Philip K. Dick, “Time Out of Joint” (1959)

Time Out of Joint, published in 1959, extends many of the themes Philip K. Dick explored in Cosmic PuppetsThe settings are comparable.  In both, we find ourselves in a small town of the 1950s.  In both novels, the world that the characters see for themselves is an artificial facade, covering up the reality.  Time Out of Joint is certainty more mature. Here, the powers that a constructing the reality are human.  In a sense, it evolves out of Cold War anxieties of secrete government agencies, the continual threat of devastating war, and the uncertain loyalties of even close friends and neighbors.  In The Comic Puppets, there were supernatural forces that constructed the false reality as part of a cosmic battle.  This makes TOOJ a more politically relevant work and more of a window into the world that we live in.

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Plot
Like most of Dick’s early novels, TOOJ has a rather straight-forward plot.  Early in the novel we are introduced to Ragle Gumm, an unemployed man who makes his money as champion of a newspaper contest, “Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?”  The contest involves simply choosing from a matrix of squares.  There are clues provided, but these seem to have little impact on the answer.  Nevertheless, Gumm is able to guess correctly continually by observing patterns and maintaining careful records.  As the novel unfolds, Gumm notices strange changes to his world.  He misremember things, such as if the bathroom had a cord-activated light or the newer light swtich.  He also sees small pieces of papers with the name of the thing that should be there.  Eventually, be becomes convinced that the world around him is a sham and that he is the target of a deception.  This turns out to be true.  It is not 1959, it is 1998 and humans are involved in a Civil War between the Earthlings who have restricted expansion abroad and the “lunatics” (denizens of the Moon) committed to interstellar expansion.  Gumm sided with the people of the Moon, but can predict where they will attack next.  Before his defection he worked for the Earthlings making these predictions.  To sustain this role he was placed into this artificial world of his youth.  The newspaper contest is the means by which he will continue to predict where the nuclear attacks will strike.  He, like many of us today, is the unwilling supporter of institutions outside of our control.

The Suburbs and Reality
Dick often places the false, bizarre, liquid, and artificial in the suburbs, the world he knew most well in over-developed suburban California.  The novel begins with an interesting conversation, suggesting that even political loyalties are merely functional in the suburbs.  “Anyhow I don’t think there’s going to be any depression; that’s just Democratic talk.  I’m so tired of those old Democrats trying to make out like the economy’ going to burst down of something.”  When someone mentions that the woman making this claim was a Democrat she replied, “Not any more.  Not since I moved up here. This is a Republican state, so I’m a Republican.” Urban areas are no less man-made than suburbs, but there seems to be a more organic feel to the development of cities.  Suburbs are planned, zoned, and manicured in bizarre formations.  The grass is imported from Germany.  Even the animals becomes domesticated and adapt to the constructed human world.  It is an ideal place for paranoia to set in.  Gumm is the subject of a mass conspiracy, but most of the novel explores his growing sense of displacement.  The realization of the truth is simply an appendix to the story.  This is perhaps what makes The Matrix rather lazy; it jumps immediately to the “really real.”

Dick introduces the idea that the celebrities and heroes of our world are constructed.  I suspect this was a more profound realization in 1959 than it is now, but it is worth pointing out.  “In Consumer’s Digest they’re always telling you to watch out for frauds and misleading advertising; you know, short weight and that sort of thing. Maybe this magazine, this publicity about this Marilyn Monroe, is all just a big bunch of hot air.  They’re trying to build up some trivial starlet, pretend everybody has heard of her, so when people hear about her for the first time they’ll say.  Oh yes, that famous actress.  Personally I don’t think she’s much more than a glandular case.”

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

Philip K. Dick, looking all Suburban

Exploration
This is not the first Dick novel to explore the conflict between the human spirit’s desire for exploration and new frontiers and the desire of the state to restrict expansion.  In The World Jones Made, the effort to restrain expansion to other systems is a major theme.  In The Crack in Space, the solution to the Malthusian crisis was human expansion but it was never seen as politically non-controversial.  In many of his works, the human settlement on other planets are tools of institutional oppression (Clans of the Alphane Moon) or consciously made crappy (Martian Time Slip).  A lot of energy was put into making expansion undesirable.

