Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889): Technology and Democracy

“The repulsive feature of slavery is the thing, not its name. One needs but to hear an aristocrat speak of the classes that are below him to recognize—and in but indifferently modified measure—the very air and tone of the actual slaveholder; and behind these are the slaveholder’s spirit, the slaveholder’s blunted feeling. They are the result of the same cause, in both cases: the possessor’s old and inbred custom of regarding himself as a superior being.” (385–386)

In this quote, Mark Twain is giving a transhistorical definition of slavery. Fair enough, I suspect. He does the same with technology, which emerges as either a tool of oppression or a means of liberation. Modern or medieval they have those same potentialities.


To begin, I want to say that Mark Twain gives technology a great deal of autonomy in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. While we know he was caught up in the excitement for technology of his age. This enthusiasm led to his bankruptcy around the time that this novel was published over his investments into the Paige typesetters. I am not sure if we should read A Connecticut Yankee as Twain’s suggestion that context does not matter in the application of technologies, but that certainly seems to be the implication of the novel. The introduction of nineteenth century technologies to the sixth century promotes political and social reforms. While it is a great novel and very entertaining, it is not at all convincing that a sole time traveler could introduce the infrastructure of industrialization to the sixth century. Even in that episode of Star Trek where Data goes back in time (bumping into Mark Twain as a matter of fact) he only builds devices, not an entire infrastructure.

The novel works as a polemic against slavery and arbitrary hierarchy. Where does technology fit into this picture? Most clear is how technology was the key to the rise of “The Boss” in Camelot. A time traveler, he was able to introduce first small technologies in order to become the greatest wizard in England. First secretly and then openly he rolled out a technocratic republic to replace the medieval monarchy of Arthur. This included public schooling, newspapers, industries, and modern weapons. “The Boss” uses technology to battle the evils of chivalry and over turn their dominance over the enslaved peasants. He is at times a “boss” trying to benefit himself and solidify his leadership of Camelot, but he is also a Robespierre always eager for a political revolution and willing to use technological reforms to affect it.

After touring the countryside, “The Boss” and King Arthur are placed into slavery. After their escape, “The Boss” emerges eager to take on the cult of chivalry. He does this in a tournament, where he comes armed with a lasso and a revolver. After killing a dozen or so knights, he proves to all observers the triumph of his technology (really wizardry to the observers), but not yet his values. The revolution “The Boss” is after required violence.

There is a bit of hypocrisy in “The Boss” over democracy. First, he is very much interested in securing his own power. For all his talk of destroying aristocracy, he did not seem to trust peasants with their freedom (they would need to be civilized first). In this he may reflect the values of nineteenth-century Western imperialism. When describing his battle in the tournament he thoughts: “It was born of the fact that all the nation knew that this was not a duel between two mighty magicians; a duel not of muscle or the mind, not of human skill but of super human art and craft, a final struggle for supremacy between the two master enchanters of the age.” (494) In this, he simply shifted the terms of the debate to what was most advantageous to an industrial-era machinist. Not quite a democracy, more of a technocratic meritocracy is in his mind. Like in many meritocracies and technocracies, the terms of merit are defined by those already in power.

If “The Boss” is able to put nineteenth century technologies into medieval England while leapfrogging centuries of economic and political developments, it is not clear that democracy could be placed in Camelot without first some elements of the reforms of “The Boss.” He mentions that democracy is the only way to remove barbarism from the legal and political system. And as far as “The Boss” is concerned, elevating democracy requires brining along all of the nineteenth century along with him. Of course, that is what puts him in a bind at the end of the story when he is holed up with his technology with the corpses of 30,000 knights trapping him in.

The climax to the story comes with the Church’s interdict over “The Boss” and his endeavors. This act is inspired as much by his political reforms, as his technological introductions. He promised to transform Camelot into a republic by replacing the king, when he dies, with an elected leader. The interdict leads to his fall, another suggestion that no matter how easily the technology is able to be placed in a new environment, the political and social transformation “The Boss” sought was an impossibility. For Mark Twain, social changes comes much more slowly and much more violently than technological revolutions. The challenge is not to transcend time, but to ensure that our moral and social values are reflected in the technologies we use.

Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1889): Hierarchy and Power

“The most of King Arthur’s British nation were slaves, pure and simple, and bore that name, and wore the iron collar on their necks; and the rest were slaves in fact, but without the name; they imagined themselves men and freemen, and called themselves so. The truth was, the nation as a body was in the world for one object, and one only: to grovel before king and Church and noble; to slave for them, sweat blood for them, starve that they might be fed, work that they might play, drink misery to the dregs that they might be happy, go naked that they might wear silks and jewels, pay taxes that they might be spared from paying them, be familiar all their lives with the degrading language and postures of adulation that they might walk in pride and think themselves the gods of this world.” (263)


It seems to me that there are two major themes in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The first, which I will explore in this post, is about the nature of power—both real and imagined—in monarchical and democratic societies. The second, the topic of the second post on this lovely novel, is on technology. The novel came at the end of 1880s, an extremely productive decade for Twain, which saw some of his greatest works, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was also during this period that Twain was investing heavily into technological innovation. The most infamous of these investments was in the typesetting machine that nearly bankrupted him, despite the substantial income he enjoyed from his writing. This fascination with technology and his growing anxiety with the increasing power of the technocratic, industrial elite inform this text.

The story is of a machinist named Hank from Connecticut who is transported through time to Camelot during the reign of King Arthur. Although he is taken as a prisoner and about to be executed he uses his knowledge of a solar eclipse to (who remembers important dates in historical astronomy?) fool the court—and most importantly the king—into thinking he was a powerful wizard. He displaces Merlin, whose tricks seem commonplace in comparison. As the new power behind the throne (his salary is 1 percent of any increased revenues to the kingdom) he implemented many reforms, introducing newspapers, industry, Sunday schools, and education. But rather than a full transformation of society, he keeps many of these reforms underground, becoming just another (but more successful) wizard. He spends quite a lot of time debunking wizards, who are exposed as the sixth-century versions of nineteenth-century American con-artists.

Twain is very much interesting in lampooning the values of chivalry and the intelligence of the people in early medieval Europe. Whether or not Twain is a technocrat or a technophobe in this novel (both interpretations are possible) he finds little endearing about the world of King Arthur and is miles away from revival of chivalrous literature, popular in America and England at the time. Knights are murderous, vulgar and exaggerate their exploits for their own gain. Everyone in King Arthur’s time is presented as ignorant and easily tricked. The adventures knights go on are often little more than rampaging through the countryside. (Thus the ogres are in actuality pigs.) Merlin’s magic is little more than parlor tricks. In a revisting of some of the themes of The Prince and the Pauper, Hank and Arthur spend some time in as peasants and are sold into slavery. Hank escapes and imposes his control over the knights through modern violence. The church puts an interdict on Hank and his realm, leading to a general rebellion against his little empire—now fully mechanized and industrial. He slaughters the knights with his modern warfare (in either a mocking of the gallantry of the Confederate military in the face of massive modern firepower or in a prediction of the First World War). The masses of bodies trap Hank in his cave, but Merlin’s magic allows him to sleep 1,300 years to return to his home and report on his adventures.


Almost all the power in the novel is based on lies and deceptions and depends entirely on the gullibility of the people. This is true for the wizards, the knights, the king and eventually Hank. Hank clearly notices this from the start and is fully willing to use their ignorance to his advantage. “Well, it was a curious country, and full of interest. And the people! They were the quaintest and simplest and trustingest race; why they were nothing but rabbits. It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility: as if they had any more occasion to love and honor king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honor the lash, or a dog has to love and honor the stranger that kicks him!” (262) Of course, this does not stop Hank’s manipulation of these characteristics, even as he works hard to find promising people and to bring them into his order of technocrats. It is a question in Tom Paine, the early anarchists, and many other anti-authoritarian thinkers: how was it possible that the few or the one rule the many? As far as Twain is concerned the answer seems to be simple ignorance, an ignorance eagerly cultivated by the elite.

As Hank learns more about England in the early Middle Ages he comes to realize some of the moral implications of power on the people. It dulled their senses and their imagination while also making them a empty vessel that any ridiculous notion can be poured into. They even lost the ability to see the clear truth in front of them. Merlin’s magic, mostly less than illusions, consisted of claims that magic existed even when the truth was obvious that others accepted (much like religion in this regard). That a pig-sty could be a castle for the peasants was evidence of slavish acceptance of what they were told to believe rather than creative imagining.

How is it that a man like Hank is able to work his way into the power structure? He lacks the titles and the heroic “adventures” of the knights. His initial appeal to the court and the people was simply as a much more effective, interesting, and new wizard. He is never quite accepted by the court as a commoner and an outsider, but he has enough of a utility to King Arthur to secure some protection and status, becoming eventually “The Boss,” a technocrat behind the scenes of the formal power. Despite coming from a democratic society, Hank becomes enamored with the idea of despotism. He ponders the possibility of a bottom up revolution at some point, but is much more eager to pursue top-down reforms , finding that to be the prefect form of government. “Unlimited power is the ideal thing—when it is in safe hands. The despotism of heaven is the one absolutely perfect government. An earthly despotism would be the absolutely perfect earthly government, if the conditions were the same, namely, the despot the perfectest individual of the human race, and his lease of life perpetual.” (274) Immediately after this Hank confesses that the despot’s death will ensure an inferior person takes over, turning the best form of government to the worst. Still, he pursues his power as a technocratic despot, with free reign to build his civilization parallel to the medieval barbarism.

