Philip K Dick
Although only published much later, Dick wrote this story while still a teenager. He went on to be an enormously important science fiction writer, most famously perhaps for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was made into the film Blade Runner.
The Freedom of Flight
The opening plunges the reader immediately into another world, where the central character, Benton, can spread ‘his huge, white wings’ and ‘coast on air currents’ over the city from which ‘other persons flew.’ Such images of flight dominate the first four paragraphs – it is a ‘wonderful, exhilarating feeling’ – and flight is often used as a metaphor for freedom. In this world, humankind has overcome the limitations of Icarus; Benton ‘sailed majestically’, ‘swept upward’, ‘leveled off’, ‘flung himself’, ‘dived’ and ‘came gently to rest’. These images of free flight form an ironic prelude to the story, which proves to be about restraint and complete control. Benton’s initial freedom is illusory and there is an early hint: ‘his leisure time’, we are told, is ‘approaching an end.’
The language used to describe Benton’s flight is strikingly different from the phrases used to describe the Offices. There, ‘a thousand’ people ‘worked’; their ‘work’ consists of ‘feeding reams of cards… typing out sheets… filling charts, putting cards away, decoding messages’ while ‘graphs were constantly being changed’ among the ‘hum of the machines, the tap-tap of the typewriters, and the mumble of voices’. While this is described as ‘quiet’ and ‘contented’, there is no mistaking the language of bureaucracy. Individuals are small cogs in a mighty machine, keeping them occupied with mindless work. This balance between moments of illusory soaring freedom and near-constant drudgery is the cost of Stability.
The Cost of Stability
It emerges in the Controller’s speech (note the significance of his title) and in Benton’s thoughts which the speech prompts, that Stability has been achieved at chilling cost: ‘Dissenters were destroyed, radicals were carted off’ and the result is a ‘controlled’ and ‘rigid’ world. The threats remain; the Controller makes reference to the ‘danger of the Cart’ and reminds Brenton of ‘the penalty for upsetting Stability’; some of the cards being filed are revealed to identify individuals identified ‘for extermination’.
For all the attractions of free flight, speedy elevators, metallic clothes and robot-driven taxis, Dick’s future world has clear dystopian qualities and we learn that ‘in no place on earth did natural grain still grow.’ However, the story continues to offer two dystopian futures, two alternative suggestions of where humankind’s development of technology may lead. It encapsulates the kind of debate about Artificial Intelligence which occupies people today.
The Causal Loop
Dick uses the classic temporal paradox, the causal loop, using Benton’s time machine, to juxtapose these alternatives. By travelling into the past to present his invention, which he does not recognise when it is later rejected because he has not reached the point in the future from which he travelled with it, all stability is challenged, not just the societal control of Stability. Science fiction is also mixed with myth with the tale of the evil city trapped into a globe overseen by a Watcher, though these are genres that are frequently intriguingly mixed.
After Brenton is threatened by eradication and the globe is broken, as it seems he is compelled by the globe’s voice to enact, we find the world has changed. This is a world where machines rule and humankind serves them. People have become ‘slaves, sweating, stooped, pale’. Rest days come at the minimum of three week intervals and people are consumed by the task of serving their machine. This is clearly the stuff of nightmares to end the story.
However, Dick is posing the question of which alternative is the more dystopian. In one version, human technical development is seen to have gone far enough, so is stopped and controlled, which means that all the population has to be controlled too – ruthlessly. The idea of freedom is false. In the other version, technology has advanced to such a degree that the machines have become more powerful than their original inventors and control the human race. Neither vision is attractive. Which would you choose?