Thursday, February 17, 2011

Another Day in the Future: Philip K. Dick and the Philosophy of Science Fiction

The recent news that Michel Gondry planned to make a film based on Ubik convinced me to look at this again. It is an old piece, and one that I wrote for an undergraduate audience. I can’t really say that my thinking on the matter has changed much, however, in part because I have not have had time to revisit it, so I thought that I would post it.

Rather than discuss the connection between a particular theme or subject and science fiction I would like to discuss some philosophical issues raised by the problem of defining the genre of science fiction itself. Defining the genre of science fiction is notoriously difficult, especially since all such definitions struggle against science-fiction’s status as what Samuel Delaney calls “para-literature”, as a substandard or maligned category of literature. In fact unlike other genres of fiction, mystery etc. much of the writing on science fiction is concerned with defining the genre itself, its history, and its differences from other sorts of fiction. A definition offered by Darko Suvin is as follows: “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” This definition does the necessary work of distinguishing between science fiction and fantasy, fantasy as estrangement—as another world with no real connection to our own, as well as science fiction and “mundane” fiction—as lacking any real estrangement. As much as this definition marks off a territory, it also poses multiple problems, problems that hinge on the relation, or the dialectic, between estrangement and cognition. I would like to explore some of these problems in light of the fiction of Philip K. Dick.

To say that science fiction is defined by both estrangement and cognition is to argue that as much as science fiction deals with other worlds, distant futures, or time travel, things that most of us have no knowledge of, it presents these things not as an entirely ungraspable, as completely alien, but as understandable. This cognitive dimension is generally understood as having something to do with the “science” half of the term science fiction. However, any attempt to define the genre of science fiction in relation to science as we know it, to existing scientific theories or knowledge, comes up against one insurmountable problem— much of the realm of science fiction concerns areas in which there is little or no scientific knowledge—alien physiology and faster than light speed travel. On top of this many of the recognized classics of science fiction are written with little regard for science. Carl Freedman amends the above definition by referring to what he calls the “cognition effect”, stressing that science fiction must present a world that is presented as potentially understandable; that is, it lays day certain rules—technological, sociological, and political—that the writing must conform to no matter how imagined or arbitrary they are. This frees any definition of science fiction from any dependency on actual science. Thus, I would argue, following Suvin and Freedman, but also going beyond them a bit—that this “cognition effect” has a lot to do with one of the most difficult challenges of science fiction writing—constituting a “world”, a world that despite is distance in time and space from our world seems to cohere. That is to say science fiction must present a world, which, no matter how remarkable it is to us, is lived by those who inhabit it as a world in its everydayness. In order to make this world appear as a functioning world, the different elements of society—the existing technology, political structures, arts, and culture—must appear to interrelate in a way that seems convincing. In fact I think that it is possible to argue that much science fiction deals with relationship between technological transformations and political and social transformations. (This would seem to obviously the case with respect to those to classics of science fiction which have made into the cannon of respectable literature—Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World—which demonstrate the political effects, or conditions, of “genetic engineering” and universal surveillance).

Freedman’s idea of a “cognition effect” once cast in this light can be seen to have interesting parallels with Althusser’s concept of a “society effect.” As Althusser argues: “The mechanism of the production of this “society effect” is only complete when all the effects of the mechanism have been expounded, down to the point where they are produced in the form of the very effects that constitute the concrete, conscious or unconscious relation of the individuals to the society as a society, i.e., down to the effects of the fetishism of ideology (or ‘forms of social consciousness’--Preface to A Contribution….), in which men consciously or unconsciously live their lives, their projects, their actions, their attitudes and their functions as social”. 

At the level of the actual writing this constituting of a world, or a society, as the cohesion of different dimensions of existence poses particular problems. A world exists all at once, synchronically, but a novel is written linearly, line by line, as it develops plot and character. One of the challenges of writing science fiction, a challenge that should give pause to all of those who criticize it for being poorly written, is that it has to unpack dimensions of this world line by line. (Good science fiction writing does this seamlessly; bad science fiction will often interrupt the action of the plot in order to develop the necessary exposition. This is why it is really difficult to make a good science fiction film.) Turning now to Philip K. Dick, finally, we can begin to see that much of the philosophical importance of his writing lies in the way he solves this problem. The opening lines of Ubik read as follows:

At three thirty A.M. on the night of June 5, 1992, the top telepath in the Sol system fell off the map in the offices of Runciter Associates in New York city. That started vidphones ringing. The Runciter organization had lost its track of too many Hollis’ psis during the last few months; this added disappearance would not do.
“Mr. Runciter? Sorry to bother you.” The technician in charge of the night shift at the map room coughed nervously as the massive, sloppy head of Glen Runciter swam up to fill the vidscreen.