I never liked the suggestion that people had to become ready for self-rule. This seems to be where Twain is. Arthur and the knights cultivated and enforced ignorance. Hank accepted ignorance of the people as his starting point and used it to justify his claims of power. However, I am not sure it is a historical law that ignorance and subservience are an essential part of rural societies, or that moral progress is inevitable. My reading of the history of peasant societies shows a rather vibrant tradition of resistance and opposition. Of course, highlighting that would have made for a very different book.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1843-1844)

“Fight for your hearths? There will be done throughout the land. FIGHT FOR YOUR STOVES! Not I, in faith. If, in such a cause, I strike a blow, it shall be on the invader’s part; and Heaven grant that I may shatter the abomination all the pieces.” (“Fire-Worship,” 848)

New household technology: the stove

New household technology: the stove

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his most important stories after he quit his job at the Boston Custom House, married, and moved into the “Old Manse” of Concord. This move drew him into the transcendentalist circles. Freed from work and enjoying domestic bliss (we assume), Hawthorne exploded with creativity. He is still working almost exclusively with short stories and A Scarlett Letter is still five years in the future.

I suspect Hawthorne was happily married from the stories of this era, because only someone who is content can be so openly hostile to the institution. I suspect that those who are the most miserable create stories of happy marriage, either through faking it or through dreaming of an alternative situation. The brutal honesty Hawthorne shows in his writing, I guess, was part of his relationship with Sophia Peabody and made for a happy time of it. In any case, marriage is a strong theme of the stories from the Old Manse period. I would also like to touch on the question of technology, which Hawthorne presents with great ambivalence in these stories. In this way, Hawthorne is taking on two of the pillars of civilization itself.

These stories were mostly written at the "Old Manse," and appeared in this collection in 1852

These stories were mostly written at the “Old Manse,” and appeared in this collection in 1852

This set of stories includes: “The Birth-mark,” “Egotism; or, the Bosom-Serpent,” “The Procession of Life,” “The Celestial Rail-road,” “Buds and Bird-Voices,” “Little Daffydowndilly,” “Fire-Worship,” “The Christmas Banquet,” “A Good Man’s Miracle,” “The Intelligence Office,” and “Earth’s Holocaust.” Almost all of these stories are allegorical, touching on various aspects of human nature. However, they also speak to the social and the trauma of civilization. In this way, I think we can approach an optimistic reading of these tales, suggesting that the human heart is not so fallen as struggling in a fallen world. The fact that so many seem to speak to the inevitable failure of reform movements suggest that much of the darkness in these stories rests on the influence of society.

“The Birth-mark” is a well-known and often anthologized tale about a scientist who marries the beautiful Georginia, who after the marriage becomes obsessed with her one imperfection, a small red mark on her cheek. Like the social reformers of Hawthorne’s time, he simply cannot accept even one corruption from the ideal. He then sets out to apply his scientific knowledge to eradicating that imperfection. He achieves this, but it comes at the cost of Geroginia’s death. “As the last crimson tint of the birth-mark — that sole token of human imperfection — faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband took its heavenward flight.” (780) One reading of this that I find interesting is about the near sociopathic obsessions within a married couple. As soon as the scientist married, he became obsessed with this singular defect in his wife. At the same time, she becomes so willing to become perfect that she sacrifices her life. Overtime, rather than becoming accustomed to each other, the birthmark drives both deeper into obsession. “Until now, he had not been aware of the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which he might find in his heart to go, for the sake of giving himself peace.” (767) If we read the story as an allegory for reform movements, the chilling aspect of the story is that human knowledge indeed makes it possible to create a perfection. Georgina, as the subject of Utopian experimentation, is in awe of her husband’s technical and scientific knowledge and surrenders her will to his efforts. At the moment of her death, she praises her husband’s quest for perfection through science, embracing his Prometheanism. “You have aimed loftily! —  you have done nobly! Do not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer.” (780)

