“Jon’s World” was published in the anthology Time to Come in 1954. I read it in We Can Remember It For Your Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2. It can be found there on pages 53–81.
Kastner and Caleb Ryan are reviewing a recently completed time machine. While it works, it has an unfinished look, which many functional but unattractive knobs. Krastner tells him that he will accompany Ryan on his mission since he always wanted to see what things were like before the war. He will also function as the representative of the United Synthetic Industries Combine, which backed the project. Ryan is requested back at his home because of an attack his son suffered.
He travelled home on an inter-city ship and observes the damage from the war. The cities were built from materials brought down from the Lunar Base, but most of the surface of the planet has been devastated by the war. During the war the surviving humans endured on the Moon while the claws, man-made and autonomous machines, struggled for domination over the planet. (Note: This story is a sequel to “Second Variety” and gives humans a victory over the claws in the end.) When he arrived at City Four, he entered his quarters and discussed the situation with an old man who was seeing to his son. The old man reports that the attack involved his son talking in another voice. In a mature tone, the boy, Jon, talks to his father, asking about the progress on the time ship. Jon reminds his father that the attacks are visions, more real than the world around him. The devastated world is not real. Ryan is concerned about these attacks because they suggest a return to the irrational days of humanity’s infancy and youth, more common to the Middle Ages than to the mature modern age. Jon explains that in his vision the Earth is a pastoral paradise, with animals. People live in an agrarian society, without factories, business, or commerce. Due to his upcoming time trip, Ryan is convinced he must commit his son to a lobotomy.
After the lobotomy, which ended Jon’s visions, Ryan returns to plans for the time trip. The goal is to secure the papers of a scientist Schonerman, who developed the artificial brain used in the claws. This technology was lost when the claws were destroyed. Ryan repeats his concern that reviving this technology may bring the claws back. Kastner insists that technology is value neutral and the only thing that matters is how the technology is used. Ryan makes some final arrangements for his son’s care and then leaves on the time ship with Kastner. During the trip, Ryan and Kastner discuss the first submarine used in the American Revolution and some of the issues involved in time travel. They stop at a point in time while the war against the claws was still going on, observing a unit of “Wounded Soldier” type claws. These were used in the war to infiltrated bunkers. Ryan explains how the Lunar Base survived the claws because the four types were identified and the survivors took precautions against them. They make another stop and narrowly avoid being attacked by a military (Soviet or UN). With the stops required for observation points ended, Ryan and Kastner leave the ship. They are a few miles from the village where Schonerman worked.
Using a newspaper, they confirm that they are a few months too early, in September 2030. Schonerman is still unprotected because his work would not be released, but there is a military presence to worry about. Ryan and Kastner discuss the development of the war some more, especially how the claws developed autonomy and turned on humans. Schonerman himself was disgusted with the way his work was used for war-making. Schonerman must not be harmed, only his papers must be taken.
During the effort to steal the documents, they are stopped by guards. They managed to escape but in the scuffle, which involved exchanging fire, Schonerman is hit. They escape to the time ship with the stolen documents. Ryan begins to worry that they have inadvertently altered the continuum. They goals was to get the technology to create artificial brains to help with the reclamation of Earth, but they may have altered history entirely. They travel one week forward using the time ship and steal a news magazine. It talks about the war and about their raid on the base. It is revealed that Schonerman died in the blast. Kastner assumes it will be fine because someone else will develop the artificial brain technology.
They travel in the time ship to 2051, the first year the claws appeared. In the changed timeline there are no claws, but the war ended abruptly due to a counter-revolution in Russia. They ask a soldier about the claws. The soldier mentions an effort by an English scientist to develop automated mines, but that research did not go anywhere. Ryan realizes that Schonerman’s death, combined with the loss of his papers, made it impossible for anyone else to carry on his research. Moving ahead in time they learn that humans focused their energies on development instead of war. Ryan fears that he and his family would no longer exist. Back to their original time, the find a world that corresponded exactly with the visions Jon had before the lobotomy. As the time ship came closer to being completed, Jon’s visions became sharper and more realized. Kastner destroys Schonerman’s notes before Ryan can take them back and restore the timeline. Kastner seem to want to come to terms with living in the alternative timeline and mentions seeking out some people to discussion metaphysics with. He wonders if the visions and speculations of medieval mystics were actually glimpses into another timeline.
