When Kellyanne Conway introduced the world to the concept of alternative facts back in January, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed. Right about now, though, I imagine everyone who bought a copy of 1984 might be finishing up and looking for something new to read. My suggestion is anything and everything by Philip K. Dick. A little while ago, I wrote about The Man in the High Castle, and like that novel, the vast majority of Dick’s novels are about worlds in which everybody’s sense of reality is based on stories, myths, and lies. Not to put to fine a point on it, but one of his books is actually called Lies, Inc.
Of course, there are loads of PKD (that’s what the hip kids call him) novels. In 1964 alone, he published five novels, and one of them, The Penultimate Truth, is a great place to start. It depicts a world in which the vast majority of people live in underground “ant tanks” because they believe that Earth’s surface is completely uninhabitable. They believe this because they’re fed a media diet of lies by the tiny minority (the top 1%, perhaps?) of people who live on the surface. Even the apparent ruler of the free world, Talbot Yancy, is himself a lie — or, more accurately, a simulacrum of a human being, an electronic puppet whose strings are pulled by the so-called “Yance-Men” who write his speeches and control his public image.
While it’s certainly tempting to draw parallels between Yancy and the current President of the United States, I won’t go there (though, technically, I just did). What I consider the truly interesting parallel between The Penultimate Truth and the world we’re living in today is the role that the media plays in shaping our understanding of the world.
In particular, the media has woven a narrative in which the world is a scary place. This narrative has been in place for decades. It’s reflected in the twin broadcast news rules stating that “if it bleeds, it leads” and “if it burns, it earns.” In other words, to boost ratings, TV news outlets have traditionally spiced up their broadcasts with news of violence and impending doom — so much so that most viewers of TV news believe that the world is a much more dangerous place than it actually is. The result is a world where people are afraid to leave their homes for fear of being mugged or molested by strangers, gunned down by madmen, or blown up by terrorists.
It’s important to note that the current POTUS didn’t invent the “scary world” narrative, but he has definitely and expertly used it to his advantage. His campaign hinged almost entirely on scary stories about terrorists and so-called “bad hombres” making the world — and America in particular — a scary place. Needless to say, that rhetoric hasn’t ceased. To hear him speak, you’d think the world was under attack all the time. And people tend to believe it because it’s in line with the story that the news media has been feeding to us forever.
Of course, the POTUS has upped the ante by employing “alternative facts.” Such facts range from embellishing on the number of people who attended his inauguration to fabricating terrorist attacks both at home and abroad that never occurred. He has also ingeniously pinned the guilt of lying on media outlets that are actually telling the truth while simultaneously endorsing conspiracy theorists who support the fictions he is trying palm off on the American people.
The intended result of all of this is presumably a world much like that depicted in The Penultimate Truth — that is, a world where everybody relies on a media that presents alternative facts for information about the world in which they live, a world in which people are terrified to step outside of their homes, let alone travel abroad, to see what the world is really like.
Without spoiling the ending for anyone, I’ll conclude by drawing parallels between the Penultimate Truth, the world of alternative facts, and Plato’s allegory of the cave. In his allegory, Plato depicts a world in which people who have lived in a cave throughout their lives imagine the cave (and a parade of shadows that dances across its walls) to be the only reality that exists. When one of the cave dwellers leaves the cave, that individual is struck by a series of increasingly startling revelations: the shadows aren’t reality, there’s more to life than the cave, and the world outside of the cave is so bright as to be blinding (but try telling any of that to the people who have never left the cave).
All of this essentially plays out to one degree or another in The Penultimate Truth, and it’s also strikingly similar to the world in which we find ourselves today. To learn the truth about their world, the characters in PKD’s novel need to leave their ant tanks and ascend to the planet’s surface above. To figure out that the people the current administration wants us to fear are in the vast majority of instances just like ourselves in all the ways that matter, we need to venture out — outside of our locked doors, beyond our tiny lives, beyond our closed circles, and beyond our nation’s borders.
In short, we need to confront the shadowy world of alternative facts with the light of truth. As PKD’s novels suggest, it isn’t always easy (and the path can be rife with danger), but it can be done. We just need to look away from our screens in order to do it.