George Washington, “Confederation Period” (1784-1789)

The writings of George Washington in the five years between 1784—1789 provide a useful perspective on the type of nation that the United States could have become prior to the triumph of federalism and the constitution.  Despite the message given in textbooks, which often agree on the necessity of the stronger central authority given by the Constitution, the United States worked in the Confederation period.  Before the Constitutional convention, Washington’s main activities in this period included wrapping up his domestic affairs and reorganizing the Mount Vernon plantation and establishing a transportation improvement company for the Potomac.


Washington seems to be open to the diversity of the United States.  When looking for an indentured servant to work on the plantation he said “If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, Africa, or Europe.  They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect – or they may be Atheists.” (555-556) But this very diversity worried him in respect to national unity and national preservation.  In an extended letter to Benjamin Harrison he makes a case for smoother transportation to the West, largely on the grounds of unity between the regions.  “The Western settlers, (I speak now from my own observation) stand as it were upon a pivot – the touch of a feather would turn them any way.” (563)  Specifically he feared that they would run off and join the Spanish, lacking any loyalty except to liberty.  The world Washington lived in between the war and his presidency was one in which the national loyalty was limited, but the country was in a state of flux with competing identities.  Washington hoped that infrastructure could create the fusion.  For his small part, he contributed through the establishment of one company focused on the Potomac.  He made the connection between federalism and national identity explicitly in a letter to James McHenry.  “As I have ever been a friend to adequate powers in Congress, without wch it is evident to me we never shall establish a National character, or be considered on a respectable footing by the powers of Europe.” (588)  Later he talks much on diplomacy, trade law, and military issues, but shows no reflection at all on the consequences of greater central authority on the freedom of the people.  “In a word that we are one Nation today, & thirteen tomorrow.”  (589)  Why not, I ask.  Several documents here point to the danger of localization movements like that of the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion.  His advice on the rebellion was to apply state power to put down such movements because they can escalate (because, apparently, working people fundamentally irrational and therefore easily convinced to participate in rebellious activities just by seeing it nearby) or make the U.S.A. look worse in international affairs.  He used it often enough to justify the Constitutional convention and the expansion of state powers.


Shays' Rebellion

Shays’ Rebellion

We see in this period, the first of Washington’s significant writings on slavery (at least as far as this anthology is concerned).  This sums it up:
I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it – but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority. . . . But when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them; when masters are taken at unawares by these practices; when a conduct of this sort begets discontent on one side and resentment on the other . . . it introduces more evils than it can cure.” (594)  These statements are utterly naïve coming as they do from one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia.  (Does he truly believe that he is one of these owners that the slaves would not want to avoid?  Does he think none of them desire abolition more “sincerely” than he does?  Does he really think that anti-slavery agitation was merely about turning content slaves into rebellious slaves?)  As I said before, I do not want to get involved in founder bashing but in this case Washington does seem to me to be a dumb or out of touch.  Jefferson (maybe because of Sally Hemmings) was capable of more profound thought on the reality of slavery than Washington.  Washington was eager to pass the obligation to the legislature, refusing to “possess another slave by purchase” but not wanting to undermine his personal wealth.  Right before his presidency began he was able to squeeze a bit more thought on the subject out of his brain.  “The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.  To make the Adults among them as easy & as comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance & improvidence would admit; & to lay a foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born; afforded some satisfaction to my mind, & could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.” (701—702) Boy, I am trying hard to like you just a little bit, but you make it so hard.

No images of Washington's slaves, of course.  But here is a photo of his house.

No images of Washington’s slaves, of course. But here is a photo of his house.


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”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Philip K. Dick, “The Simulacra” 1964: Celebratocracy

If I were to teach a course on the novels of Philip K. Dick, I would be very tempted to put The Simulacra at the center of the syllabus.  Only its confusing and fragmented plot would lead me to hesitate.  The Simulacra provides a very well developed and convincing model of power and politics within the broader meta-universe of PKD’s writings.  At the same time, PKD pulls on other threads such as time travel, marriage, mental illness, and androids.  These disparate themes that plague his work and can frustrate readers, are, as I suggested in my comments on We Can Build You, integral to the late capitalist mind: confused, disjointed, attention-deficient, and impatient with totality.


The Simulacra seems to exist in a parallel version of the world of We Can Build You (or maybe it is set a half century later).  In WCBY, Maury Rock and his daughter Pris Frauenzimmer develop the technology to create simulacra.  In The Simulacra, one of the leading manufacturers of of androids, prepared to gain a major government contract, is owned by Maury Frauenzimmer.  The direct parallels end there, but we are likely in a similar world, but with the logical conclusions of the world of WCBY extended forward.

