The 1953 novella, “The Variable Man,” came out early in Philip K. Dick’s career, even being sold before Dick had an agent. Despite being a product of Dick’s early career, it has an image of technology and its relationship to human agency that would be often repeated in his stories and novels but never quire surpassed. With a focus on the character of “the variable man,” Thomas Cole—an early twentieth century mechanic who was accidentally sent into the future—this short essay hopes to articular Dick’s outline of what a human-centered and human-scaled technology may look like as well as review what he saw as the major pitfalls and problems with automated technology.
It is hard not to see “The Variable Man” as an inversion of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In the Twain novel, a mechanic from New England goes back in time to the early middle ages, where he applies technology in modernizing part of Arthurian England. Over the course of the novel, education, moral reform, anti-slavery thought, and material progress are all introduced. Alongside these positive developments, is growing automation, mechanization, and technological violence. In one of the final scenes, the “Connecticut Yankee” is trapped in his own machine surrounded with the dead bodies of the defeated aristocracy. While the novel is clearly targeting the pretensions of the aristocracy it also warns against the trajectory of technology. In contrast, Thomas Cole enters a world where technology has already led to automation, the end of democracy with the rise of a technology, and the sapping of human creativity. Cole, by bringing in the values of the early twentieth century of human optimism about technology, helps shatter the stagnation that the mature machine created.
In the novella, humanity prepares for a war against Proxima Centaurus using great computers to tell them when to strike because the odds of success will be greatest. Striking at Centaurus is crucial because that old empire has prevented human expansion to the stars and has largely encircled the Terra Empire. Thomas Cole is accidently brought into this future and throws the plans of the Terra state into disarray. He becomes a variable that the computers cannot account for. Both in technical abilities and world view, Cole is of another age, an age of democracy, technological optimism, skill, and generalism. This is in sharp contrast to the future technocracy, specialization, automation and pessimism. His uncanny ability to fix technologies, even if he does not fully understand them, contradicts the ethos of the age that prefers to throw away what is broken. Cole is recruited by an individualist scientist to help complete a weapon that promises to destroy the Centauran home world. He fails to perfect the weapon and Terra loses the war. This turns out to be a good thing. The reason the weapon, called Icarus, worked was because the faster-than-light technology was faulty. Cole fixed this and turned Icarus into what it was originally intended to be, a device that allowed humans to bypass Centaurus altogether.
In order to understand the promise Cole offers, we must first look at what technology has done to humanity by the year 2128, the setting of the novella. As the scientist Sherikov explains, technology has made it possible for humans to delegate various tasks to machinery causing their aptitudes and skills to decline. One reason so little reparing takes place is that broken technologies fall outside of the ability of the ruling technocrats. With the help of computers, they can design technologies, but they have limited ability to repair them or improve them. The blueprints are the boss. The transformation of the faster-than-light device into the Icarus weapon is the only example we see where humans were able to deviate from the pre-arranged plan. Of course, it is the free-thinking Sherikov who makes this pivot. Sherikov, like the variable man, is of another age. The technocratic, authoritarian head of the secret police Reinhart fears him. “The big Polish scientist was an individualist, refusing to integrate himself with society. Independent, atomistic in outlook. He held concepts of the individual as an end, diametrically contrary to the accepted organic state Weltansicht.” (165) Technology, by sustaining a technocracy as the ruling elite, has also destroyed democracy. Decisions not made by machines are made by a small ruling council of specialists. Sherikov describes the transfer of decision-making power to machines and technocrats to the use of oracles.
Thomas Cole arrives to the year 2128 riding a horse-drawn cart filled with tools. He is a master artisan and mechanic. He performed various odd jobs and was proud of his ability to intuitively know how technology worked, how to fix it, and even how to improve it. In two clear examples in the text, Cole—without knowing the science behind the technology—both fixed and improved a device. First, he repaired a child’s toy used to transport small items short distances. He not only fixed it but transformed it into a professional grade transporter. The second example is Icarus itself. He uses his hands and his mind to work with technologies and does not rely of computers or machines or bureaucratic policies to guide his work.
Reinhart understood the moral threat that Cole posed to the state and the system to which he owed his entire identity. He explains that he came from a time when humans really believed that technology could be harnessed for human gain. It may seem strange that Reinhart suggests that it is preferable that the machines and the technocrats rule rather than the dreamers and tinkerers. One reason Reinhart feels such sentiment cannot be afforded is that the war demands absolute devotion to the state and its planning, but Dick makes it clear that Reinhart is of his time and never in his life has he considered that the old ways were preferable, no more than people of Cole’s age thought it would be admirable to return to medieval religious superstition.
The final pages of the novella strongly suggest that Dick associated the world view and abilities of Thomas Cole with democracy. In the final project, Sherikov works on—with Cole’s aid—a device that will allow direct democracy by giving everyone a chance to vote on issues from their home.
In conclusion, “The Variable Man” reveals the basic outlines of Dick’s view of technology that is quite positive. The novella suggest that Dick was not an absolute technophobe. His major fear was automation and the evaporation of human agency and control over technology. Like Peter Kropotkin, Dick believed that technology that made human beings more free it was a good technology. Works such as “Autofac,” “The Great C,” or “The Gun,” all largely of the same period as “The Variable Man” present Dick’s negative vision of technology. With Thomas Cole, however, we find a positive vision of technology that conforms to human needs and can be manipulated by people without the exclusionary specialized knowledge of a technocracy. If a tinker or a handy man cannot repair a technology, perhaps, Dick warns us, we should consider if we are better off with it in the long run.