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”

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William Bartram, “Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida” (Parts 2-4)

“Solemnly and slowly move onward, to the river’s shore, the rustling clouds of the Ephemera.  How awful the procession! innumerable millions of winged beings, voluntarily verging on to destruction, to the brink of the grave, where they behold bands of their enemies with wide open jaws, ready to receive them.  But as if insensible of their danger, gay and tranquil each meets his beloved mate in the still air, inimitably bedecked in their new nuptial robes.  What eye can trace them, in their varied wanton amorous chances, bounding and fluttering on the odoriferous air!  With what peace, love, and joy, do they end their last moments of their existence?” (87)

Florida Mayfly (Ephemera)

Florida Mayfly (Ephemera)

In my last post, I suggested that one way that William Bartram speaks to us is that he provides a model for solidarity with nature.  For him, nature was a window into creation (he was a clear theist) and a reflection of our own habits, customs, morals, and sympathies.  One troubling aspect of Bartram is that he spills much ink in describing the lives of Southeastern Indians, sometimes in the same chapter as his discussions of plant and animal life.  I am reminded of Jefferson placing his discussion of blacks in between passages on Virginia’s flora and fauna.  Does Bartram suggest Indians are part of nature?  Something that one experiences while adventuring in the back country?  I do not think so.  Perhaps we can blame a naturalist for putting on the ethnographers hat a bit too much, but he is very clear throughout the work that Indians are part of civilization.  For Bartram this civilization is not a euphemism for European culture, but a diverse set of potentialities.  Traveling in the mid-1770s and writing in the 1780s (published in 1791), Bartram even suggests that white America can learn much from the Cherokee, Muscogulgues, and Creek (just to mention a few he discusses) as they begin affecting their revolution.  I resubmit my claim from the last post.  Bartram was a thinker of the American Revolution and his intense interest in Indians was not because he confused them for nature – his main subject – but that he was searching for alternatives to monarchy and a model for the proper defense of human freedom.  This was all being done at a time when the new republic was playfully experimenting with the same questions.  It is with this in mind that I read the rest of Bartram’s Travels.

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In all fairness, he often does discuss Indians in the same language with which he describes others.  Most notably when he described Creek violence.   But, at the same time, if they are animals so are we all. “The Indians make war against, kill, and destroy their own species, and their motives spring from the same erroneous source as they do in all other nations of mankind. . . . But I cannot find, upon the strictest inquiry, that their bloody contests at this day are marked with deeper stains of inhumanity or savage cruely, than what may be observed amongst the most civilized nations. . . . all their slaves have freedom when they marry, which is permitted and encouraged, when they and  their offspring are every way upon an equality with their conquerors.  They are given to adultery and fornication, but, I supposed, in no greater excess than other nations of men.” (186)  Even their violence against nature is familiar.  “They wage eternal war against deer and bear, to procure food and clothing, and other necessities and conveniences, which is indeed carried to an unreasonable and perhaps criminal excess.” (186)

The final part of Bartram’s Travels brackets out Indian cultures in four short chapters.  It is here that Bartram is at his most revolutionary, seeing the potential for universal human solidarity and rights.  He sees the potential for peace, social stability, and “civil government” without authority or violence.  “How are we to account for their excellent policy in civil government; it cannot derive its influence from coercive laws, for they have no such artificial system.  Divine wisdom dictates and they obey.  We see and know full well the direful effects of this torrent of evil, which has its source in hell; and we know surely, as well as these savages, how to divert its course and suppress its inundations.  Do we want wisdom and virtue?  let our youth then repair to the venerable councils of the Muscogulges.” (393)  He praises their simple constitution, their democratic institutions, and their efforts to secure “mutual happiness.”

Bartram was also not unaware that he was traveling through a slave society and the brutality of slavery may have shaped his quite favorable and sympathetic view of Indians, even to the degree of suggesting them as a potential model of governance.    He saw signs of an institution in decay and crisis.  In Georgia almost half of the slaves ran away at some time during the Revolutionary War.  We are reminded how of slaves were willing and able to take advantage of these crises to secure or attempt to secure their freedom.  “Observed a number of persons coming up a head, whom I soon perceived to be a party of Negroes.  I had every reason to dread the consequence; for this being a desolate place, I was by this time several miles from any house of plantation, and had reason to apprehend this to be a predatory band of Negroes; people being frequently attacked, robbed, and sometimes murdered by them at this place.”  (379)  We do not know for sure if these were runaway slaves, but it seems likely given that his context of his travels – a revolutionary society.

In conclude:  William Bartram is a beautiful naturalist writer, who effectively shares his awe of the natural world with his reader.  The Library of America volume contains many of his beautiful drawings and paintings, which add to this otherwise slim volume (by LOA standards – 700 w/ notes).  It also provides a basis for discussion of looking to our own traditions (this time indigenous) for libertarian models of social organization, without the idealization that we sometimes get with the “ecological Indian” narratives.

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The volume also contains his report to John Fothergill, which is more of his journals.  It is very technical and contains mostly scientific descriptions with little of his beautiful and fascinating commentary.  I skimmed this (a forgivable sin I hope considering the scope of this project).  It also contains seven shorts scientific essays, which have little to add to what I have already said.  His “Observations of the Creek and Cherokee Indians” does give us a little more meat and will be the subject of a short post, next time.