At this point, it is good to recall Frederick Jackson Turner.  As a Westerner for most of his life, Dick lived the end of the frontier.  I have no doubt that the transformation of the American frontier into suburban desolation influenced his view of extraterrestrial settlement.  I have a feeling that he is a follower of Turner in at least one area.  He seems to think human freedom requires the physical relocation outside of our comfort zone.  In the historian Turner’s view, the frontier was the crucible of American democracy.  For Dick, the decadence of Earth will lead to authoritarianism unless we can freely settle into new areas.  This tension plays its self out in many of his works but is rarely spoken of.  I will point it out in future posts.

“You’re a goon, Mister Loon,
One World you’ll never sunder.
A buffoon, Mister Loon,
Oh what a dreadful blunder.
The sky you find to cosy;
The future tinted rosy;
But Uncle’s gonna spank you-you wait!
So hands ina sky, hands ina sky,
Before it is too late.”

 

Philip K. Dick “The Cosmic Puppets” (1957): “All That Is Solid Melts into Air”

The Cosmic Puppets is one of Philip K. Dick’s early novels exploring the theme of fungible or alternative realities.  Actually, the opening chapters present a common enough problem.  Ted Barton is taking a trip with his wife to his hometown, Millgate Virginia.  He finds his hometown unrecognizable.  Barton’s experience is extreme as any recognizable characteristic in Millgate is dramatically changed.  Yet, this is something that is not uncommon in a liquid world, where the pace of change makes use feel that we do not have a firm setting to anyplace and that changes occur faster than we can process them.  The important people in our lives change year to year.  New construction or decaying communities make our idyllic memories of our youth cruel abstractions, which we cannot quite prove occurred.  Pictures present only dubious, partial suggestions of how things were.  Our memories, collective and individual, are not to be trusted.  If there is one thing surprising in the early chapters of The Comic Puppets, it is that Barton is so immediately sure that Millgate has changed.  Most of us experience the constant plasticity of our worlds with a bit more caution.  “Wasn’t there a building here?  Was that always there?  I seem to recall a parking lot in this district?  What happened to Mr. Zemke?”

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Barton is sure that Millgate has changed and despite the resistance of his wife (who spends most of the novel either in a hotel or on the phone with a divorce lawyer – Dick, in real life and in fiction did not mind breaking up marriages), begins to investigate.  He finds that he was supposed to have died at nine, the very age that he left the down. There is even a record of his death due to scarlet fever.  There are two types of people in the community.  Some, indeed most, have been changed along with the town and have no memory of the past structure.  A few others, Wanderers and a gentleman named Christopher, have an awareness that things have changed and formed a bit of resistance to the forces that have transformed the town.  After recovering a park to its original state through the application of his untainted memory.  Barton also meets Dr. Meade

Two children, Peter and Mary, are in constant conflict using proxies (golems, bees, spiders, snakes).  Peter turns out to be an avatar of Ormazd, a Zoroastrian deity.  Mary is Armaiti, the daughter of Ahriman, who has taken the avatar of Dr. Meade.  The battle between these forces leaves Millgate and enters the cosmos, never ending, but leaving Barton’s town in peace.

So, the transformations Barton and the townspeople experienced was not simply a loss of memory but a directed plot by malevolent forces.  In this way, Dick is again describing the world we live in, the world of late capitalism.  Our displacement, mobility, and liquidity are not inevitable realities but the direct result of the institutions that in fact control our lives and our memories.

The possibility of resistance to these realities is not clear.  The Wanderers and Christopher attempt to change things back, but their memories are incomplete and untrustworthy.  Indeed, they seem to be how most of us experience these changes.  In a comical scene, Barton and the Wanderers attempt to reconstruct the town but can only come to the conclusion that Barton’s precision is proof that he is a double-agent for the malevolent forces responsible for the change.  Internally, they can only struggle to come to terms with the liquidity.  Barton has a pure memory because he was led from the town at the age of nine by Mary and allowed to return, despite an artificial quarantine established by Ormazd.  He is a secret weapon because of his pure memory.  Nevertheless, the institutions of late modernity are all powerful, like the Zoroastrian gods Dick conjures to make his point.  Memory is a powerful antidote to plenty of institutional lies.  (No, you do not need a cell phone or iPad or automobile.  Yes, there was a time when salaries kept up with productivity.  We used to get by without millions in the prison-industrial system.)  Historians, however useless most of them are, still have an important role in establishing a collective memory of alternatives to the existing reality.  As the pace of change quickens and “all that is solid melts into air” their role will become more important.  That is, as long as historians do not fall into the ideological constructs of global modernity – which is essentially what so-called “World History” does when it praises the accomplishments of explorers, conquerors, global capitalists, empire builders, and religious leaders.

Here is Zygmunt Bauman on “Liquid Modernity”: