“Null-O” was originally published in If in December 1958. It can now be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 135—143.
Ralph and Jean Jorgenson are discussing what to do about their son Lemuel, who is listening on to their conversation. Ralph notices that he does not do any of the things other boys his age do. He is deeply concerned about his awkward social behavior. Over Jean’s protests, Ralph insists on taking Lemuel to more specialized psychologists at “the Hill.”
The Jorgensons meet with Dr. James North at the Hill. North insists on talking to Lemuel alone. They discuss an incident that morning where Lemuel was beaten up by some other children at a baseball game. Lemuel explains that he was unwilling to accept the arbitrary rules of the game. He gets close to saying that all human morals are equally arbitrary.
After some tests, Dr. North concludes that Lemuel is a “perfect paranoid” and free of all moral or cultural bias. He concludes a broader point. Paranoia is not a mental illness. Instead it is a perfectly rational way of looking at the world. The paranoid is a perfect rationalist. Lemuel mentions that he knows that others share his perspective. He learned this reading Mein Kampf.
Over the next few days Dr. North and Lemuel develop the theory of the Null-O. Lemuel explains it as the realization that all divisions between material objects is arbitrary. When Null-O is achieved this verbal distinction will cease. Eventually this unity can be applied to all things, across the universe. Dr. North says that he will take Lemuel to see Dr. Jacob Weller who may be able to help him.
Weller is working on the C-bomb (the cobalt bomb). Weller tells Lemuel that most scientists are now Null-O. In addition to the C-bomb, they are working on the E-bomb. The E-bomb will allow Earth itself to become a pile, fulfilling Null-O. These innovations will build up to the S-bomb, which can turn the solar system into a gestalt.
In 1969, Null-O have taken over all parts of the government. Soon after this they launch the first C-bomb, reducing the human population to 3,000. Weller beings preparation for the launching of the E-bomb.
Weller and Lemuel discuss the future plans to unify the world. Earth will be unified with the E-bomb, followed by the S-bomb. In the future will be the G-bomb and the finally the U-bomb, which will finish the process.
A Dr. Frisch informs Dr. Weller that some humans have survived the unification efforts by living underground. They were industrialists who moved underground with a massive labor force, in order to sustain their system. They are working their way up and will quickly outnumber the surviving Null-O. These emotional rebels against the “Great Work,” who cannot see the world logically will quickly overpower them. The Null-O retreat to Venus to continue their work. Lemuel, however, was left behind to the mob.
“Null-O” took five years to get published. It is a politically significant text and stands as one of the clearest and more direct of Dick’s criticisms of the technocratic worldview. He does this by connecting the logic of the ruling class to paranoia and sociopathy. The Null-O gradually become the scientific class and then seize political power based on their scientific ability. Due to their mental illness they are totally paranoid and see all others as their enemy, but they also approach the world with total objectivity (lacking any empathy for others). Combined they conclude that the only solution to all social problems is to abolish the differences between people and reduce everything to a singular unity.
This strikes us as the essential logic of the nation-state, which has as its goal the reduction of all individual and regional identities into one homogenous culture. The major weapons for doing this are bureaucratization, mass education, militarization, and political centralization. Thus many distinct cultures become “Germany” or “Italy.” The Null-O go farther and see their goal as the reduction of all material differentiation. This can only be done by the destruction of the universe, which is their ultimate goal. Dick’s clear warning is against giving the most paranoid, the most anti-social, the most power hungry, or the most deviant political power. Yet we do this all of the time. Even democracy has proven to be pretty bad at separating at excluding these types of people from politics.
Before their plans can be completed, the Null-O face opposition from industrialists who fled underground to with their work forces. They want to sustain their way of life (exploiting the workers for no apparent reason). This leads to the overthrow of the Null-O is an uprising, before they can destroy the Earth. There is some hope in the end, but in typical Dick fashion we find it hard to sympathize with the human survivors underground, who seem to have their own universal logic that they want to sustain, that of capitalism. Yet Dick makes it clear that there is a strong class division at work between the Null-O and everyone else. He seems to be saying that what frightens the bureaucracy most is the differentiated common folk—not a unified proletariat. “The lower forms of human life clerks, bus drivers, day-laborers, typists, janitors, tailors, bakers, turret lathe operators, shipping clerks, baseball players, radio announcers, garage mechanics, policemen, necktie peddlers, ice cream vendors, door-to-door salesmen, bill collectors, receptionists, welders, carpenters, construction laborers, farmers, politicians, merchants—the men and women whose very existence terrified the Null-O’s to their core.” (142) The story ends will a call to resist those who would reduce us to interchangeable parts in a vast machine.
Wikipedia page for “Null-O.”