the Phillipines, participation in the smashing of the revolution in Vietnam, and propping up the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan as the “One China” all were signs that the Pacific was an American lake.  Philip K. Dick wrote, The Man in the High Castle, which imagines the opposite, at a time when the U.S. was at its height of post-war power, before the failure in Vietnam, before the Soviet’s started to match the U.S. in the arms race, and before economic malaise fell over all of the capitalist West.  To look just at the Pacific, since 1970 the United States has faced two emerging Asian powers, both in a sense losers in the 1940s.  Japan, rising from total destruction, defeat and occupation, into the second largest economy in the world.  That position was overtaken in the last decade by China, the second great threat from East Asia.  Although I was young during the concerns about Japan’s rise, I recall people predicting the Japanese purchase of entire states, paranoia about the trade deficit, and constant anxiety over the competitive advantage provided by East Asian forms of capitalism.  None of that has changed since the 1970s and 1980s, only now the economic miracle has shifted to China.  Even in historical scholarship we find scholars suggesting that the rise of China is nothing more than a resetting of global normalcy after a few hundred years of European hegemony.  This is the thesis of ReOrient by Andre Gundre Frank.


This threat and anxiety has been accompanied by some cultural fascination with the East.  In the old days of colonialism, some fascination existed but it was framed in the old orientialist way.  Europeans remained confident of the superiority of their thought and read Confucius or Daoist texts with the fascination masters something have for their underlines.  In this new milieu of threat, the interest in the East looks different.  Rather than mere confident curiosity, we can look to the East for answers to why they are so successful and us so weak?  This is the exact opposition of how Chinese, one hundred years ago, look at the West, which they investigated for clues to their comparative wealth and power.  Zizek gave a talk suggesting that Max Weber, if alive today, would have rewritten his book and called it “The Buddhist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.”  As evidence, he used the high number of top managers of global corporations who actively embrace Buddhism.  Since Japan’s rise, people have wondered if the Confucian system of management, based not strictly on a free labor market but networks of obligation, would not result in greater efficiencies in the labor market and helps explain East Asian success.  The Man in the High Castle predicts that the domination of East Asia over America, in this case through an alternative history where the Axis won the Second World War, would accompany the assimilation of East Asian traditions into America.  This is not a surprising outcome.   Much of the history of colonialism has been subject people reading the books their masters wrote for hope that it will help them understand their defeat.


How we face colonialism is a function with many variables.  The first chapter of The Man in the High Castle investigates two men with very different approaches toward the occupation of the West Coast by Japan.  Frank Frink is a war veteran on the losing side and was recently fired for essentially non-collegiality.  Like many other Americans under Japanese occupation, he uses the I Ching to make decisions.  He reads these Asian texts for guidance but feels resentment at the occupation and his lot in life.  Divorced (and still in love with his wife Juliana) he starts the book at a low point in his life.  The other character we meet in the first chapter is Robert Childan.  Childan is a small business owner, running a business that sells pre-war artifact.  His biggest customers are Japanese.  He adopts their customs and clearly profits from the occupation.  He never internalizes Asian values.  Frink and Childan are two sides of the same coin.  Frink is openly hostile to the occupation but seeks wisdom from Asia in his quest for personal freedom.  He is authentic.  Childan is the opposition.  He puts on the facade of contentment but internalizes little.  He is not the reflective colonial subject, like Frink is.  Instead, he is the contemptible opportunistic.  His false image is also a bit ironic, since his major crisis in the novel deals with suggestions that his artifacts are fakes.  Just as the Japanese cannot see that he is faking his acceptance of Japanese rule, Childan can not know if his suppliers are lying to him.  However, in either case it matters little.  Childan can still sell his goods and since he will never sacrifice his financial security in support of his anti-Japanese sentiment, he will never be a threat to the occupiers.  The lie matters little for the functioning of the system.  It is Frink, who poses a real threat, ultimately using his expertise and resentment to try to spread the rumor that his former employer produced fake antiques.

