The Minority Report and Other Stories, by Philip K. Dick: Science Fiction As Social Commentary

 

Blade Runner is perhaps the most famous film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Blade Runner is perhaps the most famous film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Few authors have displayed the kind of imagination that Philip K. Dick demonstrated throughout his career.  Through novels like The Man In The High Castle, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, A Scanner Darkly, and Radio Free Albemuth, Dick created visions of worlds that could be with an ingenuity that remains unsurpassed and matched by few.  Though he is remembered for novels that spawned Hollywood blockbusters like Blade Runner, which may have been fueled by the Dextropropoxyphene he was on after having a wisdom tooth removed, his imagination made Dick a prolific short-story writer as he composed over 120 short stories.  Many of these stories have since been transformed into Hollywood films, such as Minority Report, Total Recall (and Total Recall 2), Screamers, and The Adjustment Bureau (thank you Matt Damon).  The short story form allowed Dick to jump from theme to theme and explore ideas, offering criticisms on propaganda, capitalism, and humanity’s relationship with the environment.  In the short stories ‘Autofac’, ‘Service Call’, ‘Captive Market’, ‘The Mold Of Yancy’, ‘The Minority Report’, and ‘Recall Mechanism’, Dick touches on many of these themes, sometimes interweaving them, to create stories that captivate and challenge, generating controversy that remains relevant today.

 

AUTOFAC

 

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

In the story ‘Autofac’, Dick creates a world where a technophobe’s worst nightmares have come true.  Autofacs are robots.  Their job is to ensure that humans are provided with all their needs during an apocalyptic war, a job they do quite well, but once humans have recovered from the war and wish to provide for themselves, they find that they are at odds with the autofacs. Ironically, the autofacs are monopolizing all of the world’s resources to provide for the humans with whom they are competing.  There are two key threads in this narrative outside of the overt technophobic elements: colonization and the environment.  A post-colonial reading suggests that the autofacs have adopted the paternalistic position of the patriarchal imperialists.  They are in every way superior at managing the resources the humans want access to, much like the imperialists who saw themselves as better suited at managing the resources.  The humans in Dick’s story, not having had to provide for themselves for an entire generation, now want to learn how to cultivate the land and run the factories. The autofacs refuse to relinquish control.  Though the autofacs can produce the staples more efficiently than the humans, the humans want to be autonomous and provide for themselves.  This conflict mirrors the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized.  Whilst many indigenous peoples did not possess the technological advancements of their colonizers, they wished to remain autonomous.  Instead they saw their autonomy usurped… BY IMPERIALIST SCUM!!!!!!

 

 

Edwin Starr says war is good for absolutely nothing.

Edwin Starr says war is good for absolutely nothing.

The work also speaks to environmental concerns, presenting the resources on earth as limited.  The limits of the planet’s resources are exacerbated by war (which is good for, what?  ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!).  The autofacs manage the resources efficiently, but humans wish to take over this management.  When they believe the autofacs to be destroyed, they soon learn that they have not been destroyed, but rather have transformed.  The autofacs, recognizing the limits of the planet’s resources, have redesigned themselves into smaller, almost microscopic versions of themselves, called proto-nanomites, in order to reduce the amount of resources they need for sustenance.  This kind of self-awareness seems utterly lacking in humanity, who, even after a war that ravaged the planet, have learned nothing and continue to wage war and seek to obtain power over resources which they have already wasted.  The narrative has a classic postmodern ending which offers no closure, but rather simply asks how we can stop history from repeating itself.

 

SERVICE CALL

 

 

George Orwell seems to have been a big influence on Philip K. Dick.

George Orwell seems to have been a big influence on Philip K. Dick.

When it comes to issues of totalitarian government, few authors besides George Orwell have been able to produce such succinct criticism of totalitarian hegemonic tools than Dick, as is evidenced in ‘Service Call’.  In ‘Service Call’, Dick entices the reader’s curiosity by introducing a traveling repair man who has somehow accidentally travelled in time.  The problem is that he has arrived to repair something that has not yet been invented.  The protagonist, a man named Courtland, sends the repair man away before realizing what has happened, and collects several technically inclined minds and recording devices from the company where he works in anticipation of the repairman’s return.  After questioning the man, the group learns that the device he has come to repair, a swibble, is designed to ensure that all of the people living in a house, as well as those who visit, are in compliance with orthodox thought.  The swibble, then, serves a role akin to Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’.  The problem is that the swibbles break down after a time and need to be repaired.  The repairmen calibrate the swibble, which allows these technicians to dictate the content of orthodox thought.  Leaving so much power in the hands of so few without any checks and balances is the epitome of totalitarianism.  As is the case with many invasive government policies, the swibbles were openly accepted because of fear mongering.  The government encouraged the citizens to believe that spies and people with unorthodox thinking were infiltrating the country.  Such xenophobia makes it easy for people to drop their guard and permit the existence of swibbles, a process akin to the tactics employed by successive American government administrations as they ushered in the Patriot Act and began spying on their own citizens through the National Security Spying Agency (NSA).  As in many of Dick’s works, the swibbles are also a manifestation of a technophobes’ worst nightmare: machines that control people.  The work, though short and obviously not as in depth a criticism of totalitarianism as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is nonetheless a work that remains relevant today.

