Business as Usual

Philip K. Dick’s Mars


Comunicação apresentada na 2008 J. Lloyd Eaton Conference: Chronicling Mars (University of California Riverside, Riverside, CA, organização do Special Collections Dept. at the UC Riverside Libraries), a 18 de Maio de 2008. Publicado in Howard Hendrix, George Slusser e Eric S. Rabkin (orgs.), Visions of Mars: Essays on the Red Planet in Fiction and Science, Jefferson (NC), McFarland, 2011, pp. 130-138.

The Land of (Lost) Opportunity

Few things set Philip K. Dick as clearly apart from golden age writers as his stance towards planetary colonization. While that «classical» attitude is usually euphoric, in Dick, as soon as Solar Lottery, not to mention earlier short stories as «The Gun» or «Piper in the Woods», there is a thorough disappointment with the very possibility of leaving Earth and its natural satellite towards some other planet. While in Solar Lottery the tenth planet is nothing more than a wishful fantasy of an equivocal prophet, in later novels colonies frequently become inextricable from the narrative, but the pessimistic approach is still the rule, either in a planet as far as Whale’s Mouth (in The Unteleported Man) or, more commonly, in Mars.

Our neighbor planet is indeed one of Dick’s places of election for the establishment of a colony, particularly in the novels written in the sixties, so much that Carlo Pagetti, in «Dick and Meta-SF» (published in Science-Fiction Studies [SFS] n. 5), and later Kim Stanley Robinson in his PhD thesis on Philip K. Dick define part of the first half of that decade as the period of the «Martian Novels» (Pagetti 26; Robinson §5 [51-64]). Written in the threshold of that period, in 1962, but published only (and in a modified form) seven years later, We can Build You helps to set the tone by portraying an overcrowded Earth where a real estate agent, Sam Barrows, has just «managed to get the United States Government to permit private speculation in land on the other planets […] Luna, Mars and Venus» (WCBY §3, 31). Setting the trends of what would, even if seldom used, become a distinctive Dickian brand, the simulacra — i. e., androids — produced by the Frauenzimmer family should be built having those future colonies (and colonists) in mind, «designed to look exactly like the family next door. A friendly, helpful family […] like you remember from your childhood back in Omaha, Nebraska» (WCBY §9, 114), because «people are going to be lonely, there» (WCBY §9, 115). Extraplanetary colonies are then still only a project for the near future, but we can already detect a commodified world in the making. Not an alternative to Earth but rather a place that resembles it barely enough to trick potential settlers into overcoming their reticences and heading towards that «new frontier».

Dick would return, notably in the masterpiece Martian Time-Slip, to that concept of Mars as «frontier». Wilderness, however, lies more in the process of colonization than in the planet itself. Living may be harsh for the settlers — who, by the way, do not have androids as «famnexdos» in the novel, as these only serve the purpose of teaching —, and the natives may look primitive to Earth’s standards, but barbarism is a word that should be applied only to those in power. As many Dickian scholars have noticed, in particular those gathered around Science Fiction Studies, Mars appears in that novel (and later, in The Three Stigmata…) as nothing but a clumsy solution for the excess of population or some similar problem. Moreover, the red planet is a distorted mirror of our own while remaining an «ultraplanetary» (as in «ultramarine») province where corporations from the «metropolis» would be at large if it wasn’t for the regulatory — but nevertheless ambiguous — role of the United Nations. If Dick’s portrayals of Earth are already a caricature of his own social and political environment, when Mars comes to the front stage that attitude is intensified, to a point that Kim Stanley Robinson’s claim that «Mars […] is a representation of the America in which Dick wrote the novels, in which certain facets of the society have been augmented, others suppressed» (Robinson 33) reads almost like an euphemism: the pepretual mending of old machinery and the parallel economy of smuggled goods evoke much more a nineteenth century London slum a la Charles Dickens than Philip K. Dick’s post-war America described by Robinson as “an American suburb of 1963” (Robinson 55).

In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the other full-blown «Martian Novel»1, the economy of the colony may be more developed, but the only advantage of living in Mars seems to be a milder climate compared to the overheated Earth; other than that, life is yet again so unbearable that a whole industry is devoted to give the settlers an Ersatz experience of an idyllic «normality»2 through hallucinogenic drugs. But who can blame them? When Leo Bulero tries Palmer Eldritch’s Chew-Z, there is almost a moral tone in his devaluation of the drug:

«“This is all a hypnogogic, absolutely artificially induced pseudo-environment. We’re not anywhere except where we started from; we’re still at your demesne in Luna. Chew-Z doesn’t create any new universe and you know it. There’s no bona fide reincarnation with it. This is all just one big snow-job.” […] “This is not even as real as Perky Pat, as the use of our own drug. And even that is open to the question as regards the validity of experience, its authenticity versus a purely hypnogogic or hallucinatory.”» (3SPE §6, 64)

It may be a twisted moral, but hardly more twisted than having to deal, back on Earth, with the possibility of being drafted to Mars if you are healthy enough.