Immediately we are confronted with strange things that have no place in our world, telepaths, psis, vidphones—all point to a transformation of technology. However, these unrecognizable elements of a different world are coupled with a situation that is at least somewhat recognizable—it is the familiar scene of an underling or employee waking up his boss in order to deliver bad news. The relation between “cognition” and “estrangement” referred to above is thus a dialectical one—recognizable and unrecognizable elements of society are given at the same time. Reading is a matter of piecing together the various elements of the existing reality, constantly latching on dimensions of a recognizable social or political reality and trying to make sense of the “vidphones,” “psi’s,” and “telepaths”. The reader’s attitude towards science fiction is almost necessarily an interrogative one—with each sentence the reader is continually attempting to find out what the “rules” of this world are, what sort of technological, social, and political reality exists.

In the novels of Philip K. Dick this dialectical interplay between “cognition” and “estrangement” quickly takes on a critical function—making possible not just an interrogation of the “fictional” world of the novels but of our world as well. As the passage from Ubik above indicates, Dick’s novels are often situated in a world in which the fundamental transformation of the basic structures of perception and existence are situated against the backdrop of fairly recognizable corporate culture. The novel’s major plot concerns the Runciter Organization a corporation which supplies “inertials,” individuals with the ability to limit or damper the telepathic abilities of the individuals from the competing Hollis organization. The transformation of the biological limitations of human experience is juxtaposed against a somewhat standard plot of competition and corporate intrigue. Estrangement in the novel seems to follow the transformations of technology and biology, an estrangement that seems all the stranger given the recognizable mundane dimensions of late twentieth century human life. For example in response to the emergency indicated in the opening passage, Runciter replies as follows, “I’ll consult my dead wife.” To which the technician on the vidphone replies, “It’s the middle of the night. The moratoriums are closed now.” Thus the world of Ubik, the world that we are trying to make sense of, is a world in which the divide separating the living and the dead has been crossed, however, this has done nothing to change the rather mundane fact that such limits are only crossed within regular working hours. Which would suggest that the as much as the division between the living and the dead passes away as an organizing structure of experience, the commodification of experience has not passed away. As the novel’s temporal frame of reference shifts, moving backward in time, the difference between the present and past is often expressed in terms of the difference of advertising type written for the mysterious commodity Ubik.

In the beginning of the novel, set in the year 1992, Ubik™ is advertised and sold in convenient aerosol cans by the end novel, which is set in the mid-thirties, it is a salve, or elixir, to be mixed with tar water. Thus Dick takes the transformation of the commodity, from a elixir peddled by traveling salesman to a mass produced item sold by the millions, to be a shorthand for indicating historical progress itself. As if to suggest that the experience of historical difference is experienced primarily as a difference of marketing strategies.

The world of Ubik, as so many other novels of Philip K. Dick (including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the basis for the film Blade Runner), is a world in which radical transformations at the level of technology, what used to be called the forces of production, coexist with an absolute stagnation at the level of relations of production, the property relations. Unlike the classic works of science fiction referred to above, Brave New World and 1984, which present a dystopian world based on the absolute harmony between technology and a social order, Dick’s novels present a world in which the technological potential and the social order seem almost comically out of step. A point illustrated by such things as “coin-operated toilets” equipped with artificial intelligence. This tension between technology and the social order is not a contradiction in the classical Marxist sense, because it does not seem to threaten to topple the existing social and political structures—Dick rarely addresses anything like revolution. However, this contradiction is given critical force by the fact that Dick’s novels are populated by characters who are alienated and disaffected, the typical Dickian protoganist, such as Joe Chip from Ubik, is a mid level employee emotionally, economically, and sexual alienated. The breakdown of barriers of human perception, of the division between the living and the dead, may have open up new areas for investment, but has nothing to improve the lot of the average person.

Thus in Dick’s novels the dialectic of estrangement and cognition works in a critical manner—forcing the reader to confront the limitations of his or her world. Dick uses the basic material of science fiction, the imaginative challenging of the basic technological and biological limits of the world as we know it---mind altering drugs, time travel, artificial life forms, and alternate realities, to challenge dimensions of our life that we cynically consider to be unchangeable, most notably the commodity structure and capitalism itself.


Yannick Rumpala said...

There could be another perspective. In my research, I consider science fiction as a way to problematize social change and that's why it often has a political dimension.
See, in French, "Ce que la science-fiction pourrait apporter à la pensée politique", Raisons politiques, n° 40, novembre 2010, and, for a case study, see "Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks", Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012,

unemployed negativity said...

Thanks for your comments, and references. I will check them out.