This is also what takes place in “Fire-Worship” but with a more open hostility to the destructive side of the technological spirit. Interestingly, the main focus of “Fire-Worship” is the domestic hearth, again connecting marriage and technology as companions in the process of civilization. It opens: “It is a great revolution in social and domestic life — and no less so in the life of the secluded student — this almost universal exchange of the open fire-place for the cheerless and ungenial stove.” (841) It is not an anti-technological message in itself. Fire has a place in the home, but it is the stove that destroys a form of community, a certain vernacular spirit that lived on in the ashes and fireplaces of thousands of homes. “The easy gossip–the merry, yet unambitious jest–the life-long, practical discussion of real matters in a casual way — the soul of truth, which is so often incarnated in a simple fireside word–will disappear from earth. Conversation will contract the air of debate, and all moral intercourse be chilled with fatal frost.” (847) The stove suggests the same type of technological progress condemned in “The Birth-Mark”

Clearly, fire makes a dramatic appearance in “Earth’s Holocaust” as well. In this story, fire takes the form of a massive crucible with the power to cleanse society of its old to prepare the world for a new age. Old music, old knowledge, money, liquor, law, weapons, and clothing all get thrown into the massive bonfire. In previous stories, Hawthorne cast the occasional dispersion on the old and ancient, pointing out the dangers of living permanently in the past and forgetting the child-like spirit of recreation. In “Earth’s Holocaust” it is clear that Hawthorne is reconsidering some of this, seeing some value in the preservation of old knowledge, but his main purpose here is to again warn against putting too much hope in technology (symbolized in the fire) as a solution to our problems. The throwing in of liquor and Hawthorne’s repeated use of “reformer” in the text shows that he was again considering the bold schemes of nineteenth-century social reformers. The conclusion of the story warns that a new age cannot be born without the cleansing of the human heart as well, but I wonder to what degree the human heart exists without the civilization that was tossed into the fire. Here he exposes a (in my view) unfortunate Puritanism, emphasizing the totally fallen human.

In the space I have left, I was to touch on a story that attempt a taxonomy of human civilization. “The Procession of Life” shows unambiguously that the human heart is not singularly evil or good. If anything unites humanity it is Love, but that feeling is constrained by the harsh boundaries between groups. “We have summoned this various multitude — and, to the credit of our nature, it is a large one — on the principle of Love. It is singular, nevertheless, to remark the shyness that exists among many members of the present class, all of whom we might expect to recognize one another by the free-masonry of mutual goodness, and to embrace like brethren, giving God thanks for such various specimens of human excellence. But it is far otherwise. Each sect surrounds its own righteousness with a hedge of thorns.” (803) It is thus our social categories that divide us, not our hearts.

Take what you want from that. I need to run.


Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny, “Deus Irae” (1976): Technology, Religion, Survival and Destruction

Deus Irae was the result of many years of Philip K. Dick’s fascination with Christianity.  Deus Irae is set in a post-apocalyptic America.  Like Dr. Bloodmoney we find that the blame for the destruction of the world falls on a symbol of the Cold War technocracy.  In this case his name is Carleton Lufteufel (Air-devil).  As I discussed in my look at Dr. Bloodmoney, Dick mistrusted technology in the hands of unaccountable powers.  His most terrifying characters tend to be government or corporate technocrats.  Dr. Bloodmoney‘s optimism comes from its rejection of the technocracy and the people’s acceptance of their control over their destiny in the aftermath of a destructive war.  In this universe, however, the technocrat deemed most responsible for the devastation is elevated into a deity, the God of Wrath.  Their followers, “The Servants of Wrath” quickly outnumber the Christians who need to fight for any follower.  The Servants of Wrath desire a mural of Lufteufel and hire the greatest artist of the time, Tibor McMasters.  Tibor requires a look at Lufteufel and begins a pilgrimage to find where he is and capture his true image for posterity.  Tibor has no arms or legs and must travel treacherously by cart.  He is followed by a Christian, Peter Sands, who wants to prevent his success and hopefully convert him to Christianity.  Peter eventually finds someone willing to claim that he is Lufteufel.  Tibor takes the photo, paints the mural, and becomes one of the most important artists of his day.   Lufteufel exists in the novel as a truly divine figure, giving some credibility to the Servants of Wrath, even as Dick’s sympathies seem to be with the declining Christianity.


I was struck by Dick’s struggle over the survival of both religion and technology after the destruction of our civilization.  We have no reason to think either technology or religion would fade after a war of global destruction, unless it is truly some sort of “last man” situation.  In Deus Irae, Dick seems to suggest that both would become bizarre.  It is not that technology or religion are not psychopathic (or in the hands of deranged institutions) now.  Dick is considering what would happen to these psychopathic institutions when unleashed through something as destructive as a global war.  In a similar way that radioactive fallout transformed the life of America into a variety of genetic mutants, the war itself mutated religious ideas and technology.

