Talk given by Geneva Melzack to the OUSFG Discussion Meeting of 24th May 2000.

Themes of Reality, Divinity and Humanity in the Short Stories of Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a California based science fiction author. Over his lifetime he wrote more than forty novels, and over 100 short stories. Many of his novels and short stories deal with several complicated themes and issues. They frequently display "the multiple levels for which Dick's narratives have been praised." #1 Dick's stories pose many questions, on many varied subjects. His fiction brings up issues of ontological, political, social and theological importance. He became predominantly preoccupied with, among his numerous other themes, questions about the nature of reality, God and religion, and humanity.

One of the questions that arises most frequently in Dick's writing is that of "What is real?" or "What is reality?" Many of his stories question our assumptions, and cast doubt upon what we have always believed to be true. As one critic says, his characters "perpetually find themselves in worlds where all their empirical knowledge counts for very little." #2 Often, in these fictional worlds, the five senses, commonly thought of by the majority of people as the most (and possibly the only) truly reliable source of knowledge, cannot be trusted. This poses the question that, if we cannot believe what we think we see, hear, taste, touch and smell, how do we know what exists, or what is really real? These questions are present in almost all of Dick's short stories.

Perception-altering drugs feature frequently in his stories as a means by which the characters are able to experience different images or interpretations of reality. An example of this is the story Faith of our Fathers in which an entire populace is unknowingly fed with hallucinogens, which cause them to see and hear, and therefore believe in, a human leader who is not, in fact, human. When the main character, Chien, takes an anti-hallucinogen, he is able to see the leader as he really is, and not how the rest of the population see him. In this story there is a "true" reality. The leader exists objectively as an alien entity, regardless of what the populace believe. The truth is veiled. Dick says, in his essay Man, Android and Machine (1976) that "We only see images of reality, and probably these images are inaccurate and imperfect and not to be relied upon." Here, and in Faith of our Fathers, he is working on the basis that there is a state of reality that exists objectively, and that sometimes we are aware of this state, and sometimes not, but that it exists regardless of what we think.

However, the question remains as to whether it is desirable to be aware of the true reality. It has been said that Dick's stories "are subsumed in a general concern with Perception; with how we might see things as they really are and occasionally with why it is advisable that we do not." #3 In Faith of our Fathers it appears not to be advisable to see things as they really are. The people are, in some ways, being protected by being kept oblivious of the truth. Upon discovering the truth, Chien says "A hallucination is merciful. I wish I had it; I want mine back." He would rather not be aware of the reality, as it is more comfortable for him to accept the lie and believe that the leader is human. This idea, that there is an objective reality, which can be regarded as the truth, but that it may be harmful, or undesirable to know about the reality, surfaces again in the story Precious Artifact. In this story aliens have destroyed the earth, but they tell the few surviving humans, whom they have taken prisoner, that the Earth has not been totally destroyed, and that it is going to be rebuilt. They do this in order to preserve the sanity of their human captives, and give them the hope that maybe one day they will be able to return to their home. The alien says of one of the human that it is "A shame we could not have shown him the real situation of Terra." Again, the truth is hidden, so as to protect the characters.

Colony, however, is a story in which the characters are not being protected from the reality of the situation. Instead they are being deceived as to what exists objectively and "the protagonists are surrounded by illusions that threaten to confound entirely their attempts to discover the actual state of affairs." #4 In it, the human characters encounter an alien race which takes the form of other creatures or objects. The aliens imitate the things around them, and are indistinguishable from the objects that they pretend to be, until they attack the humans. It is said of the aliens that "Their mimicry is perfect," but that is all it is: imitation and mimicry; they do not, in reality, become the objects that they imitate. In this case, the deception is not for protection. Instead, the false reality becomes fatal, when the deceiving aliens are able to lure all the humans to their deaths.

These stories, although they contain different ideas about whether it is a good thing to know about it or not, all present the idea of there existing one true, objective reality. The opposite view to this; namely, that there is no objective reality, and that what we believe (that is, what is real to us, personally,) is reality, is explored by Dick in much of his writing. In a number of his stories "distinguishing between waking reality and visions proves to be impossible." #5 One of the stories in which this is true is The Electric Ant. In it the main character, Garson Poole, discovers that he has total control over the reality that he experiences. When he discovers this, he says "I control reality. At least so far as I'm concerned. My subjective reality...but that's all there is. Objective reality is a synthetic construct, dealing with a hypothetical universalization of a multitude of subjective realities." He believes that every person has their own separate reality, but that these separate realities usually vary very little from person to person. His belief is that the "objective" reality which we all seem to experience collectively, is not, in fact, objective at all. Instead what we assume to be real is only a composite of every individual's own personal subjective reality, which, in actuality, has the potential to vary enormously from person to person. When, as in the story, one person's subjective reality becomes wildly different from everybody else's, it is normally assumed that what they are experiencing is not real at all but is a hallucination. What seems to come out of the story is the idea that whatever anyone experiences, if it is real to them, then it is real. Reality is what a person believes in, regardless of what anyone else might think.

