Philip K. Dick, “Clans of the Alphane Moon” (1964): We Are All Mentally Ill (2)

One does not need to read as much Philip K. Dick as I have been to realize that he thinks that the trajectory of late capitalism leads the vast majority of us toward mental illness.  This is not necessarily a problem if mental illness is integral to the functioning of the system.  If that is the case, it will be those few of us without personality disorders that will be out of place, confused and incapable of functioning.  In world in which we have the capacity to destroy the entire planet, when we rush headlong into ecological devastation without the least anxiety or change to our everyday life, where wealth expands and inequality expands, and where democracy seems to inexorably expand but none of us feel more free in our daily lives, is clearly insane.  Clans of the Alphane Moon is Philip K. Dick’s attempt to prove to the reader that mental illness is in fact integral to how we organize society.


Adam Kotsko’s Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television seems to argue that we are attracted to sociopathic characters, which are legion in contemporary American television (Walter White, Stringer Bell, Tony Soprano, most of the villains in Spartacus), because we see in them the ability to navigate this bizarre and amoral world in ways that those of us still clinging to social convention lack.  Dick’s use of mental illness in nearly all of his major novels and his common use of psychotherapy as a plot device (Dr. Bloodmoney) suggests that this theme was heavy on his mind.

The protagonist of The Clans of the Alphane Moon, Chuck Rittersdorf, is a CIA agent, but in fact he is a teller of lies.  He is a skilled writer who makes his modest living (made more modest by yet another PKD succubus, his ex-wife Mary Rittersdorf) by writing for simulacra that are sent to communist countries to spread pro-US propaganda.  Posting as average citizens, these robots are quite successful, but they need excellent scripting and programming.  Chuck’s job is to be convincing enough that the targets do not realize they are talking to an instrument of propaganda.  Mary takes a job working on securing the Terran claim to a moon in the Alpane system populated by the descendents of escaped mental patients.  Chuck takes a second job (made possible with the use of stimulants, much like PKD himself who wrote almost a dozen books in the mid-1960s) writing for a comedian Benny Hentman.  Hentman is a supporter of the Alphane claims on the moon.  These developments places Chuck in a prime position to attempt an assassination of his wife.  In fact, their near-death experiences seem to bring them closer together.  The heart of the novel, however, is the clans and their capacity to create a functioning society based on mental illness.  We might say that the denziens of Alpha III M2 are more honest than we are about the requirement of insanity for late capitalism.

There are seven tribes, each with a representative, a typical mental illness (some show signs of more than one category), a settlement, and a function in the society.  Certainly any one of these tribes alone would collapse easily.  But as a group, they actually did quite well before invaded by Earthlings.  We have much to learn about this elegant division of labor.  Some are already pointing this out.  Paul Baibak and Robert Hare argue in Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work that those most capable of rising up the ladder in the amoral world of the postmodern corporation are psychopaths.  Their book provides practical advice to dealing with this cruel reality.  We could extend this to many professions.  Perhaps there is a degree of infantilism required of being a grade school teacher.  Schizophrenia or delusions of grandeur would certainly help if you wanted to be Pope or start a cult.

On Alpha III M2, the manics are called the Manes.  They live in a settlement named after Leonardo da Vinci and are responsible for creating warriors and technological developments (although their efforts are often cut short by their over enthusiasm).  Hebrephrenia (I had to look this one up a few weeks ago- it is disorganized schizophrenia) are the working class and provide some religious inspiration and are called Heebs.  They live in Gandhitown.  The Polys are the the creative class, suffering from polymorphic schizophrenia (what the hell is that?) and live in a town named after Hamlet.  The vanilla schizophrenics are callde Skitzes and live in Joan d’Arc town, living out lives as writers and poets. The ruling class come from the Pares clan, live in Adolfville, and are responsible for defense.  Finally are the Ob-Coms (obsessive-compluslive) and Deps (depression).  Despite mutual distrust and often hatred they seem to make it work.  See, it does not require that one likes another functionary in order to make use of them.  Everyone sees the Heebs are smelly and degenerate, but they provide crucial working class needs.  Of course, we might be repulsed by a obsessive-compulsive’s habits but realize that they make good bureaucrats. Everyone fears the Manes and laughs at the child-like character of the Polys.  It is not a utopia at all.  It is a rather accurate, if exaggerated look at our own division of labor.  In Chapter Seven, Mary hands us this interpretation when providing her own description of the social functions of the various tribes.