In spite of those differences, either in Martian Time-Slip or The Three Stigmata’s Mars, there’s no business like business. As Brian Aldiss argues in his short essay in SFS n. 5, the «web» is all-entangling. Carlo Pagetti, again in SFS n. 5, gives a more detailed (and also less euphemistic) account of that entanglement between economy and the individual:

«At a closer look, in fact, the planet of Martian Time-Slip is revealed as a replica of budding American society not only with its generous pioneers, but also with phenomena from the formation of a capitalist society dominated by the inexorable law of profit and speculation. […] The values that dominate Martian reality are again the ruthless struggle for power: violence, deceit, and, finally, the spiritual aridity of man. […] Mars is, therefore, another of the many images of the Waste Land that 20th century culture proposes to us with obsessive repetitiousness. If for T. S. Eliot […] history is a labyrinth without an exit, for the author of Martian Time-Slip the future is an incubus evoked by the mind of an autistic child, who projects into already nightmarish reality his terror of life and his inability to communicate with others.” (Pagetti 27)

Christopher Palmer, in an essay only indirectly related to the portrayal of planetary colonies, echoes Pagetti’s words when speaking of a «sterility» that pervades those and other novels by Dick: «we may feel that both novels [Martian Time-Slip and Clans of the Alphane Moon] are intensely concerned with sterility, as Dick’s works invariably are, and that this sterility has an ontological dimension» (Palmer 222-223). That sterility – and it would be a revealing exercise to check how often Philip K. Dick uses words like «barren» – lies not in the planet but in the inability – we could say acquired inability, as the causes are above the individual per se – to establish empathic relationships with his fellows, human or otherwise.

Kim Stanley Robinson, climbing a few steps higher than his own previously quoted description, elaborates also on that dominance of economy over the individual: «naked capitalism» (Robinson 58) turns the planet into «the ultimate consumer society» (Robinson 56), a «nightmare reality» (Robinson 58) where only the most discerning — in which case, one has to be either schizophrenic or autistic — see nothing but «gubble». One can, of course, try to profit from the situation and succeed for a while, like Arnie Kott, Leo Bulero, or even Otto Zitte, or commit suicide when failure comes, like Norbert Steiner. Ultimately, however, that failure, just like entropy, will catch up. The only ones that seem to be able to escape are those that, from the beginning, are estranged from Earth’s economic and political value-system, that is, only the native Martians. They may still have to endure from their condition as «colonized» (just like the “bleekmen” in Martian Time-Slip) or be caught and instrumentalized in the unstoppable wave of commodification (like, even if arguably, the «papoola» in The Simulacra), but when all things pass and corporations like AM-Web are nothing but a pile of old buildings, Nature will take over. Nothing short of an apocalypse — even if a secular one — is potent enough to overcome that sliding avalanche from unrestrained capitalism to a tomb world.

Specters of Mars

We must nevertheless note that in The Simulacra and also in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Mars is not a setting for the novel’s events, but rather a background that either fades out to give way to a more earthly narrative (Do Androids Dream…?) or slowly fades in so that, in the end, unlike those «Martian novels» where the planet is merely an extension of Earth’s dystopia3, a few characters may embrace it as a refuge (The Simulacra). Robinson does not seem to agree with that (maybe naïve) view: for him, Philip K. Dick’s Mars seems so coherent in other novels4 that such an anomaly has to be taken care of by a more attentive and informed reader:

«Three of the most sympathetic characters escape at the end of the novel [The Simulacra] in a spaceship — but note where they are headed […] This is the only hopeful moment […], but because they are escaping to Mars, we must pause to wonder if Dick means this ironically. […] we [are] left with what we know of Mars from Dick’s other works.” (Robinson 71-72)

We can, however, suspend Robinson’s claim and start by assuming that each novel is singular, even if a consistent picture subsequently emerges. In this particular case, one of the unique features of The Simulacra may be precisely the fact that Mars is still a place where hope can be sought, a place to establish a resistance movement or, at least, to flee temporarily from the crumbling dystopian regime and the emergent triumph of the «chuppers». In the end of The Simulacra, we can only speculate on what would be the life of those characters that escape to Mars – Al Miller and Ian Duncan, along with Loony Luke – but a few other novels (even if not «Martian») may give us some hints.

