“The Chromium Fence” was originally published in Imagination in July 1955. It can now be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 291–303.
Don Walsh is reading the newspaper while taking a commute disc home. He reads about the upcoming referendum on the Horney Amendment and various mob actions between the purists and the naturalists. The man next to him urges Walsh to support the naturalists by signing the Butte Petition. When he balks, the man accuses him of being a Purist. Walsh evades the conversation by getting off at his stop and declares he does not want to be on either side of the debate.
He repeats this desire to be above the issue of the day with his wife Betty, his brother-in-law Carl, and his son Jimmy. Jimmy is reading Finnegan’s Wake and is a supporter of the Purists, who want to remove all odious traces of humanity using technology and to commit to future progress. Carl is strongly on the side of the Naturalists. Carl accuses Walsh of being a quasi pro-Purist for trying to stay above the fray. Walsh leaves his home to see his robot counselor, Charley. He asks for advice on what side he should chose. Charley tells him that he cannot stay aloof from his society. Walsh just thinks that people who want to smell should be able to smell and people who want to remove their sweat glands should be able to. Charley eventually convinces him that he needs to conform to the society he was given.
Three days later the news reports that the Horney Amendment passed and the Purists won. Walsh—who has come down on the side of the Naturalists—worries what it will mean to have the Purists in power. He tells his wife how this is the end of a long chain of events, starting with simple consumerism and ending with enforced consumption through law and the application of political power.
They talk more about how the Purist movement was a take over by the urban, consumerist forces over the people of rural areas. Carl comes in having just accepted some transhumanist upgrades, removing his sweat gland, changing his teeth and hair. He explains that it was the Naturalists strategy to stay in conformity with the Horney Amendment, while they organization will go underground. Police come in investigating the fate of Naturalists since the election. The investigation turns on Walsh. Jimmy defines his father as a “quasi-Naturalist.” Walsh strikes at one of the police and escapes.
Charley congratulates Walsh fro finally getting off the fence. As the police arrive to arrest Walsh, Charley gives him a voucher showing that he was not responsible for his actions. Walsh surrenders himself to the police, who cold-beam him and throw him in the back of a police truck, where his body is reduced to its component metals.
By 1955, Dick had fully stated his position on posthumanism. “The Chromium Fence” is one of his most direct early explorations of transhumanism (but not his first; see “Mr. Spaceship”). Dick rightfully places transhumanism as a logical extension of consumerism. If we look at fads for hair-straightening, the massive amounts spent on cologne and perfume, and various hair care products he might be right. “They didn’t call it politics, back in those days. The industrialists hammered away at the people to buy and consumer. It centered around this hair-sweat-teeth purity; the city people got it and developed an ideology around it.” (298) Dick was probably thinking more about the enforced consumerism of 1950s America than projecting into the future. Employers can easily force employees to spend some of their money on make-up and perfume. (Appearance is often a part of employee evaluations.) I wonder how easy it will be to resist certain upgrades in the future. Cell phones are already indispensable for certain careers. How long until those cell phones need to be implanted?
The story title—“The Chromium Fence”—is a reference to Walsh’s attempt to stay on either side of the issue. As he learns in the end, perhaps he should have chosen a side first. He saw the Purist vs. Naturalist debate as political froth. He was wrong about the stakes and in his belief that not taking a side was a neutral position. It appears he did not read the Horney Amendment to see just how odious the enforced conformity of the Purists was. This is a political challenge we face today. There is still much significant and relevant and potentially devastating that is discusses in Senates, Parliaments, and Legislatures around the world, yet few of us respect these institutions or even take seriously the elections for our representatives. We have good reason not to trust this and are often well-meaning when we want to be neutral. But as Carl and Jimmy agree, being neutral is not a sustainable position with the stakes are high enough.
Notice also the generational divide on these issues. Jimmy, who grew up with access to the technologies to ensure people would not smell or have greasy hair or bad teeth, sees the Purist position as simple progress. From his perspective you would not more go back to the days before these technologies than you could desire to go back to the time without baths. I think Dick is brilliant to focus the story on personal hygiene. I guess many people who may want to resist certain transhumanist upgrades, may still think their neighbors on the bus or at the library should use technologies (running watch, soap) to maintain a certain standard of cleanliness. At a most basic level, eliminating body odor is a mild form of transhumaism. By testing our values on this issue, Dick is able to expose the dangerous creep of rising standards of not just physical appearance, but also applications of technology to our everyday lives.
1949 film on how to look like everyone else.