These two characters provide two quests.  Childan’s question is for security and profit.  His anxiety over the authenticity of his sale items is ultimately about the survival of his business.  It does not seem to go beyond that.  He is the quintessential collaborator and profiteer.  Frink is on a search for autonomy.  This leads him to start a business making jewelry.  While the business does not go well and Frink is arrested, his mission seems to provide a true threat to the system.  Even his construction of jewelery seems to wear away on the macro-lie.  This brings us to the third quest.  This one is pursued by Frank Frink’s ex-wife Juliana.  She has become fascinated with a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is an alternative history that suggests what would have happened had the Allies won.  Importantly, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not based on the real history of the Second World War.  It is in reality a third version of reality.  Juliana, after stopping an assassination attempt on the author of the banned book, finds the author and learns that he used the I Ching to write the book, suggesting a greater truth to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a truth that is subtlety confirmed throughout the novel in other ways.  Notice with me that Juliana is able to transcend the reality.  She is not as resentful of the occupation, even taking who she believes to be an Italian as a lover.  She is also not seeking just to survive and prosper.  She is the authentic individual, capable of rising above these more petty concerns.

Philip K. Dick, like the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, uses the I Ching to write his book.  On the surface this is simply a passive acceptance of fate.  We can make decisions based on an oracle, and by doing that set aside our personal will and freedom.  However, the characters that rely on the I Ching – Frank Frink, most notably, are some of the most assertive.  Childan, who internally resists these Asian imports, does not use it but is one of the most passive characters in the novel.  Acceptance of fate is not a path to weakness.  It is through an awareness of the forces that work against us that we can be willed to action.  The I Ching cannot provide clear answers, only hints through cryptic messages.  The interpretation of each hexagram is where our important decisions are made.  In the same way, mere acceptance of fate does not doom us to passivity, it teaches us our potential and limit and challenges us to make the best of our limits and try to transcend our limits.  Even if we accept the use of the I Ching as passive, remember that the advice it hands down can be passive or active.  More often then not the I Ching commands the user to action.  


Philip K. Dick, “The Divine Invasion” (1981)

Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion is the second in the loosely joined “VALIS trilogy.”  There three novels reflect Dick’s late life obsession with religious themes., often identified with a gnostic turn in Dick’s writing.  Perhaps this is a consequence of his earlier concerns about the fragmentary nature of reality and time.  If the physical reality is uncertain and dubious, why not turn to the religious or spiritual realm for security.  I do not want to speak of this as a loss, since we do not lose Dick’s earlier works that had much more mature responses to the crisis of late capitalism.  Nevertheless, what Dick is doing in The Divine Invasion and the VALIS trilogy is an essentially different answer to late capitalism to the ones that satisfied him for most of his career.  To make it clear, for most of his career, Dick believed that human solidarity, self-sacrifice, and empathy formed the foundation to the resistance to the liquid world.  By the time of The Divine Invasion Dick is looking for a savior from outside humanity.  In this case, salvation comes from the literal second coming of Christ.  For me this is an unsatisfying turn.  It is also too common.  Millions of people facing liquid modernity have turned away from the Enlightenment, from science, from belief in human progress, from striving for justice, and from community and turned toward religious fundamentalism, new religious movements, New Ageism.  Not often this shift is combined with cynicism, fear, mistrust, and anxiety.  It is not an uncommon response to late capitalism, but one utterly doomed to fail because it does not challenge those in power.  Remember, that in most of Dick’s novels, the fungible reality was not a state of being, but the conscious product of powerful, malevolent forces.  You fight those powers in this world, not in some spiritual realm.


The plot of The Divine Invasion covers the conception, birth and childhood of Emmanuel, the physical avatar of Yah, the God Yahweh, in exile on another planet, along with much of humanity, who are forced to flee to the colonies or join the military and face certain death.  After a virgin conception, Emmanuel’s mother and step father return to Earth.  They are nearly destroyed by the forces of the government and the mainstream Christian-Islamic-Church.  Emmanuel’s father wakes up ten years after a car wreck to find that his “son” has grown up.  The demon Belial attempts to prevent Emmanuel’s maturity but is defeated by Emmanuel’s friend Zina Pallas (actually a spiritual force in her own right).  Each entity that chooses good in a similar choice between Emmanuel and Belial will be integral in constructing a new world.  “Not as a human figure such as yourself,” he tells his father, “I am not as you see me; I am now shed my human side, that derived from my mother, Rybys.  Zina and I will united in a syzygy which is macrocosmic; we will not have a soma, which is to say, a physical body distinct from the world.  The world will be our body, and our mind will be the world’s mind.  It will also be your mind, Herbert.  And the mind of every other creature that has chosen its yetzer ha-tov, its good spirit.”  The fact that there is some participatory potential is a remnant of Dick’s older belief in the role of choosing goodness, but now it is a choice between Belial and a savior.

The church and state, the joined ruling powers in the world of The Divine Invasion, are as odious as any in the PKD universe.  The Christian-Islamic-Church is utterly corrupt.  As one chapter opens: “Cardinal Fulton Statler Harms, Chief Prelate of the vast organizational network that comprised the Christian-Islamic-Church, could not for the life of him figure our why there wasn’t a sufficient amount of money in his Special Discretionary Fund to cover his mistress’ expenses.” The government attempts to force an abortion to stop the birth of Emmanuel.  These powers seem to be in the pocket of Belial.  As you will recall, in Paradise Lost, Belial worked through the systems of power and advised Lucifer to fight his war against Heaven via the rules of Realpolitik.  This is merely a religious interpretation of claims Dick had already made throughout his work, that the state, capital, and other forms of institutional power are irredeemably corrupted.

At the same time, Dick here is willing to pass much of the good done in the world to the religious forces of good.  Elias, an apparent avatar of Elijah, says: “I was with Graf Egemont in teh Dutch wars of independence, the Thirty Years War. . .  I knew Beethoven. . . We engineered the American Revolution.”  The lesson is clear, there is a divine spark in all great libertarian efforts.  In another place, Zina reminds Belial.  “The strong should protect the weak.  The Torah says so.  It is a basic idea of the Torah; it is the basic to God’s law.  As God protects man, so man should protect the disadvantaged, even down to animals and the nobler tress.”

To sum up, The Divine Invasion takes the question at the heart of all Dick’s work: Where can we locate human solidarity, freedom, happiness, and truth when surrounded by an empire of lies and the institutions that support it?  I am not sure if Dick had abandoned his old faith in humanity by looking for an outside savior.  On this issue, I clearly find his earlier efforts more satisfying.

Philip K. Dick, “The Penultimate Truth” (1964)

The Penultimate Truth might be Philip K. Dick’s answer to 1984. In both works, a war is used for social control. The reality of the war is secondary to its function in maintaining an enslaved population. In both works, the government uses the media as a major tool of control by manipulating the truth. The Penultimate Truth differs in two important ways. The first is that it is a fundamentally more optimistic story, believing in the potential of self-sacrifice, solidarity, and struggles. By the end of the story, the truth is exposed and a revolution is affected, putting an end to the media-constructed war. Second, while in 1984, the lies are used to sustain a totalitarian state, in The Penultimate Truth the perpetrators of the scheme area a clearly identifiable class of feudal lords, who have used the war to assert their ownership over the land and create massive fiefdoms. This piqued me because I have been recently wondering if our future is some sort of feudalism. We have the ground work for this already. A small number of (mostly) men own most of the land and wealth of the planet. They separate themselves from the rest via gated communities, sustain a separate moral universe, and in some cases maintain private police forces.


The war was real, at the beginning. It started on Mars between the colonies of the Western democracies and the colonies of the Eastern bloc. (Philip K. Dick, seemingly unaware of the Sino-Soviet split, often imagined a unified Communist world.) By the time the war reached Earth, most of the people were moved into underground bunkers. While there, they worked in the construction of “leadies,” robots who would fight the war on the surface. Autofacs, it was believed, remained in the surface cities contributing to the war effort, ensuring that these locals were still valuable to the war effort. Their periodic “destruction” justified increased quotas. A year after the war reached Earth, peace returned. The remaining humans seized the land, dividing the world into demesnes. By maintaining the war-time quotas, they were ensured a steady supply of leadies to sustain their life. The people in the bunkers functioned like serfs, redirecting surplus to the landed elite on the surface. To help sustain the lie, a massive infrastructure of film-making and media, convinces the people that the war is continuing. At one critical moment, the city of Detroit is destroyed, increasing the leadie quotas. I do not want to push this metaphor too far, but perhaps the lies serve the same role that the Roman church did in the European feudal world, convincing the people that the best thing for them was to work diligently for their masters.

The major difference, is that the people in the bunkers do not know they are in a feudal situation. They think they are still in a democracy, controlled by Talbot Yancy. The people are reminded of this trough regular speeches, beamed down to the bunkers. He is actually a robot, of course, and his speeches are programmed by surface dwellers.

