James P. Crow

Story Background
“James P. Crow” was published in Planet Stories in May 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 311–325.


Plot Summary
Donnie is called a “nasty little human being” by a Z-236r robot while playing chess with him. Donnie’s parents Ed and Grace Parks discuss the occurrence later, expressing both concern for Donnie and outrage at the way robots treat humans. Ed is angry but soon realizes that there is little can be done. Humans depend almost entirely on robots to run civilization. Competitive examinations (called Lists), the humans can never pass, prove that they are simply not intelligent enough to run their own society. The only areas that humans have some autonomy was in cooking food and in entertainment. Mostly they worked a laborers.

Later Ed and Donnie discusses the Lists that Donnie is preparing for. Ed tells Donnie that although the Lists allow any human who tests into the top forty percent to be eligible for an advance classification, a human has never passed the exams. They are just not smart enough. Ed explains that he found meaning in his job as a body servant. Grace, however, hold out hope. There is a small Equality Party among the robot leaders and at least one human who passed the lists ten years earlier. Someday he will even become a Class One, his name is James P. Crow. Ed disregards this as an old story.

Ed’s co-worked, Bob McIntyre, confirms the truth of the existence of James P. Crow. After a total war, robots took over control of society, molding it and directing it to evolve away from anarchy and destruction. As the leaders of the reconstruction, robots remained in power directing the development of society. Crow was an ordinary repairman who passed the tests. Although the robots do not like it, they are forced to accept him because of the law. McIntrye is eager to see Crow in the Council.

James P. Crow is in his office reflecting on how clever his name was and how none of the robots would understand it. Crow issues an order to a robot, who he knows will drag its feet during the task, begrudging the fact that he must serve a human. Another robot enters asking Crow to attend an Equality Party meeting. Crow tells it that humans are not the equals of robots. They may excel in some physical and artistic areas but they will never be the equals of robots. Crow hints that he will have a solution to this once he becomes Class One.

Crow heads toward the Terran Security Building, passing robots that avoid him or politely acknowledge him and humans who look on his with awe. He visits the personal quarters he grew up in during his lunch break. He sits before a set of machines and places a tape scanner into a Window. It displays two robots going through the Lists. It is a scanner that can read the future. Crow is looking into the future Lists. This is how he passed the Lists. He never could have without this future scanner because the Lists were prepared by robots and catered to their mind. He then takes the scanner back in time to the creation of the first robots four centuries earlier.

Ed is comforting Donnie as they are walking home after Donnie failed to pass the Lists. At home, Grace is excited by the news that James P. Crow has passed the Lists to make it into Class One, allowing him to enter the supreme ruling council.

James P. Crow enters the ruling council. The robots want to disregard him, but Crow asserts that he scored a perfect score on twenty distinct Lists and that he was technically their superior because no robot has ever achieved a perfect score. Crow gets right to business and proposes that all the robots leave Earth. They protest that they created Earth in its current form and that it is their planet. Crow shows them some tapes from the time scanner showing the origins of the robots. Crow proves that the original robots were invented to be soldiers and servants of humans. One of them protests that this changes nothing. It only proves that robots developed through evolution their superiority. Another realizes that if he used a Time Window, it explains his perfect scores. Crow threatens to releases the tapes if the robots do not leave.

The Supreme Council determines that Venus, Mars, and Ganymede will be reserved for robots. Humans will remain on Earth and not be allowed to visit. When a robot sympathetic to the Equality Party asks Crow who will rule Earth now, Crow simply smiles.

The allegory in “James P. Crow” is as obvious to everyone reading the story as it is missed on the robots who populate the novel. The story is obviously about Jim Crow in the American South. Dick did not push the racial theme in his stories, but it is prominent enough in his writing to strongly suggest Dick was on the right side of history. We need to be a bit careful with this story, however. Is James P. Crow, the character who manipulated a Time Window to cheat on a standardized civil service exam and then manipulate the robots who ruled humans, an opponent of segregation or an advocate of it? He believes the way the robots treat humans, by institutionalizing their social inferiority by crafting exams that only robots can pass but then opening it up to all, is unjust. His solution is to separate humans and robots. He even confesses—honestly, we must accept—that humans are inferior to robots in at least certain aptitudes and the solution is to actually de-integrate the world. He forces the robots off the planet. Maybe James P. Crow is closer to a black nationalist than a civil rights activist.

We need to remember one thing about the institutionalization of racism in the United States before the civil rights movement. Slavery was many things, but it was not segregated. Segregation is a separate issue from economic exploitation. Clearly the robots in “James P. Crow” are exploiting the labor of humans, defending their own political position by crafting institutions so that humans simply cannot compete. Not just slavery, actually most meritocracies work this way. The game is rigged either way. In the aftermath of slavery, when the major institution of control gave way, whites imposed segregation. Even this was limited in the economic realm. Segregation never stopped whites from leasing their land to black sharecropped, for instance. What James P. Crow suggests as a solution really is total segregation, something that had no parallel in any multi-racial society. In short, if we take “James P. Crow” as an allegory for American race relations, the ending is rather troubling. (This is above and beyond the strong suggestion that Crow was working to become a dictator of those who stayed behind.)

What I find more fascinating than the not so subtle attempt at racial politics is what the story tells us about institutions and freedom and agency. The robots saved humanity from war and rebuilt the world in their image. As time went on, the system got more and more complicated. Even the robots cannot answer all the answers on their competitive examinations. As the system became more complicated, humans had less and less control over their lives. This seems to be what Lewis Mumford talked about as the danger of “The Machine.” Sure, we have technocrats who understand how the electrical grid works, or how nuclear plants function, or how to balance the books of a Fortune 500 Company. But by surrendering that knowledge in the first place we made it difficult to prevent their co-option of power. Given that power they can refuse to share responsibility and then justify it with inanities such as “well those lower classes have a more authentic artistic sense.” Dick is not only warning about the logic of race-based exploitation and exclusion but also suggesting the dangers of granting too much authority to a technocratic class.

Philipkdickfans.com on “James P. Crow.”

Dangers of technocracy.

Robot that can control the human body.

Documentary on Jim Crow.
Note: I recall this one having more parts, but here is some of it at least. I may add more later


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Bureaucracy, Humanism, Philip K. Dick, Power, Science, Technology, Work and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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