If I were to teach a course on the novels of Philip K. Dick, I would be very tempted to put The Simulacra at the center of the syllabus. Only its confusing and fragmented plot would lead me to hesitate. The Simulacra provides a very well developed and convincing model of power and politics within the broader meta-universe of PKD’s writings. At the same time, PKD pulls on other threads such as time travel, marriage, mental illness, and androids. These disparate themes that plague his work and can frustrate readers, are, as I suggested in my comments on We Can Build You, integral to the late capitalist mind: confused, disjointed, attention-deficient, and impatient with totality.
The Simulacra seems to exist in a parallel version of the world of We Can Build You (or maybe it is set a half century later). In WCBY, Maury Rock and his daughter Pris Frauenzimmer develop the technology to create simulacra. In The Simulacra, one of the leading manufacturers of of androids, prepared to gain a major government contract, is owned by Maury Frauenzimmer. The direct parallels end there, but we are likely in a similar world, but with the logical conclusions of the world of WCBY extended forward.
I am not going to bother with the plot, because the main power of The Simulacra is in the construction of this very convincing world.
In the first chapter we learn that the West is under some form of authoritarianism. The Earth is still divided between the Communist East and the West, but neither can be seen as democratic. The government in the United States of Europe and America (which is run out of Germany and is heavily influenced by the German language and worldview) is banning all psychiatry due to is lack of scientific precision. The last psychiatrist, Dr. Egon Superb, is continuing his practice in spite of the law. As we quickly learn, he is allowed to keep his job in order to not cure a patient (famous psychic pianist Richard Kongrosian). With psychiatry debunked, and all treatment approached through chemicals, the only reason to keep one around is to ensure that someone remains crazy.
The next chapter takes us to the Abraham Lincoln apartment building. This provides us more evidence that we are not in a totally free society. People’s primary work and living identity are in communal apartment buildings. These people pray together, work together, and are even required to pass examinations to remain a member of good standing. People’s only major investment is their home in one of these communal apartment building. People’s major interaction with the government is through talent shows put on by these communal buildings. The changes are so low, it is more like a lottery than a true talent contest. Everyone’s great dream is to be chosen to perform for Nicole Thibideaux, the first lady of the USEA. People voted, but their true love was for Nicole. “Now there was just the one party, which had ruled a stable and peaceful society, and everyone, by law, belonged to it. Everyone paid dues and attending meetings, and voted, each four years, for a new der Alte–for the man they thought Nicole would like best.” Nicole remarried every four years to a new der Alte. Thus, we have matriarchy rooted in the love of a celebrity. Perhaps Dick was reflecting on the rise of female stars in film and opera and popular music. Perhaps he noticed the greater love Americans had for first ladies (Jackie Kennedy) than for presidents. In any case, it is not that women have true political power. Nicole is loved by all men. Men dream of her. Imagine being with her. Marriages in the communal homes are functional. Everyone’s true love is for Nicole.
The real power is in the class of Ges (Geheimnisträger), who know the truth. Nicole is merely an actress who took over for the real Nicole as she aged. The der Alte, despite elections is an android propped by up the Ges to provide the facade of democracy. One of the characters speak of a matriarchy. On the surface it seems to be a celebratocracy. In reality, the USEA is a technocracy, like so many of Dick’s imagined political systems. This seems to me not entirely unlikely. The infrastructure for a faux participatory democracy is there, as reflected in the proliferation of reality TV, where we elect our singer or even participate in choosing mates for eligible and wealthy bachelors. The Obama campaign famously used small donations delivered via the Internet to make people feel like they were part of a movement, even if the real contributors to the campaign were the corporate elite. I cannot prove, but I suspect there are celebrities who are more well-known the most political figures. Millions take the love life, illnesses, and reproductive lives of these people seriously. I guess that a celebratocracy is more likely than a full dictatorship seen in 1984. Voting is even a part of the television. “Savagely, he went to the TV set and pressed the s knob; if enough citizens pushed it, the old man would stop entirely–the stop knob meant total cessation of the mumbling speech. Vince waited, but the speech went on.”
The Simulacra, like most of these 1960s novels of PKD, show his intense anxiety over married life and monogamy. It is hard to not see Dick as always willing to assume the worst in the character of women. Here, Vince Strikerock of the Abraham Lincoln complex, discovers that his wife has shacked up with Chic Strikerock, his brother. Vince loves Julie but realizes that this is abnormal. For most, marriage if functional. Voting rights for women are a product of their ability to bear children. He asks: “What was marriage, anyhow? An arrangemetn of sharing things, such as right now being able to discuss the meaning of der Alte giving an eight A.M. speech and getting someone else — his wife — to fix breakfast while he prepared to go to his job at Karp u.”
The Simulacra also considered the normalization of mental illness. The fact that is can all be treated with chemicals instead of intensive psychological investigation suggests the necessity of mass-produced solutions to mental illness. The key, integral nut in this novel is the pianist Richard Kongrosian, who believed he is becoming non-corporal and is being replaced with a rancid stench. He also has other psychic powers and is able to use them at an integral moment in the plot to avoid a coup against Nicole. But it is when other characters express their potential mental illness, we realize that Richard is not abnormal. Everyone can now choose their mental illness as if they are shopping. Now you can choose your mental illness to fit your personality type. Anti-social? We have Aspbergers or if you are really hard-core the rare Schizoid. Religion? Paranoia may be best for you. Nothing watches over you quite like God..and the government. A diligent hardworker down on your luck? Well, the disorganized schizophrenia might be right for you. Do you like to shop? For you we have a new and improve obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now never fell guilty about buying that dress in every color. A go-getting? Take a case of biploar. The depressive state will give you a much needed break.
A theme I teased out when looking at The World Jones Made is Dick’s use of the solar system as a frontier, much like the American frontier. We see that again here. The moon and Mars and other orbs in the system have indigenous populations, are seen as a place for rootless people to get a new start, and seem to provide a potential salvation from the political rigidity of Earth. Dick is, I argue, a follower of the idea of Frederick Jackson Turner. The fact that Dick’s extraterrestrial locales are so shitty leads us away from this interpretation, but when we look at the motives for emigration among characters we see a space for hope. The question we need to ask is, why does the frontier always turn out so shitty?
The final chapters deal with the rise of a Civil War between the secret police and the military as well as the potential devastation of humanity. As in all nuclear wars, the victor does not matter as much as the forces that can take advantage, in this case Neanderthals (we are never not reminded we are in a PKD novel). The novel is entirely pessimistic in everything from predicting the manipulation of time travel by the state to the rise of neofascist forces in the USEA. Any hope is hidden away in the horrific potentialities of division between the military and civilian powers. In a sense, the technocracy cannot hold the facade together forever. There is some hope in that.