I am not going to bother with the plot, because the main power of The Simulacra is in the construction of this very convincing world.

In the first chapter we learn that the West is under some form of authoritarianism.  The Earth is still divided between the Communist East and the West, but neither can be seen as democratic.  The government in the United States of Europe and America (which is run out of Germany and is heavily influenced by the German language and worldview) is banning all psychiatry due to is lack of scientific precision.  The last psychiatrist, Dr. Egon Superb, is continuing his practice in spite of the law.  As we quickly learn, he is allowed to keep his job in order to not cure a patient (famous psychic pianist Richard Kongrosian).  With psychiatry debunked, and all treatment approached through chemicals, the only reason to keep one around is to ensure that someone remains crazy.

The next chapter takes us to the Abraham Lincoln apartment building.  This provides us more evidence that we are not in a totally free society.  People’s primary work and living identity are in communal apartment buildings.  These people pray together, work together, and are even required to pass examinations to remain a member of good standing.  People’s only major investment is their home in one of these communal apartment building.  People’s major interaction with the government is through talent shows put on by these communal buildings.  The changes are so low, it is more like a lottery than a true talent contest.  Everyone’s great dream is to be chosen to perform for Nicole Thibideaux, the first lady of the USEA.  People voted, but their true love was for Nicole.  “Now there was just the one party, which had ruled a stable and peaceful society, and everyone, by law, belonged to it.  Everyone paid dues and attending meetings, and voted, each four years, for a new der Alte–for the man they thought Nicole would like best.”  Nicole remarried every four years to a new der Alte.  Thus, we have matriarchy rooted in the love of a celebrity.  Perhaps Dick was reflecting on the rise of female stars in film and opera and popular music.  Perhaps he noticed the greater love Americans had for first ladies (Jackie Kennedy) than for presidents.  In any case, it is not that women have true political power.  Nicole is loved by all men.  Men dream of her.  Imagine being with her.  Marriages in the communal homes are functional.  Everyone’s true love is for Nicole.

France got there first.  Meet Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

France got there first. Meet Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Do we really care about the losers at the two ends?

Do we really care about the losers at the two ends?


The real power is in the class of Ges (Geheimnisträger), who know the truth.  Nicole is merely an actress who took over for the real Nicole as she aged.  The der Alte, despite elections is an android propped by up the Ges to provide the facade of democracy.  One of the characters speak of a matriarchy.  On the surface it seems to be a celebratocracy.  In reality, the USEA is a technocracy, like so many of Dick’s imagined political systems.  This seems to me not entirely unlikely.  The infrastructure for a faux participatory democracy is there, as reflected in the proliferation of reality TV, where we elect our singer or even participate in choosing mates for eligible and wealthy bachelors.  The Obama campaign famously used small donations delivered via the Internet to make people feel like they were part of a movement, even if the real contributors to the campaign were the corporate elite.  I cannot prove, but I suspect there are celebrities who are more well-known the most political figures.  Millions take the love life, illnesses, and reproductive lives of these people seriously.  I guess that a celebratocracy is more likely than a full dictatorship seen in 1984.  Voting is even a part of the television.  “Savagely, he went to the TV set and pressed the s knob; if enough citizens pushed it, the old man would stop entirely–the stop knob meant total cessation of the mumbling speech.  Vince waited, but the speech went on.”

The Simulacra, like most of these 1960s novels of PKD, show his intense anxiety over married life and monogamy.  It is hard to not see Dick as always willing to assume the worst in the character of women.  Here, Vince Strikerock of the Abraham Lincoln complex, discovers that his wife has shacked up with Chic  Strikerock, his brother.  Vince loves Julie but realizes that this is abnormal.  For most, marriage if functional.  Voting rights for women are a product of their ability to bear children.  He asks: “What was marriage, anyhow?  An arrangemetn of sharing things, such as right now being able to discuss the meaning of der Alte giving an eight A.M. speech and getting someone else — his wife — to fix breakfast while he prepared to go to his job at Karp u.”

The Simulacra also considered the normalization of mental illness.  The fact that is can all be treated with chemicals instead of intensive psychological investigation suggests the necessity of mass-produced solutions to mental illness.  The key, integral nut in this novel is the pianist Richard Kongrosian, who believed he is becoming non-corporal and is being replaced with a rancid stench.  He also has other psychic powers and is able to use them at an integral moment in the plot to avoid a coup against Nicole.  But it is when other characters express their potential mental illness, we realize that Richard is not abnormal.  Everyone can now choose their mental illness as if they are shopping.  Now you can choose your mental illness to fit your personality type. Anti-social? We have Aspbergers or if you are really hard-core the rare Schizoid. Religion? Paranoia may be best for you. Nothing watches over you quite like God..and the government. A diligent hardworker down on your luck? Well, the disorganized schizophrenia might be right for you. Do you like to shop? For you we have a new and improve obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now never fell guilty about buying that dress in every color. A go-getting? Take a case of biploar. The depressive state will give you a much needed break.

