Upon the Dull Earth

Story Background
“Upon the Dull Earth” was published in Beyond Fantasy Fiction in November 1954. It can be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick in pp. 203–220. Note this was the old name for the third volume of the Collected Stories. It was changed when “Second Variety” was moved in as the title story.

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Plot Summary
At night, Silvia is leading her fiancé through the yard, urging him to hurry up for they are late. She orders Rick to empty himself of all metal, since the creatures do not like metal. White winged creatures surround Silvia and ravenously consume lamb’s blood from a pail prepared by Siliva. Rick manages to get the terrified Silvia away from creatures. After consuming the lamb’s blood, they disperse back to their world. Rick warns her about drawing the creatures to her. Silvia acknowledges the danger but is enamored with the beauty of the creatures. Rick calls her a witch for drawing them in, but she responds that she is a saint.

At home with her family and husband Silvia tries to explain that she is in a long line of saints who could draw these creatures into their world. Their desire for blood inspired many myths such as the Valkyries and the bloodletting of saints. The creatures once lived on Earth but died. She tell them that when they die they will also become “ghosts” like them. While Silvia is obsessed with the idea of a metamorphosis into the “ghosts,” Rick is mostly worried about his marriage plans with Silvia.

Rick is going to the basement with the intention of destroying his wife’s refrigeration and pump system in hopes of ending Silvia’s experiments with the creatures. Silvia interrupts and again tries to explain that she does not want to be a “worm” anymore, but like a caterpillar transform into a higher level of existence. She shows Rick the coffin that she will use when she is ready to make her transformation. Silvia realizes that the creatures are coming, attracted by blood she spilt after pricking her finger on a nail. Before she can stop the bleeding, the creatures come and consume her body, destroying much of the basement and leaving Silvia’s remains charred and shriveled.

Later, out in place where Silvia called the creatures, Rick is attempting to do the same, demanding that they speak to him and accusing them of being too greedy by taking Silvia before she was ready. The white shapes appear and he hears Silvia speak to him. She explains that it is too dangerous to come back, that the form she would come into has been lost, and that time moves much more quickly where she is. When he returns to the house, Silvia’s father challenges Rick’s intentions. One of Silvia’s sisters—Betty Lou—blames her for being a witch and tells Rick she got what she deserved. While confronting Rick, Betty Lou’s form changes into Silvia. Silvia begins to explain the experience on the other side, when she realizes that she was brought back by taking another form. In the living room, the other members of the family transform into Silvia as well. As Silvia moves from body to body she takes over their consciousness and form. In an attempt to get closer to Rick, Silvia replicates herself.

Rick flees the house and begins driving. He notices that one of the passengers in the car in front of him is Silvia. Later, a waitress as a filling station diner turns into Silvia, along with many of the passengers. Continuing on his travel, Rick picks up a hitchhiker and tells him that he will drive him all the way to Chicago. At first the young hitchhiker is frightened by Rick’s erratic behavior and speeding, but eventually he speaks to him familiarly. Soon the hitchhiker is Silvia. He kicks out the hitchhiker/Silvia from the car and imagines that no matter where he goes he will see variants of Silvia. A police officer who questions him is yet another Silvia avatar. Rick returns to his apartment. Looking into his bathroom mirror he sees yet another version of Silvia. In the end, Silvia is alone in a world populated by copies of herself.

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Analysis
“Upon the Dull Earth” is maybe the hardest of Dick’s early year stories to interpret, at least through the themes that I have chosen to emphasize. First, it was published in a fantasy magazine, Beyond Fantasy Fiction. We are given no clear answer as to what the white, winged beings are. They could be aliens, but humans are capable of making the transition to their world. Perhaps they are ghosts or energy beings or aliens from another dimension or parallel universe. In any case they resist a naturalistic explanation. (I deal with energy begins in by coverage of “The Infinites.”) Even the setting of the story is bizarre. Rick is enamored with Silvia, but Silvia has learned how to contact these beings. She begins to see herself as part of a long tradition people who have had awareness of these beings, including myth-makers and especially saints. It is strongly suggests that these beings are the explanation for people’s encounters with saints. On Earth, however, they are eager to consumer blood (lamb’s blood is the most tasty apparently). Silvia’s family seems to know about her experiments with these other beings, eventually taking her tragic death in stride, blaming Silvia for her witchcraft. In the final pages of the story, either the creatures attempt to bring Silvia back through people that Rick encounters, eventually turning everyone he encounters into a variant of Silvia. Perhaps he is driven insane by grief and the bizarre experiences he shared with Silvia. More literally, Silvia takes over all these forms in her attempt to be closer to Rick.