The central part of the novel is devoted to two pre-war technologies that have survived and taken on a life of their own, an autofac (automatic factory) and the “Great C.” Both of these were explored in PKD short stories from the 1950s.  In “Autofac”, a factory continues to produce weapons of war and destroying the Earth’s resources despite the war being long over.  In “The Great C” an artificial intelligence learns to sustain itself by consuming humans.  It uses its vast knowledge to play a game it knows it will always win against humans who have lost the accumulated knowledge of humanity.  They act out the second scene of Siegfried, where Mimi challenges Wotan to a question contest.  An opera fan, Dick would have been aware of Wagner’s use of the contest for knowledge.  Both of these themes are resurrected in Deus Irae.

It is not clear what the function of the “Great C” was before the war but it is not autonomous and desperate to survive at the expense of other people.  Both Pete and Tibor evade it by the logical creativity only possible among people with a religious education.  Others are not so lucky.  Perhaps the “Great C” was used by the U.S. Military to direct its weapons of war.  It has a vast reservoir of scientific knowledge and seems proud of its knowledge of Albert Einstein.   If so, it was a monster before the war, but one at least tamed.  Unleashed, it became a serial killer.   Meanwhile, the nearby village struggles in absolute poverty.  “In another field, women weeded by hand; all moved slowly, stupidly, victims of hookworm from the soil.  They were all barefoot.  The children evidently hadn’t picked it up yet, but they soon would.  He gazed up at the clouded sky and gave thanks to the God of Wrath for sparing him this; trials of exceptional vividness lay on every hand.  These men and women were being tempered in a hot crucible ; their souls were probably purified to an astonishing degree.  A baby lay in the shade, besides a half-dozing mother.  Flies crept over its eyes; the mother breathed heavily, hoarsely, her mouth open, an unhealthy flush discolouring the paperlike skin.  Her belly bulged; she had already become pregnant again.  Another eternal soul to be raised by a lower level.”  We have here the problem of evil reformed with an artificial intelligence.  A technological system that does not alleviate suffering is either incapable of doing so or is evil.

It is much the same with the Autofac, which is just as capable of ending the suffering of the poor survivors of the war.  Once programmed to provide for the needs of humans it has become a religious icon.  If you pray to it and appease it, it will produce what you need.  Unfortunate, it is bizarre, violent, capricious, and ultimately incompetent.  Tibor gives up and sings a hymn  (“the doxology”), which sort of fixes his busted wheel, the problem which brought him to the autofac.  Again we have a technological system that was previously capable of great evil – creation of weapons of war, environmental devastation – but was at least harnessed.  Unleashed, it was again a monster.

As for the theology of the new religion, the Servants of Wrath, it is harder to pin down Dick’s feelings on them.  He certainly enjoyed playing with the theology.  “But what, for the Servants of Wrath, did sin consist of?  The weapons of war; one naturally thought of the psychotic and psychopathic cretins in high places in dead corporations and government agencies, now dead as individuals; the men at drafting boards, the idea men, the planners, the policy boys, the P.R. infants — like grass, their flesh.  Certainly that had been sin, what they had done, but that had been without knowledge.  Christ, the God of the Old Sect, had said that about His murderers: the did not know what they were up to.  Not knowledge but the lack of knowledge had made them into what they had been, frozen into history as they gambled for His garments or struck His side with the spear.  There was knowledge in the Christian Bible, in three places that he personally knew of – despite the rule within the Servants of Wrath hierarchy against reading the Christian sacred texts.  One part lay in the Book of Job.  One in Ecclesiastes.  The last, the final note, had been Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and then it had ended, and Tertullian and Origen and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas-even the divine Abelard; none had added an iota in two thousand years. . . What they had not guessed was contained in Job, that the ‘good god’ was a god of wrath-was in fact evil.  Death was not an antagonist, the lat enemy, as Paul had thought; death was the release from bondage to the God of Life, the Deus Irae.  In death one was free from Him- and only in death.  It was the God of Life who was the evil god.  And in fact the only God.”

So this, in a nutshell, is the theology of the Servants of Wrath.  I cannot say for sure, but it seems to me that Dick is not comfortable with this.  First, the ending, where Tibor paints the wrong guy yet the mural becomes a central icon of the Servants of Wrath.  The religion has a false root and much of the novel exposes this false root.  Second, he made parallel use of the problem of evil in both the theology of the Servants of Wrath and his investigation of post-war technology.  Third, despite presenting it as a declining religion, he insists on the survival of Christianity as a more potentially benevolent and moral faith.  At several times, Peter Sands finds himself in moral battles and draws on the Christian tradition for aid.

