Philip K. Dick, “Now Wait for Last Year” (1966): Commitment, Marriage, and Politics

Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait for Last Year puts in an Earth stuck involved in a Cold War like conflict between two superpowers. In this setting, however, the Earth is not one of the major powers. Instead the Earth is a vassal state of one of the major belligerents. This is, of course, the place millions of humans found themselves in between 1945 and 1990, forced to chose between two odious alternatives. Through this position, Dick explores the consequences and obligations of commitment at the geopolitical stage and in personal relationships.

Our hero is a surgeon named Eric Sweetscent. who constructs artificial organs and transplants them into patients, often old and rich people who can afford this expensive procedure. He works for Virgil Ackerman, the boss of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Company, which used to make consumer goods through a replication process using microorganisms that tend to copy nearby objects. The company has been recruited into serving the needs of the war. For, Earth has been recruited by the ‘Starman in their war against the non-humanoid reegs. The ‘Starmen, although fully authoritarian, seemed a better ally because they looked human. Eric’s estranged wife is a likely adulterer and certainly uses drugs. Her job is to create replicas of earlier times by collecting antiques. Consumerism has merged with nostalgia and Katherine Sweetscent is an expert.

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Soon, Eric is asked to work for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Gino Molinari (The Mole). His job is to keep him barely alive. The Mole is a laughable figure. Politically savvy enough to become the leader of humanity, but he presents himself as chronically ill and a fool. In fact, The Mole is an ideal figure to navigate the horrible position the Earth is in. The ‘Starmen want to fight to the last man and the Mole attempts to save as many lives as possible. In one humorous meeting, Molinari dies at a critical moment at a negotiation in order to avoid committing 1.5 million humans to almost certain death in the war effort. The context is horrific, but the only resistance is through absurdity. Perhaps there is some truth to this dilemma. We often try to resist our bosses and overlords but forget Melville’s lesson. “Now, as you well know, it is not seldom the case in this conventional world of ours- watery or otherwise; that when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straightway against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness; and if he had a chance he will pull down and pulverize that subaltern’s tower, and make a little heap of dust of it.” Like the slave feigning ignorance, Molinari evades human being made into a little heap of dust.

At the same time, Katherine become addicted to a new drug called JJ-180, which has the interesting effect of moving the user along the timeline, but often in parallel universes. It gives the user some predictive powers. Molinari uses it to help see the consequences of his political decisions as he tries to either get the Earth out of the war or switch sides without facing the wrath of the ‘Starmen. This drug is highly addictive and leaves its victims in a debilitated state with significant brain damage. Eric uses these to locate a cure for the addiction (which exists in the future) and gain information on the war effort. All of these political machinations fail, however. At the end of the novel, the ‘Starmen invade to prevent Earth from defecting to the reegs and the war changes to a struggle against occupation (although this long struggle is only foreshadowed).

The core of the novel is the struggle over two promises. Earth’s promise to the ‘Starmen and Eric’s promise to Katherine. Dick seems to think that one of these is illegitimate and the other is absolutely essential. The ‘Starmen acquired the help of the humans through some physiological manipulation and maintained their authority through brute power. They looked on humans as simple fodder for their war and were willing to use or break Earth law to get their way. In their view Molinari’s purpose was simply to stamp their policies on behalf of the humans, who are all but slaves. Dick argues that this type of relationship must be resisted. The promises made under these conditions are illegitimate. Eric’s embrace of the resistance against the invading ‘Starmen symbolizes Dicks support for opposition to authoritarian power and slavery.

Eric and Katherine’s relationship seems at first glance no less exploitive. Katherine makes more money than her husband but still overspend, depending on this salary. Katherine uses her sexuality to make her husband jealous. She uses drugs, breaks the law, and torments her husband at work. She is the typical PKD succubus. Yet, by the end of the novel, Katherine is completely dependent on Eric for basic survival. Eric resists an affair (again we see his insistence on serial monogamy) and almost kills himself. In the final, touching scene, Eric discusses his situation with an automotive cab. The cab (a robot) suggests he stay with his wife because “life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.”

However, we can ask, how is the relationship that different. Did Eric choose to be tormented by a psychological abusive woman, a wastrel for a wife? In the same way, Earth did not know they were entering in on the losing side of a war. Like Eric, they entered the abyss without all the information. Could not robot’s same logic apply to Earth? Yes, you want to switch side in this war now that the going is rough. By what right do you have to change reality to suit your needs? You should remain committed to your choices?

In truth, I am not satisfied that there is a huge difference here. But in the subtlety exists a thin but deep divided between these two situations. It is imprecise, but it makes all the difference. Eric’s commitment to his wife at the end has less to do with the vows he shared years before. Instead it is about the basic necessity of human solidarity. At the end, the cab does not call Eric a “good and loyal husband,” he calls him a “good man” for sacrificing himself for another person.