 

IN THE MOLD OF YANCY

 

Like Jonathan Swift, Philip K. Dick uses fictional worlds to satirize the world we live in.

Like Jonathan Swift, Philip K. Dick uses fictional worlds to satirize the world we live in.

One of the most efficient methods through which totalitarian governments maintain their authority is propaganda, and few of Dick’s work articulate the nuances and power of propaganda in the way that ‘The Mold of Clancy’ does.  A fictional character named Yancy appears on television in an off-Earth colony every night to captive audiences and espouses various maxims that serve to promote the government’s own ideology.  The character is like a cross between Big Brother, John Wayne and Mr. Rogers.  The figure, like Big Brother, never ages, and carries the machismo of John Wayne and the patriarchal nature of Mr. Rogers.  The story’s protagonists are sent to investigate the government of the colony to verify that it is not transforming into a totalitarian administration.  On the surface, the government seems  legitimate.  It has two parties and elections, but Kellman, one of the investigators, puts the matter succinctly to his partner: “Don’t confuse totalitarian society with dictatorship… A totalitarian government reaches into every sphere of its citizens’ lives…The government can be a dictatorship, or a parliament… that doesn’t matter” (55).  In the case of the ‘Yancy’ colony, the “legal government… is set up in the usual archaic fashion.  Two-party system, one a little more conservative than the other—[with] no fundamental difference” (57).  Though diverse in appearance, the colony is extremely homogenous in practice.  This seems to be an overt lampoon of the American government oligarchy, whose two-party system has taken is taking centuries to correct the wrong of slavery and correct the problems of a society rooted in a flawed capitalist structure.  Both parties support capitalism above all else, and attempt to differentiate themselves on issues that, while important, do not change the fundamental structure of America’s war-mongering capitalist society.  The narrative presents a world that is far off and seemingly foreign, much like Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput and Brobdingnag, but like Swift’s fictional realms, Dick’s off-Earth colony exhibits symptoms of societal flaws and employ a political systems that simply does not function, much the the one found in ‘Merica.

 

CAPTIVE MARKET

 

Adam Smith

Adam Smith

While ‘The Mold of Yancy’ alludes to the capitalists’ aspirations to totalitarian government by referencing how effective Yancy is as an advertising tool, the story’s focus is on propaganda.  In ‘Captive Market’, however, Dick deals directly with the problematic nature of a capitalist system, specifically exemplifying the moral failings of monopolistic systems.  In ‘Captive Market’, a woman named Edna Berthelson, who runs a country store, makes a trip in her truck to a destitute region.  She has the ability to travel through a portal, whereupon she reaches a future time.  In that future time is a group of people in a post-apocalyptic world.  The people need equipment to construct a craft that will help them to escape a radioactive Earth, and Berthleson is the only person who can provide the items needed, thus giving her a monopoly.  Despite the fact that she knows they need these components, she refuses to help without acquiring an astronomical amount of money from them first.  The relationship demonstrates two of the common pitfalls of capitalism and monopolies: the lack of compassion and the lack of foresight.  In terms of compassion, Berthleson displays an utter lack of mercy or compassion.  The people she deals with are strictly a means to profit for her.  As Adam Smith says, it “is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.  Berthleson is certainly full of self-interest, but with no competition, she also has no interest in “attend[ing] to… the customer”, as Smith suggests all should.  This lack of compassion prevents Berthleson from bringing the victims of this apocalypse to back to her own time because she hopes to maintain her monopoly and squeeze every penny she can from the people, exploiting their misery.  When they finally take off, it is revealed that Berthleson also has the ability to create alternate realities, and so when she sees that the people take off successfully, she creates a reality where the take-off fails and they are at her ‘mercy’ again.  This is where the word play in the title comes in.  They are not ‘captive’ in the sense that they are ‘captivated’, but rather in the sense that they are trapped.  Far from being merciful or compassionate, Berthelson is malevolent.

 

Monopoly: it can be fun as a game, or lead to a life of misery when put into practice.

Monopoly: it can be fun as a game, or lead to a life of misery when put into practice.

The narrative also demonstrates how many people enjoying the fruit of a monopoly or quick success in a capitalist venture fail to display any degree of foresight.  Smith, the capitalist guru, notes that “Happiness never lays its finger on its pulse”.  This implies that when things are going well, people do not stop to make sure all is well.  Berthleson, though she knows the people she is selling to live in a post-apocalyptic world, seems to have no concern for how this world came about.  She might ask the people how the apocalypse happened, and return to her time to try and exact a change of some sort.  Berthleson, though, does not think to ask this; she is too overwhelmed with the profits she is procuring in the present to worry about the future.  This preoccupation with the present is a flaw for many capitalist entrepreneurs.  Armed with information about the future, Berthleson could not only save her customers from the torments they are enduring, but put herself in a position to make even more profit.  Her current revenue, however, seems more than adequate to her, and so she does not think to ask questions.  Her customers, though, realize she is doomed and wonder why she has no interest in taking any action to save herself from a future in which she is likely dead and her grandchildren, if alive, will likely suffer from radiation poisoning.  Profits interest Berthleson more than prophets.

