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The Enduring Relevance of Philip K. Dick

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“We turned to technology as a substitute for our inability to deal with the persistent riddles of existence and the lack of meaning in our life in a post-God era.”


The seminal cultural theorist Fredric Jameson has argued that at its best, science fiction is about more than developing fantastic and pulpy entertainment. Science fiction reflects the anxieties and hopes we feel about the future, much as medieval fantasies like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter demonstrate our efforts to work through a sacred past which is increasingly distant. This is especially important in the contest of post-modern culture, where our relationship to the future has changed quite dramatically. For earlier civilizations, time operated according to a cyclical process. While the future might exist for individual people, there was effectively no future for the species as a whole. It was destined to rise and fall like the tides, progressing momentarily and then regressing in turn.

Sadly, many science fiction authors were little convinced by the utopian possibilities offered by technological change, remaining convinced that humankind would continue to find new ways of exploiting and denying the dignity of their sentient fellows.

Many fantasy series reflect this cyclical account of time; consider Game of Thrones, where great civilizations like Valyria emerge only to be quashed by a combination of natural disasters and hubris. For other civilizations, time did indeed progress—but toward a future that would arrive and halt the movement of history. A good example would be the Christian worldview as presented in works such as St. Augustine’s The City of God. At a certain point, the human story would end, and the species would ascend or descend into a timeless eternal world where individuals were rewarded or punished as they were due. This perspective can be seen in works such as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, which are both great works by Christian authors reflecting on a time when humanity and its suffering would emerge from the darkness into salvation.  

What science fiction begins to project is an image of an indefinite future, but not necessarily one characterized by constant progress on all fronts. For early science fiction authors, such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, the sense one finds is of a human species that continues to advance technologically but not necessarily morally or spiritually. The crew who follow Captain Nemo on his quest for revenge under the sea may be surrounded by technological wonders, but their moral outlook is no more nuanced than that of anyone else’s. Later on, new and more interesting genres of science fiction began to emerge; those focused on the dystopian and utopian possibilities that might be opened up by technological change.

In a sense, there is an almost religious set of questions found in these works, which is also echoed by today’s post-humanists and trans-humanists. They wonder if technology can finally redeem the suffering characteristic of human history by producing a morally and materially content future—or whether our all too human failings will continue to corrupt everything we do. Sadly, many science fiction authors were little convinced by the utopian possibilities offered by technological change, remaining convinced that humankind would continue to find new ways of exploiting and denying the dignity of their sentient fellows. Moreover, they insisted that so long as the technological changes were not matched by efforts at moral improvement, the deepest anxieties of human life could not be overcome. Few authors reflected this melancholy approach better than Philip K. Dick.  

The Post-Modern Dystopias of Phillip K Dick

Phillip K. Dick’s fiction was unique in its capacity to pose infuriating questions to its readers. He wrote many of his greatest works between the late 1950’s and the 1970’s, and his writing often conveys a looming sense of dread and anxiety about the future opening before him. This might appear strange, given how the all-American stability of the Eisenhower era gave way to the optimism and youthful energy of 60’s radicalism and drug culture, but Dick recognized that beneath the tranquil conformity of the 50’s and the flower power joy of the hippies was a deeper set of existential crises, which were being left unresolved. Rather than trying to think them through, we turned to technology as a substitute for our inability to deal with the persistent riddles of existence and the lack of meaning in our life in a post-God era. This was a major problem, since our unwillingness to reflect on why we were turning to technology so readily in secularizing societies meant we failed to recognize how technological change could entrench our sense of existential dread and powerlessness. The more power we acquired through technological innovation, the more we exposed how little it was able to actually resolve the deepest problems in human life. This could, in turn, lead to the emergence of reactionary and totalitarian movements, which could compensate for the unrest and instability provoked by these changes.

Dick presents us with a figure whose material needs are all cared for, but whose sense of self is so wrapped up in how he appears to others that his entire quest is for the police state to recognize him and affirm his ego.

In Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, the antiheroic Jason Taverner wakes up one day to discover that he has disappeared from all political and social records. Genetically engineered for human perfection, he finds the withdrawal from the system and all its attendant privileges intolerable. Taverner is a clever and attractive man, but he is also superficial and sleight. His experience losing his identity does little to enrich him, since most of his efforts focus on trying to reintegrate into the social system and resume his comfortable life. Dick presents us with a figure whose material needs are all cared for, but whose sense of self is so wrapped up in how he appears to others that his entire quest is for the police state to recognize him and affirm his ego. It is a prescient warning about a future where we would come to covet our own integration into technologically-advanced systems of tyranny—because our deracinated sense of self entirely depends on its artificial mechanisms of control for stability and recognition.

