Shell Game

Story Background
“Shell Game” was published in Galaxy in September 1954. It can be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick in pp. 189–202.


Plot Summary
O’Keefe, awoken by a sound, runs for his gun and set off the alarm bells for the military camp. O’Keefe reports that the enemy was attempting to pump nerve gas into his home. Daniels instructs everyone to prepare their gas masks. Horstokowski points out that the attacks on the camp are getting more frequent, but the failure of the radar to identify the source of the most recent attack suggest that there is an enemy plant within the camp. Fisher searched the road and when he gets up is suspected and searched. Horstokowski is sure he was hiding something in the bog and that someone is a spy for Terra.

At the Pattern Conference, which runs the camp, all nine representatives are prepared for the worst. One is prepared to catapult himself from the room. Another, Siblerman, is wearing an elaborate suit of armor. One member reports that an earlier attack on the water supply was only the beginning and that the next attack would involve a bacterial agent. Tate expresses doubts that the attacks are coming from Terra, or at least from the remnants and survivors of the ship that brought all of them to Betelgeuse II.

Three men are sent into the remains of the ship to investigate. Their investigation reveals that the ship was a prison ship, with automated controls. Further study shows that it was a more specifically a hospital ship for dangerous paranoids and psychotics. A debate over what is going on comenses. Some doubt if there have been any attacks on the camp at all, that the five years of self-defense was a collective delusion Portbane suggests a test to prove or disprove that they are a ship full of paranoids.

The test involves examining air collected at the attack sites with air collected at the camp and testing for hydrocyanic vapor. If both are positive it will prove they are psychotic. If both are negative, it will prove they are paranoid.

While soldiers report yet another attack with no enemy corpse, the ruling council decides what to do with the new information. Tate suggest they turn themselves in to the hospital. If they remain on the planet they descendants will gradually become a warlike tribe that will make war on Terra. Half of the council attacks the other half, having realized that they were Terran spies trying to undermine their defense. Of the four they targeted, only Tate survived. Those four falsified the results of the test to make it look like they were paranoid in order to surrender to terra.

Tate, off in the bog hiding out, hears the first signs of a major offensive against Earth by the members of the camp, which will involve unleashing nuclear weapons on the rest of the probably deserted planet.

One lesson of “Shell Game” is in how powerful the paranoid culture of the military can be and what a horrible psychological impact war can have on people over the long term. Whether at war or not, military cultures sustain the belief that war is imminent and the threat is clear and present. It is a type of institutionalized paranoia. The straight forward reading of the story reveals that the members of the camp really are mental patients freed from their confinement and able to create a society that matches their temperaments. In Clans of the Alphane Moon we see that this type of paranoia works out quite well actually. This is because there is a diversity of mental disorders at work in that novel. Each sub-set (including some who are apparently not mentally ill but categorized anyway) plays a key role in the society they formed. Separating out the paranoids creates a much less stable situation. This is actually less relevant to us, although it makes for an interesting story.

What I found so powerful was that the institutionalized paranoia of the camp is so easily believable. There are clues that something is wrong with the camp, but nothing really so unfamiliar. Armed guards, protective security systems, presumed guilt, and infighting are all common in our world and institutions. Even the War on Terror only added to our assumptions that our neighbors may not have our best interests at heart. Try counting the surveillance cameras you come across in your daily life and then try to say that we are not in a paranoid culture, a paranoid culture we participate in and feed into with our diverse menu of fears and worries. I find this an accurate description of the surveillance state we have today. “The paranoid is totally rigid. His fixed ideas cannot be shaken. They dominate his life. He logically weaves all events, all persons, all chance remarks and happenings, into his system. He is convinced the world is plotting against him—that he is a person of unusual importance and ability against whom endless machinations are directed. To thwart these plots, the paranoids goes to infinite lengths to protect himself.” (195–196)

A more controversial point in the story may be the idea that mental illness is inheritable. As I understand it there is evidence suggesting that some mental illnesses carry on in the family life. But this is beside the point. What Dick is talking about is a culture made up entirely of paranoids, which will be able to recreate itself even without any genetic predispositions. Dick imagines that the paranoids may one day—if large enough in force—may be the ultimate military force. Do, therefore, militaries teach paranoia to soldiers as a means to promote effectiveness? Maybe someone can tell me.

As usual, the undeveloped Wikipedia page.

“Shell Game” at Philip K. Dick Fan Site.

Some background on real paranoia.

Marketing material for security cameras for military use. There is much available on this on-line.


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Alien Invasion, Bureaucracy, Empire, Mental Illness, Philip K. Dick, Posthumanism, Power, Space Exploration and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Shell Game

  1. We know paranoia was an essential ingredient in his fictional reality,without which he couldn’t have created it,but what it really means however in a moralistic and rational sense within it,is more uncertain and perplexing.As I’ve said before,far from being just a dreadful state of madness,he said it can be traced back to our ancient ancestors’ fear of predators in the field,so it it’s also a protective instinct.Within his metabolic stuff then,as in “Shell Game”,it makes sense that his characters are often naturally wary of being in an existential crisis,just as it’s mood is also one of comic terror,that is both fun and excillarating,instead of just a descent into dark madness.

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