Some Kinds of Life

Story Background
“Some Kinds of Life” was first published in Fantastic Universe in November 1953. It was published under the name Richard Phillips. Cited page numbers come from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel), 109–118.


Plot Summary
Joan Clarke is woken up by her husband, Bob, franticly searching for his uniform. Joan locates it, but Bob is disgusted that the uniform is wrinkled. Joan assures her that although she forgot to have it dry cleaned it will look fine. Bob then informs his wife that his unit has been called up again, six months early. The army is not calling up two units at once. The operation should only take a few days (a previous one took a week), but Bob has to leave right away. Tommy, their son, is delighted to see his father go off to war again. He has been following the news about Mars. Bob leaves with Joan and Tommy continues reading an automated biology lesson.

On the way to the car, Joan asks Bob why they need to fight the Martians. Bob explains what Joan already knows, that the control board for the car requires rexeroid, which can only be found on Mars. The control board makes automated driving possible. The pace of life has picked up so much that returning to manual steering. The previous ways were fought in Venus for access to kryon (used to maintain house temperature) and in Pluto for lonolite (used in calculators). Bob leaves to meet up with his unit.

Bob died during the war on Mars. Bryan Erickson the local Sector Organizer, observes the Clarke home’s automated kitchen. He is there to remind Tommy that he must fill out his Sector Unit card to be registered for service. The heavy losses on Mars meant that the draft age had to be reduced. They are also fighting a war against Callisto for supplies of gleco. Gleco is used to automate doors, ensuring that only the right people are allowed inside.

Tommy has been drafted to fight in the Callisto war. Over Joan’s protests he leaves. Tommy survives the war but is killed in Europa in the war for trektone (used to run vidscreens). Erickson is again meeting with Joan, who is now the only person in the house. He talks about the iderium war with Neptune. Iderium is for automated newspapers that can document events as they happen. Earth is also at war with Mercury due to an uprising. Mercury is the source of ambroline, which is used in automated kitchens. Erickson tells Joan that due to all of these wars, women will be drafted into the service units.

Erickson returns to the Clarke house during the nymphite war with Saturn. Nymphite is used to classify people based on their aptitudes. It is “the basic tool of modern society.” (116) Joan wonders who will be left on Earth.

Some years later, an archeological survey ship from Orion arrives on Earth. N’tgari-3 reports on what he finds. There is plenty of evidence of the legendary Terrans. Their buildings and technologies are all perfectly preserved. However, the Terrans are extinct. Where they went is one of the largest mysteries in archeology.

“Some Kinds of Life” combines Dick’s disgust with war with his fears over automated consumer technologies. In the story, Earth sends out most of its population in a series of resource wars around the solar system. First the men, then the children, and then the women are eliminated in these wars. This is implausible. I doubt any economy, even with massive mechanization could sustain all of its people in arms. With everything else being automated, why has warfare not been replaced by robots? But, this is a minor quibble. This excellent story is really about the absurdity of much of the 1950s consumer culture, requiring the constant updating of the household with the newest devices and technologies. It is also, more subtly, about the relationship between the individual and the state.

What makes the war for resources described in this story so ridiculous is that the consumer technologies that require these resources are mostly ridiculous. The logic behind the rexeroid war with Mars is maybe the one that makes the most sense. Joan thinks they can just go back to manual steering. Bob says: “We could ten years ago. But ten years ago we were driving less than a hundred miles per hour. No human being could steer at the speeds these days. We couldn’t go back to manual steering without slowing down our pace. [. . .] Sweetheart, it’s ninety miles from here to town. You really think I could keep my job if I had to drive the whole way at thirty-five miles an hour?” (111) There is a careful criticism of suburbia and commuter culture here. But at least this war makes some sense. The gleco-war against Callisto is justified by Tommy with “[if we lose Callisto], we’ll have to go back to carrying door keys. Like our grandfathers.” (113) The story was written in the post-war period when middle class consumers rapidly filled their homes with automated consumer goods such as dishwashers and washing machines. The irksome part of his critique is that automated door openers is not the logical extension of a washing machine. I have never seen a home with an automatic door (they are common in businesses in Taiwan, where I live). They may exist in rich people’s homes, I do not know. But almost everyone in the industrial world has a washing machine or chooses to use public washing machines. The reason for this is opening doors, unlike washing clothes, is not an odious, often gendered, form of labor. If Dick the trend toward in-home labor saving technologies, I suspect he did not often need to wash his own clothes by hand.

On the other hand, when we think about the fact that some of the metals used in cellphones are available in only some parts of the world, the possibility of future wars for resources is nonetheless very real. Our tendency to see contraptions that we used to do without as absolutely necessary to basic survival is quite real and Dick is right to point it out. We are probably already at this point with cell phones. In Taiwan, someone without a cellphone is as odd as someone walking down the street without clothing, yet I do not see evidence that it is as revolutionary a labor saving device as the washing machine.

The state is always present in “Some Kinds of Life” and needs to be analyzed. The government is apparently undemocratic, with leaders chosen based on a job selection process. (It is a bit like the career chip device used in the pilot episode of Futurama.) At the local level the most important interaction with the state is through the Sector Organizer, who maintains a friendly face, but whose primary job is to ensure that each eligible draftee has registered and goes off to war when needed. The relationship Dick describes throughout this story is deeply exploitive and likely an extension of his fear of things he saw going on around him during the Cold War.

The benefits of labor-saving household technologies.

The human cost of mobile phones.

Predictions of resource wars in our future.

The Coming Resource Wars

A 1950s-era civil defense film

*Note: Obviously “Some Kinds of Life” is not about fighting communists, but it shows something about the relationship between the state and the people in Dick’s early career.


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Bureaucracy, Cold War, Consumerism, Empire, Philip K. Dick, Politics, Technology, war and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Some Kinds of Life

  1. This seems to be a sort of parable about the decline of ancient civilisations and their fall into ruins.They became decadent,perhaps for similar reasons of greed prosperity and power,that you describe in your analysis,and that is what has happened here.The future is old.When the archelogical team arrive,”we” are already history.

    This is an excellent premise,but unfortunately is another one I don’t remember.I think I can see why.Once again,it seems to only meet science fiction requirements of what a future society will be like,rather than a fully realised account.It isn’t fully extrapolated to make it concrete and convincing.

    The strain of producing so many in so short a period was showing.It’s not surprising they lacked the necessary depth.This isn’t a criticism,so much as a fact of the economics of writing.

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