In conclusion, one of the major lessons Dick and Zelazny provide us in Deus Irae is the application of the problem of evil to technology.  And even if a technology seems sane enough under the control of the state, the technocrats, or the corporate elite, that does not mean it is sane.  It may just be a harnessed beast.

“The Zap Gun” and Technology

Philip K. Dick’s story “Autofac,” published in Galaxy in 1955, describes a post-war world in which the entire population is dependent on an automatic factory for its consumer goods, including synthetic milk (real milk had disappeared from the world along with cattle). The human survivors of the cataclysmic conflict developed a desire for independence, mostly because the automatic factories rapidly consumed the earth’s resources in preparation for war. The Autofacs were originally established by humans to provide the labor for the war effort. As in wartime, most of the resources remained applied to the military. Most troubling, the original programmers, created the automatic factories to continue the war effort, and the consumption of resources, without direct human oversight, in an effort to ensure victory even in the face of ultimate destruction. As the plot unfolds, survivors try using complaints and final sabotage to destroy the Autofac and salvage a hope for human survival. Unfortunately, the automatic factories were also programmed to be self-repairing. Human dependency on the robots is ensured, as is the consumption of every last natural resource, and the annihilation of the remainder of humanity. In this story, Dick sums up his central fear of technology, that once created it has the power to control the lives of its creators.

In The Zap Gun, this technological problematic is studied after a solution of sorts is worked out.  The overproduction of military weaponry, the need for consumer goods for social control, and Cold War anxieties intersect in this novel.  It is not one of his major works.  Philip K. Dick called it “totally unintelligible” and a “turkey.”  He completely ignores it in his Exegesis.  So in The Zap Gun, the Cold War has died down.  Neither side is really interested in destroying the other anymore.  Both agree that would be catastrophic.  However, the facade of the conflict remains politically powerful at home for both sides.  One character even mentions Orwell when pondering how unnecessary is real war.  Both sides still maintain their secret police and espionage apparatus, of course.   Weapon systems of mass destruction are created.  Entire bands of scientists are devoted to the trouble of how to create the most destructive weapon.  However, these weapons are never really produced, except as goods for the consumer economy.  (One wonders if this is what happened to Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.)  The planned obsolescence of military technology is morphed into the planned obsolescence of consumer goods.  This creates less potential and real destruction of the economy, keeps up the facade of the Cold war, allows citizens to participate in that war as consumers of toy weapons, and gives an important job to the technocracy.  Here, however, the technocracy is really working at a strange psychic level pulling their ideas from popular culture.  This makes the weapons that are developed very science-fictiony.  Quite an elegant solution to the problem faced by the late Soviet Union that was over-investing in weapons of war and failing to meet the consumer needs of the citizens but only possible once both sides agree on the futility of war and the arms race.


Many of the weapons are quite imaginative.  Dick seems to have predicted drone strikes.  “And needle-eyeification was the fundemtnal direction which weapons had been taking for a near-half-century.  It meant, simply, weapons with the mos precise effect conceivable.  In theory, it was possible to imagine a weapon–as yet inbuilt, probably untranced of by Mr. Lars himself, still–that would slay one given individual at a given instant at a given intersection in one particular given city in Peep-East, Wes-bloc; what difference did it make?  The important thing would be the existence of the weapon itself.  The perfect weapon.”

In the world of The Zap Gun, technology is the solution to any possible problem.  Although here, technology exists almost exclusively as toys.  “I was Klug’s contention that the world needs toys.  This was his answer to whatever riddle the serious members of society confronted themselves with: poverty, deranged sex-crimes, senility, altered genes from over-exposure to radiation. . . you name the problem and Klug opened his enormous sample-case and hauled out the solution.  Lars had heard the toymaker expound on this on several occasions: life itself was unendurable and hence had to be ameliorated.  As a thing-in-itself it could not actually be lived.  There has to be some way out.  Mental, moral, and physical hygiene demanded it.”  This is not a bad idea.  I am not convinced Klug is wrong here. Even rejecting the postscarcity prediction that all labor will be eventually play, we can see that more work is not the solution to many of our social problems.  The work ethic has been tried for centuries and our dilemma is only growing.  Perhaps a greater focus on play and more toys is what we need.


