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.

 

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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.

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A real plan for Martian suburbs.  "Mars One"

A real plan for Martian suburbs. “Mars One”

Lynd Ward, “Vertigo” (1937)

Lynd Ward’s final wood block novel, Vertigo, completes a series of statements on how capital had crushed the American people.   All of novels expressed to some degree the fate of individuals trapped into systems of oppression, alienation, or poverty.  In most of these novels, these forces were abstract, mythical, or not even seen.  Only in Madman’s Drum do we see the persecutor in any human terms.  In Song without Words, the horror of the world in the 1930s is represented in terrifying images, rats, or symbols.  In Vertigo we get the most complete and human portrayal of the victims of Great Depression America as well as the oppressors.  We are reminded that we can name names and that the actions of powerful people directly cause our suffering.  We may want to blame “the system” and we should.  But attacking “the system” should not prevent us from pointing out criminal behavior of our bosses.

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Ward wrote on Vertigo: “During the thirties there were very few people, whether artists or not, who could remain uninvolved, either on a direct personal level or indirectly as human beings of conscience.  It seemed that only the morally crippled or the socially irresponsible could fail to react to the obvious effect that vast, complicated, and impersonal social forces were having on the substance of so many individual lives.” (654)  Vertigo attempts to give some precise blame rather than express ennui at “impersonal social forces.”

Vertigo is divided into three stories.  The first (“The Girl”) considers a young woman’s life from 1929 to 1935.  The second (“An Ederly Gentleman”) documents a year in the life of a rich capitalist.  The third (“The Boy”) examines one week in the bleak life of “The Girl” boyfriend or fiance.  There three lives are interconnected.  More importantly, the girl and the boy suffer due to the decisions of the elderly gentleman and in different ways the elder survives on the sacrifice of the two lovers.

The girl is quite talented musically.  Her father gives her a violin as a gift and she matures into a musician.  In 1929, she invites her father to her graduation.  Here the working class community comes together.  A man there gives a speech about how the working people of America built the country.  The girl and her sweetheart leave the graduation and attend a carnival.  They look into a crystal ball and see their future.  She will be a great musician and he will become an engineer.  This is the American dream as it was sold to the Americans of the 1920s.  Work hard and your effort will be repaid with success.  At the carousel, the boy grabs a ring and uses it to propose to the girl.  In 1930, the relationship is made more formal and the boy goes off to look for work.  In 1931, she hears no news of the boy.  (It is likely in this year that the final two sections of this story take place.)  In 1932, we learn more about her father.  He is an accountant at Eagle Corporation of America, but is laid off.  He purchases a life insurance policy and tries to kill himself.  He only wounds himself thanks to the girl’s intervention.  The next three years are examined only in passing.  We learn that she plays for her father during his recovery, that the family has to sell most of their possessions, and her story ends with her in the relief line.

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The elderly gentleman is the owner of Eagle Corporation.  It begins with the man purchasing art, dedicating a Great War memorial, giving out food to the poor at Thanksgiving, and attending a concert.  He is clearly concerned about his image.  In January, we learn more about what he does.  He is a frail man.  Ward shows him naked in an early plate to emphasize this point.  He needs help to dress and had servants prepare his food.  At a company meeting, he learns that profits are down.  Many people give advice to him.  In February, the man vacations in some warm climate and relaxes on the beach.  In March, he returns to the city and oversees the docking of all the worker’s wages.  In April, these cuts continue with lay offs and reduced breaks.  In May, the man hires a private detective agency to crush any labor activism, which, of course, emerges in response to these cuts.  Despite his earlier charities, the man is a typical, cynical capitalist.  In June, the strike heats up into violence.  In July, although he is falling ill the man achieves victory over the strikers by brutally suppressing it with the help of the nation guard.  In August, he falls seriously ill.  In September, he nearly dies but is saved by a blood transfusion.  In October, he remains ill. In November, he learns that his new measures were a success and the company profits have increased.

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The boy, who is indeed “the girls” sweetheart, who never returned from his quest to claim the American dream, is the focus of the third part.  It takes place over one week.  In a prelude, we learn that he was the son of a grocer who abused him, but remained optimist about his dreams to become a engineer.  We also learn that he left town after a violent confrontation with his father.  He had difficulty finding work on the road.  On Monday, he witnessed a terrible car accident.  He steals the dead victims clothes.  On Tuesday, he is on a train but gets off and looks for a job in the city.  On Wednesday, he passes a sign recruiting for the military.  He considers that, but sees a someone who looks like “the girl.” He realizes that without money he cannot return to her.  He follows a “Help Wanted” sign but the large number of applicants makes his success unlikely.  On Thursday, he goes to a job placement agency.  He gets a job and goes to the site but when he gets to the construction site he finds that the building has been delayed.  On Friday he finds a job but learns it is strikebreaking.  On Saturday, he almost robs a man leaving a bank but another robber gets to the victim first.  The police intervene and kill the mugger.  He finally gets some money by selling his blood.  It will be this blood that is later used to save the life of the elderly man.  The final plate shows the boy and the girl, worn down by their experiences on a carnival ride, a sad reminder of their earlier happy dreams.

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Ward is arguing in Vertigo that the American dream has been crushed and that it has been crushed by identifiable individuals, such as the elderly man.  We are not in the realm of stock images an allegories, which is where we started in Gods’ Man.

I want to read Ward’s work as a window into the populist culture of the Great Depression, a reminder that although we live in an age where film, television, and literature praise wealth and the powerful that there was a time when America’s culture had a radical potential.

Ward pioneered a type of story telling that liberated the reader from the tyranny of the printed word.  More like an oral tradition, his novels have a meaning that changes on retelling.  Maybe we need more of this today.