The Trouble with Bubbles

Story Background
“The Trouble with Bubbles” was first published in Imagination in September 1953. Cited pages numbers come from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2 (New York: Citadel), 191–205.


Plot Summary
Nathan Hull passes a Worldcraft store on his way to a Contest Party, commonly held during the judging of the best Worldcarft bubble entries. Hull does not take part in these contests. The winner is declared to be Lora Becker, a middle-aged woman. She displays her bubble for the participants of the party. It is very impressive, but as one of the observers notes, when you have been at it for sixty years, you get quite good at creating the microscopic planets and their inhabitants. After displaying her winning entry, Lora smashes her bubble. The other members of the party destroy their own bubbles. This is common on the third day of a Contest Party.

Hull is having coffee with Julia Marlow and Bart Longstreet. Packman began selling the Worldcraft bubbles a century ago with the slogan “Own Your Own World.” They examine Longstreet’s bubble, which contains a world in the Jurassic period. This is not advanced enough to be a real competitor. The popularity of the Worldcraft bubbles began after space exploration began and proved the rest of the solar system to be barren and dead. Without any possibility of finding new life on other planets, people took up the hobby of building their own worlds. The bubbles solved people’s need for creativity at a time when robots did most of the work and alleviated the depression people felt over the end of possibilities in space. The bubbles contain worlds that exist at the subatomic level. By manipulating the conditions on these worlds, including inspiring catastrophic events, the crafters could guide the evolution of their worlds. More strange, however, is the near universal desire to destroy the worlds and start again. Hull explains this to humanity’s inherently violent tendencies. Hull fears that the Worldcarft fad is stifling human development. If the other planets of the solar system are dead, they should seek out worlds outside the solar system instead of playing with the bubbles. Hull announces to his friends that he will force the issue by making the Worldcraft bubbles illegal on moral grounds.

In the Directorate Hall, Hull speaks in favor of his bill banning world crafting. He argues to the Directorate that Worldcraft Industries is a public menace because it allows the creation of millions of new worlds, only to see these worlds destroyed in a final moment of violence. The Worldcraft bubbles contain real people and real civilizations and the owners of the bubbles are given complete autonomy over them. After his speech, both Bart Longstreet and the founder of Worldcarft Industries, Packman, lecture Hull on his naivety in using a moral argument to try to stop world crafting. Hull’s motion is overwhelmingly defeated on the floor. News reports confirm that humans have made contact with people from other civilizations during visits to the Proxima system. This proves that there is plenty of life in the galaxy and plenty of room to explore new worlds without creating artificial ones in bubbles. With this news Worldcraft stock begins to crash. Meanwhile a massive earthquake destroys the newly unveiled tube connecting North America with Asia, killing thousands.

“The Trouble With Bubbles” is one of the thematically richest stories published in 1953. The twist ending suggests that the entire civilization is controlled by destructive malevolent forces, just like the worlds in the bubbles. If simulated realities are possible, then the simulated realities will vastly outnumber the real worlds, so the chances are that we live in one of these simulated environments. Once again we find Dick struggling with the problem of evil. “The Trouble With Bubbles” fits well with two other stories published in the same year taking on the problem of evil. In “The World She Wanted” this is explained by giving each individual their own best possible world. Natural evil in these worlds will always be directed toward others, not the owner of the world. In “Project: Earth,” natural evil is explained in more Old Testament terms as a reflection of human disobedience against their creators.

In “The Trouble with Bubbles” the answer is that the creators of our world are the equivalent of bored teenagers with malevolent tendencies, experimenting on us to promote simulated evolution or just catharsis. “The inhabitants are, at present, subject to the slightest whim their owner may feel. If we wish to reach down and crush their world, turn on tidal waves, earthquakes tornadoes, fire, volcanic action—if we wish to destroy them utterly, there is nothing they can do.” (200) It is a fascinating moral thought experiment that may have ramifications in the future.

Dick believed that humanity needed a frontier to stay vibrant and creative. In this story, the realization that the solar system provided no hope for humanity’s future lead to universal despair. Development was no longer possible on Earth. Robots had taken over all the important work. People had too much leisure time and there was no longer any great project at hand. The Worldcraft bubbles became a very effective way of dealing with the banality of everyday life. It promised that everyone from children to adults could become gods. In truth, these types of simulations have been popular for a long time. Board games, table-top role-playing games, SimCity, Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and other simulated realities have long provided people the ability to construct an alternative simulated reality. It may actually be possible someday to create such simulations populated with artificial intelligences. (Indeed, we may be in one such place.)

Wikipedia entry for “The Trouble with Bubbles.”

More background.

Morality and artificial intelligence.

Simulated universes and morality.

Around 4:00 Sam Harris talks about simulated reality.


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Afterlife, Alien Life, Empire, Philip K. Dick, Philosophy, Politics, Posthumanism, Power, Space Exploration, Technology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Trouble with Bubbles

  1. This is one of his best short stories.The themes that would soon become his currency,were already taking shape,in this case,religion of a speculative nature.It was written a year before the excellent “Upon the Dull Earth,which like “The Trouble with Bubbles”,deals with the dangerous consequences of interfering with spiritual existence,although in a more literal fashion.In both cases,the fact of living in a flawed world,appears to be the root cause of catastrophe.

    The theme of a flawed world,created by an equally flawed creator god,was eloquently told in “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” of course.He is like the human creators of the “bubble worlds” in TTWB.He doesn’t care about his creation.Because he is divine but less than perfect,he has abandoned his creation,because he doesn’t care about “our” fate.His behaviour is similar to those who smash the “bubbles”,because he is not a benevolent “God”.He is however,both the Universe he has created,and the Universe itself.It seems,that like what befalls those at the end of TTWB,there is no salvation.

    • tashqueedagg says:

      A great story. I agree, one of his best. I agree that he is picking at the indifference and absurdity of God as a creator. He did the same thing with that story where the commuter wrote the Bible (in that case, the absurdity of God as author).

      My good heart still wants this story to be about our deep desire to create. I think gaming is proving me right. The Role-playing resurgence, Mine craft, open source gaming, etc. We want games that harness our creativity.

      • Yes well,before his 1974 experiences,he thought that God was less than benign.We want to create,but we don’t want to be the game somebody else is playing,anymore than we want to be the creators.

        Thank you for your reply.Nice to hear from you again.

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