Philip K. Dick, “The Unteleported Man/Lies, Inc.” (1964/1984): Malthus, Turner, and the Frontier

The Unteleported Man is one of Philip K. Dick’s many novels from the mid-1960s (a novella actually).  Lies, Inc. is a product of the PKD Estate, including expanded material, PKD had wanted to include into an expanded publication, which he called Lies, Inc.  As Paul Williams describes in an afterward, Lies, Inc. was put out by the estate from his manuscript work.  It may not be as Dick intended, and a big part of me wishes I had The Unteleported Man to work from.  It is not a simple matter of reading the first half, since Dick made changes throughout the work during the revision process.  In any case, it is not one of his most well-known novels, nor one that is often labelled as one of his best.  But it does hit on some of the important themes in his work.  It also speaks of the world we live in.  I am coming to believe that my failure to spend more one weekend in California may be debilitating for this study.  I wonder if California got to where the rest of the world is today thirty years ago and Dick is just a chronicler of what he saw around him.  In previous posts, I talked about Thomas Malthus (Crack in Space, Dr. Futurity) and Frederick Jackson Turner (Crack in Space, The Simulacra, Time out of Joint, Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch).  They show up often in the same work.

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Lies, Inc., like The Crack in Space, is one of these novels that takes a look at Malthus and Turner.  Malthus is not traditionally an important figure in American historiography for the very same reason that Frederick Jackson Turner is an important figure: the frontier.  Europe, without the safety valve of the West was plagued with urbanization, concentrated poverty, inequality, and perpetual discontent.  Into this world comes Thomas Malthus, who argued for the morality of inequality as a means of population control.  Growing population, he argued, would outpace economic growth, leading to a crisis of resources.  Social safety nets only encouraged the “unproductive” to reproduce.  This was Europe’s problem, according to Malthus.  The Americas, with a native population devastated by violence and disease and a small population could evade these problems by sending people to the frontier, where they would not become urban, impoverished malcontents but rather good democratic citizen-farmers.  This is the vision of Frederick Jackson Turner.  Of course, anyone who passed fifth grade social studies knows that both of these models are over simplistic, but they are in the gene pool of Western historiography.  Furthermore, I would submit we live in a neo-Malthusian era.  From movements calling for zero-population growth to China’s one-child policy to environmentalist claims that humanity is a burden to the planet decreasing the number of humans is an obsession for many.  In much of the world, fertility rates are falling.  Despite falling fertility rates and a probably flattening of global population in this century, we have a more and more efficient, productive, and mechanized economy.  The problem is not only where to put the people, but what to have them do.  Zygmunt Bauman’s horrifying Wasted Lives reminds us that we have run out of frontiers to put people, our prisons are overfull, our slums are bursting at the seams, and day by day machines are doing the work once done by humans.  Bauman argues that finding places to put these extra people is not unrelated to the problem of where to put excess garbage.

This brings us to the setting of Philip K. Dick’s The Unteleported Man/Lies, Inc.  It is summed up in chapter five (of Lies).  “The TV set in the living room declared, ‘Remember, folks, it’s Old Mother Hubbard there on Terra, and the Old Woman who lived in a show; you’ve got so many children, folks, and just what do you plan to do?’ Emigrate, Ruth decided, without enthusiasm. Apparently.  And–soon.”  The frontier is something forced on them by a Malthusian crisis.  The destination does not seem bad.  “Whales’ Mouth” (interesting name for a risky interstellar destination) is promoted by the state and corporate interests as the place to go.  “Banners, vox-pop streamers . . . we should have a population of between, well, say, one billion then, but still plenty of land.  We can take up to two billion, you know, and still leave plenty of room.  So come on and join us; cross over and be here to celebrate Flying Dutchman Day, folks.”  Flying Dutchman Day refereed to the celebration of the day every 18 years when a conventional ship arrives from Earth.  Most people get to Whale’s Mouth via teleportation.

Conditions on Earth are horrible, of course.  Dick takes pains to contrast the situation with that faced by earlier Malthusian panics.  “It had been suggested, ironically, in imitation of Swift by a fiction writer of the 1950s, that the ‘Negro Question’ in the US be solved by the building of giant factories which made Negroes into canned dog food.  Satire, of course, like Swift’s A Modest Proposal, that the problem of starvation among the Irish be solved by the eating of the children. . . . This all pointed to the seriousness — not merely of the problem of overpopulation and insufficient food production– but to the insane, schizoid solutions seriously being considered.  The brief World War Three [was] a partial solution.”  People lived in crapped quarters, shared bathrooms with other families, and otherwise lived in the misery typical in science-fiction overpopulation dystopias.

