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”

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

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

  2. Wonderful review. I think it might be one of PKD’s best…. You discuss the mentally disabled character very little (forgot his name) — what is PKD doing with him? Is he somehow a “product” of this border region? If only I could remember the details more clearly — it’s been a good 10 years since I read it…

    • I am bracketing that mostly because I wanted to focus on the question of frontier. Throughout this series I have been organized around the theme “Philip K. Dick and the World We Live In” (the name of a book perhaps). But now that you mention, perhaps I should have said more since autism is apparently on the rise in the West – and perhaps a symptom of late capitalism. It is so central to the novel’s story that I should have said more about it. I suspect one thing he is doing with Manfred Steiner is suggest mental illness is a state of being temporally out of sync. I can also say that Manfred becomes the link to the Bleekmen, since they have time-bending powers already. We could imagine the process as potential remaking of the frontier through a union.

      In any case, sorry again for my choosiness on themes. If you look back, I have been bothered by this “Frederick Jackson Turner in Space” theme for a while.

      • You don’t have to apologize! One always focuses on something — I was more fishing for your analysis of the character — not implying that it needed to be in the review 😉 My fiance is an English grad student who studies disability theory in lit so I’m always curious for people’s interpretations of mental disability — and, it happens, that PKD is one of the few sci-fi authors she’s read…

      • And also, one of the few she’ll read…. haha.

        “apparently on the rise in the West – and perhaps a symptom of late capitalism”? Really? Or rather, we are becoming my adept screening for it when many of these people (for good or bad) with lesser cases went without treatment. So, in our increasingly medicalized age…..

    • Autism is probably an early defense mechanism to protect “yourself” from the terrifying “assault” of the external world.Manfred’s precognitive ability it seems,has warned him of his dire future,and retreats into his private enclave.

      It seems with the increasing pressure of what is called the “liquid world” and “late capitalism”,an inward regression is inevitable.The development on the red planet in MTS,seems to be an atavism of what was happening to California at the time he wrote the novel,and nobody cared about the consequences.Mental illness was a follow-on symptom of this.

      Atavism,a hidden bug it seems,in human consciousness that repeats history,is a consistent and penetrating theme buried in the layering of his battery of literary fiction,but is less often referred to,than his more “popular themes”.It can be seen as part of the concept of devolution,of which “Ubik” I suppose is an obvious but pertinent example.Needless to say,it has to do with entropy.

      The likes of innocent saviors like Manfred,unknowing doing what is natural to them,are the ones who will save them in the end.

      • Do you know something about the origins of autism? I wonder how Dick’s examinations of that have held up. He seems to put it with other mental disorders pretty loosely. As I recall the line between schizophrenia and autism in this novel is a bit loose.

        I struggled with how to present in my upcoming book. I ended up just pointing out that in the 1960s autism was understood as childhood schizophrenia.

        But you are right about California. I think this work is a major turn in his entire philosophy of history and the frontier. I am now working on an essay on Dick’s philosophy of history which I see in roughly three stages. His early career up to and including MTS sees the frontier in terms of Frederick Jackson Turner and Arnold Toynbee–frontier is the salvation of civilization, a place for a new society to define itself and remake itself. (You really need to understand the early stories well to see this.) In MTS and “The Three Stigmata” we see a second phase in which the frontier is anodyne, merely a debased extension of the civilization. We could call this period Dick’s end of history period. In the final stage, in works like “A Maze of Death” and VALIS, we see an eternal return, which is an even more horrible end of history.

        Of course, these overlap a bit throughout his career due to all his self-borrowing.

      • As I recall,Manfred is referred to as schizoid,which I assume is actually different to schizophrenia.It sounds like a milder form of it,not the violent adult sort,and what you call childhood schizophrenia,meaning autism,seems pertinent then.

        He is a child progeny though,and his ability to perceive time and the external world differently,is what makes it difficult for him to relate to the shared world “we” perceive.He is a stage above us then,rather than a mentally disordered misfit.Is this what Dick had in mind when he was trying to “define” autism?