We can put “Upon the Dull Earth” alongside other of Dick’s early efforts at preternatural explanations for religious experiences. “Prominent Author” attempts to explain revelation. “The Skull” is an effort toward explaining apparent resurrection. Here we have Dick’s answer to the claims of people who have seen angels. But of these, “Upon the Dull Earth” is the least satisfying because it gives to explanation of the creatures, except that they live in some other plane of existence.

I would prefer to take this story as an exploration of the burden of guilt and grief. We can actually remove the creatures all together and take the story as Rick’s love for Silvia, who herself is quickly becoming insane. Rick humors her out of love, while trying to push her toward sanity. When she dies in an explosion caused by her jury-rigged refrigeration system, Rick is overcome with guilt and sadness that he sees Silvia everywhere. Her family comes to terms with Silvia’s death quickly, knowing that she was going insane or had herself to blame for her strange basement activities.

Resources
Wikipedia page for “Upon the Dull Earth.”

You know they are out there. Angels are aliens.

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About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Alien Invasion, Alien Life, Family, Mental Illness, Philip K. Dick, Supernatural Abilities, Transhumanism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Upon the Dull Earth

  1. essexric says:

    Although I think your analysis is correct,this is definitely one of his best short stories.It is obviously Lovecraftian in origin,but delves deeper into themes of forbidden knowledge that Lovecraft would never have dared come close to.I don’t think it’s unfair to call it a seminal milestone of speculative fiction,but has been pushed aside in favour of I think lesser pieces of his shorter stuff with more obvious sf troupes.It is also a much better crafted piece,one not written it seems,on a fast run.

    Even this early,he was already showing his maverick streak.It would have seemed quite transparent what direction he wanted to go,besides the strong political and social issues.He had no qualms in tackling the theme of religious experience,despite the lack of a strong premise to explain their appearance,as you say.It’s significant though perhaps,that the setting is strongly rural,and can’t help feeling that a powerful naivete fueled by a weird faith is present here,and the “Angels” are undoubtedly meant to be of a pseudo religious origin.As you say,Silvia is a “saint”,and the “divine” visitors are avatars of earlier myths,so it would appear to be strongly pertinent here.

    An interest in pluriformity,that bears a semblance to novels such as “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,is perfectly evident here,as is the theme of resurrection and it’s consequences,later explored in “Counter-Clock World”.As he would in these novels and “Faith of Our Fathers”,he explored the benefits and consequences of true knowledge,while also merging them with political and social concerns.

    Grief and guilt is inherent in our quest for knowledge I suppose,and can be seen as a natural part of our quotidian world.The theme or issue,is quite pertinent here I suppose.

  2. I have changed my views more than slightly since writing the above comment.I don’t see why I should have said this piece was Lovecraftian in origin.Any resemblance is superficial.Dick was influenced by a multitude of sources inside and outside of the science ficton genre.It was influenced by his interest in Gnosticism,as is the entity that is God,you describe as Lovecraftian,in “Faith of Our Fathers”,but like the “Angels” in UTDE,it is divine but flawed.I checked the Wikipedia link you provided.

    “Upon the Dull Earth” is related to the later “Faith of Our Fathers” for obvious reasons,but they are in fact,politically linked.In both,there can be seen to be the utillitarian value of solidarity that is however oppressive or dull,but seeking escape through ultimate knowledge,brings dire consequences rather than freedom from a life of constraint.Social order protected them from uncomfortable truths.

    Both UTDE and FOOF can be seen to be forerunners of his 1970s experiences and the “Exegesis”,so I hope they can also be seen to be grounded in the reasoning and sanity I’ve already mentioned.I think “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer” bears this out.

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