My series on Philip K. Dick is complete. There are a number of novels I did not touch and of course I discussed the stories only as occasional references. I feel, that there is enough material to begin to map out the major themes.
1. Post-Scarcity, the End of Work, and Inequality. Many of Dick’s science-fiction novels consider the dilemma of work and post-scarcity. The question, how do we come to terms with the inequality caused by the technological destruction of productive work. His novels are populated with what Zygmunt Bauman called “wasted lives,” the excess population of late capitalism.
2. Technology and the Future of Freedom. Dick is largely a technophobe due to the ability of technology to destroy human freedom. Technology often plays a role in distorting our reality, empowering the state, and establishing a surveillance society.
3. The Nature and Function of Corporate and Political Power. In a related theme, through Dick we can consider the changing functions of the state with the decline of the welfare state and nationalism as well as the transformation of the role of corporate power with the decline of manufacturing. As it turn outs, both become more psychopathic.
4. The Crisis of Monogamy and Family. Dick lived this crisis through five marriages. His insistence on marriage is not unfamiliar to many people in the late industrial west and his embrace of serial monogamy is all but universal. Perhaps too many of his novels consider the dilemma of liquid love in a liquid world alongside our desire for stability in an unstable liquid world. As a result we grasp at relationships and make reckless commitments.
5. Insanity and Everyday Life. Dick argues that one consequence of late capitalism is the normalcy of mental illness. How this fits with his definition of humanity as memory and empathy is explored in a few novels.
6. The Rise of Religious Delusion. Like with the question of marriage, this is something Dick explored personally through his exploration of religion in the later 1970s until his death. Religion becomes a means for us to create a firm foundation in a liquid world, but for Dick it went farther and became a source of truth, not merely consolation or security.
7. The Desolation of the Frontier. Dick places the frontier in various locations in the Solar System. Experiencing the end of the frontier in California and noticing the death of the American frontier as a location of rebirth of democracy (Frederick Jackson Turner). Instead, the frontier is a blighted landscape where people eke out miserable existences.
8. A Consumer Dystopia. Instead of an optimistic frontier, Dick gives us a consumer dystopia. Goods are cheap. Even rocket ships to other planets are cheap. People consume drugs, mood-altering chemicals, and sentimental objects from earlier eras to cope with meaningless and directionless lives.
9. Resistance. Dick is a pessimistic writer, but we can find in his works suggestions of optimism through the potential of resistance. Thankfully, in all but a few cases, the troubles that people face are easily identifiable. Even when reality is being manipulated, there is always a manipulator. By exposing the lie, or simply by being good to one another, resistance to the empires of lies and exploitation is possible.
Philip K. Dick does seem to me to be a writer exploring many themes of interest to anarchists, particularly those of us trying to navigate a strategy through late capitalism. His answers and suggestions may strikes some of us as naive, but his diagnosis of the problem is spot-on.
Thanks to the followers of this series. I will continue next week with my regular readings of the Library of America, starting with Ambrose Bierce.
I suppose on the surface, there is nothing wrong with using fiction to document a deteriorating mental state. The interesting thing about VALIS is that Dick is exploring his own mental state. He seems to be aware that he was going around the bend. Having worked on his Exegesis for a while after his hallucinogenic experiences. I am not very expert in theology or feel comfortable talking about Dick’s contribution to theology. Mostly because I am interested in Philip K. Dick’s investigation of late capitalism and liquid modernity, I am hesitant to take on his theological explorations. I do think that it is true that one response, not fully irrational, to liquid modernity is a turn toward religion, even religious fundamentalism. To his credit, Dick turns toward the religious without losing some grounding in reason. VALIS is an attempt at a fairly worldly explanation of his religious turn. Those attracted to fundamentalism appreciate its solid claims of truth at a time when even science seems full of uncertainty (this is seems to me is a false impression and reflective of many people’s poor knowledge about how science works).
This interview shows Dick discussing some of his late philosophy. It is worth looking at.
Since it is so autobiographical – even including passages from his exegesis – I am unable to find the value of of VALIS outside of an understanding of Dick himself, in his later years. It perhaps should be read as a philosophical and religious autobiography.