The «settlers» of Solar Lottery end up stranded in the mythical tenth planet, where they discover that what remains of Prester John is nothing but a recording, along with their own religious (and therefore futile) wish-fulfillment; grim survival is the only thing they can expect. For the proto-Venusians of The World Jones Made there is a «new hope» for a genetically modified humankind, but these will be, after all, estranged from our planet as much as we are from their future home – analogous to Solar Lottery but unlike Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, there is no expectation of a cultural clash to modulate that estrangement into something new. A better comparison point may be the mid-part of The Man who Japed, when the protagonist Allen Purcell is sent against his will (and against his knowledge) to a planet in the Vega system known as «Other World». Supposedly in a world where his deepest desires are fulfilled but really in a «Mental Health Resort», Purcell could have preferred this new «perfect» life to the one where he unconsciously desecrated the statue of the regime’s father-figure, Major Streiter. After becoming aware of the Ersatz quality of that world, there is no vacillation: return to Earth becomes an imperative to be carried out by all means, legal or otherwise. Despite of what may await him, his words are resolute: «It’s good to be back» (MWJ §14, 87).

Just like in the folk récits de quête examined by Propp, and particularly in the further systematization by Greimas, this «Other World» is a paratopic space5 where the main character acquires the competences that will be needed in his final quest. In this specific case of The Man who Japed, competence equals maturity and knowledge: his early «japing» was a repressed desire; from then on, his acts become deliberate, culminating on Dick’s tribute to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, near the end of the narrative. In other occasions – hence the comparison between this earlier novel and The Simulacra –, that awareness of a dystopian regime already exists, but the characters have no means to overcome it. Exile, short or of undetermined length, may be the better choice. Nevertheless, a return to Earth is always in their minds, as long as it remains suitable as a planet to take care of.

«Still a planet to take care of and supervise»

Every now and then, Philip K. Dick’s ecological concerns have been noticed, namely in shorter titles as «Autofac» (cf. his own introduction to the 1977 collection The Golden Man, evoking Thomas Disch) or novels as The Game-Players of Titan, not to mention essays like «The Android and the Human». Those concerns only make sense, however, when framed in the wider context of economy and politics in his work. What is at stake in «Autofac», for example, is not the environmental damage of the unstopping automated factories by itself, rather the fact that an untamed dominance of corporations leads to untamed production, on its turn leading to an untamable depletion of natural resources.

If a sustainable solution is to be applied to the causes of these – typically Dickian – predicaments, instead of a mere palliative to the consequences, it becomes clearer why our home planet matters so much more than Mars. Better: why that planet (however it is portrayed) should be understood as a mirror of Earth (as Kim Stanley Robinson argued), but also, although there is nothing playful in colonization or in exile, as a big sandbox. In the Mars of Martian Time-Slip, we have – note the uncanny congruence with the «slippage» in the title – simultaneously our past (the frontier land, the depletion of the resources and exploitation of the natives), our present (a commodified society, the dehumanization of individuals, e. g. due to the robot «teaching machines»), and our future (the desolate landscape dreamed by Manfred, even if in the end brighter possibilities emerge).

Other novels are less explicit in the narrative function of the red planet, but by now we may dare a hypothesis. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Earth became almost inhospitable for humans, who have migrated to Mars. It is up to our “mirror images”, the androids – at least in the way Dick portrays them6 –, to be bold enough to make the opposite movement, as if feeling more nostalgic than us for a homeland that they barely knew. After having experienced the «simulacrum-planet», they are looking after the real thing. Humankind, on its turn, is divided between those who have moved to Mars and those who are forced to stay; part of the tragedy lies in the impossibility of a (political) cooperation with androids, which remain on the borderline between being a workforce devoid of citizenship and nothing more than criminals7. A large scale solution, apart from the harmony within himself that Rick Deckard finds in the end of the novel, would require that settlement of the differences between humans and androids. Mars represents, thus, a failed solution, one where inequality was the rule, and androids were the exploited; on Earth remain the humans that could – but still don’t want to – find in androids equals among the wretched.

The reader does not know, in The Simulacra, what kind of life is there on Mars for the characters that flee from the crumbling totalitarianism at the disenchanted close of the novel. There is, however, some hope in that disenchantment: the exile seems long but temporary, and those that will take hold of the Earth, the «chuppers», are at least in tune with Nature, even if not with our social norms. That ability to be in tune – first of all with Nature, but, by extension, also with a community of fellows – is, remarkably, a feature often associated, in science fiction, with alien planets and their inhabitants, and Mars is no exception. We simply need to evoke two well-known cases, C. S. Lewis’ Beyond the Silent Planet and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, to assert that generic convention. In both novels, the Martians stand for that «ecologic» affinity with Nature – or even some kind of Divinity, in the case of Lewis – that humans seem to have lost.

