The Gun

Story Background
“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.

Plot Summary
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.

gun

Analysis
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.

Resources
Project to preserve knowledge.

Dangers of automation for knowledge preservation.

Automated war.

The Conquest of Bread
by Kropotkin; a useful counterpoint to Dick’s technophobia.

Audiobook Reading.

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About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Cold War, Environment, Philip K. Dick, Technology, war and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Gun

  1. The concept of automated machinery,prehaps putting myself in the position of stating the obvious,seems to reach it’s peak in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”.Here,plastic organisms are far more dangerous than plainly mechanical ones.However,in “We Can Build You”,that’s exactly what they are,artificial mechanisms,but think they are the actual people the’re constructed apon and are sentient,in contrast to the coldly mechanical Pris’.it seems that identity and humanity,can be induced artificially by cause and effect,which in this case,is through resurrection.

    The authentic robots of WCBU,although self serving,are not a threat however,and show empathy,unlike the organic ones of DADOES.It seems that form and perhaps casuality will determine whether automatic machinery will be a threat.It seems that in Dick’s multiplex fiction,that to build living robots though without the process of osmosis,is no better and often worst than the actual autofac.The moral issue of robots convinced they are human,is also pertinent to “Imposter” of course.

    I’m sorry I couldn’t find any political or socialogical reasons for the cause of this state of affairs,but I’ll leave that to you to find I think.

  2. alam sayed says:

    The theme of the story is not the danger of automation, it is the seneless use of automation. The gun shots at anything flying above it. Such irrationality is the object of fear. On the other hand, it is not wise to be caged in comfortable electronic cavern.

    • tashqueedagg says:

      I cannot help looking at this story in the context of Dick’s other’s works. If you read some of my other stuff, you will see I take on this issue quite a lot. Dick’s fear of automation is a bit confused, I think. He missed the point that automation can be a path to liberation from work. This knee jerk response to automation in so many of his works.

      That said, I do not see a big difference between “danger of automation” and danger of “senseless use of automation” in this case. The gun is not senseless. It make perfect sense when it was built. Was “Autofac” senseless? I do not think so. Was the automation that pushed Fernwright out of a job in “Galactic Pot Healer” senseless? Was the Biltong in “Pay for Printer” senseless? No. But in all those cases very dangerous to humanism.

      • Dick we know was libertarian.He would therefore have seen the freedom that the end of work would bring.Why therefore would actual craftsmen such as Joe Fernwright in “Galactic Pot-Healer”,not have been able to use his skills?He is still beneath the crushing weight of a totalitarian government.I would suppose that Dick assumed that those in power obviously don’t intend to allow any such as he to become fully liberated by their talents.

        It would have seemed,that otherwise a wise and benevolent state would have created a functional system to be employed.

  3. Emet / Met – Golem.

    The Gun no longer serves its maker, if it ever did. Perhaps the real point PKD makes is not so much about automation as about separating intention, will, purpose and power.

    • tashqueedagg says:

      Separating intention, will, and purpose is basically how Dick sees automation. (see “Autofac” or “Second Variety” or “The Defenders”)
      I am all for automation (smash work entirely), but I do not think Dick would agree with me.

      • Dick’s “kipple” and antipathy to automation definitely has strong overtones of the Qlippoth, the soulless world of mere matter to which golems belong, and ultimately which feels the lack of a soul and begins to become enraged or deranged, or at the very least unable to convincingly maintain the illusion of life.

        But then we have grace notes like the end of I think it’s Martian Time Slip? The one where the husband has a moral discussion with a robot taxi cab and the cab ends up telling him “god bless you” for being a good man.

        The layers are what set Dick apart from his legion of imitators and pastiche creators, the whole genre of cyberpunk included.

  4. tashqueedagg says:

    “Now Wait for Last Year” has the grace note you refer to.
    I like how you describe Dick’s view of automation. Even in less appreciated works like “The Variable Man” you get this glorification of the tinkerer over the bureaucratic. I agree with that, but cannot extend it to automation. I know why Dick associates the two, but I am not sure automation would be more bureaucratic. If everyone had a Transmetropolitan Maker in their home you would get much more individualism in consumption than we would out of corporate bureaucracy setting fashion for the season out of a board room. I suspect a fully automated economy would be a golden age of crafting and creativity. Far from a soulless world. Want soullessness, go to work. You will find it there.

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