“The World She Wanted” was first published in Science Fiction Quarterly in May 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), 141–154.
Larry Brewster is getting drunk at the Wind-Up bar while listening to a Dixieland jazz combo. He is pleased with his intoxication and the arrangement of cigarette butts and empty beer bottles. A beautiful woman sitting across from him begins talking to him, correcting an exaggerated statement about Buddhist heaven. The woman, Allison Holmes, tells Larry that this is the best possible world for her. They sort through several philosophical positions, including Herbert Spencer and Rene Descartes. Allison explains that this is the best possible world for her because it is her world. She explains that everything exists in this world for her own pleasure and benefit, including Larry. Each person has their own private world. The two spend the night out, and strange conicedences take palce, always in Allison’s favor. The drinks at the Wind-Up are free because of the boss’s birthday. A corsage store is open late. Allison wins money at an illegal gambling den. Over the course of the night, Allison explains to Larry that they are to be married.
On the way home, Allison tells Larry that they will spend all day together for it will be “our day.” Larry insists that he will work, but Allison tells him not to worry. Inside, Larry finds a note from his boss explaining that his two-week vacation is going to begin starting tomorrow.
Allison arrives on schedule at 10 a.m. the next day. She tells him about a housethat she has just inherited. Larry is skeptical, suggesting that Allison is just interpreting good fortune as a personal best possible world. Allison describes how she developed her theory. History shows providential events happening to people, yet the problem of evil remains. How can one’s life be uncannily lucky, but the aggregate of suffering in the world be so horrendous. If this was the objective “best possible world” such suffering would not exist. A creator could evade the problem of evil by creating a “best possible world” for each person. Histories may overlap between these worlds because they only exist for the person while alive (and thus have no past).
The house is massive and coated with an exotic plant imported from the South Seas. On Larry’s advice, they return to the Wind-Up, which is radically changed. It has changed from a run-down dive bar into a vibrant, classy establishment. Allison explains that it was changed by the owner on her own recommendations.
Leaving the Wind-Up, Larry explains to Allison that he is breaking up with her. Allison insists that this is not possible because he exists in her world to give her pleasure. Larry explains that Allison is too much trouble and a ball of light carries her away, returning her, Larry said to her own world.
Although “The World She Wanted” was published during 1953, the first year that Dick published a massive body of work, it reflects a powerful tension that Philip K. Dick will explore throughout his life. Are we victims of malevolent forces that control the world for their own nefarious purposes or do we have control over our lives and our destinies? To put it more simply, are we fated or are we free? “The World She Wanted” offers up both at once. We can be fated and entirely free at the same time. Allison certainly thinks so, but this only works with this creepy dictatorship she seeks to construct. Individual autonomy for Allison is the autonomy of the slave master. Everyone is a slave to the will of the center of the universe. Of course, she also believes everyone is a dictator in their own world, but this is a situation Allison is indifferent to. She is the master of her world, everyone is fated to her will. “Better think about it before you talk off. You exist for my benefit. Mr. Brewster. This is my world; remember that. Maybe in your own world things are different, but this is my world. And in my world things do as I say.” (153)
I cannot help to think that Allison’s final outburst is actually a reflection of how the ruling classes see the world. They may acknowledge spaces where the underclass, working people, and the poor have agency (maybe the family, or in the quad-yearly elections, or in their bowling leagues), but in the workplace and the market capital is a dictator and we are all fated. The consequences of Allison’s total autonomy is not unlike those of the ruling class’s decision-making power in our world. Allison remodels businesses (gentrifying Larry’s favorite dive), controls the flow of property ownership, can get money whenever she wants.
The beginning and end of the story show Larry with some creative autonomy. This first of these is relatively mundane, the rearranging of beer bottles on the table of his favorite dive. In the end he asserts his domination over his own world by exiling Allison to her own. It is not at all clear when we make the shift from Allison’s world to Larry’s world, or if we ever were in Allison’s world. It is possible that Allison has always been there to serve Larry’s needs. The ending suggests that Larry was keeping Allison in his world to sustain his interest. “In some ways he liked her; for a while she had been fun. Well, she was off now. In this world, Allison Holmes had not been completely real. What he had known, what Larry has called ‘Allison Holmes,’ wasn’t any more than a partial appearance of her.” (153)
Background on “The World She Wanted.”