Although some singular features in each of those novels are less relevant to our argument, it cannot be left unnoticed that, in Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith, biologically a human but a Martian by nurture, is able to perform a Hegelian synthesis, overcoming the antithetical features of both cultures, and showing humans new paths, even if his proposals are blasphemous from a purely «humanist» perspective. In Beyond the Silent Planet, that all-too human «fall from Grace» seems however to be irrevocable, apart from a few chosen ones like Ransom that are qualified for remission8. In spite of Dick’s religious faith, that is a solution we do not find, not even in his later novels9. We can, nevertheless, admit some similarities with that rhetoric device: the future Mars from where Martian Time-Slip’s Manfred sends his message of hope could also be Earth’s future, the future that lies beyond the open ending of The Simulacra. Unlike Heinlein, however, adaptation and not synthesis is the rule: Manfred Steiner becomes a Martian, if only because he is already alienated from Earth’s culture; the characters from The Simulacra, if and when they return, will be ready to start over, in a more humane – and perhaps humanist – way.

Maybe we can, after all, reestablish the coherence across Philip K. Dick’s work, but at a higher level than the one proposed by Robinson. Preceding the «Mundane SF» manifesto, Dick’s political approach to fiction denotes — perhaps with the exception of some more formulaic short stories and novelettes of his formative period of the 50s, or The World Jones Made, mentioned above— a need to solve Earth’s problems in our native planet. A temporary «retreat to the forest» — I am thinking here of Ernst Jünger’s essay Der Waldgang, but also, as previously brought up, of some concepts of Greimas’ narrative semiotics — can sometimes be the most appropriate strategy, and Mars can be that forest where we remain hidden, waiting for the appropriate time to return to the Heimat-planet that is and always will be Earth10. Even in Do Androids Dream…?, as suggested above, the fulcral position of Earth is testified, in one of those role reversals that have given the novel its status as a classic, not by humans but by the androids: the return to our (and their) planet, regardless of more instrumental reasons, also has the symbolic meaning of homecoming. Maybe not a Prodigal Son’s return, but a return nevertheless.

This means that there may be a fourth option besides the ones enumerated by Hazel Pierce in «Philip K. Dick’s Political Dreams»:

«How can one escape [in The Simulacra] this mad absurdist world? It might be possible to migrate to a virgin environment and attempt to reconstruct from the bottom up the very same society you escaped, improving it through the hindsight of prior experience. Or one might retreat into social invisibility, living a life of psychological isolation and tainted freedom in the midst of the crowd. A third alternative is the complete destruction of civilization so that a more primitive social group may have the chance to set the stage with new hopes and new directions.” (Pierce 128)

If — with the much needed prudence — other novels can be used as hints about which of those alternatives is the most “Dickian”11, migration evokes the Prestonites from Solar Lottery, and the building of a new civilization (after the abandonment or destruction of the old) shares some traits with the end of The World Jones Made. Isolation (or an inner retreat), while being particularly common when dystopias appear with their darkest tones – The Man in the High Castle being their epitome –, is something more legitimate if assigned to single characters than to the «sense of an ending» of the novel as a whole. Dick may cover all those alternatives, but underlying all of them is that other belief that, just like in Leo Bulero’s memo that opens The Three Stigmata…, no matter how bad things go, «we’re not doing too bad. […] even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it.» (3SPE §1, 2) Earth may also be a «planet for transients», but it is our own, something that will always be lacking in Mars.


Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Aldiss, Brian. «Dick’s Maledictory Web: About and Around Martian Time-Slip». Science-Fiction Studies, 5 (vol. 2, pt. 1). Terre Haute, IN: Indiana State University, March 1975, 42-47.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in Philip K. Dick: Five Great Novels. London: Gollancz, 2004, 347-494.

Dick, Philip K. «Man, Android and Machine». in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. Ed. Sutin, Lawrence. New York: Vintage Books, 1995, 211-232.

Dick, Philip K., Martian Time-Slip, in Philip K. Dick: Five Great Novels. London: Gollancz, 2004, 159-345.

Dick, Philip K. «The Android and the Human». in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. Ed. Sutin, Lawrence. New York: Vintage Books, 1995, 183-210.

Dick, Philip K. The Man Who Japed, in Three Early Novels: The Man who Japed, Dr. Futurity, Vulcan’s Hammer. London: Millennium/Gollancz, 2000, 1-143 [MWJ].

