“The Last of the Masters” was published in Orbit Science Fiction in November–December 1954. It can be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick in pp. 75–97.
Bors, a governing robot, wakes up and makes an increasingly difficult return to consciousness. Peter Green, its aid begins discussing the day’s business. Peter reminds Bors that they need it and Fowler will arrive soon to address Bors’ maintenance problems. When Fowler arrives he complains about a mix up in the traffic system. After an examination Fowler explains that they have managed to jury-rig repairs to Bors’ motor system, but the decline in its motor abilities in irreversible. Bors begins giving orders for production priorities. Bors’ rusted and crumbling body is put into a small service truck.
Edward Tolby, Silvia Tolby, and Robert Penn—members of the Anarchist League—are on a scouting mission. They notice some of the remnant of the civilization before the war. They approach a farmer, who tells them about a town farther ahead with many people, a lumber mill, and mechanized clothing production. There was a fever in the town the previous year that the people were convinced was caused by cows. They turn down the farmer’s offer of a drink and move onto the town. They get past a check point, reminding the guards that Anarchist League members do not pay taxes. They head to a pub and order drinks. They becomes the attention center of the pub. A young man asks them about the Anarchist League and how to pass the examinations to get in. Edward tells the story of the fall of the government robots during a major rebellion that spread quickly around the world. Once people realized they did not need government robots—and therefore governments—they started to tear down the buildings. The Anarchist League then worked to root out the remnants of governments and nuclear weapons. Edward then tells the listeners that they had rumors that an enclave of governmental power remains in the area of the town. The people assure the anarchists that they are not covering up for any governmental entity and that they believe they owe the Anarchist League their life. They drive away, but are stopped by a dark-haired girl who offers the basement of her father’s farmhouse as a place for them to stay. Soon after the car falls off the road.
Bors is brought to its office which allows him to look out at the society it controls. It exists in a valley surrounded by mountains. Bors is carefully planning the recreation of the time of governments, along with all its infrastructures. Bors tells Fowler that he worried about Green shutting him down every ten days. He would prefer armed soldiers during the time he was shutdown and helpless. Fowler puts Bors to work in his office. Fowler discusses the situation with another government worker, McLean. Bors will soon break down and they had best leave before that happens, escaping the control of the robot government at the same time.
Edward Tolby recovers from the car crash, which was really an assassination attempt. The assassin (dark-haired girl) died, as was the man she was with. Penn had also died. Silvia is still alive. Edward hides in a gully before he can secure Silvia. Men arrive in a small air-ship and investigate the scene. When Edwards comes out he sees that Silvia was taken. Edward knows a government is nearby.
Green reports to Bors the botched assassination attempt. Green is confident that they can defeat the Anarchist League as they lack weapons and organization, but Bors is not so sure, realizing that they have the entire world, and that although they are anarchists they are well-organized. Bors asks to talk to the injured girl they captured.
Silvia is brought before Boris. Silivia learns that Bors was a government robot that evaded destruction during the revolution. Since then, Bors has been carefully and slowly reconstructing a government in the valley. They are completely protected from the outside world, even the nearby town of Fairfax. Silvia does not understand why the people continue to follow a robot, especially one that is clearly wearing out. Bors explains that the key to his power is his knowledge, which remains intact even as his body begins to fall apart. Silvia attacks Bors but fails to destroy it. Bors is a part of the government system and it must try to sustain that system, the people within the system had to sustain it as well since it was key to their identity. It begins to prepare for a total war of self-defense.
Edward Tolby finds the valley with the last government, watching that society prepare for war. Edward captures a soldier, using a gun that dissolves his weapons and equipment. From the solider Edward learns that the valley is controlled by a government robot. Edward thinks about the difficulty the government will have fighting a one-sided war. War requires both sides. Edward sneaks into the great offices of the government, killing some soldiers on the way. Edward finds and captures Fowler, and Fowler gives him his chance to kill Bors. He kills Green who attempts to defend the robot. Edward destroys Bors with a strike of his staff.
Fowler is cleaning up the remains of Bors. Edward asks where Silvia is. Fowler takes him to the hospital. Edward predicts that the remains of the government will fall apart without a war and without Bors. They part ways and we see that Fowler kept a few components of Bors’ brain, just in case times chance and government is needed again.
I want to start by saying, this story has perhaps the best Wikipedia page of any of Philip K. Dick’s early career works. Looking at the page, it is clear this is due to its prominent place in the secondary literature. It is a great entry and many more of Dick’s stories deserve this level of coverage.
Dick was not overtly sympathetic to anarchism but he was deeply humanistic, individualistic, and anti-capitalist. This puts him on the same page with many anarchist thinkers and activists. If “The Last of the Masters” is the only Philip K. Dick story to address anarchism directly, there are numerous anarchist themes throughout his work, unlabeled but clear to see. In the story, we have a fairly convincing model of how a shift to an anarchist society may come about, if over simplified. What seems to have happened (very rapidly in the tale) is that people learned that they could function without governments first and then worked to ensure that governments would not rise to enslave them again. And indeed, society seems to work fine without government, for the most part. Technology is used to alleviate life, communities remain, there are decision making organizations, and various forms of representation. It is not all rosy. Irrationality is common, as when a plague was blamed on milk, leading to the unjust slaughter of a farmer’s cattle. By and large, we see a world much like Williamson’s World, described in “Souvenir” or even the Techno enclave in “The Turning Wheel.” Dick tried to present the anarchist alternative as positively as possible.
The technological and political narratives are intertwined brilliantly in “The Last of the Masters.” The germ of the state and the germ of “the Machine” are presented as the same thing. Again, Dick makes a strong distinction between technological systems where the control is outside of human control and technologies used by humans. As Bors reflects on the true nature of “the Machine” we learn that it is actually humans who prop it up and can take it down. He thinks: “The system had to be preserved. [. . .] The system couldn’t preserve itself; it wasn’t a thing apart that could be separated from the people who lived it. Actually it was the people. They were identical; when the people fought to preserve the system they were fighting to preserve nothing less than themselves.” (93) That may be true at the core, but the technological system and the infrastructure of government is remarkably resilient, surviving in isolation, without outside resources, and in the face of the near destruction of all governments. Yet, as long as the germ survives somewhere states may reemerge. What is that germ? This is a key question for anarchists, who need to remain vigilant against the revival of hierarchical systems? In “The Last of the Masters,” this germ is clearly knowledge—symbolized in the computer circuits that Fowler stole away at the end.
“The Last of the Masters” ends with the physical destruction of Bors, the last governmental robot, but Dick has an easier answer to the encroachment of power. Simply ignore it and refuse to play by its games. This is his point at the need about war. The government can prepare for war all it wants, but that implies that the other side is interested in fighting. It is not clear what Bors government can do if the Anarchist League simply goes on with its life, refusing to fight. Conquest is possible, but Bors is trying to defend itself. Without other governments to fight or the possibility of expansion, the last government is doomed, even without the intervention of the team from the Anarchist League.
The first part of an audiobook reading of “The Last of the Masters.”
*Note: There are four parts following this one.