Philip K. Dick wrote “Stability” in 1947 but the short story was not published until the publication of the Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick. Pages numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), p. 1–11.
The story begins with a description of total freedom, of flight, as Robert Benton travels by air to the Control Office, one of the central bureaucratic institutions of Earth. The city, called “The City of Lightness” is apparently the central hub of a world-wide government. Benton meets the Controller in his office and they discuss the theory of “stabilization.” Around 100 years earlier Eric Freidenburg, a German intellectual, proved that future development in technology or society was impossible. The only two options for humanity were stabilization or decline. The government, the Controller reminds Benton, is committed to preventing decline by ensuring stability. The transition was catastrophic but the bureaucrats won the ensuring battles. Citizens had to test to ensure they remained as intelligent as they were last years (those who decline are disappeared). New inventions are stopped as dangers to “stability.”
Benton is informed by the Controller that his invention, 34500-D is rejected, although he has no memory of applying for a patent for any such invention. He takes the rejected designs and the prototype and returns to his home to study them. Benton turns on the device and is relocated to another time and place. A voice in his head warns him that he is threatening stability, but he pushes on and picks up a small globe with a miniature city that seems to have an internal source of heat. After receiving competing messages from the globe and the voice in his head, Benton uses the time machine to move forward in time close to the present. He submits the time machine to the Controller, completing the loop.
The Control Council quickly realizes that Benton used the time machine, explaining why he seemed unaware at first that he submitted the prototype. They choose to confront Benton at his home. The globe Benton brought from the past warns him and explains that they are entities that are trying to escape the globe and be brought into the future. Giving the time travel device to Benton was the method they used to achieve this.
Men from the Control Council arrive to question Benton. They explain that they want to maintain stability, not harm him, but that he may need to be sacrificed for the greater good. They search for the device before realizing that the loop means that the device could not be located. Benton shows them the globe, identifying it as a paperweight. The Controller tells Benton the story of an ancient city, punished by God by being transformed into a miniature globe. After realizing that the globe may be this accursed city, a scuffle breaks out leading to the shattering of the globe. A mist drives everyone unconscious and Benton awakens in a different world where everyone is enslaved to machines.
The two models of the city suggested in this story are both two sides of the modern industrial society. Dick provides two ultimately compatible visions of authoritarianism. The first is the bureaucratic model following the ideology of “stability.” In Dick’s mind, bureaucracies tend to be inevitably resistant to change and development, while defending the status quo. They are the perfect agent to bring about the end of history, which is exactly what is being created by the Control Council through a variety of powerful institutional controls. Dick had in mind a modern bureaucracy when he described the Control Council. “The Offices were gigantic. He stared down from the catwalk on which he stood, for below him a thousand men and women worked at whizzing, efficient machines. Into the machines they were feeding reams of cards. Many of the people worked at desks, typing out sheets of information, filling charts, putting cards away, decoding messages. On the walls stupendous graphs were constantly being changed. The very air was alive with the vitalness of the work being conducted, the hum of the machines, the tap-tap of the typewriters, and the mumble of voices all merged together in a quiet, contented sound. And the vast machines, which cost countless dollars a day to keep running so smoothly, had a word: Stability!” (3–4) Juxtaposed against the bureaucratic horrors of this world is the original scene of Robert Benton flying through the City of Lightness. The freedom human-powered flight provides is illusory given the realities of life on the ground and in the government offices. It is also clear that the bureaucratic state is capable of a great atrocities. Perhaps they are more capable of atrocities because the system has its own tools of self-defense.
The alternative world that emerges triumphant is a more technological vision. Dick was quite fearful of the triumph of what Lewis Mumford called “the Machine” over human will. Benton is brought into a world where human beings exist only to serve the needs of the machine. “He saw the slaves, sweating, stopped, pale men, twisting in their efforts to keep the roaring furnaces of steel and power happy. It seems to swell before his eyes until the entire room was full of it, and the sweating workmen brushed against him and around him. He was deafened by the raging power, the grinding wheels and gears and valves.” (10)
It is not entirely clear what version of the city is worse. Both are dystopian models. They share in common the lack of human freedom and the triumph of the institution over the individual. Humans exist to serve machines or government institutions. Both are embracing a form of the ideology of “stability.” Benton observes: “As they marched toward the waiting machines, chanting the tuneless sounds their ancestors had chanted for centuries.” (10) Whatever they are producing, they are not recreating social structures, culture, or innovating in ways that improve human life. It is possible that the machines are the maturation of the bureaucratic regime and Benton moved into the far future.
Wikipedia page for “Stability”