Dick, Philip K. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in Philip K. Dick: Five Great Novels. London: Gollancz, 2004, 1-157 [3SPE].

Dick, Philip K. The World Jones Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

Dick, Philip K. VALIS. London: Gollancz, 2003.

Dick, Philip K. We can Build You. London: Voyager/Harper Collins, 1997 [WCBY].

Galvan, Jill. «Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?». Science Fiction Studies, 73 (vol. 24, pt. 3). Greencastle, IN) SF-TH/DePauw University, November 1997, 413-429.

Greimas, Algirdas and Joseph Courtés. Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land (New Edition). New York: Ace, 1987.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

Lewis, C. S. Out of the Silent Planet. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Pagetti, Carlo. «Dick and Meta-SF». Science-Fiction Studies, 5 (vol. 2, pt. 1). Terre Haute, IN: Indiana State University, March 1975, 24-31, trans. by Angela Minchella and Darko Suvin.

Palmer, Christopher. «Critique and Fantasy in Two Novels by Philip K. Dick». Extrapolation, 32.3, Autumn 1991. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 222-234.

Pierce, Hazel. «Philip K. Dick’s Political Dreams». in Philip K. Dick. Eds. Greenberg, Martin Harry and Joseph D. Olander. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1983, 105-135.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Novels of Philip K. Dick. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984.

Scholes, Robert. «Boiling Roses: Thoughts on Science Fantasy». in Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction. Eds. Slusser, George and Eric S. Rabkin. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, 3-18.

Sutin, Lawrence, ed. The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. New York: Vintage, 1995.



1 Although discussed in the same chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s thesis for chronological reasons (cf. Robinson 51-64), the epithet fails in the case of The Game-Players of Titan.

2 That very same 1950s normality that is criticized in Time out of Joint, as Fredric Jameson noted in his Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Jameson 279-280).

3 That very same dystopia that Robinson identifies as “the most common element in all of Dick’s work” (Robinson 27).

4 To the point of The Three Stigmata… being defined as the same planet as Martian Time-Slip after its economical expansion (cf. Robinson 60).

5 Cf. the entries “Paratopic”, “Topic Space” and “Utopic Space” in Greimas and Courtés’ Semiotics and Language: An Analytical Dictionary. The initial predicament for the narrative occurs in the “topic space”; “paratopic space” is where the main character acquires the competences needed to overcome that predicament, and the performance that allows a new steady state of affairs usually takes place in the “utopic space”. Our claim is that – mutatis mutandis, as Dick’s novels should not be taken as popular “marvelous” narratives – planets such as Mars typically embody that “paratopic space”. One of the best illustrations can, however, be found not in Mars but in Whale’s Mouth, in the novel The Unteleported Man.

6 Instead of retelling here Dick’s conception of what it means to be human, it is enough to evoke his two essays “The Android and the Human” (written in 1972) and “Man, Android and Machine” (in 1976).

7 Cf. Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, on the “naked life” condition of the accursed, the political refugees, etc., following Carl Schmidt, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault. All the worse for Dick’s androids, in spite of his redefinition of “humanity”: in the novel, their right to political life [bios] is denied because they lack a biological life [zoe] to start with. As an illustration of this ideological entanglement, the Voigt-Kampff test – as Jill Galvan argues in “Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” – is nothing more than a “linguistic apparatus [that…] assures the android’s condemnation” (Galvan 421) even before the actual test is performed.

8 In C. S. Lewis (almost in a diametrical opposition to Heinlein’s playful subversion of contemporary conventions), humanism equals remission, a presupposition that is reinforced by Ransom’s skill as a linguist, opposed to Weston’s and Devine’s Faustian preferences for an unethical approach to science and technology. But, as Robert Scholes has noticed in “Boiling Roses: Thoughts on Science Fantasy”, it is from the beginning a humanism modulated (or perhaps contaminated) by “not just Christianity, but a very Catholic version of it” (Scholes 18).

9 Cf. his capacity for self-irony, for example in the hilarious passage in VALIS where Horselover Fat talks to the fundamentalist therapist Maurice (VALIS §6, 96-97).

10 Unless we no longer feel it like ours, as the “lunatics” in the novel Time Out of Joint or, to a certain extent, the Venusians in the novelette “War Veteran”. Both were written in the fifties, though, a fact that weakens their strength as a counter-example.

11 Maybe all of them are. The fact that all (re)appear in The Simulacra also reinforces Kim Stanley Robinson’s claim on the novel being one illustration of his “extravagant inclusion” of too many elements (cf. Robinson 72).