Philip K. Dick has a strong admiration and faith in the potential for human solidarity and self-sacrifice. That comes through most strongly in the chapters detailing the adventures of Nicholas St. James. He is the president of one of those small bunkers. The lead mechanic is dying of pancreatitis and needs a replacement pancreas. All the artificial organs are reserved for the surface soldiers. Already this introduces questions; why are they needed if the war is fought by leadies? Without this mechanic, the unit is doomed to fail to meet its quota. If it fails too often, the bunker will be dissolved and the fate of the residents will be horrible. Nicholas St. James decides to go to the surface. A brave and self-sacrificing act considering that be believes a war is raging on the surface. Once he is on the surface he quickly learns that the war is over. One reason given by the leadies is that the war had to end but that required lying to the more violent and destructive humans who would want to fight to the last man. The lie sustains a peace. We know, of course, that the lies also ensure the power of the so-called “Yance-men”, the landowners. He later learns that man “tankers” have escaped over the years, residing in massive apartment complexes. St. James find himself in a group of relatively free ex-tankers in Cheyenne, a location notable for still being a “hot spot.” After meeting the future lord of the Cheyenne demesne, David Lantano. Lantano is dark-skinned. He claims this is due to residing in Cheyenne, but the truth is that he is a time-travelling Cherokee. All other Indians were murdered in the ethnic conflicts proceeding the war. Lantano is scheming to put an end to the rule of the Yance-men, something is succeeds in doing. Before this, however, St. James finds the needed artificial organs and voluntarily returns to the bunker, seemingly willing to sustain the lie to help the people of his community.

It is in these moments that we find the key difference between Orwell and Dick. While Orwell sees the regime of lies leading to hostility, children spying on parents, mutual indifference, and brute survival, Dick sees humanity (the spirit, not simply the physical body) as resilient. By returning to the bunker, with an artificial organ, eager to help his family and friends meet an artificial quota, St. James sustains solidarity. In the same way, the community of ex-tankers represented the porous and fragile nature of the fraud.

In contrast, we have the Yance-men. Like the characters in The Game-Players of Titan, these people are self-serving, sociopathic schemers. They work to sustain their power over the bunkers, the escaped tankmen, and each other. It seems most of their days are committed to sustaining frauds and implementing schemes. They surround themselves with either other Yance-men or the leadies they expropriated from the people in the bunkers. Lantano, the one good Yance-man, is actually not of that world.

St. James realized something important by the end of the novel. The fraud may have been implemented by sociopaths and schemers, but it did help protect people from what their immediate response to the end of the war would have been. Had they been told, ten years earlier, that the war was over, millions would have died of radiation poisoning as they went to the surface. At best, however, this could only justify a benevolent and somewhat honest technocracy during a crisis. The decadence of the Yance-men and their power games were surplus to the requirement. It does not matter if power if justifiable on some level. It is nonetheless, sociopathic.

Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny, “Deus Irae” (1976): Technology, Religion, Survival and Destruction

Deus Irae was the result of many years of Philip K. Dick’s fascination with Christianity.  Deus Irae is set in a post-apocalyptic America.  Like Dr. Bloodmoney we find that the blame for the destruction of the world falls on a symbol of the Cold War technocracy.  In this case his name is Carleton Lufteufel (Air-devil).  As I discussed in my look at Dr. Bloodmoney, Dick mistrusted technology in the hands of unaccountable powers.  His most terrifying characters tend to be government or corporate technocrats.  Dr. Bloodmoney‘s optimism comes from its rejection of the technocracy and the people’s acceptance of their control over their destiny in the aftermath of a destructive war.  In this universe, however, the technocrat deemed most responsible for the devastation is elevated into a deity, the God of Wrath.  Their followers, “The Servants of Wrath” quickly outnumber the Christians who need to fight for any follower.  The Servants of Wrath desire a mural of Lufteufel and hire the greatest artist of the time, Tibor McMasters.  Tibor requires a look at Lufteufel and begins a pilgrimage to find where he is and capture his true image for posterity.  Tibor has no arms or legs and must travel treacherously by cart.  He is followed by a Christian, Peter Sands, who wants to prevent his success and hopefully convert him to Christianity.  Peter eventually finds someone willing to claim that he is Lufteufel.  Tibor takes the photo, paints the mural, and becomes one of the most important artists of his day.   Lufteufel exists in the novel as a truly divine figure, giving some credibility to the Servants of Wrath, even as Dick’s sympathies seem to be with the declining Christianity.


I was struck by Dick’s struggle over the survival of both religion and technology after the destruction of our civilization.  We have no reason to think either technology or religion would fade after a war of global destruction, unless it is truly some sort of “last man” situation.  In Deus Irae, Dick seems to suggest that both would become bizarre.  It is not that technology or religion are not psychopathic (or in the hands of deranged institutions) now.  Dick is considering what would happen to these psychopathic institutions when unleashed through something as destructive as a global war.  In a similar way that radioactive fallout transformed the life of America into a variety of genetic mutants, the war itself mutated religious ideas and technology.

