“The Turning Wheel” was published in Science Fiction Stories in 1954. It can be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick in pp. 57–73.
Bard Chai is talking with Bard Sung-wu about the emergence of dangerous cults threating the dominant religion, Holy Arm, which is centered on a belief in a type of reincarnation based on the turning of a wheel. The most dangerous cults emerge from the lowest class Caucasioans, many of whom are members of the lowest caste, the Technos. Chai orders Sung-wu to Detroit to investigate the rise of a cult. Sung-wu goes to visit Bard Fei-p’ang, who controls a time-space scanner, used to visit the future. Using the scanner, Sung-wu looks into his future and finds it unchanged despite his considerable efforts at atonement (giving money to charity, self-flagellation). His future shows that he will die of a disease, be buried in a mass grave, and descend down one step the ladder of reincarnation due to sins he committed as a youth. He abandons hope that he will be able to rectify his sins before the wheel will turn for him.
Sung-wu heads out to Detroit and the narrator discusses the social structure. There is a strict caste structure with the Bars on top, followed by the Poets, the Artists, the Musicians, the Workers, the Businessmen, the Warriors, the Farmers, and at the bottom Technos. The Tinkerist cult emerged from the Technos. The upper classes widely believe that the Caucasians—who dominate the lowers castes—are inferior due to the introduction of Neanderthal blood. The Indian, Mongolian, and Bantu members of the higher class rarely associate with the Caucasians. Sung-wu arrives in Detroit and asks a Bantu boy for directions to any nearby Techno communities. The boys he meets appear to be unschooled in the religion of the turning wheel. He lectures these uninitiated children in the fundamental principles of the faith. Through each lifetime the wheel turns and pushes individuals up or down the cosmic ladder based on your deeds in life. Before his lecture can end, he is approached by two Technos. Sung-wu is taken to the lower class villages. One of the Technos, named Jamison, takes Sung-wu to a fat Indian who appears to in charge of the community. Sung-wu scolds him for intermingling with Caucasians and lowers castes. The Indian tells him that he interprets the teachings of the founder Elron to mean that all men are brothers and the racial divisions are a blight on society. Sung-wu agrees, which is why he supports the gradual decline of the lower classes through restrictions on reproduction. The Indian tells Sung-wu that Elron himself was a “Cauc.” A parade of marches approach, with fanatical looks on their face, and hold poles of shiny newly forged metal. The final marcher carries a pennant with a giant “T” on it. These are the cult of the Tinkerists. Sung-wu escapes an attack by the cult. He realizes that the entire region—all classes—is sympathetic to the Tinkerists. He fears that the movement’s rise will usher in a new Time of Madness.
Sung-wu’s ship is seized by Caucasians. Sung-wu escapes to a farm where he finds a young girl capturing beetles. Horrified at this disrespect for recently deceased brothers, Sung-wu scolds the girl, named Frija. Frija invites Sung-wu to stay with them. He hopes to use this opportunity to live in this region and turn back their descent by restoring the Holy Arm. Frija introduces Sung-wu to her grandfather Benjamin Tinker.
After cleaning up and eating, he worries that his illness is progressing more rapidly. He concludes that free will interfered with the predictions laid out in the time-space scanner. Ben Tinker explains what they are doing in the district, irrigating crops, using artificial fertilizer, and spraying for insect control. Sung-wu accuses Ben (the head Tinker) of “meddling” with the cosmic plan. Ben is conflicted. If he kills Sung-wu more agents of the Holy Arm will come. If he lets him be he will disrupt their efforts to develop the area using science. Sung-wu only threatens them with a decent on the cosmic ladder. Ben Tinker suggests that their activities must be part of the cosmic plan. He then explains to Ben how he has seen his own death. Ben asks for the symptoms of his future illness.
Sung-wu returns to the Holy Arm and reports that the Tinker movement is weak and will soon fall apart, lacking strong leadership. He leaves for a promised vacation to Europe. The Tinkerists have given him some penicillin capsules that he can take to prevent the plague when he is struck by it in eight months.
“The Turning Wheel” is one of Dick’s attempts to frame the diverging values of a religious and technological life. After a devastating war, the technocratic and capitalist class is blamed, so the society that emerges from the ashes of that conflicts is focused on religion, art, and music. The social structure seems to be a slightly more complicated version of the Confucian social structure, which placed sages at the top, followed by peasants, workers, and merchants. The social system that emerged after the war is also characterized by racial divisions. The Caucasians were separated as the lowest class and exclusively make up the population of the lowest cast, the Technos. There is something immediately inauthentic about the division. The Bards, the people at the top of the social order, use technology themselves. They have a time-space scanner to read the future (this contributes heavily to their religious speculations). They also use guns and ships for transportation, but these rarely work very well and are often breaking down. Harder to see is the ruling class’s embrace of scientific racism and even eugenics, something that would have originally been created by the “Technos.” Sung-wu, who seems to be quite the zealot, is easily convinced of the need for basic medical care and eagerly accepts life-saving medicines. This is the same type of inauthenticity that we see in the anti-vaccination movement, young Earth creationists, and even believes in ancient aliens. The science that makes their theories impossible, often improves their lives in innumerable ways.
We see the origin of a major Philip K. Dick motif in “The Turning Wheel.” This is the motif of the new religious movement. From our perspective both the Holy Arm and the Tinkerists are new religions, but in the context it is the advocates of use of technology that create a rebellious subculture. It is interesting that a movement based on the return of science and technology to the world would manifest itself as a religious movement, complete with religious fanaticism, a reinterpretation of dominant religious traditions, and religious iconography. Perhaps in a world where the ruling class is profoundly religious, the alternatives would first need to fit themselves into that cultural superstructure.
Another motif that will come up again in Dick’s fiction is the rise of an Eastern religion. The Holy Arm seems to have various influences, but it core theology is strongly Asian, focusing on a belief in reincarnation and karmic balance. It seems to be also informed by Catholic-style hierarchies and discipline.
Much of the significance of “The Turning Wheel” among the early stories by Dick is that it is the most significant variation in his technophobia. Here he shows how the total rejection of technology is not only inauthentic, but dangerous and stifling. Like “Souvenir,” “The Turning Wheel” paints a picture of small-scaled, local technological post-scarcity. The Tinkerists do not allow technology to dominate their lives. Neither do they turn their back on technologies that can make clear improvements over their life. Once again, Dick shows that technology can be powerfully liberating if it is framed in such a way that maintains human autonomy and is committed to real progress, not vulgar consumerism or war.
Wikipedia Entry for “The Turning Wheel.”