One question he asks throughout is how can one differentiate between insanity and a religious experience. Those of us lacking religious experiences tend to assume that those who have them are suffering some sort of mental illness. Dick, who had spent 20 years writing about changing realities, was acutely aware that his own hallucinations could have had naturalistic explanations. Even if few of them were grounded in science, all of his fictional delusions were scientifically explicable considering the rules of his fictional universe (a drug, a computer simulation, a fraud created by a governing body). Take this paragraph: “On the other hand, I am not denying that Fat [PKD] was totally wacked out. He began to decline with Gloria phoned him and he continued to decline forever and ever. Unlike Sherri and her cancer, Fat experienced no remission. Encountering God was not a remission. But probably it wasn’t a worsening, despite Kevin’s cynical views. You cannot say that an encounter with God is to mental illness what death is to cancer, the logical outcome of a deteriorating illness process. The technical term – theological technical term, not psychiatric – is theophany. A theophany consists of self-disclosure by the divine. It does not consist of something the percipient does; it consists of something the divine – the God or gods, the high power – does.”
The first half of VALIS looks at Horselover Fat (PKD) and his attempts to understand this theophany, essentially a revelation. Later, he sees a movie VALIS, (Short for Vast Artificial Living Intelligence System) which, likethe novel in a novel of A Man in the High Castle presented an alternative reality that might actually hold the truth to existing reality that is being covered up. It is not quite clear who is doing the covering up, but the revelations come from a satellite orbiting the Earth, delivering messages to select individuals on Earth. This is the naturalistic explanation for religious experiences, particularly those of prophets. It is not an unclever idea and would have made a good short story. Unfortunately for the reader, we have to shift through an entire novel of theological speculation, soul-searching, and wild claims to get at the point.
The idea is useless to us trying to navigate really existing late capitalism. God may be aliens, or a satellite, and Jesus may have been getting messages from space. Even if the truth is known to a few religious personalities, most of us dwell in the liquid world. There is nothing in the message from space suggesting who is distorting our reality or why or any clue how to escape it, except through the “anamnesia” (end of forgetting). I see actual enemies in really existing capitalism. Dick identified real enemies in many of his earlier works: the military, the state, the corporation. I do not see what we gain by replacing these enemies with an vague and almost universal amnesia. Furthermore, since the revelations to to so few, we are forced to accept the insights of that handful of philosopher kings, if you will.
Sadly, much of Dick fandom is attracted to the idea of a irresistible delusion or a total conspiracy.
Those of us tuned into popular culture are familiar with David Simon’s critique of the so-called “War on Drugs.” In brief, he argued through his journalistic writing and the television series The Wire that the War on Drugs targeted the minority underclass and the urban working poor, created dysfunctional police systems, ruined individual lives as well as the urban institutions more and more of us rely on. The tragedy, Simon points out, is that deindustrialization is making us less necessary to the economy at the same time that the institutions that could defend us became corrupted and criminal. Like Zygmunt Bauman, he sees a larger number of “wasted lives.” More and more human kipple, to borrow Philip K. Dick’s term from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I mention him, because as important as Simon has become to contemporary social criticism, Philip K. Dick was exploring many of these same themes in the 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, which is his investigation of the “War on Drugs.”
I do not recall seeing the term used in A Scanner Darkly. The history of prohibition of drugs and alcohol is old in this country, but the modern war on drugs began sometime in the 1970s with the creation of national drug enforcement agencies and new national laws on drugs that trumped local enforcement (and accommodation) efforts. If this was in the newspapers and TVs of the 1970s, I do not know. They certainly were by the 1980s. As the epilogue to A Scanner Darkly makes clear, Philip K. Dick was deeply affected personally by the counter culture’s use of drugs. He had largely turned from it, in disgust, by the 1970s. A Scanner Darkly shows that Dick clearly thought drugs were a horrendous evil. He goes so far as to make the street name for his new drug “Death.”
The plot of A Scanner Darkly explores the descent of an undercover drug enforcement agent known to his friends as Bob Arctor. His use of Substance D (“death”) leads to his inability to properly interpret reality, dividing his consciousness into the police officer and the drug addict. Eventually he is used up by the system and sent to a rehab clinic, which is actually a cover for the production of Substance D. The film version of this novel is follows the book quite well (being the only major film adaptation of a PKD work to do this).
