“Foster, You’re Dead” was originally published in Star Science Fiction Stories in 1955. It can now be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 221–237.
Mike Foster, as always, is suffering in school. He is making baskets. The teacher accuses him of keeping his knife in bad repair and then berates him for his poor digging skills. She reminds him that when the war comes, everyone will need to dig. Some of the children told the teacher that Mike’s father was Anti-P (not a member of Civil Defense) and therefore did not take part in arming the community.
On his way home, Mike shufflers past the public bomb shelter and worries once again that because it has an admissions fee of 50 cents, he might not be able to enter if he did not have the change in his pocket. He passes a General Electronics stores and enters to look at the newest model of the private family bomb shelters. The 1972 model costs $20,000 but has all the new features to ensure that a family will be safe during a war. The salesman remembers Mike and asks him to bring his father, warning him that he cannot try it out. The salesman reminds Mike to tell his father of the store’s generous payment plans. On his way home he recalls how his coach at school told him that he would be dead when the attack comes, that he is not prepared to survive. His father, Bob Foster, asks why he is late. Mike explains that he was seeing the bomb shelters, urging his father to get one. Bob again tries to tell his son that this is just a way to get people to buy things. When they sold everyone cars and washing machines, they needed a new product. Each year they come out with new models due to planned obsolescence. Mike’s mother, would like to get the shelter because she fears how the neighbors look at her.
Later, Mike asks his father about the time he met the president. He realized by the presidential visit to his town that “Preparedness” is simply passing the burden of self-defense to the individual families and communities. The end result of this will be medieval-style villages and castles. In the end, however, Bob agrees to purchase the newest model of the bomb shelter.
Mike is overjoyed and filled with a feeling of security when the shelter is installed. This also changes his status at school, where all the kids are eager to see the new model. Mike also mentions to the teacher that his father has changed his status to pro-P.
Bob is horrified to learn the Soviet’s have developed a new type of bullet that may make the bomb shelter obsolete. Ruth assures him that they will develop adapters for the shelters, which will provide automatic upgrades. He is confirmed that the bomb shelter is the ideal consumer good that forces people to buy things, at the risk of death.
That winter, due to financial troubles with his store, Bob had the bomb shelter removed. Horrified, Mike leaves the house. He finds the bomb shelter that was repossessed at the store and hides inside. One of the salesmen suggests giving the Fosters a deal, but the other rejects this. Mike Foster wanders the street, passing the public bomb shelter.
“Foster, You’re Dead” is one of Philip K. Dick’s greatest comments on consumerism among all of his 1950s short stories. I will start with a gripe. Dick in the 1950s reads like someone who never had to wash a load of laundry by hand. I am as opposed to planned obsolescence as any other critic of capitalism, but the washing machine (mentioned in the story as something leading up to the private bomb shelters) is one of the greatest labor saving technologies of the 20th century. At times like this I think Dick’s anti-consumerism (and fears of technology) fails to correspond to his humanism. He failed to see technology as a way of allowing us the freedom from labor to be more human.
The moral center of the story is the mental trauma Mike Foster faced from the education system, his peers, and the media environment that pimps the idea that a massive war will come around the corner. While some of the adults see beyond this. Bob Foster knows it is a game. His wife thinks so as well, but wants the bomb shelter to keep up with the peers. For a child, however, this culture has led to a near psychological breakdown. He had to even break into a store to feel secure, abandoning his family which can no longer provide that security.
After Mike Foster’s nervous breakdown is the struggle between the private and the commons. The commons are symbolized by the private bomb shelter. The modest entrance fee undermines it as a true commons, but it is the only remnant of a time when security (freedom from fear) was a concern of the government. Dick imagined mass consumerism as an end to this spirit of the commons, and I think he has been proven correct in this. Bob Foster imagines that the future of the world will be medieval communities, lacking any of the communal aspects of the modern nation-state. Bob seems to be a bit confused here, since the medieval manor actually supported a basic ideal of the commons. Peter Linebaugh’s wonderful book on the Magna Carta reveals this aspect of medieval life. The nation-state seems to promote privatization and capitalism much more than the medieval town. The community that Mike Foster is growing up in does have some community aspects, such as the Civil Defense organizations, but defense is still primarily privatized. We have more of a late capitalist neoliberal feudalism than a medieval world.
Wikipedia page for “Foster You’re Dead”