On fictional worlds of Philip K. Dick (excerpted from thesis)

1. the political

The principle that casts fiction as thought experiment or speculative example can be broadly applied. Whether physical, metaphysical, political or philosophical systems are the focus, a text picks out a world that contextualises rules or underlying principles for the system, so going to the question as to what kinds of systems might exist, necessarily or contingently. This method is made explicit in the case of speculative fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, who said of the process he applied in developing a novel

The first thing is the idea. A pure idea. The next thing is characters who will be confronted by an environment based on that idea … In other words, I translate an idea into a world. Then you need the people who must live in that world.[1]

Philip K. Dick’s novels and stories do something like the same sort of work as Egan’s, though the themes of his work are metaphysical and political. Rules or axioms are tested in situ at proximate and distant worlds for validity, and from the vantage of observers subject to systems that are the focus of the text. Fictive discourse is of a modal kind, and so the results of such experiments are arguments concerning what laws or underlying principles are necessary, or universal, and which are local. Egan takes this approach for testing arguments for unfamiliar environments, technologies, and axioms of geometry or physics: if the result is valid for a modal frame, then an argument is made that fundamental elements of worlds are contingent, rather than necessary. Dick’s metaphysical works tend to the negation or disruption of rule-based order, and the dominance or subversion of physical systems by sentient agency. In his treatment of political systems, though, he picks out a set of worlds of divergent circumstance governed by consistent laws, and so asserts universal, or necessary, principles.

Many of the worlds described by Dick are characterised by overt games of power grounded in an absurd premise, or in a grand deception. Solar Lottery[2] references a future in which chance directs individuals’ fortunes, appoints leaders, and another game – of assassination – deposes them. At the world referenced in The Game-players of Titan[3] a board game played by a privileged class among a depleted human population is a vehicle for the conquest of Earth by aliens of a Saturnine moon. Minority Report[4] depicts a world at which chance is apparently obsolete: the prescient reports of three ‘pre-cogs’ direct policing and political activity. The Earth of Time Out Of Joint[5]hinges on the prescient power of one individual, Ragle Gumm, who is able to guess the location of forthcoming missile strikes, but lives in psychological retreat from the burden of responsibility this precognition brings. Gumm inhabits a State manufactured artificial environment designed to resemble the era of his childhood, facilitating his delusion. The world referenced in The Simulacra[6], is divided between ‘ges’, holders of the secret, and ‘bes’, the carriers out of instruction. The secret (again, absurd) is that the President, of US and Germany, is an android, the First Lady an actress, an arrangement that masks the political control of a perennial clique. The Zap Gun[7]describes a world engaged in a faux arms race hinging on sketches of weapons made by a few talented designers: weapons that would not function and are never built. The world for which The Penultimate Truth[8]is fact is also defined by a secret: the majority of the world’s population lives in bunkers underground, building robot soldiers for a war that ended long ago. Those on the surface hold vast estates, and work to produce propagandistic rhetoric and news footage that hold the majority in thrall below.

The principles common to these worlds are tropes of power. The secret, the conceit, the specific premise on which the world’s politics is predicated, is inessential. Dick’s texts commonly report on the activities (and thoughts) of multiple antagonists variously placed in the society.[9]   In each case what is more significant are the workings and consequences of structures of power surrounding the central premise, and their use by and effects on human beings caught up in them.

The first question posed by Dick’s works concerning this subset of worlds goes, as with other works of philosophical fiction, to their validity for a modal logical frame. As with any fiction, whether the worlds posited are valid depends upon whether they are possible worlds for the world of the text. A second question is whether the fundamental characteristics of political systems common to the set of worlds these texts describe are part of a region of alethic space in which our own world is also situated. If the worlds depicted are proximate in this sense to the centred world of the text, then the political ‘laws’ that underpin Dick’s works are of consequence here, among them the exploitation, by an astute few, of civilisational machinery and facades (at the expense of the many).