One thing we can say right away is that there seem to be three groups at play in the novel. The first group is the disempowered people scraping by, addicted to drugs, but surviving at the margins of the economy. This group is represented by Arctor and his friends Barris and Frink and his girlfriend Donna (also an undercover agent it turns out). Like in later cyberpunk novels, this underclass appears to be quite large. The second group is the police and the enforcement agencies. This is the same situation we saw in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. The police have resources and powers, but are committed their energies to the destruction of this large underclass of drug addicts. (Here we see the same critique as David Simon would later make.) A third group, examined only in the background is the “square” public who support the police state with their taxes and political energy. They are fearful of the expansion of the drug culture and want to protect their families. Bob Arctor begins the novel meeting with a group of these paranoid citizens. As we rarely see them again, we can suspect they live in gated communities and suffer few, if any, of the negative consequences of the war against Substance D.
Individuals in the underclass see their life destroyed. Arctor (at least his drug addicted side) will live out his life with a fried brain in a rehab clinic. Frink tries to kill himself. In the macro sense, it is hard to argue that the police are winnings. Drugs are easily available on the streets. The underclass has its own networks and institutions as well. As with the current war on drugs, it was a war of attrition that rarely brings clear victory. If it is unwinnable, what is the purpose of fighting the drug culture? In part it is a media event. A major bust to put the public at ease and help defend the institutions of the police. Of course, it is tragic for all of those directly involved, police and users.
Another theme in the novel is the relationship between a surveillance society and paranoia. This is made most clear with Bob Arctor again, who is paranoid all the time about being watched and it also the watcher. In fact, all sides in the drug war are paranoid. The users and dealers are always on guard against police actions, the police need to be careful about the motives of every informer, and the people in the gated communities are fearful that the next knock on the door will be an armed drug addict looking for cash. Some of this paranoia (maybe all of it) is justified. In the case of Arctor and his friends, there are police watching them. The house is bugged. They are not even capable of purchasing a bicycle without paranoia (of course some of this is the drugs).
We should also note that the affect of Substance D on people is not so unlike the effect liquid modernity has on people. It splits our mind, divides our attention, causes displacement, a lack of solid grounding, paranoia, odd and irrational behavior. Substance D users embrace liquid relationships as well. Many of the themes in Dicks novels from the 1960s emerge again, but in this novel they are expressed as the consequence of the use of a horrible drug. Sadly, as the fate of Bob Arctor shows, the purpose remains some baseline economic exploitation. Thinking back to my earlier posts on Dick (this is number 29), I cannot think of any example where a liquid material reality has a purpose other than exploitation.
While I do not deny that Philip K. Dick did have his metaphysical turn later in his life, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, which was one of his final novels, seems to remain rooted in the questions of power, class antagonism, and state structures. It is also one of his most familiar dystopias, with a functioning police state, active suppression of dissent, and the total regulation of every aspect of daily life. The novel is incredibly powerful and in my view his greatest work. One thing to keep in mind about good dystopias is that characters may be confined, repressed, or otherwise miserable but they can rarely dream of up alternatives. In Flow My Tears, the resistance is taking place in kibbutz-like communities in college campuses. The major characters, however, are at least initially totally invested in the power structure. They are forced to reimagine their investment in the system only after great trauma. As it turns out, it is the policeman who seems to make the most progress.
Philip K. Dick had a life-long love of John Dowland and mentions his lute music in several novels. In Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Dick reached the ultimate and named the book after one of Dowland’s most famous airs, “Flow My Tears.”
The four sections of the novel are each proceeded with one of the verses of this song. We should perhaps read the novel with this structure in mind. Part One begins with:
Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.