Misadjustment is another story in which Dick explores the concept that reality is what a person believes in. The story concerns parakineticists, that is; "lunatics who have the power to actualize their delusions in time-space." In other words, a parakineticist is a person who has delusions but who "makes his delusion work. Therefore in a sense it isn't a delusion." Whatever these people believe, will come into existence in a form that is real for everybody else too. Their personal realities are real to everyone, all of the time. Whatever these people believe is really real.

Another story that deals with the concept of personal subjective realities being the "true" reality in every case, is Small Town. In this story a man named Verne Haskel builds a model of the town in which he lives, then replaces the models with new and better ones. He constructs a new town to replace the old one, which he doesn't like. It is explained to his wife that "He didn't dream about an escape world. He actually constructed it." She is told that "The mind constructs reality. Frames it. Creates it. We all have a common reality, a common dream. But Haskel has turned his back on our common reality and created his own." Again, there is a reality which is experienced by the majority, and is therefore assumed to be the correct one. In this case, however, the subjective reality created by Haskel is so powerful that it takes over, to become the common reality. The world that one man believes in turns out to be more real than the world in which the rest of the population believe. Haskel's own subjective reality is so powerful that it becomes everybody else's subjective reality too. Again we are being told that reality is in the mind of the individual and that, if reality is what we believe in, then we therefore have the power to change our reality by changing our beliefs.

The main characters in all the stories that deal with subjective realities, are all incredibly powerful because they all have the ability to control reality. This means that they can create and do absolutely anything. They have ultimate power. They seem to be almost god-like in their capabilities, and indeed it is possible to assume that Dick not only gave these characters god-like powers but also intended them to be seen as gods. These stories seem to be questioning the nature of, and exploring different perceptions of god. They seem to suggest that if we can master control over the reality in which we exist, either through imagination, mental illness, the use of drugs, or otherwise, then we will become gods, and that those people who attempt to do so should be looked on as special. It can also be concluded from these stories that if reality is what we believe in, and we believe in god, then god must exist. Not only must god exist, but if this hypothesis on the nature of reality holds true, then everything that we believe about god must be accurate. God must exist exactly as we imagine.

These questions on the nature of god are closely related to another of Dick's themes. Ideas about religion, most often either Christianity, other popular western religions, or some fictional religion, created for the purpose of posing theological questions, are frequently found in his short stories. Ideas not only about the nature of god, but also about the origins both of man and of religion itself, can be found throughout Dick's writing.

In a number of his stories Dick explores the concept that a higher being, usually thought of as a god, exists. It has been said that Dick's stories often contain "questions raised by a godlike presence." #6 The idea of the existence of a god is the basis for many religions. In both The Trouble with Bubbles and Fair Game, this higher being is presented as cruel and uncaring. The beings, or "gods" in both these stories play games with the lesser creatures which they are able to control, simply for their own amusement. In The Trouble with Bubbles people cultivate their own worlds, with living ecosystems, inside plastic bubbles, but when the world is complete, they smash it. At the end of the story, massive earthquakes begin to occur throughout the Earth. They are described as "An act of God." The story implies that, just as the human characters are acting like gods by controlling and destroying their miniature worlds, so are there other beings for whom our world is the miniature world in the plastic bubble. The "god" who controls our world is acting just like the humans, who destroy their creations for fun, because they do not care about what they have made. Fair Game also deals with the existence of higher beings who are hostile and destructive towards the lesser beings they control. In it, the main character, named Anthony Douglas, is hunted down and captured by enormous beings who come down out of the sky. When Douglas tells his friend about the being, his friend says "This might explain Gods." He hypothesises that "Primitive people saw them and weren't able to explain them. They built religions around them." In Fair Game, however, contrary to Christian beliefs, the "gods" do not care about humans in any way, and they certainly don't watch over humans in the way a number of western religions, including Christianity, believe. In fact, the beings only want Douglas in order to eat him. When they catch him they say "What a catch!" and drop him into a huge frying pan. In this particular story, the beings that religions are based on are not caring and friendly, like some western religions say, but instead are shown to use the human race for their own amusement purposes, in an unkind fashion.