This is one of Dick’s most humorous novels.  Chuck moves into a bachelor apartment complex and is helped in by a host of non-Terrans, including the memorable Lord Running Clam – a slime old from Ganymede with psychic powers. The dynamics between the different clans are full of comedic value.   It is novels like that convince me that Hollywood takes PKD way to seriously in their adaptations.

Imagine this guy talking to you.

Imagine this guy talking to you.

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, “We Can Build You” (1962): We Are All Mentally Ill

We Can Build You links many of Philip K. Dick’s most common themes.  The border between human and artificial is considered in a very straightforward and upfront way here, via conversations with the characters.  The growing insanity of everyday life is the surprising major theme of the text, which is ostensibly about androids.  The setting provides a clear picture of Dick’s ambivalence about post-scarcity, if it is based on technological or corporate dominance over humanity.  Finally, through the protagonist’s treatment, we are even given a brief look at an alternative reality.  Is it too much?  Maybe.  The systematic reader of Philip K. Dick might find that the way he throws ideas on the canvas and fails to develop those ideas adequately before moving on an irritation.  He may not have known it, but he is actually foreshadowing the intellectual anxiety and restlessness of late capitalism.


There are actually three stories in We Can Build You.  The first is the story of a company fighting against a corporate behemoth.  The little man is Multiplex Acoustical System of America (MASA Associates), specializing in mood organs and musical instruments.  The principals in the company are the protagonist Louis Rosen, his partner Maury Rock, Rock’s daughter Pris Frauenzimmer, and the mechanic Bob Bundy.  They (Pris is the real engineer) develop a simulacrum, that is able to be programed with the memories and knowledge of another.  Their prototype is Edwin M. Stanton.  Their original plan is to refight the Civil War with robots who are not play-acting but really think they are the participants.  They later build an Abraham Lincoln robot but Lincoln’s real-life mental illness makes him a different type, but as we will see mental illness is as commonplace as automobiles in this world.  The land developer Sam K. Barrows wants to steal this technology.  He uses Stanton’s autonomy and Pris’s idealization of Barrows to help acquire it, although his effort (a crude John Wilkes Booth) is inferior.  Barrows wants to use these androids to settle the moon.  The corporate shenanigans take up much of the novel.  The second plot line involved Louis Rosen falling in love with Pris.  Pris is a schizoid (an anti-social personality disorder that would – interestingly – turn someone into an emotional robot) and schizophrenic and has spent most of her life in institutions or as a ward of the government.  Rosen is conflicted, since Pris is clearly incapable of emotion.  The Abraham Lincoln robot seems more capable of emotional expression and empathy.  His anxiety over this leads him to even question if he is not an android.  When Pris leaves MASA for Barrows, Rosen becomes unhinged, planning to assassinate Barrows if he does not “release” Pris.  The third plot line explores Rosen’s descent into insanity.  The last quarter of We Can Build You sets aside the androids and considers Rosen’s treatment.  His treatment involves the creation of alternative realities (the equivalent of a Rorschach test since the world is created from the patient’s subconscious).  These mental realms tend to involve Rosen living a peaceful middle-class life with Pris, an utter impossibility in real life, considering Pris’ manipulative, anti-social, and cruel tendencies.  Pris’ final return to the asylum after earlier being successfully treated and Rosen’s final realization that his mental illness may have been simply a rouse or too minor to waste the institution’s time.

