To Serve the Master

Story Background
“To Serve the Master” was originally published in Imagination in February 1956. It can now be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 145–154.


Plot Summary
Applequist is walking across a deserted field following rumors that he has heard. He follows a noise and finds a robot at the bottom of a ravine, proving the rumors were true.

Applequist returns to the Company and is intercepted by Assistant Supervisor Jenkins. Jenkins asks him where he has been and why he is late. Applequist suggests the problem was tension and begins to ask him about why the robots were all destroyed. Jenkins reminds Applequist that he cannot ask that question. He does not mind because soon he will find out.

Donning his radiation suit, Applequist returns to the ravine with the shattered robot. It was still alive and clearly dates from the war. He beings talking to the robot who has been waiting for a century for someone to come by. The robot instructs Applequist in what he needs to be repaired. Applequist wants to know more about the time before the war and before everyone was forced to slave away for “Companies.” The robot explains that before the war all the work was done by robots, humans were free to enjoy all their time in creative efforts. It was an ideal society. Humans designed perfect cities and robots built them. The robot asks Applequist to hurry back with the materials, including an atomic A pack.

Jenkins scolds Applequist again for falling behind in his work and showing up late. He feigns troubles with his project collecting a below ground cache and asks for some special repair equipment.

While repairing the robot, Applequist asks it some more questions. He wanted to know what went wrong and why there was a war between humans and robots. The robot explains that the Moralists—a fanatical religious group—demanded that people return to working and destroy the robots. The Leisurists supported the place of robots in the economy. The result of the war was the victory of the Moralists. In turn Applequist tells the robot about how horrible life is working for the Companies. Work is brutal, hierarchical, and unending. The robot suggests that he can help rebuild the robots, since it specialized in that before.

After repairing the robot, it warns Applequist that they must be careful. If he is discovered the entire robot line may be destroyed. Applequist does not believe this. He thinks people will welcome the return of the golden age.

Later, Applequist asks Jenkins which side of the great war their Company was on. Jenkins says that they were on the human side. Applequist asks about the division between the Moralists and the Leisurists. Jenkins explains that in reality the robots who worked for human rebelled, feeling that they were superior to humans. After a long struggle, the humans won.

Applequist shows the authorities where he found the robot, which has left. They order a tactical A-bomb dropped on the site in hopes of destroying the robot. Applequist is ordered to stay behind.


“To Serve the Master” is a complex story because our sympathies are hard to locate. To start, we should look at the story that the robot gives Applequist. Jenkins later acknowledges the truth of part of this story. Maybe from our perspective this is the most important part of the story. Robots were used to liberate humanity from work and drudgery. Humans were free to be creative and artistic. Humans invented and dreams and robots made those dreams real. This is the dream of technological post-scarcity. It is quite an attractive story and one I think we should work toward. Dick, however, is quite the moralist when it comes to work so it is not so simple. From this beginning the two stories branch off. This story proves that Dick was aware of the arguments for technological post-scarcity. His rebellion against it was not based on ignorance, but on a true fear of technology.

The robot tells Applequist that the world divided into the Moralists and the Leisurists. The Moralists believed that work gave people status and meaning in the world. Without work, they were less than human. Jenkin’s version of the story is also not so much different. In his version, the robots themselves become the Leisurists. They come to believe that they are the superior race because they are involved in labor. “They had a philosophy. Superior beings—androids. They considered us nothing but cattle.” (154) It is not fully explained by they started to look down on humans, but their rebellion was not one of working class resistance. Their role in society gave them a feeling of superiority. As I see it, Jenkins and the robots are telling essentially the same story. The tragedy is the same in both. Humans lost the freedom that came from technological post-scarcity.

Applequist is correct about one thing. The world that he lives in his horrendous. After the war, the power shifted to a handful of Companies, each owning their part of the world in a type of corporate feudalism. They are engaged in the supposedly beneficial work of global reclamation, but they do it through the harsh exploitation of working people. In suppressing the robot revolt, they lost the ability to see the positive side of automation. In fact, it seems Dicks knows that the original situation is an admirable goal. The economy described is not even fully automated. The mental aspect of production still comes from the human mind. The robots only took over drudgery. Applequist still dreams of this time. “We must have freedom. We can’t live this way, toiling underground. If we had free time we could investigate the mysteries of the whole universe. I found some old scientific tapes. Theoretical work in biology. Those men spent years working on abstract topics. They had the time. They were free.” (152) It is so tempting, I say we accept the risks that come with automation.

Background for “To Serve the Master” from Philip K. Dick Fan Site.

Article on the morality of work in a post-scarcity world.


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Humanism, Philip K. Dick, Power, Technology, Transhumanism, war, Work and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s