Among the stories dealing with how religions may have been founded and what they may have been based on we find Prominent Author, which "features an unconventional explanation of divine impotence." #7 and The Skull. In Prominent Author, a man named Henry Ellis travels to work through a transporter, which works by moving him through space via a different dimension. Within this transporter he meets some tiny creatures who give him some lists of questions, which he answers in writing. Later he realises that the answers he has given, when written out in full, make up the Bible. He has travelled in time, within his transporter, and given the Bible to people in the past. This story poses the theory that religion was unwittingly founded by beings from a different dimension which we are not aware of, or even by some future branch of humanity who have discovered time-travel. It brings up the idea that what the people in the past thought of as god, was really just a more advanced culture communicating with them from another dimension or another time. A story which deals with similar ideas is The Skull, in which a criminal called Conger is hired to go back in time and kill the Founder; a religious leader upon whose teachings a new church had been based. When he gets to the past he realises that his knowledge of the future makes him appear to be a prophet to the people of the past, and he himself is the Founder. It has been said that "An interest in messianic figures runs throughout Philip K. Dick's work as an important subsidiary theme," #8 and this theme surfaces in The Skull. Just like Ellis, in Prominent Author, Conger is someone from a different time, whose communication with the past prompts the beginnings of a religion. Unlike Ellis however, Conger is not thought to be god incarnate, but merely someone with a revolutionary vision of how society should be run, someone whose ideas were worth recording and studying.

Dick does not only explore the possible origins of religion in his fiction, he also explores the possible origins of the human race, and whether, if we were created by some sort of higher being, we are still under its control. Some stories pose "larger questions on the nature of god and his relation to man." #9 The Trouble with Bubbles puts forward the opinion that the Earth was created by a god-like being, and that this being is still in total control of what happens on the Earth. Fair Game also seems to imply that human beings are under the control of a god-like creature. Project: Earth presents a different view, however. In this story humans were created as an experiment conducted by an alien race. The aliens have run three experiments. Projects A and B (we are Project B) have failed, so Project C is set up. The aliens are god-like in that they created humans, but they cannot retain control over the life-forms that they create. The alien realises after a brief time that "Project C was already over. It had gone like the others. The same way. Rebellion and independence." The aliens want to control the intelligent life-forms which they create, but are unable to do so. They all, including humans, become independent of their creators. The story implies that, regardless of whoever made mankind, humans are now fully independent, and are no longer controlled by any outside forces.

The Preserving Machine is another story which questions whether life was created by a higher being and, if so, whether it is still controlling us. The story also brings up ideas about evolution. In Project: Earth, humans are created by a god-like being, but they evolve, and move away from this beings influence. This is also true in The Preserving Machine which has been described as an "eloquent metaphysical analysis of the predicament of a creator who finds that his creations have begun evolving of their own accord." #10 An inventor, Doc Labyrinth, invents a machine for transforming music into living creatures. Beautiful musical scores are turned into new and miraculous animals. However, once the animals have been created they adapt and evolve to survive in the outside world. Labyrinth realises that "Music would survive as living creatures, but he had forgotten the lesson of the Garden of Eden: that once a thing has been fashioned it begins to exist on its own, and thus ceases to be the property of its creator to mold and direct as he wishes." Just as, in the Christian religion, the first man and woman disobeyed their God in the Garden of Eden, so do Labyrinth's creations refuse to conform to his ideals. He is God, in the story, but he has to allow the animals he has made to evolve, independently of his influences.

This desire to understand the origins of the human race and the religious beliefs of human-kind underlies Dick's other most prevalent theme. In many stories he attempts to define humanity. Dick's idea that an ability to feel empathy towards other people is what makes us human, his "emphasis on Caritas and Empathy," #11 is explored in the story The Little Black Box, alongside his continued examination of the nature of God, and religion. The society depicted in this story is based on a religion called Mercerism. Worshippers have Empathy boxes. When the handles of these boxes are held, the person holding the handles is telepathically linked up, not only with everyone else who is holding their own boxes at the same moment, but with Mercer himself. Mercer is a Christ-like figure, and the depiction of him has been described as "an analogue to Christ climbing Golgotha." #12 Mercer takes on the sins, and the unhappiness of the people who commune with him via the Empathy boxes. People link up to Mercer in order to share their own problems, and also to share all the problems which he has taken on. When Mercer is asked what he is there for, he replies "To show you, that you aren't alone." Through Mercer the people can learn to understand and empathise with the other people who contact Mercer. The religion, and the "god" it is based on helps people to become more human, by understanding each other.

