“The Gun” was first published in Planet Stories in 1952. Pages numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 35–46.
A spaceship crew sent to investigate an explosion on another planet, seen from Earth, confirms that atomic fission did destroy the surface of the planet. With nothing to discover on the dead planet the crew desires to return home. The principles of the crew are the captain, the chief navigator Dorle, the archeologist Tance, Nasha, and Fomar. At the moment the preliminary investigation ends, the ship is struck by an atomic projectile forcing an emergency landing onto the surface.
The crew is stuck on the planet with dwindling supplies. They cannot leave the planet even when the ship is repaired because the gun will simply fire another projectile. While everyone had died on the planet due to some kind of atomic war, automated weapons survived. The crew decides to being to explore their surroundings in order to learn what happened to cause the destructive war.
Nasha, Tance, and Dorle begin exploring the area and talk about the chain of command, since the captain is about to die. No one is very interested in taking over command of the doomed mission. They locate a dead city and deduce that the gun fired from there.
They arrive at the dead city and examine the evidence of the former civilization, including a sign identifying the location as “Franklin Apartments.” Locating the gun, they are also able to confirm that the gun that fired at and downed their ship is automated. They discuss what life may have been like in a society with automated weaponry. Dorle considers that the gun was put there to defend something specific, like the dragons in legendary literature.
The three explorers discover a vault near the gun containing the records of the civilization, carefully preserved. The wealth of information in the vault would make another expedition to the planet worthwhile. They had previously determined that the dead planet had no value. They debate how they will leave the planet. The builders of the gun must have been paranoid because they created a gun that would shoot indiscriminately at anything passing by.
Nasha, Tance, and Dorle return to the ship. They learn that the captain had died earlier. The different members of the crew took to destroying the giant gun. When that was done, they took the next five days repairing the ship in preparation of leaving the planet surface.
Nasha and Dorle discuss the past of the civilization and its decline, but express optimism that they will come back on a new mission to salvage the knowledge of that planet and that they will not have an automated gun to contend with. The ship repaired, the crew leaves the planet.
Sometime after the explorers leave, small machines begin to repair the automated gun.
Dick long has a fear—a fear which I may suggest is entirely irrational and counterproductive—against automated machinery. The Autofac is an ominous threat running through much of his writing. “The Gun” was one of a series of early explorations of this theme. The danger of automation is as clearly stated here as anywhere else. Once automated, the humans abdicate the power to regulate the machine. When it has outlived its purpose for humans, or become opposed to the needs of humans, it will be impossible to stop. There may be some truth to this fear. Industrial civilization—Lewis Mumford’s “the Machine”—does seem to have a logic of its own and often works in opposition to the needs of humanity. Climate change seems unstoppable because we cannot think of a way to stop the industrial civilization from continuing its logic without a massive ecological disaster. If Dick’s critique seems silly on the level of an individual machine, there may be truth to it at the systemic level. I do think, however, that Dick missed out on the potential of automation as a way of escaping the tyranny of work, which has long been a dream of post-scarcity anarchism (see Kropotkin).
While technology is the main theme of this story, war is always in the background. The titular gun was created to defend the last remnants of humanity (apparently the devastated planet is Earth) from scavengers. Earth was destroyed in a civil war that seems to have a lot in common with the Cold War arms race. In this story, Dick suggests that war had a profound psychological effect on how people saw their place in the world. One character comments: “There must have been hundreds of guns like this. They must have been used to the sight, guns, weapons, uniforms. Probably they accepted it as a natural thing, part of their lives, like eating and sleeping. An institution, like the church and the state. Men trained to fight, to lead armies, a regular profession. Honored, respected.” (41) The gun itself is a product of the paranoia induced by a civilization devoted to war. “They were so certain that everything was hostile, the enemy, coming to take their possessions away from them.” (44)
So we can refine Dick’s technophobia. Automation may have some beneficial uses, but if connected to institutions, militaries, and war making capacities—indeed, anything that has a life of its own and is centered on the principle of self-defense—it are dangerous and will likely outlive its usefulness.
Project to preserve knowledge.