“Captive Market” was originally published in If in April 1955. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 37–51.
Edna Berthelson prepares to make her weekly, secret business trip. No one else can come along on her trips, despite their curiosity. Since Edna began her weekly journeys, business has never been so good. Her grandson Jackie again asks to accompany her. After she refuses, he sneaks onto the truck to pursue his youthful curiosity.
On a devastated and near uninhabitable Earth, the crew of a downed spaceship live in a makeshift camp. Tellman, one of the officers, considers how the crash landing transformed the hierarchy of the unit. Suddenly people on the bottom were indispensable, for instance Flannery who takes leadership over loading the ship with the weekly supplies. Professor John Crowley is the head of the camp and a former history professor. He notices that the rising levels of radiation (actually toxic crystalline positing in the atmosphere) will make it impossible for them to stay much longer. Spirits are high, however, because everyone knows that this will be the final delivery. They discuss how they pay for the goods with worthless money they find laying around Earth and how seriously the delivery woman takes their business. They do not know why she is able to travel through time to make the business trip. Once the material from Mrs. Berthelson arrive from the past, the ship will be filled with enough supplies to allow them to get home.
Jackie is still riding in the back of the truck as it travels through the town and then to the more lonely outskirts. Suddenly, the ship faded away and Jackie was left on the road by himself. He is picked up by two state workers, but he could not explain to them what happened.
Berthelson arrives at the camp and discusses the deliver with Crowley. She explains why the prices need to go up because of the difficulty of getting certain items. Flannery tells Bertheleson that they will not need another delivery and sends her on her way back. She tells him that she has already ordered much of the next supply. Disappointed she leaves and the members of the camp celebrate their last night on Earth.
On the way back, Berthelson decides that with this market drained, she would need to follow a path that ensured a continuation of her secret business trips. It is revealed that she is a precog and can choose which future to explore. In one of the “aheads” she sees that the ship will attempt to take off, but crash again before escaping Earth. Others will see the ship fail to take off at all, but this will be less lucrative because it will not involve selling parts to repair the ship. She takes the correct “ahead.”
Crowley survives the crash with a broken leg. He realizes that they will be stuck on Earth and dependent on Berthelson’s deliveries.
As with “Service Call,” “Captive Market” gives us someone in an extraordinary situation who can only imagine creating a business opportunity out of it. In an aside, there are actually so many wonderful technologies being developed now, but as long as the market takes leadership in the applications of these technologies, we will all be like Edna Berthelson. Something rather bizarre about this tale is that Berthelson insists on doing business with the crew of the crashed ship. Apparently they are paying for her delivers with money that is just floating around in the devastated surface of Earth. She could probably just collect what she wants and bring it back. But as some sort of perverted honest businesswoman, she insists of maintaining her monopoly and keeping the captive market captive. Her odious strategy for doing so involves her ability to choose alternative timelines to follow. By choosing the ones that keep the market captive, she traps them while keeping up the image of a proper capitalist.
This is exactly how global capitalism functions today. They do not quite use time travel, although the ruling class have a firm grip on many future trends through control of innovation, investments, and political systems. Many of us are a captive market through debt. Student loans are issued to people who have little choice but to take them out. How else to get one of the rapidly disappearing jobs? Mortgages, consumer electronics payment plans, cable bills, and a thousand other devices ensure that the paycheck goes back to the bosses one way or another. Perhaps Berthelson’s insistence on “fair dealing” with the camp reflects these strategies used today to ensnare a market. Just taking the money would be too obvious and too vulgar.
I do not see much that can be said about the subplot involving Jackie’s effort to observe the trip. Its purpose seems to be to show that only Edna Berthelson can use the time warp (why the truck can is not explained). It also suggests the single-mindedness of Berthelson’s scheme and her indifference to her family in its pursuit.
The backdrop of the story is yet another destructive war that devastated Earth, forcing humanity to flee the planet surface. We need only to remind ourselves that Dick often uses war to expose the destructive nature of state power, which tends to be indifferent to the sufferings of people.