Everybody Should Be Reading Philip K. Dick All The Time

thepenultimatetruth1sted-1When 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.

Striving for an Ideal World: Art and Reality in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-11-26-53-amOver the past few days, I’ve been reading The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. It’s a novel that imagines a world in which the United States lost World War II. Within this world, Americans living on the west coast are regarded (and, indeed, regard themselves) as social inferiors to their Japanese rulers. Compounding this perception is the fact that Americans have yet to fully adapt to Japanese social norms. As a result, they are always second-guessing everything they say and do. Thus they live in a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety. Nonetheless, because history played out the way that it did, they regard their current state of affairs as “normal” or the natural order of things.

Challenging this perceived natural order of things in the context of the novel is a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which describes an alternate universe in which the Allies won the war. Perhaps significantly, this alternately universe is not our universe but one in which the Allied victory resulted in a world significantly different from our own. Nonetheless, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy exists within the novel as a hint that the world most people are used to is not the only world that might exist. Or, to put it another way, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy suggests to the characters in The Man in the High Castle that the way things are is entirely contingent on historical happenstance. If a few key historical events had played out differently, the world would be different — and so, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is at pains to note, would its social norms.

Needless to say, The Man in the High Castle is trying to do for readers in real life what The Grasshopper Lies Heavy does within the context of the novel. It’s trying to underscore the fact that the customs, assumptions, behaviors, values, beliefs, morals, and aesthetic judgments (among other things) we think of as “normal” are all ultimately rooted in history. The mistake we make is in believing that the way we see the world is the only way or the correct way to see it when, in fact, it is merely one way of perceiving the world that is dictated by the norms of the world in which we live.

Or, as one of Dick’s characters reflects in the novel, “We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious.” Yes, we’d like to believe that we live in the “ideal world” of objective truth, but we don’t. What’s more, because our understanding of the world around us is tinted by norms and assumptions imposed upon us by our particular moment in history, it’s often difficult to “detect the obvious” course of action when moral and ethical dilemmas arise.

Yet even if “cognition” is not easy, one thing The Man in the High Castle suggests that we can do is learn to recognize the ways in which social norms color our perceptions. And one of the key tools in learning to do so is art — or, more broadly, the arts. Most obviously, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is an example of art that awakens people to the ways in which social norms influence their perceptions. Another example of art opening minds to alternate ways of seeing within the novel is a small piece of jewelry, a piece of abstract art that Nazi propaganda would dismiss as “degenerate” but which allows one character to briefly envision a world more like our own than the one depicted in the novel.

Curiously, crossing over into an alternate reality reveals to the character — in this case, a Japanese citizen — how tenuous his high place in society really is. In turn, The Man in the High Castle reveals to readers — particularly those who enjoy a relatively high place in society — how tenuous and contingent on accidents of history our their own place of privilege is. More to the point, however, by placing white males in particular in a place of social inferiority, the novel forces certain readers to view the world from a new perspective. To wit: You know how nervous and anxious those white guys were in relation to the Japanese characters? Well, in our world, you’re in the position of the Japanese character, and that’s how minorities feel around you. 

Of course, pointing out that our sense of reality — not to mention our sense of decency — is socially constructed is nothing new (and was nothing new when Dick published his novel in 1962). Charles Chesnutt was doing something similar in his 1889 short story “The Sheriff’s Children” when he wrote of the sheriff in question, “It may seem strange that a man who could sell his own child into slavery should hesitate at such a moment when his life was trembling in the balance. But the baleful influence of human slavery poisoned the very fountains of life, and created new standards of right. The sheriff was conscientious; his conscience had merely been warped by his environment.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman did it as well in 1892 with the “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which the main character’s apparent descent into madness revealed the flaws of a medical community whose refusal to listen to patients (and women in particular) led to improper diagnoses and poor treatment. William Dean Howells did it in the conclusion of a short story titled “Editha,” in which a painter allows the title character to retreat into a comforting, jingoistic fantasy word with a few well-chosen words and a bit of “empirical” touching up of reality. And going back a bit further, Plato worried about reality and our perceptions of it in his “Allegory of the Cave.”

All of this is to say that one thing art can do — one particularly valuable function of art — is to remind us that truth and perception are two entirely different things. Whether or not art can allow us to perceive truth is entirely up for debate — as, one might argue, is the issue of whether there is, indeed, such a thing as objective truth. Nonetheless, by reminding us that the things we imagine to be “true” or “good” or “beautiful” or “just” are only on so because,  in the words of the immortal bard,* because “thinking makes it so,” art also allows us to imagine other worlds, other norms, other ways of seeing and being — and, in so doing, challenges us to strive for the “ideal world” to which Dick alludes in The Man in The High Castle even if we are forever doomed to failure.

*William Shakespeare, who is dead. The quote is from Hamlet.