“Meddler” was first published in Future in its October 1954 issue. Page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 269–278.
The technology called “The Dip” is used by historians to observe and study historical phenomenon. Wood is showing Hasten a new version of the Dip that can look into the future. Hastern is horrified by this. Not only is it illegal to Dip into the future, it is extremely dangerous. Anything from the future brought into the present has the potential to radically alter future event. Wood explains that the damage has already been done.
Hasten has been brought in because he is the expert in the use of Dips for historical research. The future Dip was authorized earlier by the Political Science Council to predict the outcome of decisions and use began about one year earlier. To protect the future timeline, the Dip was designed to bring nothing back and only take photographs from high altitudes. The first reports from the future showed a world getting progressively better. Less urbanization and a happier population. But when they went back again to review earlier periods with the Dip, they found that the future has changed. There was now evidence of massive war. Moving forward again, the Dip revealed that all human civilization will be destroyed. To investigate why this happened and hopefully prevent it, they built a Time car that could send one person into the future. Hasten is charged with investigating the cause of the end of humanity.
Hasten begins by moving one hundred years into the future. He sees no evidence of human civilization. The cows were no longer domesticated. A half hour later, Hasten is attacked by massive butterflies. The results of the butterfly attacks are immediate and violent causing pain and a blackening of the skin. He gets back to the Time Car and treats his injuries noticing that it was a small sting. He was lucky more butterflies did not attack him. He investigates an library for clues about what happened. Before another butterfly attack, Hasten manages to return to the Time Car with an armful of old newspapers. He plans to move ahead another fifty years to make sure the cause was the butterflies, but the butterflies are capable of attacking the Time Car with corrosive acid. This confirms that humanity would have no way to survive these butterflies and returns to his own time.
Hasten explains what he learned. The butterflies only attack humans, and leave other living things along. Wood is confident that with this knowledge humans can stop the butterflies. A soldier notices that the Time Car has many cocoons, most of which are already empty. The butterflies have been released into the present.
“Meddler” is a time travel story that turns around conventions. The standard story of time-travel leading to the end of humanity involves someone going back in time and changing some seemingly insignificant but actually crucial event. The so-called “Butterfly Effect” is most well-known from the Ray Bradbury story “A Sound of Thunder” (1952). Dick’s reform of Bradbury’s story is interesting in that it shows how changing the future can lead to the same type of catastrophe. It is striking in the aftermath of “The Sound of Thunder” that the scholars running Dips are not fearful of messing with the past. The strict prohibition is on meddling with the future.
The technology of the Dip is an interesting development in the technology of time travel. In this story we see that Dips have allowed the mechanization and bureaucratization of historical research. If the past can be studied directly, there is no need for debate among historians. In fact, historical research has been incorporated into the state. The humanities, as seen in the rise of digital humanities, has largely accepted the role of technology as a research aid. In this story, Dick subtly warns that the danger of technology in academic research is the same as in any other application. It takes away the mental autonomy of people and gives it to the machine. We are still years away from computers completing historical analysis, but historians are already using machines to process data. How long until the machines can reach the conclusions on their own? Slightly more ominously, it is not clear what the role of Histo-Research, a government agency, has in state power. History is an important part of the ideological training of the people through mass education. World history and Western Civilization classes, for instance, implicitly defend the state by suggesting the rise of states are part of the natural evolution of humanity.
The ruling council is called the Political Science Council. With this revelation it is safe to say that the bureaucratic regime described in “Meddler” is a variation of the philosopher kings idea presented in Plato’s Republic. But these academics prove no more capable in using power responsibly. Unable to be content with collecting evidence the old-fashioned way, the Political Science Council demands knowledge of the future. The results, as the story shows, are catastrophic. More than a time-travel story, “Meddler” is an assault on the pretensions of academia and its often anti-democratic tendencies. Anyone who has spent any time in an academic department knows that these people are not the ones you would want running a just society.
Wikipedia entry for “Meddler.”