“Paycheck” was first published in Imagination in its June 1953 issue. Page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 279–308.
Jennings is a mechanic who agreed to work for Earl Rethrick’s company with a two year contract. The catch is that after two years he would have his memory of those years wiped clear before receiving a substantial salary. Although he aged two years, Jennings had no memory of the time at work so from Jennings’ perspective it was an instant payout. He goes to the paymaster, a woman named Kelly, and receives an envelope with assorted trinkets in lieu of payment. Jennings learned that he agreed to a change in his contract before accepting these items instead of the $50,000 salary he expected. These trinkets are: a code key, a ticket stub, a package receipt, a piece of wire, a half of a poker chip, a piece of cloth, and a bus token. Depressed at his loss, he leaves the building.
Almost immediately Jennings is picked up by the secret police who question him about his time working for Rethrick Construction. Jennings knows only that his specialty is electrical machinery, but of course has no memory of what he did during the past two years. They are about to bring him into custody, but Jennings is able to use the length of wire and the bus token to escape from the situation. On the bus, Jennings realizes that somehow he knew he would needs these items at this time. His options seem limited. He cannot return home. Returning to work for Rethrick will provide some protection. Corporations are largely untouchable by the government, providing sanctuary to their employees. The answer to how he knew what he would need must be at Rethrick, but thanks to the memory whip, he did not even know where the company was located. The ticket stud, one of the “paycheck” items reveals that he must have lived in Stuartsville, Iowa. Jennings departs for a rocket trip to Stuartsville.
Jennings enters a luncheon diner called Bob’s Place in Stuartsville and asks questions about how he can find some work. The man at the counter of the luncheon was not much help, suggesting that he could work at a television repair shop. Later, a cab driver suggests he could work in a secretive location that often takes in local workers. Workers are identified with a special green piece of cloth, identical to the piece that Jennings gave himself. He decides to seek out the aid of Kelly McVane, who must work in Stuartsville.
Jennings locates Kelly and explains to her that he feels that he is a pawn in a game between the secret police and Rethrick Construction Company. He also tells her that he deduced that Rethrick is working on a time scoop. This explains the mind wiping and the police interest in the company. Working on time scoop technology is highly illegal. Jennings decides that his only hope for survival is to get into the system of Rethrick. His plan is to use the remaining four items (the green cloth, the code key, the half of a poker chip, and the parcel receipt) to get inside the company, take many photographs, and then blackmail Rethrick.
Jennings, with Kelly’s help, is able to infiltrate the Rethrick factory. The green fabric allows him to pose as a worker. Jennings takes photographs and steals technical schematics. The code key allows him to escape the factory. Kelly drives him out of the town and Jennings returns, by Intercity rocket back to New York. Kelly returns to New York by cruiser, taking with her the stolen materials. He meets with Kelly again and discusses his plans to confront Rethrick
Jennings is stopped by the police. The half of a poker chip was actually symbol for a gambling den that was protected by the police. The gambling hall would also be the place where he would meet Rethrick.
Jennings’ blackmail attempts confirm what he was already suspecting. Rethrick has been engaged in planning for massive action against the authoritarian state. According to Rethrick, when the people rise up against the state, the only force for social order will be the large corporations. Rethrick has already been actively mobilizing talented people for its infrastructure. Jennings learns that Kelly is Rethrick’s daughter and refused to bring the documents and instead placed them in a safety deposit box. Jennings from the past, uses the time scoop to snatch the ticket for the deposit from Kelly. This ticket is the last of the seven items and enables Jennings to complete his blackmail attempt and is brought into Rethrink as a partner.
One thing that bothers me about this story is that why would a security-conscious company like Rethrink allow workers to renegotiate contracts to include random items. They go through great pains to ensure that the memory of employees is wiped clean but they get a ticket stud with the name of the city where the factory is located and a green arm band that clearly is used to identity company workers escape. As interesting as the idea is that these small items could be used like clues to unravel a predetermined plot, it is simply not believable to me that these items would have been allowed in Jennings’ hands.
Of course, a movie has been made from the story “Paycheck.” It is called Paycheck. It borrows the main plot device but loses the thing that Dick was trying to get at. So, allow me to first rant a little bit. Many people who comment on Dick focus on the metaphysical games he likes to play. These are interesting, but are often intended to articulate a social or political truth. The leads one, perhaps, to read a novel like A Crack In Space to be about alternative evolutionary trajectories and not about class struggle. One goal of this blog and my forthcoming book on Philip K. Dick is to articulate a more political reading of Dick where possible. “Paycheck” is a good example where the device has been raised higher than the argument.
In the case of “Paycheck” we end up with a movie about the manipulation of time travel and a man getting rich by winning the lottery, rather than a story about the conflict between capital and an authoritarian state, both sides of which saw the poor as means to their pursuit of power. Near the end, Rehtirck explains to Jennings that he is building up a state apparatus, not to resolve the social conflicts in society ignore by the state, but to exploit them for profit. “[My grandfather] brought in a few men, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, little once-a-week newspapermen from the Middle West. The Company grew. Weapons appeared, weapons and knowledge. The time scoop and mirror! The Plant was built, secretly, at great cost, over a long period of time. The Plant is big. Big and deep. It goes down many more levels than you saw. He saw them, your alter ego. There’s a lot of power there. Power, and men who’ve disappeared, purged all over the world, in fact. We got them first, the best of them. Someday, Jennings, we’re going to break out. You see, conditions like this can’t go one. People can’t live this way, tossed back and forth by political and economic powers. Masses of people shoved this way and that according to the needs of this government or that cartel. There’s going to be resistance, someday. A strong, desperate resistance. Not by big people, powerful people, but by little people. Bus drivers, Grocers. Vidscreen operations. Waiters. And that’s where the Company comes in.” (307)
For a moment we are to believe that Rethrick may choose to support the people against the corporations and the state, but that is not what he has in mind. He suggests instead that they will be in a prime position to profit from supporting the popular side in the upcoming struggle. Rethrink is looking for a fourth way, a way to side with the revolution while maintaining its position as an economic power. By taking in the disaffected intellectuals and skilled workers, it also promises to be in a position to take over state power someday.
In presenting a world divided between a handful of weak states at odds with strong corporations, Dick prefigures the political structure of many cyberpunk works. Corporations are so strong that the police only have power over the streets. Anyone working for a company, or even entering a gambling den, is under legal protection. Perhaps there is some logic to this given the corruption of our political and legal systems today. If a drug dealer kills someone they get prison. If a corporation kills thousands by releasing toxic chemicals, they get a mild slap on the wrist at worst. “Paycheck” jumped to the logical conclusions of corporate power, which is corporate legal autonomy. The next step, also hinted at in this story, is the corporate state.
Wikipedia page for “Paycheck”
Trailer for the film Paycheck.