“Pay for the Printer” was originally published in Satellite Science Fiction in October 1955. It can now be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 239–252.
Allen Fergesson and Charlotte are driving through a desolate landscape filled with trash. They take comfort that they will soon arrive at Charlotte’s apartment. She can clean the ash from her car and they can enjoy a bottle of Lord Calvert. Unfortunantly, the quality of products is going down. Charlotte is disgusted to see a cellar dog kill a blind and deformed mock-rabbit. These—as well as the devastated landscape—are products of a previous nuclear war. They discuss the status of their Biltong. They were supposed to last 150 years, but their Biltong is apparently getting sick and producing inferior products. Charlotte shows him how the Biltong could not even print tiny Swiss watch. The Biltongs were from Centaurus and they arrived after the War, attracted to the radiation from the bombs. They survived by duplicating what humans brought them, becoming protected by humans and adapting to the environment. Everything they see is falling into disrepair. The Biltong used to be able to rapidly replace these things, but no longer. Signs are decaying and entire buildings fall apart. Even newspapers are degraded into a jumble of meaningless words. The old things the Biltong printed are falling apart and the new copies are failures. Charlotte tells Fergesson that the way things are, their community may need to move in with Fergessons, if their Biltong can handle the extra people. As they try to enter, Charlotte’s apartment building falls apart. After escaping the collapsing building, Charlotte asks about their Bilton, assuming it has died. They already know they no longer reproduce. Their Biltong’s eggs are dried up and dogs feast on them. The Biltong is too exhausted to defend the eggs.
When they look upon the Biltong, they find that it is clearly dying of old age and exhaustion. Desperate to salvage its abilities, some in the community try to see what it can copy. One man, Dawes, starts with a wooden drinking cup. Charlotte scolds him, telling him that he could print that himself. Dawes says that he did make it himself. Fergesson is amazed that he was able to make a cup without a Biltong. Fergusson agrees to marry Charlotte so she can enter his community, which still has a working Biltong. As Charlotte leaves for the Pittsburg settlement an anger a mob destroys the dying Biltong.
Dawes and Fergesson discuss the aftermath of the death of the settlement’s Biltong. Dawes explains that they cannot immediately begin building complex structures. They will need to start with simple things and reeducate themselves step by step. Printing will be replaced with building. He shows how he has already started with a wooden cup.
“Pay for the Printer” sits nicely alongside “To Serve the Master,” which was published in the same year. They were written within a few months of each other, if we use the dates they arrived at Dick’s agent as a rough estimate of composition. Other stories from this period (in composition) include “Foster, You’re Dead” and “Sales Pitch.” In other words, Dick was thinking about technology, automation and the relationship between the Machine and human freedom. In “To Serve the Master” we see robots rebelling against humans, who they started to see as lesser beings because of their failure to do productive work. In “To Pay the Printer” we have a clearer case of humanity exploiting a technology (in the story it is technically a life form, but it is treated with enough indifference and its role in society is like that of a technology). Both the system of robot production and the Biltong produce long-term costs for humanity. Humans lost the ability to do things on their own. Their future may be very much like the future of people in “To Serve the Master,” dominated by companies that manage to reclaim the knowledge necessary for human civilization.
Readers of this blog will already know my perspective on Dick’s fear of automated technology. I find it misguided in general. There are risks, but the benefit to reducing odious labor is incalculable. To put an end, once and for all, to work will sit alongside other history making innovations and transformations such as the smallpox vaccine, penicillin, the birth control pill, and the end of slavery. Yet, it is hard to deny that Dick raises a good question. How can use technology to improve human life without losing our basic skills and knowledge. There are real examples of this. Spellcheck has made us worse spellers, but has made composition easier. The calculator had replaced the slide rule. Home car repair is made more difficult by technologies that most of us cannot approach. Dick’s answer to this is the return to a sort of craft economy. Galactic Pot-Healer is his masterpiece on this them, but we see the roots of that perspective in this story.
An interesting aspect in “Pay for the Printer” is the response of the people to the Biltong’s failure. They have been exploiting it for years, helping them survive the post-War world without losing what they hold dear (mostly consumer goods). There is a Futurama episode where Hermes makes a mine worked by slaves so efficient that all the work is done by one man. Well, that is a type of post-scarcity I suppose. Here, that victim is the Biltong. The Biltong is an immigrant and forced to perform the most odious labor in exchange for living in the new planet. The mob assault on the overworked and suffering Biltong is almost a metaphor for the treatment of immigrant labor. Although worked to death for years, the immigrant is blamed for all the ills that befall the society.
Another way to read this is to focus on the commodities themselves. The Biltong is producing copies of already existing consumer goods. As the Biltong tires, the copies becomes more crude and ugly. A Swiss-made watch becomes, after several copies, a piece of misshapen metal. In our world, as production is offshored, the products become cheaper, more poorly made. In a sense, consumer society itself is undergoing this gradual decay described in “Pay for the Printer.” It is like the degradation of the world described in the novel Ubik. It is the same with popular culture. The first reality television shows had some merit, but after a few years and many copies later, the result is total banality (“Honey Boo Boo”). We can all think of this type of degradation in whatever cultural field we most love.
More speculation on 3D printing.