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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Zygmunt Bauman on “Liquid Modernity”: