“The Defenders” was originally published in 1953 in Galaxy. The central concept of this story informed the novel The Penultimate Truth. Pages numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 67–85.
Taylor is enjoying a rare Rest Period while his wife Mary is following the news, which reported that Moscow was recently hit with an R-H bomb. The news also described the development of new submarines that will strike Soviet targets from underwater. They, along with all of humanity, live underground in bunkers. Most of the surface has been rendered uninhabitable by wars, which are waged by leadies (robots). While they miss their cities, the couple takes comfort that the Soviets are getting the worse of the war. Taylor’s rest day is interrupted by a call from Moss who requests he come to the second level below the surface for an emergency meeting.
After reaching the meeting, Moss introduces Taylor to Commander Franks of Internal Security. They proceed the “first stage” directly below the surface. Taylor thinks about the condition on the surface, devastated by war and radiation, populated only by leadies. Humans from both sides of the conflict live underground. Franks tells the others that he interviewed an A-class leady as part of the regular process of following the war. The near-human leady is questioned again about the conditions on the surface. The odd part of the discussion is that while the leaders want greater access to the surface to study the conditions, the leady strongly resists any suggestion that humans go the surface. Also strange, the leady showed no signs of radioactivity. Franks explains that since this is not the first time they have had strange interviews with leadies, they will send a team to investigate the surface conditions directly.
Over Mary’s objections, Taylor is chosen as part of the team that will go to the surface. Reports come in of a devastating Soviet attack. Moss and Franks are convinced that these are fake reports orchestrated to prevent the team from coming to the surface. The team meets with leadies in the surface tower on top of the tube connecting the bunkers with the surface. Franks demands an audience with an A-class leady and a meeting with the Surface Council. The leady that arrives expresses disbelief and insists that the surface is so radioactive that humans cannot remain long safely. Ignoring them and insisting on their authority over the leadies, the team remains and questions the leady. In a final effort, the lead leady claims that they have taken over all aspects of the war for human’s benefits and they must leave. Unable to fire at the humans, their threats are a facade and the team destroys several leadies and imposes control over the room. They demand to see the surface. They see an agrarian scene with roads, farmhouses, windmills, and animal life. There is no evidence of a great war. Their scheme exposed, the leader leady report on the truth.
He states that human cultures tend toward cultural unification leading to ultimate world peace. Despite the war, signs were that humanity was at the last stage of this development having been divided into two camps. The tendency toward war can only be eliminated by removing all hatred between cultures. The last way, would be the last war that would result in the total unification of human culture and the removal of any external group. The leadies have been preparing the surface for this unification repairing cities damaged in the war, destroying all weapons sent to the surface, and creating false reports of war to keep the humans underground until the conditions were ready for their return.
Franks realizes that this may be an opportunity. If the Soviets did not know about the truth, they could be attacked secretly. The leadies inform the team that Soviets have already reached the surface and are not being allowed back to the bunkers. They cannot harm humans but they could seal the tubes to the surface. The team meets the Russians who reached the surface earlier and they discuss their future. They decide to settle together in one village, replacing diplomatic relationships with solidarity achieved through work and common struggle. With the end of war on Earth in sight, they dream of a future without poverty and a human presence in the stars.
“The Defenders” is one of the most important of Dick’s early stories, highlighting several of his major themes including the danger of automation, the horrors and irrationality of war, the need for human-scaled communities, and the nature of power. The war that drove the humans underground is instantly diagnoses as irrational by the leadies who were charged with carrying on the war. Dick seems to share the opinion of leadies. When the Internal Security agent Franks learns of the truth his immediate response is to carry on the war, despite the clear evidence that the situation on the surface is vastly better under the deception of the Machines.
The dangers of automation are complicated in this story. In “The Gun’ and “Autofac” automation, freed from human control, is dangerous. In “The Defenders” the leadies are left to their own devices but accomplish something positive that the humans were clearly incapable of visualizing on their own. Automation is not so much the threat but a way to avoid destructive human tendencies. When Dick revisits this theme in The Penultimate Truth he backs away from this by creating a class of feudal elite who use the deception to their benefit. Interestingly, it was because the leadies were given the autonomy necessary to maintain a complicated war effort (including a “Surface Council”) they had decision-making ability that some of the other automated creations Dick imagined lacked. The key difference is that the Autofac was not charged with ensuring humanity’s best interest, given only instructions to produce.
As a commentary on power, “The Defenders” is fascinating and complex. The leadies have no real power over the humans. Due to their programming they cannot harm the humans who reach the surface. They put on a good show however and are capable of threats, but not real violence. Their power depends only on deception and the use of media. They destroy model cities and project the images of destruction down to the bunkers. If “The Defenders” is Dick’s vision of the extent of political power, he is strikingly optimistic about the weakness of states and their reliance of informal sources of power, such as ideology and mass media.
The long-term solution for humanity seems to be contradictory. On the one hand, the leadies point out that humanity is moving toward a unified, homogenous culture. War will end on Earth when there is no longer any “external group.” But for the two small groups that reached the surface, Russian and American, the solution is more intimate. They must create farming community, working together. Can global unification be based on interpersonal, face-to-face solidarity? The leadies seem to suggest just this. “It is necessary for this hatred within the culture to be directed outward, toward an external group, so that the culture itself may survive its crisis. War is the result. War, to the logical mind, is absurd. But in terms of human needs, it plays a viral role. And it will continue to until Man has grown up enough so that no hatred lies within him.” (80) But if the future is many small communities of former enemies working together what will stop them from resurrecting animosity toward outward groups? Dick does not resolve this possible contradiction in this short story.
Discussion on Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, which has themes that correlate with the conclusion of the story.
Audiobook reading of “The Defenders”