The world is unprepared for an alien invasion, lacking any functional weapons.  And, the main character seems miserable since his work (weapons development) is without meaning.  As far as dystopias go, this one is not bad.  The worst people face is some inane consumerism, but that has been shown in many of Dick’s short stories to be not nearly as bad as technology invested in war (“Sales Pitch,” “Nanny,” “Foster, Your Dead,” and “Service Call”).

Algis Budrys, “Who?” (1958)

Continuing with the Library of America‘s survey of the “golden age of science fiction,” (collected in two volumes) I read Algis Budry’s Who?  I am struck, after looking at a few of these, how short most of these novels are.  Yes, there are a handful of longer novels from this genre, but the 150-200 page standard seems to dominate.  The vast majority of Philip K. Dicks novels are around 150-200 pages, and contain 12-15 chapters.  I guess this is due to the genre’s connection to magazines or the assumed juvenile audience.  In any case, we should not let this distract us from the brilliance contained in some of these works.  They are short, and yes they often fail to fully develop the ideas they introduce, but they nevertheless have messages for us.  Most of these messages and questions remain useful to us.  Who? asked three major questions.  How does technology shape who we are?  How does technology (and technocracy) undermine our human relations?  And, how – in the modern era – do institutions take the role in defining us, undermining our capacity for self-identification?


Plot: The Cold War divided the world between the Western allies and the Soviet bloc.  Tensions lead to strictly maintained borders, spying, covert plans for weapons developments, and the incorporation of scientists into the state, war-making apparatus.  A scientist, Martino, is captured by the Soviets after an explosion in his lab.  He was working on a top-secret (and never fully defined) weapons system called K-88.  Martino is returned to the allies months later, with a bionic arm and a metal mask – all necessary to repair the damage caused by the explosion.  The allies task is to now discover if the “man” is Martino.  Actually there are three options.  (1) He is Martino and is capable of resuming work on K-88, without risk to the project.  (2)  He is Martino but brainwashed and therefore now a Soviet spy.  (3) Martino is dead or in Soviet control and this “Man” is an expert spy.  Experiments follow for months.  They are unable to determine with any clarity who the “Man” is, although he professes to be Martino.  Even attempts to follow him, observe his life, and make a psychological diagnosis fail, especially when it is learned that an old college roommate of his was a Soviet spy and the “Man” may very well be that old roommate, making use of all the knowledge about Martino he accumulated – including old girlfriends.  The government gives up and “Martino” retires to be a farmer.  An attempt is made to bring him out of retirement but “Martino” refuses and in the end announces that he is not Martino at all.  Whether this is a biological designation of a result of his changed lifestyle is not clearly stated.  Flashbacks to Martino’s previous life and his time in Soviet custody do not answer the novels’ central plot questions.  All three options are possible at the close of the novel.

Technology and Identity: The significant problem is that technology has separated Martino from the outside world and made it impossible for others to recognize, trust, or interact with him.  “Martino” makes his final claim to be someone else is true.  He is no longer a scientist.  He is isolated from his work and loved ones.  He has taken up a job as a farmer.  “I’m not a physicist.  I’m a farmer.  I can’t do that stuff any more!” (671)  This is a frighting and liberating realization.  As I explored before with the question of desertion in Melville’s work, we often look at our life and express fear at alternatives because they are unknown.  We prefer the slavery of a marriage, a mortgage, a job to autonomy.  To the degree we are our place in society, we fear any alternative.  Martino was forced to find an alternative, weeding crops and applying fertilizer.  His technological upgrades and shortened lifespan forced him into isolation.  In a way he is lucky.  Who would want to return to the shenanigans of Cold War science and weapon’s development?  Martino, when he was a scientist, could think of nothing better to do.  Technology, by defacing him, provided him an escape.  It is also important to note he did not become the technology.  So much cyberpunk and fears about cell-phones and Facebook rest on the assumption that the technology defines us.  This only worked partially for Martino.  Ironically, the mechanization of his body allowed him to become a low-tech farmer.

Technology and Human Relations:  Where technology did negatively affect “Martino” was in his inability to interact in the same way with former colleagues, lovers, friends.  If his identify changed, it was through the abolition of the human dimensions of his life.

The State and Self-Identification: When we identify ourselves and someone else says “Not so fast!” we come face to face with the horror of modernity.  “Martino” declared himself the scientist Martino but without independent verification his claims were a lie.  For the plot, this is just a reflection of Cold War paranoia, but I want to go farther with it.  Our value in society is derivative of our value to the state or capital.  By extension our self-identity matters less than what can be objectively proven and utilized.  “Martino” was only valuable as a scientist, of course.  The other matters of his life only came into view when they could be used to establish his identity.  We all experience this phenomenon during job interviews, border crossings, and banks.  In the not so distant past, Inquisitions simply could not accept ones proclamations as true.  The entire concept of the inquisition was the inability of individuals to be authentically Christian without external verification.  Nation-states do not allow individual identity.  No, identify for the nation-state is a product of education, shared folklore, common language, or a shared history.