The first part of the novel deals with the main character John Traverner trauma at being ripped out of the world he knew. He is clearly exiled and thrust into a darkness. John Traverner is a member of the genetic and economic elite. He hosts a television variety show and is world famous, maintains a massive home, and had several past mistresses. He is genetically superior to most humans, being a “six” reaching an exceptional intellectual capacity. He surrounds himself with other “sixes” such as his current lover Hearth Hart. It is revealed that he reached this celebrity through manipulation and even violence. In the first chapter, the police are his guards. In this police state that he lives in, the police protect the powerful. To focus on their power and no longer responsible for respecting the morality of a democratic society, they have decriminalized prostitution and drug use. After this window into the life of the gated community, Jason is thrust into the underworld. After being attacked by an ex-lover, he wakes up in a hotel room without any identification. To make matters worse no one recognizes him, something that is completely foreign to him. In a world where people without an identity can be sent to forced labor camps to work to death, this put Jason in desperate situation. He is not only lacking an identity (perhaps a strange feeling for a celebrity) but he is outside of the gated community. His displacement is immediately felt as a class displacement. “And that’s important to your image, he said to himself. What kind of suits you can wear, especially those tucked-inwaist numbers. I must have fifty of them, he thought. Or did have. Where are they now? he asked himself.” Unable to secure his identify and his class status, he is homeless. He learns that crime has a different meaning for the economically excluded. Forced to work with criminals to construct a new identity for himself, he runs into the first of several women who will frame his story, Kathy. She is a police informer but works at the office constructing fake identifications. She only turns in people she dislikes. However, her apparent mental instability only frightens Jason and contributes to his isolation. In the early phase of the novel, Jason insists that class will save him. He uses his acting ability and contributes to believe that if he will call Heather he would be saved. If we bracket the first part, essentially we have the old tale of The Prince and the Pauper, only set in a science-fiction context and questioning a late capitalist police state instead of monarchical privileged.
Part Two begins with:
Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their last fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.
Perhaps this is a deepening of the darkness Jason feels, but the major character of the second part of the novel is Felix Buckman, a talented police-general with a shady past and juggling many lies. He lies to the people he investigates, claiming to be a rare “seven.” He is always working to cover up his incestuous relationship with his twin sister Alys Buckman. “Light doth but shame disclose” seems to describe Buckman’s situation more than Jason’s. After being captured by the police, Jason was able to convince the police that he lost his cards and recently had cosmetic surgery. He flees to Las Vegas where he runs into an old fling. Being promiscuous, Jason is able to convince her that he was a former lover. In a rather long conversation, the two of them debate the relationship between love, pain, death and humanity. The woman, Ruth Gomen seems to be expressing Dick’s own point of view that emotion, sacrifice, and pain are the heart of the human experience. By avoiding those things through an excessively liquid world, Jason is avoiding grief and therefore his own humanity. We are tempted by this interpetation – as is Jason from time to time – that his dilemma is merely an extension of the liquid, flexible life he lives. After this philosophical aside Jason is arrested and taken before Buckman who interrogates him. We learn much about Buckman’s background and how he rose to power after a second Civil War by helping crush student movements. But by treating the students with some basic humanity, Buckman’s reputation suffered and he was demoted to “police general” from “police marshal.” Buckman’s capacity for empathy is striking. Although an enforcer of a brutal system, he is not quite as aloof as Jason, Heather and other denziens of the gated community. The enforcers of the system are required to be brutal, of course. Jason eventually meets up with Alys Buckman, who invites him over to take some mescaline. His hallucinogenic experience is disabling but for a moment we wonder if we are in the world of “Faith of Our Fathers,” where drugs provide a window into reality. The earlier assassination attempt may have weaned him off an earlier chemical dependency. Maybe his entire stardom was a constantly sustained hallucination.
Part Three begins:
Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my
Of all joys have deprived.
This cannot be referring to Jason, so we assume this is Buckman again. Jason comes off his bad trip to find Alys dead, as a pile of bones. Soon after this, Jason finds himself recognized once again. His music is being played and people ask for his signature. He is no longer in a world where he never existed. Buckman learns that his sister died after taking a new drug KR-3, which somehow caused Jason’s displacement. In order to hid his incest – somehow connected to Alys drug use – Buckman accused Jason of the murder leading to a celebrity trial. Thankfully, we are saved the details of this trial and Jason’s acquittal. Jason’s story is over. Dick is much more interested in the development of Buckman’s character. Unlike Jason who can consume women like any other commodity, Buckman is unable to come to terms with his sister’s death. Most of the last chapter is devoted to his devastation and his striving for some sort of human connection.
Part Four begins:
Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world’s despite.
The rest of the novel is a short epilogue, which narrates that Jason escaped prosecution, the student movements failed but the police state weakened anyway. This weakening seems to have something to do with Buckman’s exposure of police conduct. This leads to his assassination, but he seems to have played a role in undermining the enforcement mechanism of the system.