In Ubik, human beings have discovered a way of avoiding death by entering into cryogenic chambers where their bodies are frozen in a “half life.” They are occasionally able to communicate with others, but it is a lonely and fragmentary existence. These cryogenic figures fear death, and so are willing to survive with an unreal semblance of life if that is all that is possible. But the instability of this existence is such that they need to continuously reorder it through the application of Ubik, which papers over the cracks of their fracturing world and staves off real death for a while longer. The book explores how technology and faith intersect as ways to enable individuals to ignore their own mortality, blurring the distinction between the two. It suggests that we are moving into a future where the absence of God will lead us to put our hopes on technological advances which can extend our life, without recognizing that an indefinite existence lived alone and without communication is an empty one.

Finally, Dick’s masterpiece A Scanner Darkly takes the themes of technological tyranny and existential dread to their peak. In the dystopian world Bob Arctor lives in, he is both an undercover cop and a heavy drug user increasingly addicted to Substance D. Drugs remain criminalized in the future society—but widely tolerated because use is so ubiquitous. People are no longer able to deal with the emptiness of their lives and the feelings of anomie in any other ways. So, the police wear special uniforms to scramble their appearance when interacting with one another since a tremendous percentage of the population is actually involved in undercover activities.

Everyone in this world scans and watches one another, tolerant of their many failing and meager criminal rebellions but searching for signs of deeper dissent, which never emerge. Eventually, Arctor realizes that the system has grown so omnipresent that it has taken on a life of its own, independent of the people who are supposed to be running it. As in Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, people have become so acclimated to the scanner watching them that they cannot conceive of their identity and activities without it. The result is a society where there is widespread criminality and drug use but no actual resistance to the system since people do not trust one another—only the system itself at a deep level. Without a God to look into the human soul, a totalitarian state where everyone becomes a sinner is the best substitute. As Arctor puts it:

“What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.” 

Conclusion: Mark Fisher and the Closed Future

Dick’s fiction depicts technologically-oriented dystopias where the solutions human beings have turned to for their existential anxieties, in turn, come to control and demean them. The sense is that the future is indeed open, but it is not progressing toward anything. Our innovation and creative energies are so entirely poured into improving the technological conditions of existence that we increasingly forget to even ask what it is all for.

In this respect, Dick’s portrait of the future greatly resembles the work of Mark Fisher, who similarly wrote about how changing technological times need not engender a more meaningful and satisfied society. In his book Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Fisher writes eloquently about his sense that all our increased powers have done little actually to solve the important riddles in human life. This is reflected in our frequently pessimistic approach to the future. Despite our enormously enhanced technological capacities, we are extremely reticent to believe that new forms of society can and should be imagined and established. Our life is “haunted’ by the prospect of utopian visions passed, whether one thinks of Marxism, anarcho-libertarianism, and a dozen others.

These are now regarded as quaint and fantastical possibilities speculated upon by generations past, who couldn’t recognize we have become transparent to those of us living under “capitalist realism.” They forget that it is human nature for individuals to be selfish, that society will always be characterized by the powerful and the weak, and that any substantial efforts to change that will only result in destruction. We must, therefore, content ourselves with a continuous improvement in our technological conditions, which may lead to a more materially satisfying life. For Fisher, this is part of the reason why nostalgia plays such a prominent part in our culture. We look back at the past where individuals believed things could truly change and regard that optimism with a kind of quaint admiration. It is also why contemporary technologies are so often used to resurrect a hyperreal vision of past—whether it is the most advanced film techniques used to depict the Wagnerian struggles of the Vikings, or the endless nostalgia for the transformative energies of 60’s and 70’s era rock-and-roll depicted in recent biopics.

Fisher follows Dick in noting that such a conception of a future, which is morally no different than the past, generates a great deal of the anomie we see in our society. It leads many to the sense that all the great struggles have been carried out, and it is simply our job to live out life as the “last men” at the imperfect end of a bleak history. He calls on us to reject that and instead recognize that we need not remain haunted by the past fantasies of a more meaningful future which will never come. It remains possible to change the world for the better—but only if we have the capacity to imagine how that could be so.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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