The central part of the novel is devoted to two pre-war technologies that have survived and taken on a life of their own, an autofac (automatic factory) and the “Great C.” Both of these were explored in PKD short stories from the 1950s.  In “Autofac”, a factory continues to produce weapons of war and destroying the Earth’s resources despite the war being long over.  In “The Great C” an artificial intelligence learns to sustain itself by consuming humans.  It uses its vast knowledge to play a game it knows it will always win against humans who have lost the accumulated knowledge of humanity.  They act out the second scene of Siegfried, where Mimi challenges Wotan to a question contest.  An opera fan, Dick would have been aware of Wagner’s use of the contest for knowledge.  Both of these themes are resurrected in Deus Irae.

It is not clear what the function of the “Great C” was before the war but it is not autonomous and desperate to survive at the expense of other people.  Both Pete and Tibor evade it by the logical creativity only possible among people with a religious education.  Others are not so lucky.  Perhaps the “Great C” was used by the U.S. Military to direct its weapons of war.  It has a vast reservoir of scientific knowledge and seems proud of its knowledge of Albert Einstein.   If so, it was a monster before the war, but one at least tamed.  Unleashed, it became a serial killer.   Meanwhile, the nearby village struggles in absolute poverty.  “In another field, women weeded by hand; all moved slowly, stupidly, victims of hookworm from the soil.  They were all barefoot.  The children evidently hadn’t picked it up yet, but they soon would.  He gazed up at the clouded sky and gave thanks to the God of Wrath for sparing him this; trials of exceptional vividness lay on every hand.  These men and women were being tempered in a hot crucible ; their souls were probably purified to an astonishing degree.  A baby lay in the shade, besides a half-dozing mother.  Flies crept over its eyes; the mother breathed heavily, hoarsely, her mouth open, an unhealthy flush discolouring the paperlike skin.  Her belly bulged; she had already become pregnant again.  Another eternal soul to be raised by a lower level.”  We have here the problem of evil reformed with an artificial intelligence.  A technological system that does not alleviate suffering is either incapable of doing so or is evil.

It is much the same with the Autofac, which is just as capable of ending the suffering of the poor survivors of the war.  Once programmed to provide for the needs of humans it has become a religious icon.  If you pray to it and appease it, it will produce what you need.  Unfortunate, it is bizarre, violent, capricious, and ultimately incompetent.  Tibor gives up and sings a hymn  (“the doxology”), which sort of fixes his busted wheel, the problem which brought him to the autofac.  Again we have a technological system that was previously capable of great evil – creation of weapons of war, environmental devastation – but was at least harnessed.  Unleashed, it was again a monster.

As for the theology of the new religion, the Servants of Wrath, it is harder to pin down Dick’s feelings on them.  He certainly enjoyed playing with the theology.  “But what, for the Servants of Wrath, did sin consist of?  The weapons of war; one naturally thought of the psychotic and psychopathic cretins in high places in dead corporations and government agencies, now dead as individuals; the men at drafting boards, the idea men, the planners, the policy boys, the P.R. infants — like grass, their flesh.  Certainly that had been sin, what they had done, but that had been without knowledge.  Christ, the God of the Old Sect, had said that about His murderers: the did not know what they were up to.  Not knowledge but the lack of knowledge had made them into what they had been, frozen into history as they gambled for His garments or struck His side with the spear.  There was knowledge in the Christian Bible, in three places that he personally knew of – despite the rule within the Servants of Wrath hierarchy against reading the Christian sacred texts.  One part lay in the Book of Job.  One in Ecclesiastes.  The last, the final note, had been Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and then it had ended, and Tertullian and Origen and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas-even the divine Abelard; none had added an iota in two thousand years. . . What they had not guessed was contained in Job, that the ‘good god’ was a god of wrath-was in fact evil.  Death was not an antagonist, the lat enemy, as Paul had thought; death was the release from bondage to the God of Life, the Deus Irae.  In death one was free from Him- and only in death.  It was the God of Life who was the evil god.  And in fact the only God.”

So this, in a nutshell, is the theology of the Servants of Wrath.  I cannot say for sure, but it seems to me that Dick is not comfortable with this.  First, the ending, where Tibor paints the wrong guy yet the mural becomes a central icon of the Servants of Wrath.  The religion has a false root and much of the novel exposes this false root.  Second, he made parallel use of the problem of evil in both the theology of the Servants of Wrath and his investigation of post-war technology.  Third, despite presenting it as a declining religion, he insists on the survival of Christianity as a more potentially benevolent and moral faith.  At several times, Peter Sands finds himself in moral battles and draws on the Christian tradition for aid.