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8 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “Now Wait for Last Year” (1966): Commitment, Marriage, and Politics

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

  2. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “A Maze of Death” (1970): Alternative Reality and Freedom | Neither Kings nor Americans

  3. It was my understanding,that the ‘Starmen are inhuman and have no capacity for human empathy.They parallel the androids in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,but unlike them,are not artificially made,and have the same biology as “us”.The outward “human” disguise however,is only superficial.

    There is a passage I recall in NWFLY,explaining that “we” and the foreign visitors from Lillistar,are the same species,if a different race,that evolved at the beginning of creation.Only their outward appearance however,makes them compatible with the Terran race,but that proves to be their nemesis.

    The insectoid Reegs,appear to share nothing in common with the two “human” civilizations,but have a deeper sense of empathy that places them closer to us than the fascistic ‘Starmen.It was the internal as much as the external differences between them,that set them at odds with each other.It was “our” flawed misconception that the led us to follow the apparently similar,but militaristic and totalitarian ‘Starmen.

    At the heart of this political scenario,is Gino Molanari,who himself is a powerful dictator,but unlike the ruthless ‘Starmen,he possesses a heart of gold,which makes him a more complex character.He is in the precarious position of having to balance his empathy with ruthlessness against the Reegs.He must in the process,manage to keep his own humanity while waging a relentless war against a sentient species while in allegiance with an uncaring superpower.

    On a simpler human level,Eric’s wife Kathy seems to have as much in common with the ‘Starmen as ordinary Terran humans.She can be manipulative and lacking in empathy,but is obviously a flawed human being,who is also vulnerable and insecure.In this case,it’s difficult to differentiate between actual humanism and it’s complete opposite.

    In DADOES,as somebody else has pointed out,the android opera singer,Luba Luft,is doing more for a collapsed society,by providing culture,than both the renegade androids and organic humans are.It seems that even they can possess human qualities,which stands in contrast to the comparison I made above with the ‘Starmen.

    Political and social events here then,are formed from the verities of human interaction and the inhuman need for power,and there is a growing unease that will have repercussions for “society”.Caught in the middle of all this,is of course,Eric,an all too human and caring character,who struggles to keep his humanity in his cause for helping others,while staving off the angst caused by the bizarre events and flawed humanity,which could cause insanity and lose his capacity to remain human.

    I suppose it’s not a wonder that he seeks solace and advice from a machine in the end,as a way out of the madness and blight.

    • Okay, I can see that. It is a sentiment I agree with. I often found Dick’s fear of the Autofac rather silly. Why would we not want the automated factory? In fact, I cannot think of a good reason to abolish all work. (The conclusion of GPH suggests a return to crafting anyway, so why not use the Autofac to make that possible?)

      Bring on the sexbots too, while we are at it.

      • The Autofac removes the need for manual labour,so work will be scarce,I would have thought.The only way out then,is for individual craftspeople to become self employed,or is it?

        Joe Fernwright’s skills as a pot healer in “Galactic Pot-Healer”,are obsolete,and because this is the “Dickian universe”, Autofacs I suppose make pots that are replaceable,and this would also make artisans redundant.Yes?

        Sexbots could be the answer to sterility then!

      • I would be more specific. The Autofac removes the need for odious, boring, underpaid, repetitious, and unwanted (thankfully now unnecessary) manual labor.

        Freed from work and the need to make a living, our lives would open up to all sorts of crafting. Dick wanted to replace inauthentic, machine production with crafting, that is clear. However, he never really thought through who would need to dig out the coal, make the steel, or clean the bathroooms without robots.

        You are correct in pointing out Dick’s major argument about post-scarcity, but I think he missed the boat on this one. He should have listened to what the anarchists, such as Kropotkin was saying. The video below is a summation of the anarchist post-scarcity position (although made by a non-anarchist).

  4. Just to be clear, my view is that only by abolishing work are we free to do great things, whether that is raising ancient alien sea temples, raising children, going to a barn raising, or going on a five day bender. As long as we are oppressed by the need to “make a living,” the greater things in life will always be pushed aside for the mundane.

  5. Yes I agree,but in the time that Joe Fernwright lives,modern pots are only made of plastic,which of course can’t be individually crafted,and can only be produced by the Autofacs.Earthenware pots are now antiques,which leaves virtually no work for the impoverished Joe,and the little that comes along,is sent to other firms,and thinks to himself that his skills can’t be good enough.

    He begins to contemplate a new direction in employment,so some work must exist in this future society then,but isn’t made clear why he doesn’t or can’t find any.The trouble is,Joe is inexperienced in artistic craft,and can’t create anything.The Glimmung offers him the chance to sharpen his skills and knowledge of making pots,in addition to using them to raise the sunken cathedral.

    Later,left on his own,he starts to make pots in order to ease his angst at losing Mali to the Glimmung’s mind fusion,but even if technically excellent,it lacks the spiritual artistry needed to bring salvation to his mindset.At least now though he has hope of being able to do something to his previous life of living on virtual pittance he had known back home.

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