Clearly, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Says summarizes many of Dicks reoccurring themes: the importance of empathy, the class divide, the nature of liquid modernity, the dilemma of sexual exclusivity in a liquid world, and the drug culture. This could have been his capstone project, but he went ahead and expanded on some of these very themes in A Scanner Darkly three years later.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? gave us “kipple,” dead, former commodities and the living dead of a devastated Earth, unable to reproduce. They are much like the people of Children of Men, awaiting an end that comes slowly but inevitably. Ubik gives us the concept of “half-life.” People in “half-life” are dead but are placed in a state of suspended animation, which they come out of at certain regular times (like yearly visits to the old-folks home) or when their advice is needed. The main character, Glen Runciter, for instance, begins the novel with a visit to his dead wife who provides for him useful corporate advice. Over the course of the novel, it is never clear if the characters are in this state of “half-life” or not. As in The Maze of Death and Eye in the Sky, it is revealed that everyone is sharing a constructed reality. In those novels, it was self-created by the participants, a democratic delusion if you will. In Ubik, the reality is constructed by outside, malevolent forces. It this way, it is a more accurate description of the world we live in. We can come right out and interpret Ubik as a reading of the consumer republic, where choice is confined to what is allowed by those that construct reality. We carry on, in a state of half-life, living only for service. It is the PKD novel that is thematically closest to The Matrix, since the purpose of the delusion is clear exploitation and the cause is a clearly identifiable external force. In Ubik, the external force is Jory Miller, another person in half-life, who regularly consumes people to sustain himself. “Ubik,” which is an ubiquitous (the name is purposeful) product, which functions as a preservative to keep the characters from being consumed by Miller. While “Ubik” saves (really preserves) the heroes of the tale, the heroes seem to play a role as “Ubik” for Miller. If we look at it this way, we have a very clear model of the capitalist world. Jory Miller functions like the capitalist class, of the system but able to master its rules at the expense of the other participants. He is sustained through the life force of others, but consumer products become a means of sustaining those victims, keeping them together long enough to be fully consumed. Unfortunately, the interpretation is not quite this easy for two reasons.
Rory Miller did not construct the reality himself. Unlike the exploiting machines in The Matrix, the simulated reality seems to have an external creator. When one enters “half-life” they go into it. That reality is shifting and participants have some say in its form, moving to familiar times and places. (Here I want to stop and make a side bar point about simulated realities. Most depictions I have seen of simulated realities are horribly uncreative, and tend to involve people recreating something they know or a time they know. Why are they not utopias? I suspect this has much to do with our fundamentally incapacity to imagine true alternatives. Even when given the freedom to create new worlds, we stay in the old way. Even in fantasy literature, we find basically capitalist economics at work. In Dungeons and Dragons good performance is rewarded with advances in rank. Characters use gold coins to purchase weapons. How is that fantasy? It is too familiar.) Perhaps it is akin to the more democratic delusions of The Maze of Death. Rory Miller is still, of course, an exploiter. This is not a serious interpretative problem. We merely need to acknowledge that most of the exploiters in the world we live in did not create the institutions that they oversee. In the case of consumer culture, the exploited masses play a role in creating the infrastructure of need that binds all of us to the “normalcy” of capitalism. It turns out that Rory Miller is no more than the run of the mill, clever and lucky member of the global elite who is slightly better at playing the game than others, but lacking any real claim to creativity. The ruling elite are vampires, not architects.
Much more difficult to interpret is the role of the commodity “Ubik,” which seems to save people from decay. It is clearly commoditfied. Each era that the characters travel through advertizes Ubik. It famously comes in an spray can. While it seems to be a part of the odious regimen of the exploiters, it is used by Runciter to help sustain the people, to help them avoid becoming “kipple,” dead, used-up trash. The lesson here is that the very thing that must fight against our perpetual status of “half-lifers” is a part of the artificial world we exist in. We do not need to jump to Ubik being God or the universal salvation. Ubik is whatever we apply in our struggle against total “kipplization.” It will always take the form of the world we live in, just as any libertory movement must put on the face of late capitalism, use its tools, and necessarily fall into hypocrisy. Purity is not possible. In the novel, Ubik had to take the form of the delusion. In the same way, our means of avoiding the slow death of capital must look to us like a product of late capitalism itself. (If we want to borrow the theological argument, it is no different than Christ needing to become man.)
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.