Rethinking Philip K. Dick: The Influence of the Cold War

For many years, I have loved reading the works of Philip K. Dick (PKD). Time Out of Joint is one of my favorite novels along with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Man in the High Castle, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Many of his works have been turned into movies. As a history teacher, I have not had a lot of opportunity to teach about the works. Sure, once in a while, a student has selected PKD as a history fair topic. But that has only happened twice for me in the last 20 years. In 2004-2005, I started teaching one section of eighth grade language arts each year in addition to my history duties. In my free time, I continued to read more and more of PKD’s works. In 2009, I tried out some short stories by PKD on my students during a science fiction unit.

The first year, we read “The Adjustment Team”, “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”, “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts”, and “The Minoirty Report”. The stories were basically hit and miss with the students. They loved one story one year, and another story the next year. Each year we would conclude the unit by watching the movie The Minority Report and compared it to the short story. Last year we tried reading “The Electric Ant” and this year we read “The Imposter”. However, next year, I was able to convince the principal into buying 25 copies of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. As to whether my students will read it or not is another story.

But here’s the gist of the post, I still learn stuff about PKD along with the students each year. The hardest story for me to read each year has been “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts.”  I always liked the story but I never understood beyond a point. The basic plot follows three time travelers, or tempunauts, who travel three days into the future. When they get to the future, the tempunauts learn they die when they travel back in to the past from the future. The story centers around how the tempunauts try to stop their death from happening over and over and over. It is somewhat reminiscent of the deaths of the Apollo I astronauts of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee.

So, there I was, teaching the students about time loops and quantum mechanics, and I started talking to the students about the context of the space race and the decline of the space program after Apollo XI. The kids kept thinking, and wondering, if the moral was about reality (like the other stories in the PKD canon they had read to that point). It could have been. Was the time loop real? Was it a test or a scenario? The students even estimated that the tempunauts had been captured by the enemy and the loop was a test to get more information from the tempunauts.

I began to see the story in a new light. In fact, the light bulb went on in my own mind. I saw the US/USSR manipulation about the astronauts/cosmonauts for publicity reasons as a possible theme of the story. I had never thought of that before. While that might be just my opinion, there is some truth to how the Cold War press machines used the successes and failures of a space program to propagate the superiority of their culture. Interest could rise and fall depending on the news coming forth. Apollo XIII was almost a non-story until the mishap.

PKD did not see “Tempunauts” this way. Dick said of his own story:

The three tempunauts go ahead in time, return, and are trapped, perhaps forever, by ironies and within ironies, the greatest one of which, I think, is their own bewilderment at their own actions. It is as if the increase in information brought about by such a technological achievement –information as to exactly what is going to happen –decreases true understanding. Perhaps Addison Doug knows too much.

The Cold War had such a huge effect on PKD’s early works, albeit a short story or a novel. The conformity of the time period, the manipulation of information, and propaganda envelop each story, the characters, and the morals. But for Tempunauts, the influence is rather subtle. I wonder if PKD ever thought about the story in this way? Maybe the government was out to keep the tempunauts in a time loop in order to use sympathy for their deaths as a means to keep interest in the program and off what the USSR was doing.

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4 comments

  1. Have you read Martian Time-Slip? It’s by far my favorite PKD novel (and quite early in his career). And yes, it doesn’t necessarily have obvious Cold War themes… Perhaps PKD’s Dr. Bloodmoney might be a good Cold War influenced choice — a widespread fallout, retreat underground, post-war government… I loved it!

    Yes, The Imposter! A GREAT short story — sadly the film adaptation with Gary Sinise is downright terrible.

  2. I have read Martian Time Slip and liked it. Myself, I loved Time Out of Joint the most. Teaching 8th graders about PKD is tricky. They tend to go for the more action oriented stories. Dr. Bloodmoney is sitting on the shelf waiting to be read along The Simulacra. Thanks for the suggestions!

  3. The Simulacra is a very average work — no real plot, action (so not suitable for 8th graders — haha), or fascinating overarching idea — I enjoyed it regardless because it definitely *feels like PKD although in a very restrained sort of way….

    Hmmm, what else. I did enjoy The Man Who Japed (and wrote a review a while back on my blog if you’re curious) — another early minor work but a turning point in his career in my opinion (his earlier work, The World Jones Made is downright poor).

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