In “Jon’s World” we see Dick display the metaphysical speculation that has helped make him such a popular writer. While, I confess that to me this is the least appealing part of Dick’s philosophy (I am more interested in this world and its horrors), it is often well-done. Here the plot centers on a boy, deemed by society to be mentally ill, who was able to see the world as it would be in greater and greater clarity due to the development of a time travel device. It is not explained why Jon had these visions, but the success of the lobotomy suggests that the cause of physiological. One reason I do not much the metaphysical speculation is that there is little to say about it analytically. Either we are in universe A or we are in universe B (continue on as desired). Epistemologically, we are either aware of the universe we are in or we are not. In either case, I am not sure how it changes how we live our life. For example, whether we are in a simulation or not matters little about my need to get a job, find enough money for lunch, or secure shelter from the rain. I suspect, even if I was conscious of being in a simulation, my material needs within that simulation would not change. Anyway, to the story.
“Jon’s World” is set some years or decades after “Second Variety”. We left that tale convinced that the claws would find their way into the Lunar Base, killing all the survivors. Dick backs away from that brutal conclusion and has the several million human survivors on the moon winning the war against the claws, aided by the fact that the claws began fighting each other. This does not in itself weaken the power of “Second Variety”. “Jon’s World” not only undoes that pessimistic ending, it goes for a total reboot. By the end of the story, the claws never even existed, the Soviets lost the war through an old-fashioned coup at home, and the world rebuilt itself with a non-technological, philosophical society.
Jon’s visions are certainly preferable to the near extermination of human life, the destruction of all plant and animal life, and the desperate effort to reclaim Earth with a handful of survivors. Yet, the world that replaces this is essentially an idealized version of the middle ages. There is much to speak about this world. It was a collectively lived life and the commons endured, unviolated by the relentless privatization of capitalism. Jon predicts the world like this. “Men and women. In robes. Walking along the paths, among the trees. The air fresh and sweet. The sky bright blue. Birds. Animals. Animals moving through the parks. Butterflies. Oceans. Lapping oceans of clear water.” (58) Ryan, Jon’s father, points out the other side of the coin. The middle ages were a time of superstition and ignorance. “Myths, religions, fairy tales. A better land, beyond and above. Paradise. All coming back, reappearing again, and in his own son.” (58)
Dick clearly does not prefer the afterlife to this world. This is why me makes Jon’s visions reality, using the science fiction motif of time travel. He even suggests to us that the visions of medieval mystics were produced by the same phenomenon that produced Jon’s.
Dick predicts the cyberpunk political structure in his vision of the post-war reclamation project. It seems that there is an equal power between capital (reflected in the United Synthetic Industries Combine) and the state (the League). In exchange for funding the time travel project, USIC gets not only equal representation on the experimental trip, but also access to the contracts to develop the artificial brain technology.
One last thing to say about this story is that it is centered on a very relevant debate about the use of technology. Kastner tells Ryan that he should not fear that artificial brain technology will bring back the claws. “Schonerman’s work was not implicitly related to the claws. The development of an artificial brain does not imply lethal usage. Any scientific discovery can be used for destruction. Even the wheel was used in the Assyrian war chariots.” (62) A very succinct statement of the problem! Ryan, at the end of the story burns Schonerman’s document so as not to introduce a potentially destructive technology a idyllic world.
Background from philipkdickfans.com
Some speculation on parallel timelines.
*Note: As readers may know, I do not put much stock into this stuff, but I thought I would point out that some people do take it seriously and speculate on it.