Relative to the worlds referenced in Egan’s texts those of Dick’s are proximate, first in terms of temporal accessibility, to one another and to the world of the text. Dick, writing in the middle decades of the twentieth century, frequently returned to possible futures half a century or a century ahead. These worlds diverge from a common, even identical, past, and although intervening years have variously brought nuclear war, contact with alien civilisations, colonies across the solar system, they are often furnished with known political powers, nations, and institutions, as well as generic paraphernalia of modern civilisation. Dick’s political fictions reference a tight cluster of worlds, given the scope that all of possibility entails. In the territories of alethic space, some regions may be structured according to alternate physical constants; many worlds may sustain no sentient civilisations, and therefore no politics; it might be assumed most sentient species differ greatly, and that most human histories have little in common.

But, as in Egan’s fictions, a tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the proximate and the distant, serves specific purpose. These texts and others of Dick’s novels and short stories, of primarily political focus, reference a set of human worlds across alethic space that, for all their similarity, and despite their shared history prior to some moment of departure, diverge widely from this common point. It is one function of the inclusion of strange elements in otherwise familiar worlds – sentient objects, alien artefacts, telepaths, even unlikely names – that within the parameters of common history, the range of worlds for which the central arguments of these texts are made is, in a relative way, broad. Egan’s texts treat worlds distant enough that the fundamental laws that inform cosmological structure are altered. By comparison any fiction concerning politics of human societies on Earth (or in ‘the Sol system’) has a parochial focus: there is no question as to whether political principles at these fictional worlds are necessary or contingent. They are contingent – on worlds that support biological life, on sentience, on civilisation. The implication is that for the set ofworlds constrained by these contingencies, certain outcomes, laws or principles are inalienable.

This, then, is the form of the argument explored in Dick’s works of political philosophy in fiction. What is asserted is a general law for the range of worlds picked out: that in the context of a set of human worlds – including the world of the text – no matter the particulars, these consequents follow with certainty: the arbitrary nature of the premise of power and the rules of the game by which it is unevenly allocated, the manipulation of whatever conceit has been constructed, the game of mastery played by those with the requisite qualities that lead to high position, the victimisation of those of lesser capacity.


[1] ‘The mainstream that through the ghetto flows, an interview with Philip K. Dick’, The Missouri Review vol.7, iss. 2, 1984, pp. 164-185.

[2] P.K.Dick, Solar Lottery. Arrow Books, London, 1955.

[3] P.K.Dick, The game players of Titan, HarperVoyager, London, 1963, 2001.

[4] P.K.Dick, Minority report, Gollancz, London, 1956, 2009.

[5] P.K.Dick, Time out of joint, Gollancz, London, 1959, 2003.

[6] P.K.Dick, The simulacra, Vintage, New York, 1964, 2002.

[7] P.K.Dick, The zap gun. Penguin, Hammondsworth and New York, 1959.

[8] P.K.Dick, The penultimate truth. Penguin, Hammondsworth and Ringwood, 1964.

[9] Dick said ‘I try to find someone who is the master of the idea, and someone who is the victim of the idea.’ P.K.Dick, ‘The mainstream that through the ghetto flows, an interview with Philip K. Dick’, 1984.


2. the metaphysical

Compared with the Culture, or the problematic utopian worlds of Greg Egan, the political circumstances of the fictional worlds described by Philip K. Dick are haphazard and absurd. The arbitrary nature of the premises on which power is based appears comical, despite the frequently encountered post-apocalyptic mise en scene and harried victims of the power structure – hegemonies referenced sometimes appear ridiculous, if an amenable vehicle for those disposed to succeed from it. Here again the question is precipitated, once this set of worlds is picked out and described, as to whether or not the centred world of Dick’s fictions is a member of the set for which the bases of power and ideology, for advantage and disadvantage, conflict and competition, might appear as ridiculous from the vantage of another.