I want to pause here and remind us that it is inequality, not population or per capita productivity, that seems to cause most of the social problems, including many of those that concerned Philip K. Dick (fear, anxiety, mental illness).

Does Dick realize this point in Lies, Inc.?  I suspect that the new title for this work suggests that by placing this overpopulated world into the context of corporate control of society supports our position that “overpopulation” is tied to a late capitalist ideology.  The proliferation of autofacs, consumerism, and over-priced cramped apartments all benefited the 1%.  Emigration – a costly endeavor – also supported the needs of the corporate ruling class.  The biggest lie in Lies, Inc. is the lie that there are too many people.  And if we fall for this lie in our world, we will be less capable of struggling for social justice.  If we believe that there are excess people, or that the solution to the environmental crisis is population control, or that the “end of work” is an inevitability, we are opening the door for technocratic tyranny.  The frontier is dead, at least for now.  We can no longer rely on a belief in American exceptionalism to avoid dealing with these questions.

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2 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “The Unteleported Man/Lies, Inc.” (1964/1984): Malthus, Turner, and the Frontier

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

  2. I thought the “traditional” frontier setting in the Dickian Universe,was Mars,but in the projected “history” of the novel,I suppose that has come,gone and failed,the final consequences of which,I suppose we had already “seen” in “Martian Time-Slip”.Of course,in many of Dick’s novels and stories,the old Terrans were “gallant” explorers of space,and have colonized planets of other stars,that have brought no more fulfillment than the original project to settle the red planet.

    It’s not surprising then,with the exception of Walt Dangerfield in “Dr Bloodmoney”,who typically in Dickian fashion,fails in his mission,and takes on a new role as saviour and a sort of new messiah,that no astronauts are remembered as heroes in his sanguine stuff,and only the old fashioned little man and woman as craftspeople and ancillary trade workers,are the real survivors in his societies of unrealized dreams.The “clans” in “Clans of the Alphane Moon” are prime examples of this!

    With an air of obvious disillusionment with colonizing new frontiers in the cosmos,it’s not surprising I think that the practice has fallen to fascistic corporations,who exploit peoples’ continuing need to leave “our world” to find a better life,despite the “writing on the wall”.Necessity drives what needs must do I suppose,and what else can “you” do but try.

    With a totalitarian mentality in mind,it rekindles what I said before about Mars in the sights of the Nazis in “The Man in the High castle”,as a new colony to conquer.The perhaps subjective reference to the Germans or Nazis in “Martian Time-Slip”,can be seen in the German name of the building the “fascist” authorities back home,plan to resettle “Inferior” people.It is doomed to fail of course,as they know,and parallels precisely I think what happens to the colonists in LI/TUM,although this time in a more literal,less subtle way.

    The presence of the Bleekmen in MTS,also contains what seems to be a continuing motif first found in TMITHC.In that novel,the insidious Nazis have extended their racial policy to “experiments” in Africa on the poor natives,,even though it is referenced offstage,but is probably meant to remind us of the principle evil manifest within the novel.In MTS,the settlers,with exceptions such as Jack Bohlen and Manfred Steiner,who relate to them due to their inner angst,have no respect for the aborigines.They have exploited their home world and are building on land holy to them,but can offer no resistance.I think the comparison is pertinent to the subject hinted at in both cases.

    In a more literal sense,the scenario can be compared to the real Australian Aborigines by the first Caucasian colonists,and is known,as Larry Sutin in “Divine Invasions”,states that their philosophy was the inspiration for the Bleekmen.Dick undoubtedly drew on history on the unsavory state of affairs suffered by the “Martian” natives however,in depicting the plight of the Bleekmen and the difficulties of colonization in MTS

    It’s not surprising then,that the manipulators in LI?TUM,are Germans,and of a “classically” nasty kind.The original planners of Martian territorial expansion,it seems,Dick definitely meant to pertain to teutonic tendencies in TMITHC and MTS,but the odious nature of repressive organizations,extends beyond ethnic stereotypes.It lies as you would say,with capitalistic regimes that oppress and manipulate malcontents and the poorer classes.It is within the mentality of greedy immorality.

    Overall,I think in this case I would agree with you,it would have been better without the psychedelic metaphysicality.It should have been expanded to deal more with the intrinsic themes.In other pieces,it has worked well,as in “Faith of Our Fathers”,but not in this one,so could have done without it.

    Taken all together,this novel and most of the others,with all his themes combined,amount to a super theme,that of our dreary existence.He was right I think.Fortunately,he was possessed of a sense of humour,as I’ve already pointed out,and reduced it all to a dreary comedy.

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