A theme I teased out when looking at The World Jones Made is Dick’s use of the solar system as a frontier, much like the American frontier.  We see that again here.  The moon and Mars and other orbs in the system have indigenous populations, are seen as a place for rootless people to get a new start, and seem to provide a potential salvation from the political rigidity of Earth.  Dick is, I argue, a follower of the idea of Frederick Jackson Turner.  The fact that Dick’s extraterrestrial locales are so shitty leads us away from this interpretation, but when we look at the motives for emigration among characters we see a space for hope.  The question we need to ask is, why does the frontier always turn out so shitty?

The final chapters deal with the rise of a Civil War between the secret police and the military as well as the potential devastation of humanity.  As in all nuclear wars, the victor does not matter as much as the forces that can take advantage, in this case Neanderthals (we are never not reminded we are in a PKD novel).  The novel is entirely pessimistic in everything from predicting the manipulation of time travel by the state to the rise of neofascist forces in the USEA.  Any hope is hidden away in the horrific potentialities of division between the military and civilian powers.  In a sense, the technocracy cannot hold the facade together forever.  There is some hope in that.

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.


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

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.”


Henry Adams, “Esther: A Novel”

Esther is Adams’ second and final novel.  The plot concerns a freethinking young woman’s encounter, through artistic pursuits, with a church, an experienced artist, and a orphan woman from the West.  As Esther incorporates herself into this world, she agrees to marry the preacher, Mr. Hazard.  She is all but an atheist.  Her close friend, George, is a paleontologist and agnostic.  Her father uses religion only for its moral influence on society, not out of any true believe.  Esther is never quite able to resolve her conflict between her love for Mr. Hazard (admitted in the final line of the novel) and her disgust with her finance’s beliefs and practices.  The idea of being a church wife, attending services and putting on the face of a devoted believer disgusts her.

Henry Adams

The world of Esther is a world in change.  We can foreshadow the “dynamo and the Virgin” in Esther.  The rise of the new woman, professional, educated, assertive, and in the public, runs in conflict with expectations about the role of women.  Listen to Hazard’s expectations of the woman he eventually courts.  “The next morning he looked about the church and was disappointed at not seeing her there.  This young man was used to flattery; he had been sickened with it, especially by the women of his congregation; he thought there was nothing of this nature against which he was not proof; yet he resented Esther Dudley’s neglect to flatter him by coming to his sermon.” And later on that same page, this is contrasted with his opinion of Catherine Brooke.  “Her innocent eagerness to submit was charming, and the tyrants gloated over the fresh and radiant victim who was eager to be their slave.  They lured her on, by assumed gentleness, in the path of bric-a-brac and sermons.” (214)  The transition to new ideas is clearly represented in the characters of Hazard and George Strong, the scientist.  The artist, Wharton, and his failed marriage also suggest the coming of a new era where traditional arrangements break down.  That these modern figures (Esther and Wharton) are hired to paint portraits for the church provides yet another dichotomy between tradition and modernity.   Catherine Brooke as an orphan from the West brought to New York City, suggests the conquest of the frontier and the end of that epoch of American history.

An atheist reader (like me) will be tempted to cheer on Esther as she allows her modern mind to prevent what could only be a disastrous marriage.  We are not entirely sure until the very end what Esther sees in Hazard.  He struck me as too authoritarian, too traditional, and too patriarchal for a women like Esther.  Yet the final confession, that she loved Hazard, reminds us of the danger of allowing the mind to overcome the heart.  Indeed, the conflict between faith and science, between tradition and modernity is not more of a problem than many other things that divide couples (monogamy/non-monogamy, politics, cultural differences).  To assume that faith is the irreconcilable barrier is rather irrational and peculate and boring.  This realization does not make one like Hazard any more, but it makes one dislike Esther a bit.  Without idealizing the concept of “romantic love” (full of capitalist logic, which I can have the chance to discuss in a later post), we can appreciate that Esther threw away an opportunity for happiness, friendship, and community through Hazard.  She simultaneously throws away the advances of George who loved Esther from the beginning of the novel.  (This time the problem is not intellectual, but a lack of feeling.)    These are the mistakes of youth and in my experience common enough.