        However,he also has control over the universe,and in turn,history it appears.He is a daemon then,and therefore also dangerous,but as I said,is innocent of his powers.Because of his different time sense though,he perceives the universe as unchanging,and lives in the “tomb world”,a stagnant region where the natural forces of entropy and negentropy don’t exist.

        Despite this,he is aware of an entity,the Gubbler,an abstract concept of entropy,which given Manfred’s control over the ordered universe,could be an extension of his persona.This is exactly what starts to happen to the people outside of Manfred’s perception though,their reality deteriorates,as they come “close” to Manfred’s own,and there also appears to be an active substance called Gubbish,that changes everything into a state of decay.This could be another product of his prodigal mind,as once again,he seems to have control over it.

        Who is Manfred then,a manifestation of God on Earth? He is sharply reminiscent of the later,young Emmanuel I think,in “The Divine Invasion”,who must remember he is God,and like Manfred,is unaware of his condition.

        After saying all this,what can Dick mean by autism? It would seem to have a very broad meaning,if what I’ve said is anything to go by.

        As for the frontier theme,you alluded to it in MTS and TTSOPE,as repeating the mistakes of history,and once again,I assume it’s the cause of capitalism and the need for power.It was last heard of “In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,where it seemed to be a last refuge to escape the awful conditions on Terra,[if it can be assumed form MTS and TTSOPE,that it will be much better]and when it came to “Galactic Pot-Healer” and “A Maze of Death”,the Martian frontier as a place to begin a new period in history,seems to have been forgotten,while the post 1960s novels,almost seem to have left space colonization behind.The process of exploration and settlement to build a new world,seem to have come full circle.

    • Better diagnosis is probably a part of it, but that does not explain the obsession with diagnosis, naming, treating, and (at some point) institutionalizing individuals. I am exposing the influence of late capitalist cultural theory on my mind all the time. I suppose there are two sides to this. One is that rising emphasis on diagnosis as a way to enforce normalcy. This people who used to just be the village idiots become medical subjects, to be corrected, reformed, and modeled into the norm.
      The second way is that liquid modernity is insane and the proper relation to it is with a mental illness of some sort. We actually have consumer choice in the matter, thanks to media campaigns telling us what mental illness we might have. Trendy and sexy sociopaths on HBO, Showtime, etc.

      I am plagiarizing horribly now.

      And on the apology. I am from a Lutheran community in Wisconsin. We apologize for everything, deserved or not.

      • Haha, yeah I understand where you were going with it… But one way to look at it is the fact that many who were not getting necessary (and often helpful) treatment now are…. But yes, there is a level of over medicalization in all sectors of society…

      • Well, as always thanks for following my series. Six novels left (and I will have a sum-up). It will be around 40,000 words. The idea of a book is not a silly one at this point.

        Good luck to your finance. I am in the process of leaving academia, but as not in the field of English, I cannot help with that job market.

      • Yeah, academy — rather not talk about it — haha (I’m a PhD student in the liberal arts — but not English — as well and rather terrified about ever finding a job — but then again, I have a fully funded trip to Paris for a month this summer so I will enjoy it while I can)

      • Yes,I am reminded of two quotations by Dick in this respect,that “reality is something,that even when you stop believing in it,doesn’t go away” and “it’s an appropriate response to reality,to go insane”.The first is most pertinent I think,to Mr Tagomi,Juliana Fink and Hawthorne Abendsen in “The Man in the High Castle”,who even when the “beautiful” truth is revealed to them,the awful but spurious Nazi evil remains intact.This of course is due to a metaphysical bug in the novel,the source of which can probably be found in deceptive politics,but the power of illusion,created by what you call “liquid modernity” and “late capitalism”,sways “their” judgement as to what “they” perceive.

        In this case,a mental retreat from a plastic reality,seems a necessary option.This echos the second quote then,that of mental illness being a route to be taken away from the pressure of liquid modernity.Manfred Steiner in “Martian Time-Slip” and John Isidore “In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”,are visionary misfits unexceptable to “society”,but have a deeper insight into the state of apparent reality than most “normal” people do.The end products of ultimate decay towards which we are heading,Gubbish in MTS and Kipple in DADOES,are realized by those outside of the power that clouds “their” perception.

        The inward regression towards a baleful twilight existence that these two experience,are a fresh alternative to an oppressive world order.Ragul Gumm seeks the truth in “Time Out of Joint”,in a peaceful,fabricated society that protects him from the harmful environment of the “real” world,but is disconcerted when he discovers it.Sometimes they don’t know when the’re better off.

  3. They’ve been fun! Ah, speaking of over medicalization, have you read Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress (1971)? It’s highly recommended…. It’s a hilarious black comedy where there are drugs for everything — including drugs to make you feel like you’re not on drugs.

    Also, James Gunn’s The Immortals (1962) which is JUST reviewed touches on some of these themes as well…

  4. The motif,if I can call it that,of Mars as a new frontier to be explored and colonized in Dick’s battery of fiction,was first introduced in “The Man in the High Castle” as a Nazi program no less!This I suppose might be seen as an ideological frontier by Dick that red planet would be colonized by fascistic political forces.

    “Martian Time-Slip” was written a year after “High Castle”,and the racism and seeming oppression you mention,seems to bare this out.The “housing” development in the novel,called Am-Web,is a shortening of a German motto,meaning all men are brothers.

    The terrible conditions of living on Mars in “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,also seem to bare out fascist politics.

    • Have you read the stories? I think the frontier motif has a much deeper history than Man in the High Castle or even Time Out of Joint. I am starting a more serious re-read of Dick at

      I am beginning with the stories.

  5. I’ve read all Dick’s stories in the five volume set.The Mars frontier theme seemed to peak and end in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”.Here,many people move off a post holocaust Earth to start a new life on Mars,which I suppose can’t be any worst than the one the’re leaving behind.However,it seems that might not be true,for why then are the androids escaping to our world,if not to escape from oppression of those that made and are using them as labour for the colonists.In this case,prehaps you can sypathise with the androids.

    The novels following this,drop the Mars frontier theme altogether,and people are only sent to planets with harsh environments such as Delmark-O in “A Maze of Death”.His post 1960s novels,depict places that seem to have dropped plans for frontier settlement altogether.

    • I never thought of that work as the maturation of the frontier theme (Martian Time-Slip is a better candidate in my view). As you point out, it is inverted in Do Androids. The people on Earth become kipple, not the pioneers. In this sense, it is thematically closer to Time/Joint and “The Variable Man,” which have this Toynbee-eque consideration of the need of a frontier for social development.

      I would have you reconsider GALACTIC POT HEALER and OUR FRIENDS before seeing DO ANDROIDS as the end of what he has to say about the frontier. In the former it is a clear source of cultural revival, if individualized.

  6. GPH and OFFF8, along with AMOD, round off the last of the ’60s novels[the Mars frontier theme seems to be forgotten in “Ubik”],before the more clinical,if they can be called that,novels of the next decade.Don’t recall Mars being mentioned in the earlier ones though.

  7. Dick didn’t write of a consistent universe,as you know,but rather maintained strong links by theme and motif,building into a mega tower of literary fiction.This is what makes Dick recognizable and unique,but in “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,which is linked of course to MTS because of the Martian frontier theme,the equivalent of the Bleekmen does not exist,and nor any indigenous “civilization” it seems.Mars here seems a very lonely and dull place.

    As a novel that stands alone,TTSOPE is of course brilliant,but what is probably a mild discrepancy,might lay it at fault in the linkage of his concerns.Prehaps it would have been obtrusive in a drama of such weird metaphysics.

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