 

THE MINORITY REPORT + RECALL MECHANISM

 

minorityreport1Of all the works in this collection, ‘The Minority Report’ and ‘Recall Mechanism’ seem the hardest to gain an entry point into.  As narratives, they are each entertaining, but they each seem to lack the commentary that Dick’s other works have, or rather, the commentary that seems to be present does not work in concert with Dick’s more existentialist tone as both seem to promote an overtly deterministic perspective.  In ‘The Minority Report’, several ‘precogs’ have the ability to see into the future.  A police force known as ‘Pre-Crime’ arrests people based on what the precogs see.  The issue, of course, is that the crimes never happen, and may not have ever happened.  Potentially innocent people are arrested and imprisoned.  One might expect that Dick would argue against this, adopting a William Blackstone maxim akin to ‘it is better to see ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent should suffer’, but instead the narrative ultimately supports the ‘Pre-Crime’ approach, suggesting that life is deterministic, though I may be conflating foresight with predetermination.  ‘Recall Mechanism’ works in much the same way.  A man with acrophobia sees a psychiatrist about his condition.  The psychiatrist uses a ‘recall mechanism’ to reach into his past and determine where this fear was born.  It turns out that the protagonist has latent precognitive abilities and that his fear is not rooted in his past, but rather his future as he will be murdered: death by fall from helicopter.  The psychiatrist, for some unexplained reason, does not share this insight with his patient, and so his fate seems predetermined.  Both narratives seem to have an unsatisfactory ending.  The course of events in each narrative are determined by factors outside of the control of the protagonists, and in both instances lead to a conclusion that seems devoid of choice.

 

minorityreport‘The Minority Report’ is doubly problematic because it also indulges in ableist rhetoric.  In fairness to the author, Dick may be employing this rhetoric in the narrative as a ‘descriptive’ portrayal of such mentalities, and not a ‘prescriptive’ approach, which is to say that he is not condoning it, but rather demonstrating the flaws in the way people indulge in ableist rhetoric.  The precogs, are described as demonstrating ‘aimless… idiocy’.  ‘Idiocy’ was, at the time, an accepted medical term, so it is perhaps anachronistic to take issue with the use of the word, and Dick does introduce other, more sensitive terms, such as ‘hydrocephalic’, but the treatment of the precogs remains problematic: they are hooked up to machines; they have no interactions with other people; their quality of life is utterly ignored; and they are also referred to with terms that are overtly derogatory.  The section of the building in which they are housed is referred to as the ‘monkey block’ (95) and the three precogs are referred to as the “three monkeys” (87) by the protagonist.  They are further dehumanized by the fact that they are referred to as ‘it’ throughout the narrative, rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’.  It is important to note that this is both the narrative voice and the protagonist who use this term.  Each of the precogs has a name, but when they are mention, they are put in quotes, denoting that the authenticity of the name is not accepted.  Usually when an author wishes to express this, he/she only places quotes around the term or name the first time it appears, but Dick does this every time the names are mentioned.  That said, it was nice to see Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, Minority Report, takes both a more sensitive approach to the treatment of the precogs, and also transforms the narrative into more of an existentialist journey that questions the premise of arresting a person who hasn’t yet committed a crime.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Lord Byron

Lord Byron

Dick is the Byronic hero of science fiction.  His visions are always cynical, defiant, and heavily touched by misery, but they are also  interesting, even if not as expertly executed as some of his masterpieces.  ‘The Minority Report’ and ‘Recall Machine’ are both entertaining and have some fun narrative twists, even if they aren’t delivered with the kind of social relevancy as ‘In the Mold of Yancy’, ‘Captive Market’, and ‘Autofac’.  Dick’s imagination and worldview are  interesting enough to make it worthwhile to take a gamble on a short story and follow it through.  Even when lacking in many respects, the stories still contain a grain of Dick’s genius, or perhaps what might better be called his mesmerizing and enviable lunacy.  Dick may have been considered ‘insane’ by some, but his ability to see through the mask of conformity and ignore the prizes offered by conformity proves that not only was he not insane, but rather that he was one of the few sane ones left.  His work, when the centuries have pasted, will be read by future generations with the same admiration that is afforded the likes of Jonathan Swift, that is, if humanity is still around, or if some extra-terrestrial life form has taken up an interest the oil-guzzling parasites that consumed themselves into oblivion on the third rock from the sun.

 

If you enjoyed this review and would like updates about future posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

 

Works Cited:

Dick, Philip K. The Minority Report, and Other Classic Stories By Philip K. Dick.  Citadel Press. New York. 1987.  Print.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php