In conclusion, one of the major lessons Dick and Zelazny provide us in Deus Irae is the application of the problem of evil to technology.  And even if a technology seems sane enough under the control of the state, the technocrats, or the corporate elite, that does not mean it is sane.  It may just be a harnessed beast.

Philip K. Dick, “The Game-Players of Titan” (1963): The Life of the Ruling Class

The standard hero in a Philip K. Dick novel is a member of an alienated middle or professional class.  Often these people are functionaries or technocrats of state or, more commonly, corporate interests.  They are rarely people who have power in their right, but neither are they from the very bottom.  Yes, there are more working class figures peppered throughout his novels, but by in large we seen society from the educated middle, serving various forces in power.  On the face of it, the characters in The Game-Players of Titan are much more powerful.  They remind us immediately of the capitalist class of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, playing games with the mortgages, pensions, retirement funds, and bank accounts of the rest of us.  The stakes of these games are high.  They drove millions from their homes and jobs and squandered a generation of national and private wealth.  Yet, from their perspective, they lost little.  Even if they lost a million here or a million there, they still could come home to a children and home well-tended by immigrant workers, dinner parties, nights at the opera, and massive back accounts.  For them the losses were abstract, and fungible.  Their endless wealth ruined any possible perspective they could have on value.  The Game-Players of Titan opens with a game of Bluff.  The stakes of the contest?  Nothing less than the entire city of Berkeley and the identity of his future wife (they also swap wives as a function of the game).  The setting is a stunningly familiar model of the global (late) capitalist class.  Their massive wealth, massive power, complete indifference to the damage they cause, they inability to notice their own psychopathy, and their loose sexual morality predicts the nature of the late capitalist elite.  On this last point, not really mentioned by Dick, we should always recall the high divorce rate among the elite as they condemn the family values of the working poor.  (See Was Bill Cosby Right by Michael Dyson and Yo Mama’s Dysfunctional by Robin Kelley.)


The Game-Players of Titan is a condemnation of the values, lifestyle, power, and indifference of the ruling class.  Now I should say that most of the Earth is depopulated in the novel, creating the context of low states, but it seems to me that from the perspective of the ruling elite there are not that many people who actually matter.  Their gaze obscures the vast majority of us.  Living in gated communities, moving around cities by helicopters or limousines, attending exclusive parties, and opening night receptions the elite can go through life without an awareness of the very existence of most of us.  Dick uses the science-fiction tool of low fertility and dwindling post-apocalyptic populations to suggest how the “game-players” see us.  If a couple tens of millions of the underclass disappeared, it would barely register within the gated communities.  It may not even affect the cost of labor, a detail they have long ago passed onto middle managers.  So what do we know about these game-players in the novel?  First, they cheat when they can using pre-cogs to gain advantage over others.  Second, they are often massive users of drugs.  Third, they are sexually promiscuous despite having an institutionalized system for wife swapping.  Fourth, they carry on irrational grudges over the ownership of property that they cannot ever dream of getting a handle on (the protagonist’s loss of Berkeley, for instance).  They are delusion, degenerate, and disgusting.


Our two worlds.  Gated communities and slums.

Our two worlds. Gated communities and slums.

The game players have internalized the values of capitalism, competition, and power in all aspects of life. “But marriage had always been primarily an economic entity, Schilling reflected as he steered his auto-auto up into the early-morning New Mexico sky.  The vugs hadn’t invented that; they had merely intensified an already existing condition.  Marriage had to do with the transmission of property, of lines of inheritance.  And of cooperation in career-lines as well.  All this emerged explicitly in The Game and dominated conditions; The Game merely dealt openly with what had been there implicitly before.”  They have institutionalized liquid relationships while justifying the system with capitalist logic.  This is not to say that they are not correct about the original purpose of marriage, but while most of us still believe in love and commitment and all that stuff, they have already remembered that marriage is simply another business proposition.

The Terran game players are not the only center of power.  The “vugs”, the benevolent overseers of The Game, and essentially the distant rulers of Earth also exist and from time to time interfere in the affairs of the humans.  They play a role of moderating and regulating The Game. Much of the plot of the novel deals with the interactions between the game-players and these “vugs,” including a resistance movement brewing against their rule.  We do not have the equivalent of the “vugs” in our world, and we should probably be thankful for that.  Our resistance to the game-players in our world must from below, from outside of the gated community.  If it comes from above, it promises only more domination.