Dick reports events at worlds at times of structure being dismantled, falling apart, heightening the sense of politics as a changeable game by which individuals, in accordance with their natures, discipline, their force of will, rise and fall. Whatever the hegemonic artifice, it is revealed as brittle and superficial construction, with the real drivers of human action and interaction lying underneath. The peeling away of strata of reality is the most abiding device deployed in Dick’s work, in treating worlds often encountered mainly through the thoughts and perceptions of individuals. The metaphysical mutability of what lies below the surface, or starting state, results in a kind of exploration of time, space, and cause very different, but not of less depth, than that of Egan.   Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep[1]concerns non-human sentience, a theme treated throughout Dick’s work. Human-made objects not only display intelligence in these novels, but also moral agency and wisdom. ‘It is the basic condition of life’ an android tells the android hunter Rick Deckerd, ‘to violate your own identity.’[2] Now Wait for Last Year[3] references a world in which a drug (JJ-180) that affords travel into the past gains currency. The protagonist Eric Sweetscent, whose wife has been brain damaged by the time-travel drug, climbs into a flying taxi and asks the robot driver whether, in a similar situation, it would stay or leave ‘even if you had travelled ten years into the future and knew with an absolute certainty that the damage to her brain could never be reversed.’ The ‘Automatic Mechanism’ tells Sweetscent ‘I’d stay with her.’ When the protagonist asks why, the cab says ‘Because life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such, I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.’[4] There is something non- or extra-human about this agency that emanates from a mechanical device, from objects and aliens in various of Dick’s novels and stories, as though an all-permeating ethic, from which human characters are uniformly disconnected, is voiced whenever the inanimate (or otherworldly[5]) are given means to speak.

At the world described in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch[6]a man returns from an interstellar trip changed – or perhaps consumed – by an alien intelligence. Citizens eking out a tenuous existence in a failing Martian colony have become addicted to a drug that takes them inside a ‘layout’ of miniature models of dolls, cars, houses produced by the same company as the drug. They become susceptible to the space-farer Eldritch’s bid for a when he begins to market a new drug Chew-Z as a replacement for Can-D, which promises the ability to enter a metaphysical realm within which anything is possible. In truth, Palmer Eldritch has imposed his will on this plane. Laws of distance in space and time do not properly apply. Once inside it is more than difficult to find a way out. Emerging into what looks like the ‘real world’ beyond Eldritch’s influence is no guarantee of being beyond his clutches, it is unclear whether semblances of reality into which Eldritch repeatedly intrudes represent yet another layer of illusion or the final mastery by Eldritch of ‘communal reality’. Given a technological explanation, this mire of insubstantial layered domains would be less macabre, but there is none: this is a world seemingly constructed via the will of whatever entity Eldritch has become, with the substance Chew-Z a mechanism of enslavement. Faced with the dissolution of any natural environment and fighting to retain a sense of themselves, the novel’s antagonists speculate on what Eldritch is: a god, or a spectre: there is mention of an invasion by beings from Proxima, but no certain conclusion can be drawn: reports, in any case, place him in hospital after being extracted from his ship – Eldritch may be a vessel filled up with some force or entity, or objective reality a vessel being gradually filled with Eldritch’s subjectivity.

Throughout the worlds traversed by Dick in his novels are found examples of category disruption. A character in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch tells the joke of the missing five-pound steak and the satisfied looking cat. To test the hypothesis the cat stole the steak, dinner guests weigh the cat – it weighs exactly five pounds. ‘There’s the steak,’ says one. Another says ‘But where’s the cat?’[7] In this parable lies a common theme of these worlds: parts of the world taking on the properties and qualities of other parts or consuming them entirely. So pervasive is this capacity for breaking boundaries that distinctions between reality and artificiality, the authentic and the false, between masquerade and true identity, are liable to fail. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, not only are androids masquerading as people and cannot easily be told apart, they may believe they are human. Animals, too, in this post-apocalyptic world, are usually artificial, and status symbols. Faux-humans are, in many ways as human as the ‘original’, meanwhile what is ‘naturally’ human is obfuscated by the artifice of the characters lives: they employ the ‘Penfield Mood Organ’, introduced on the first page, to dial emotions: rage suppressants and stimulants, ‘accusatory depression’, ‘awareness of manifold possibilities’.[8] For those who do not want to dial-a-mood, dialling ‘3’ induces that desire.