 

William Bartram, “Travels” (Part One) A Revolutionary Naturalist

The Library of America collection of William Bartram’s writings is a slim volume by the series standards but rich in material.  It contains his major work, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791), his report to John Fothergill on those travels, and eight essays.  My perspective on Bartram, which I will develop as I re-read this works this week, is that he was a naturalist of the American Revolution and in his own way was as much of a founder as John Adams or Thomas Paine.  Although I am not sure he knew this, he was tasked with providing an American understanding of the North American natural world.  He went to frontier areas, as far as he could away from the European influence still felt in the urban areas.  He attempted to study the American Indians of the Southeast, not as part of nature or as savages, but as a potential bridge between the settler societies and the continent they established.  His vision of the natural world is one as dynamic and changing as the world he saw around him.  His writings also show the influence of the revolutionary turmoil in American religion at the later 18th century, when people sought an emotional connection to God.  That places Bartram in his time, but he speaks to us by giving us a model for a degree of solidarity of nature even as he poses a warning about our tendencies to idealize the natural world.

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The Travels begins with a powerful description of Bartram’s fascination with Nature, he feelings about its divine origins, and the familiarity between the human world and nature.  Without going so far as to call humans part of nature, he does suggest the possibility of some solidarity of feelings between humans and their brothers and sisters in nature.  Of course, he begins with a discussion of creation.  “This world, as a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator, is furnished with an infinite variety of animated scenes, inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing, equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creation.” (13)  Mixed with these shouts of religious awe are lists of the Linnaean taxonomy of plant life of America.   He presents a fascination with the order of nature.  “Nature seems to have furnished them [Sarracenia] with this cordated appendage or lid, which turns over, to prevent a too sudden and copious supply of water from heavy showers of rain, which would bend down the leaves, never to rise again. . . . These latent waters undoubtedly contribute to the support and refreshment of the plant: perhaps designed as a reservoir in case of long continued droughts, or other casualties,” (16)  Nothing here surprising in a pre-Darwinian thinker.  I cannot help but notice that no advocate of intelligent design in the present world can produce as beautiful prose as Bartram does in this introduction.

Bartram goes beyond the elegant design of the natural world to suggest a moral center to animal life.  “If then the visible, the mechanical part of the animal creation, the mere material part, is so admirably beautiful, harmonious, and incomprehensible, what must be the intellectual system? That inexpressibly more essential principle, which secretly operates within? that which animates the inimitable machines, which gives them motion, empowers them to act, speak, and preform, this must be divine and immortal?  I am sensible that the general opinion of philosophers, has distinguished the moral system of the brute creature from that of mankind, by an epithet which implies a mere mechanical impulse, which leads and impels them to necessary actions, without any premeditated design or contrivance; this we term instinct, which faculty we suppose to be inferior to reason in man.” (19) Bartram will have none of that prejudice.  He describes filial love in animals, birds socializing, emotion among animals suggesting love.  At one point he contrasts the hunting skill of a spider with that of a Seminole.  This is the foundation, for Bartram, of a possible solidarity with nature.  The Indians, however, are not part of nature, or at least no more so than Europeans.  He ends his introduction with a belief that the Indians could enter into civil society.  Clearly, Bartram still sees a divide between Nature and humans, but he is close to breaking it down, not by bringing humanity to the level of animals, but rather by lifting up the plants and animals he observed into our brothers and sisters.

Chapter one describes Bartram’s arrival in Charleston.  During his travels he is reminded of how powerful nature is.  “how vain and uncertain are human expectations!  how quickly is the flattering scene changed!  The powerful winds, now rushing forth from their secret abodes, suddenly spread terror and devastation; and the wide ocean, which, a few moments past, was gentle and placid, is now thrown into disorder, and heaped into mountains, whose white curling crests seem to sweep the skies.” (27)  The “majesty” of the oceans is on his mind as he travels by ship, but he was incapable of applying his scientific knowledge to the oceans.

He does not stay long in Charleston and soon travels to Savannah.  His expertise is soon applied as he can carefully define and categorize the animals and plants of the land.  He also makes note of the human settlements, the frontier religion, agriculture, and mixed economy.  The human successes in development matter little in the face of nature, represented in a violent thunderstorm.  “When instantly the lightning, as i were, opening  a fiery chasm in the black cloud, darted with inconceivable rapidity on the trunk of a large pine tree, that stood thirty or forty yards from me, and set it in a blaze.” (36)  As he did in his introduction, in this chapter he gave animals human characteristics.  In this case, it is the bald eagle, who stands above his subjects through “rapine and violence” extracting “tribute and subsidy from all the feathered nations.” (32)

In chapter three, Bartram begins his consideration of the American Indian people.  When he first met an armed Indian, like Rowlandsen, Bartram surrendered himself to God’s will.  His safe passage into the Indian settlement convinced him of the universal morality shared between all humans (and it seems many animals who seem to him driven my a moral compass).  “Can it be denied, but that the moral principle, which directs the savages to virtuous and praiseworthy actions, is natural or innate?  It is certain they have not the assistance of letters, or those means of education in the schools of philosophy, where the virtuous sentiments and actions of the most illustrious characters are recorded, and carefully laid before the youth of civilized nations; therefore this moral principle must be innate, or they must be under immediate influence and guidance of a more diving and powerful preceptor, who, on these occasions, instantly inspires them, and as with a ray of divine light, points out to them at once the dignity, propriety and beauty of virtue.” (45)  Without evolutionary theory, and without Darwin, Bartram could not come to a evolutionary model of morality but he is close.

Chapters four and five, complete part 1 of Bartram’s Travels.  These chapters develop some of the same themes of the power of nature, its divine spark, and descriptions of Indian settlements.  Bartram is the naturalist of the American Revolution and far more than arguing for a nationalist picture of the American ecosystem, he is calling for a broader solidarity with nature, at the same time Thomas Paine is demanded the universal rights of man.