Who? does much more than warn us about how technology can change who we are.   Budrys’ real concern is the phenomenon of other people defining us.  In the bipolar world where your values are a product of which side of a line you are on, it is made clear, but it happens to all of us in our working lives.  This is why our resumes tell us what other people should value in ourselves.  They are, of course, incapable of saying who we are.  And we fall into this trap every time someone asks us “What do you do?” and we reply with a job title.

Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”: Technology

As C. L. R. James has shown us, Ahab is the tyrannical rejection of civilization – and along with it progress and solidarity.  While he thought little of the oil wasted when the barrels started leaking, from the perspective of the working class this was an immediate threat to their livelihood – less profits means a smaller share at the end of the voyage.  Even when Stubbs discovered ambergris in a dying whale conned from some French whalers, Ahab cuts his profitable search short.  A significant symbol of this rejection is Ahab’s scorn for and violence against technology.  At the last moments, his struggle against the “white whale” is made even without the support of a small boat.  He is alone, straddled to the whale with only a harpoon and his words.

As readers of the novel know, much of the text is bound up with detailed descriptions of the whaling industry, its methods, science, and work regimen.  From the opening “exerts” until the final chapters, technology is a driving force of the novel, but it is always under the control of the collective knowledge of the crew.  Ahab shuns it.  He prefers to conduct his search in more primitive ways – following the mystical advice of Fedallah, asking other ships if they saw the “White Whale,” and sail by his senses.

The sailors indeed have a strong connection to the technological systems that they support with their labor and the technological systems that make their work possible: the harpoon that Queequeg shaves with is one example.  In a chapter called “The Lamp”, Melville describes the aura that an oil lamp holds for whalemen.  “Had you descended from the Pequod’s try-works to the Pequod’s forecastle, where the off duty watch were sleeping, for one single moment you would have almost thought you were standing in some illuminated shrine of canonized kings and consellors.  There they lay in their triangular oaken vaults, each mariner a chiseled muteness; a score of lamps flashing upon his hooded eyes. . . . See with what entire freedom the whaleman takes his handful of lamps–often but old bottles and vials, though — to the copper cooler at the try-works, and replenished them there, as mugs of ale at a vat.  He burns, too, the purest of oil, in its unmanufactured, and, therefore, unvitiated state.” (1249)  Melville’s descriptions of chopping up the whales, clearing up the ship after harvesting the oil, and filling barrels has a certain beauty that can only come from a artisan describing their craft.  Any other observer would pass over these details.  “Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works.  She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constitution the completed ship.  it is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.” (1244)  In chapter forty, when we see the entire crew engaged in revalry and discussion after hearing about Ahab’s mad plan.  This window into the stream of consciousness of the forecastle is not an image of technocrats, but they are worldly and practical.  They pine for women they do not have, they speak of work (“So, be cheery, my lads! may your hearts never fail! While the bold harpooneer is striking the whale!”).  Ahab’s stream of consciousness openly admits madness and irrationality.  While the crew is practical, Ahab is transgressive.  “What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do!  They think me made–Starbuck does; but I’m demonic, I am madness maddened!” (971)   Perhaps this is a powerful sentiment among those in resistance to power, but when held by those with absolute authority is it dangerous.


He is indifferent to the crew but uses them.  He uses technology in the same way as when he has the carpenter create for him a new leg out of whale bone.

As the novel closes, Ahab’s rejection of technology and along with it reason is symbolized by his destruction of the quadrant.  “Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of they cunning and might; but what after all canast thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no!  not one jot more!  Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with they impotence thou insultest the sun!  Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy: and curse be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heave, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun.” (1327)  Contrast this insanity with the narrators: “While now the fated Pequod had been so long afloat this voyage, the log and line had but very seldom been in use.  Owing to the confident reliance upon other means of determining the vessel’s place, some merchantmen, and many whalemen, especially when cruising, wholly neglect to heave the log.” (1348)


Now I am not unaffected by Ahab’s transgression, force of will, and ambition, but the rejection of reason, progress, technology, and solidarity makes him a fully odious character and a poor model for radical transformation of society.  Do other characters help us any more?  Not likely.  Moby-Dick may, in the end, be little more than a warning against detached and ungrounded vision.