Another example of how, in his fiction, Dick struggles to explain what it is that makes humans human is the story Human Is. The story is about an unhappy couple. The wife, Jill, resents the husband, Lester, because he is cold, unfeeling, and insensitive. In the story, Lester is sent to another planet on a business trip, and returns with a different personality. He is now kind, caring, sensual and compassionate. After a time it is discovered that an alien has taken over his body. Jill makes no move to recover her husband and send the alien back however, because she likes the alien and feels that he is more human than her husband ever was. This story is demonstrating that it is not the physical or genetic fact of being born a Homo-Sapiens that qualifies us to be human. Instead it is our capability to understand our fellows, and to treat them with compassion, which distinguishes us as a true member of the human race. This story describes the principle that "The reality we have to accept is a moral order rather than a natural one, and we will accept as "human" everything that can take its proper place within that order." #13

Another aspect of humanity which is touched upon in Human Is, is aesthetic appreciation of nature, culture, art, music and literature. The alien that takes over Lester's body is contrasted with Lester when it is commented that "he loves food." The original Lester "never seemed to care about food." The alien takes pleasure in tastes and smells. In contrast, Lester appeared to have no appetite for these kind of sensual stimuli. This contrast makes the alien appear even more human. It is also commented on that the alien uses "Words that he [Lester] never used before. Whole new phrases. Metaphors." Lester, meanwhile, was said to feel that "metaphors were inexact." Lester is cold, logical, impoetic and unromantic. The alien, however, is creative with his use of language, and is more emotional and therefore more human.

The Pre-Persons is yet another story which questions how we should define humanity. In the story it is believed that "when you're past twelve you have a soul." The possession of a soul is thought to be the definition of humanity, so children under the age of twelve are not classed as fully human and can legally be "aborted". In the story, however, it has been decided that the soul enters the body at such a time when the individual is old enough to understand algebra, which is, on average, around age twelve. The issue is confused when a mature adult claims not to understand higher maths. When he is asked why he is pretending that he doesn't comprehend algebra, he replies "I want to show that either they ought to kill all of us or none of us. But not divide along these bureaucratic arbitrary lines." He is demonstrating the point that this definition of humanity is really just an excuse for getting rid of unwanted children. The definition is based on intellect alone, so does this mean that people who are not very clever are not human? The society does not believe so, so the definition means nothing. Children, although not fully developed intellectually still have the capacity to feel. The point is being made that humanity should not be defined by how much we know, but by how we respond emotionally to the world around us and to other people. This backs up the point made previously, that logic does not equal humanity. The children in the story, although they cannot do algebra, do have an awareness of literature. Literature and art are seen by Dick as important in qualifying the nature of humanity. One boy says to himself "I am invisible." It is "a line he had learned at the fifth-grade play of Midsummer Night's Dream." The adults, who can do maths but do not necessarily know about art and literature, act inhumanly, by murdering children. The children, meanwhile, who are familiar with Shakespeare, appear to have far more humanity. They care about what happens to one another, and try to help each other avoid being aborted. They empathise with one another, and their knowledge of literature helps them to do this, as it has educated them emotionally if not intellectually.

Dick struggles, in his short stories, with questions about what is truly real, the nature of divinity, and the nature of humanity. The questions about reality which can be found in his short stories cover ideas about objective and subjective realities. Dick asks if there is an objective reality, or whether what we believe to be real is reality. He asks whether, if there is an objective reality, we will ever discover what it is, or whether we will simply see false images of what we think is reality, but is not. However, Dick is unable to find conclusive answers to any of his questions about what is real, so "there seems to be no final answer, then, to the question of what reality is." #14 He also questions whether humans were created by some sort of god, and if so, whether that possible god is benevolent or not, and still has control over us. The stories also question how religions were founded, and whether the religious idea of god is based upon actuality. He explores a number of answers to these questions, but ultimately finds no concrete answers. In contrast to Dick's uncertainty over the nature of reality and divinity, he has strong views on the true nature of humanity. He concludes that humanity should be defined by our emotional awareness of the world around us, and that it is indicated by a love for art, music and literature, as well as an ability to empathise with, and care about other people. Dick's stories indicate that humanity should not be judged by intelligence alone, and that qualities such as logic and rationality can rob people of their humanity.

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