“Adjustment Team” was published in Orbit Science Fiction in September-October 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 269–287.
A Clerk walks toward a green stucco house and steps into the backyard. He informs the dog that they will be adjusting Sector T137. The dog must ensure that the man in the house be in his office before nine o’clock. The man must be adjusted with the building and must be there before the process begins. To be safe, the man will be summoned at 8:15 through a friend who will drive him to work.
Ruth and Ed Fletcher are getting ready for work. They debate who is luckier, Ruth who gets to come home earlier or Ed who can relax a bit before going to the office. Ed gets ready at a leisurely pace because he has plenty of time.
The Clerk is preparing for the summons at 8:14. The god summoned too late, sparking fear in the Clerk. The chain of events has been shattered and “A Friend with a Car” will not be picking Ed Fletcher up early, ensuring Fletcher will not be in Sector T137.
Meanwhile, Ed hears the dog barks. And a moment later he hears a knock on the door. At the door is a life insurance salesman. The salesman successfully sells Ed a policy, delaying his arrive at work. He would not get there until 10. When he does arrive at his office he finds everything strangely coated in grey. Things he touches turn to dust. The sun disappears. A cigar salesman is frozen and also dissolves to dust when touched. Inside the building, steps fall apart as he steps on them. The workers in the office are all frozen. He sees men in white robes working. They follow Ed as he flees the building and the overwhelming greyness. After a few moments he is back under the sun in a more familiar reality. He concludes that he is going crazy.
The Clerk is summoned before The Old Man. He explains the error that led to Ed Fletcher entering Sector T137 while it was de-energized. The Clerk is charged with locating Ed. A simple memory wipe will not do because he will likely tell others about the incident first. He must be brought before the Old Man. The Old Man tells the Clerk that the Watchers are out looking for Ed and he will be brought in soon.
Ed finds Ruth on the street and takes her to a restaurant for lunch. There he explains what has happened to him. Ruth suggests that he is taking work so seriously that he had a nervous breakdown when he realized he would need to tell his boss that he was late. Ruth walks him back to the office building and everything appears to back to normal. He enters the office, telling his co-workers that he was sick in the morning. He prepares to see his boss, Mr. Douglas. Ed begins to notice numerous small changes in the office. Decorations on the walls, placement of desks and items, people’s clothing, different wallpaper, and different lights. When he finds Douglas, he notices even more dramatic changes. Douglas is younger and thinner. It is the same man but a slightly different version of him. Ed runs to a phone booth. Before he can make a call, the phone booth rises into the air.
The Clerk confirms that Ed is “the element in question.” The Old Man explains that he will talk to Ed on his own. Ed, however, assumes that he is dead and he is experiencing the afterlife. The Old Man tells him that what he saw this morning was due to the de-energization of the building and its inhabitants so that a team could introduce subtle changes. Ed was not supposed to observe these changes. A mistake lead to him not being at work. Ed tells the Old Man that he can consider him adjusted, that he will not tell anyone what happened. The Old Man explains that the changes are being made in Ed’s office—a real estate firm—to ensure a specific chain of events take place. Most important Douglas had to be younger in order to take a risk in a real estate deal that will lead to a discovery of an apparently alien technology, the research of which will bring scientists from around the world together ending the Cold War and the risk of nuclear war. Ed promises that he will not tell anyone else about what he saw.
Back home, Ruth assumes that Ed came home late because he is having an affair. He was stuck. He could not tell the truth, but no lie would convince Ruth that Ed was not having an affair. Just then, the dog barks and a vacuum cleaner salesman enters to show his wares to Ruth. The distraction allows Ed to escape and enjoy a cigarette in his room.
I will be withholding my main interpretation of this story, since it has a significant position in my forthcoming book on Philip K. Dick. I will just give the clue that I think it is not just convenient for the plot that Ed Fletcher works in a real estate office. It is actually a shadow of the most important lessons of the story. But, I have some other stuff to say about this story, so do not worry.
“Adjustment Team” gives us a team of bureaucrats who look on the humans with indifference, but hold up their actions (many of which are actually quite horrific) as necessary for the greater good. The Old Man says: “Sometimes we wonder how we can go on another period. But it must be done. For the good of all. For your good.” (284) Striking home the point that these are bureaucrats, Dick does not give them names, simply functions (The Clerk, the Old Man, A Friend with a Car). This impressive ability to be objective helps convince them that their actions are not only good, but necessary. We are right to mistrust them. Personally, I find Ed Fletcher’s willingness to accept their wisdom to be both tragic and entirely understandable. More of us accept bureaucratic logic without question.
The first scene in the story between Ed and Ruth is brilliant look at the morning routine of a married, professional couple. In the morning they debate who has a better life. The limit of their vision is if they can take a rest from work in the morning or in the afternoon. What is better? Coming home early or going to work later. While they do not seem to share very much. Ruth is intensely jealous of Ed, interrogating him at length over his late arrival at home. His report to her about his strange experiences is more interesting, but it because just a way for Ruth to suggest Ed is being lazy at work again. She is more worried if he has been fired than if he was having a serious mental crisis. I wonder why a woman who sees her husband as a source of middle class stability care so much if he is having an affair.
“Adjustment Team” was made into a movie titled Adjustment Bureau. I have not seen it and cannot comment. The similarly theme film Dark City is an interesting exploration on the same device. There, the forces that subtlety manipulate the world are trying to understand human character and exploit that knowledge. They do not have the facade of benevolence, like the “Adjustment Team” described in the story. I urge readers to take a look at that film.
Wikipedia page on “Adjustment Team.”
Film version trailer.
Dark City Trailer