Mr. Spaceship

Story Background
“Mr. Spaceship” was originally published in 1953 in Imagination. Pages numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 87–111.

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Plot Summary
Kramer, a technocrat in Terra’s military-industrial infrastructure, is debating a problem with his colleague Gross. The automated ships of Terra’s fleet run on a device called the Johnson Control. This is almost always defeated by the organic technology of the Proxima Centauri minefield. As life-forms the mines can easily outmaneuver the Johnson Control, but human pilots cannot survive the voyage. The solution, according to Kramer, is to use a human brain as the control center of the ship. But a brain will need to be donated and someone will need to be sacrificed in that donation. While the organic material of the brain would be used, consciousness would end.

Kramer meets his ex-wife Dolores with Gross and they discuss the details of the plan. Dolores suggests their old professor Michael Thomas, who is aged and at the end of his life but still has a sharp mind. Gross and Kramer go to meet Professor Thomas who seems interested in the idea and expresses willingness to help with the war effort. He demands to see the details of the plan.

Sometime later, Kramer is talking with his second, Dale Winter, about the forthcoming brain transplant into the ship.

Gross unveils the ship for the public, explaining how the use of a human brain will make the ship superior to ships powered by the Johnson Control. Kramer is surprised to learn that some changes were made to the wiring of the ship. A test flight commences shortly. When the ship accelerates too fast, the Pilot for the test launch realizes that the brain of Professor Thomas has taken over control of the ship. Thomas begins talking to Kramer on intimate terms showing that the theory behind the ship was faulty. Consciousness was not lost when the brain was separated from the body. With help from other ships, the crew escapes.

The debriefing on the moon concludes that the experiment was a failure and that Professor Thomas, still entirely conscious, purposefully absconded with the ship, probably in an attempt to extend his own life. Kramer is questioned about his knowledge of Professor Thomas and his personal philosophy and goals. Kramer did not remember much about his personally, but Dolores recalls that he used to like goats. Kramer goes to be that night impressed with Thomas’ audacity, but fearful that this may represent the moment that humanity loses control technology.

Kramer awakes to news that his wife has been seriously injured. With no scheduled ships departing for Terra, Kramer finds a passing cruiser which he quickly boards. Immediately he learns that the ship is the one controlled by Professor Thomas. Thomas explains that he stole the ship in hopes of giving humanity another chance to avoid war. He thinks war is a learned characteristic and that a new human society can be formed that will not have a tendency to commit violence. Thomas hopes to take on the role of a god, directing and cultivating this new human civilization. Thomas then explains that he used the same ruse to pick up Dolores. Kramer and Dolores will be a new Adam and Eve.

spaceship

Analysis
Dick’s preference for human controlled technology over automation is presented literally in the story “Mr. Spaceship.” Here, Terrans have been engaged in a long war with Proxima Centauri and use automated ships because humans cannot survive the trip. The enemies use organic technology which gives them a clear advantage over the Terrans. The solution dreamed up by Terra’s technocrats is to replace the central computer of the ships with a human brain, which will be unconscious but retain the brain’s rapid response rate. It is hoped that this will give the ships the ability to evade the blockade and directly assault the planet. When Professor Thomas steals the ship, Kramer sees this as the end of human domination over technology, suggesting instead that the “Mr. Spaceship” is actually the next stage in automation, not a return to human control. The ship had, in a brief second, stolen their power away from them and left them defenseless, practically at its mercy. It was not right; it made hum uneasy. All his life he had controlled machines, bent nature and the forces of nature to man and man’s needs.“ (106) Professor Thomas, however, does not believe he lost any humanity or any agency. He is a true transhumanist, believing that technological improvements are capable of cultivating greater happiness for humanity.

“Mr. Spaceship” explores an idea about the relationship between human nature and violence touched on in “The Defenders.” Thomas is much like the leadies in “The Defenders” in his belief that humanity is not invariably violent. There are still slight differences. The leadies believe war is an evolutionary stage in human cultures. Thomas believes that humans were taught violence by a fallen society. Both agree, however, that war is not necessarily the null state for man. Also, both take on the role of cultivators of a new phase of human history. This is a presumption that Dick will become more uncomfortable with as his career and writing develop.

The idea that physical human beings will not have much of a role in space exploration is a hard truth for romantic futurists. “Mr. Spaceship” acknowledges it that may be the case. The human presence in space may very well be limited to nanotechnologies. “Mr. Spaceship” strikes a balance by offering up the transhumanist potential that humans can explore the stars without actually retaining their human body.

Resources
Wikipedia Entry for the story.

Space exploration as joint project of man and machine.

Nanotechnology in space exploration.

Some speculation on the “isolated brain” potential.

Stephen Hawking on the same question.

Audiobook Reading of “Mr. Spaceship”

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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 Bureaucracy, Philosophy, Posthumanism, Technology, Transhumanism, war and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mr. Spaceship

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick’s Philosophy of History: Part One | Philip K. Dick Review

  2. Although the frontier theme was,as you say,important to the development of his multiplex fiction,I don’t think he thought space travel would ultimately lead to fulfilment for humanity.Nothing he wrote was actually ever about space travel or exploration of the planets.As I’ve said before,I think
    he thought that spiritual experience would lead to greater contentment.

    However,in much of his unmistakable stuff,much of the Cosmos has been discovered and settled by humankind.It does indeed form an important background to his chain of novels and shorter pieces.If a clinical history can be attached then to a body of fiction,then at one time,astronauts and space pioneers would have been heroes of their age in his work,but none of his characters have occupations so heroic.Of course,dissillutionment with space exploration and settlement has set-in.

    Only in “Dr Bloodmoney”,is there a character who is an astronaut,Walt Dangerfield,who should it seems,have been the original pioneering settler on Mars,but whose ambition is fraughted by the terrible holocaust back home.He becomes instead a sort of messianic saviour,a reversal I suppose of his former role.Even then Dick seemed to be expressing cynicism about the space program I think.

    I think this was at the core of MS.It’s not surprising then,that there was a rise in pseudo religious happenings throughout his work.

  3. tashqueedagg says:

    Never wrote about space travel or exploration? I do not think you fully thought that through. “Souvenir” is fairly rich on this theme. I never suggested he was writing anything close to the Mars Trilogy. I do stand by my argument that until 1963 Dick was fairly classical (Turneresque) about the frontier, in the late 60s this switched to the malaise you refer to above, and in the 70s it became an eternal return and a much more religious or psychological experience.

    Dangerfield is a very important character. I regret I did not say more about him.

    • I think I’ve mislead you.As I said,the frontier was very important to the development of his work,and seems to reach a peak in “Martian Time-Slip”,where it parallels the hopes,dreams and disillusionment of the early pioneers who settled in California.What I’m trying to say is,that space travel and exploration as a simple science fiction theme,was never paramount in his writing,although the conquest of space for the expansion and growth of the human race was.His concerns were more political,social and spiritual than actually technological.By the Mars Trilogy,I assume you mean Kim Stanley Robinson,but haven’t read those.

      I agree with you about Dangerfield.He would not write about anything close to an astronaut character until his short story,”A Little Something for Us Tempernauts”,the first fruit to appear after a two and a half year absense from writing.The changes that had occured in him while recess,seem profound,it being a cynical sort of parable,that lacked the wit,insight and invention of what he wrote in the previous decade.That’s not to say that it was bad,but the new alterations in his outlook,no more than reflected what he felt inside.

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