At a world under threat of missiles from off-world colonies the self-imposed, comforting delusion of Ragle Gumm, the sole prescient individual capable of predicting their arrival, slips, and he begins finding, where objects should be, small pieces of paper containing the names of the object[9]; at another world those with severe psychological disorders are alone in perceiving things as they are: substrata of reality invisible to the rational – a boy with autism thinks ‘I will grow and become the world-hole, and the hole will eat up everything.’[10]; at another world the power of precogs and telepaths is mitigated by a ‘prudence organisation’, which company employs an anti-precog who can make adjustments to the past – a man finds himself married, and then alone again, memory of the partnership fading[11]; at another world time has reached a critical point of reversal and begun flowing backwards[12]; at another the detritus of history remains behind the veneer of the present, decaying into shadow, but piling up ever-higher.[13]

At the metaphysically fluid, usually broken, worlds referenced by Dick, what holds true is captive to a kind of all-permeating caprice, with respect boundaries, categories of being or existence. The path Dick picks out in an encounter is often one tracing the dissolution of the world for a character, or multiple dissolutions for multiple antagonists. It is often unclear to what extent what is experienced is individual delusion, or collective construct, or an objective reality susceptible to subjective manipulation. At these worlds the sentiences are not necessarily human, or substructures: intelligence and will, human or otherwise, may be forces as powerful as gravity or time. This possibility allows the rewriting of the world’s content and its rules and thereby further subverts solid ground. Individuals are subject to the conditions of their environment, but the fundamentals that underpin these conditions are mutable, susceptible to collapse by force of will.

Worlds referenced in Egan’s work are illustrative of fundamental structure that may be variant at deep levels, but in each case a world is the product of some set of foundational axioms or starting conditions, comprehended by an even more consistent, rational faculty possessed by worlds’ observers and inhabitants. A specific mathematics or geometry informs a set of physical laws, which permits the emergence of structures of life and sentience equipped to comprehend the superstructure that anchors reality. There may be many worlds, and many possible configurations of the fundamental laws that support them, but there is some schema by which some set of axioms and propositions ground a world. The fact of such rational order, if not the particulars, constitutes an asserted necessity. Conversely, those worlds described by Dick are rarely comprehensible to those that experience them, although some are able to make their way by dint of pragmatism. Individuals that have surety – and control – at these worlds have it by virtue of a functional and contained understanding that certain patterns of behaviour result in certain outcomes. Those concerned with underlying truth are undone, haunted by the limits of rationality as a tool for coming to grips with worlds seemingly without bedrock.

There is no axiomatic foundation for these worlds, except perhaps for the most general ontological propositions: form arises with any set of qualities from formlessness, and may to formlessness return. Objects and qualities concurrently thrown up bleed into one another, consuming or being consumed, before subsiding. Structure is accidental or contrived, and temporary: prone to a decay in which the political, psychological, the physical and the metaphysical may combine and then sink in a way isomorphic with geology, producing residual strata and sediment. What is asserted is the anti-thesis of structure. If in these arguments for worlds there are necessary elements or properties – true for all worlds – they are, perhaps, being, and modes of transition: blending, ingestion, disruption, dissolution and collapse.


[1] P.K.Dick, Do androids dream of electric sheep, Gollancz, London, 1968.

[2] P.K.Dick, Do androids dream of electric sheep, 1968, p.141.

[3] P.K.Dick, Now wait for last year, Vintage Press, New York, 1966, 1993.

[4] P.K.Dick, Now wait for last year, 1966, p.225.

[5] Another agent for this voice is the gestalt entity The Glimmung described in Galactic pot-healer. P.K.Dick, Galactic pot-healer, Gollancz, London, 1969, 2005.

[6] P.K.Dick, The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Triad Grafton, London, 1966.

[7] P.K.Dick,The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, 1966, p.193.

[8] P.K.Dick, Do androids dream of electric sheep, 1968, p.2.

[9] P.K.Dick, Time out of joint, Gollancz, London, 1959, 2003.

[10] P.K.Dick, Martian time-slip. Gollancz, London, 1964.

[11] P.K.Dick, Ubik, Grafton, London, 1969, 1973.

[12] P.K.Dick, Counter-clock world, Vintage Books, New York, 1967, 2002.

[13] P.K.Dick, Now wait for last year, Vintage Press, New York, 1966, 1993.