Like many of Dick’s novels, We Can Build You is set in a world of corporate dominated post-scarcity.  Rosen and Rock are worried about the labor market glut and are desperate to save the company, which is why they turn to building androids.  Despite an overabundance of labor, there seems to be no shortage in the consuming potential of America.  The original plan was to re-fight the Civil War with anrdoids.  This is only possible in an economy well past scarcity.  We are, however, given two models of post-scarcity.  One reflected by Pris and the MASA Associates which takes post-scarcity and uses it to invest in craft.  The androids they create are works of art.  They are fully realized individuals and indistinguishable from the originals.  They do not even realize the difference until it is explained.  Barrows, looking for chattel to populate the solar system, wants to work in planned obsolescence for long-term profits.  The Booth simulacra is not even capable of reciting Shakespeare.  Rosen asks how long it took him to build that inferior product.  “Where’s any painstaking fidelity to detail?  Where’s craftsmanship gone?  All that’s left is schlock, the killer-instinct planted in this contraption.”

Rosen is well aware that Barrow’s model is winning.  He talks with Pris about how to destroy a yellowjacket nest.  Pris tells him that the best way is to cover it in sand.  The yellowjackets will work to clear the entrance but forced to bring the sand into the nest, they will gradually suffocate themselves.  Pris says in conclusion: “We wake up.  Why is there no light?  We heard fo rthe entrance.  All those particles, they block it.  We’re frightened.  What’s going on?  We all pitch in; we try not to get panicked.  We don’t use up all the oxygen;  we’re organized into teams.  We work silently.  Efficiently.  We never see daylight, Louis.  No matter how many grains of sand we haul away.  We work and we wait, but it never comes.  Never.”  We decorate our prisons.

While for many advocates of post-scarcity economics, including many anarchists, productivity is a path to human liberation.  For Dick, the production/consumption cycle is simply one most chain enslaving people.  Yet, Dick does provide the potential of resistance.  They are able to prevent Barrows from stealing the simulacra technology.

Human-Technology Divide, An Asylum on Every Corner
Dick places the theme of the universality of insanity alongside the troubled human-technology divide. This works for me on a couple of levels.  On one, does mental illness make us more like machines?  In the case of Pris, her schizoid personality disorder does make her incapable of normal human empathy and interaction.  Stanton and Lincoln are capable of strong emotion and empathy based on their emotional history, placed in as part of their programming.   Dick also introduces the question of slavery.  (Using Lincoln as a character makes it clear that Dick did not want us to miss the significance of this.)  When approaching Barrows, MASA Associates makes the case that they cannot own Stanton because of the laws against forced labor and slavery.  Barrows sees machines and non-human and therefore his ownership of Stanton is not affected by those laws.  In contrast to this, Pris and Louis feel like slaves within an endless consumption-production cycle.  Both were placed in an authoritarian institution.  Internally, the asylum is not significantly different from the prison (Erving Goffman, Asylums).

In the world of We Can Build You, mental illness is not a rarity.  One in four spent time in an asylum.  Later, a psychiatrist points out that 1 in 9 is actively mentally ill.  Mental illness is the primary public health concern of the state.  We are not far from this now.  As soon as the ADHD epidemic seemed to be moved to the back-burner we now have an epidemic of Asbergers.  All the while, millions of sex addicts are living their sorrowful lives (Shame, Black Snake Moan).  I suspect we will have a new personality disorder in a few years that will require another generation to be medicated or institutionalized.  I am not an expert on this stuff.  Just an observer but I have real concerns about the potential of human freedom when mental illness becomes indistinguishable from yearly fashion trends.  At least our passion for consumption can be contained by a simple purchase and does not require dependence on an institution or mind-altering medication.

Note on the Project
I am preparing to move to Taiwan, probably permanently.  I need to have all my books boxed by the end of April.  If I am skipping some major works for now (Ubik, VALIS, Scanner Darkly) it is because I have those on my Kindle and can work on them while I deal with the transition.  It may not be until the end of June that my library follows me to Taiwan.  I also took some works off the my master list.  This is because neither I nor my library system own a copy.  I may get back to them later.  At this pace, I will finish up with PKD around mid-May and return to my work on The Library of America.  What I work on will depend on the library situation in Taiwan.  I know I can get some of the LOA in Taiwan via libraries but I never saw them in stores there.  I will probably need to have them shipped.  As long as there is not a shipwreck, I should have enough volumes to last me a couple years before it comes to that.  By then the People’s Liberation Army may very well have made this blog moot.