“If There Were No Benny Cemoli” was originally published in Galaxy in December 1963. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 173–190.
John LeConte witnesses the surprise arrival of a fleet from Proxima Centauri, ten years after a major nuclear war destroyed most of Earth’s surface. They arrive under the banner of CURB—Centaurus Urban Renewal Bureau—and will take charge of the rebuilding project on Earth, seizing authority from others who came earlier to take advantage of opportunities on the devastated world. The Earth council is opposed to their arrival, but it seems little can be done to stop them.
Peter Hood of CURB sets up his headquarters in New York City, the old capital, in order to secure legitimacy for their efforts. Mars and Venus—the neighboring planets that took over initial rebuilding efforts—were showing disappointing results although they were making a start. Hood takes over a surviving structure, the old headquarters of the homeostatic newspaper New York Times. Hood wants to restore the newspaper’s operation so it can play its role in the reconstruction.
Hood is discussing prosecution of war criminals with Otto Dietrich. Hood wants to move on, but Dietrich thinks prosecuting the war criminals who caused the deaths of millions is essential to the rebuilding effort. Most important is finding out who had authority when the “Misfortune” happened.
The newspaper has been started up again and is already realizing editions. The homeopage is automated, taking in information from the outside and organizing it into news. Its first edition has news about CURB’s arrival and its plans for the planet. It is not a central government organ, and prints news independent of political opinions. This may work to the advantage of the people Dietrich wants to prosecute, who will be tipped off. Another report, also on the first page, discusses a riot by backers of Benny Cemoli, who is asking for “social justice.”
That night an extra edition reports that the Cemoli backers are planning a march on New York to oppose CURB. Hood asks for LeConte’s advice, as a local politico, he might know about Cemoli. Hood threatens LeConte with imprisonment until he confesses that Cemoli was a pre-war figure, but a minor, obscure radical with a little radio station, but he has been dead for fifteen years.
Trying to solve the mystery of Benny Cemoli, Hood’s assistant Fletcher writes a letter to the New York Times asking how he can get in contact with Cemoli’s group. Almost immediately, the homeopape responds that Cemoli’s recruiting offices are in New York. Hood organizes a small group of police to raid this location, which proved to be a grocery store, run by a Greek. They question him and later see a photo of Benny Cemoli, at the height of his power before the Misfortune. They arrest the Greek.
It is revealed that the homeopape was reporting on incidents that happened before the Misfortune and leading directly to it. The address was really a meeting place for Cemoli. He seized power in New York in a coup, tried to solve the unemployment problem by starting wars in Latin America. These actions started the war. Cemoli has since disappeared, and his followers have been trying to erase the memory of Cemoli. The homeopape picked up enough details to begin reporting on history, as if it was news.
LeConte, in Oklahoma City, is falsifying the history of Benny Cemoli and running that information to the New York Times homeopape feeds through an underground tunnel. As long as CURB is interested in Benny Cemoli, there will be no real war crimes trials.
Surprisingly, Dick wrote very little about the media in his stories and novels. Surely it is there in the background, but rarely are we told to take what the media says seriously. “What If There Were No Benny Cemoli” is the most detailed look we get in the stories about how the homeopape works (we will see about celebrity news broadcasting in some other stories coming up). The homeopape comes up in other stories and novels, but is not often explained and it is an interesting idea. With the possibility of big data, the mass collection of material in real time, it seems possible to do away with traditional reporters. The data is collected through mass surveillance of society, indifferent to political perspective. A program is then created to sort through and process this information, printing what is most important for release to the public. It seems to be a means to create a truly independent and fair news organ. Of course, Dick throws a wrench into this by having the New York Times homeopape used to perpetuate a false history of the war, to enable war criminals to avoid prosecution. The core problem of journalism remains. The narrative is still not trustworthy and still potentially shaped by political interests.
In this case, an entire personality is created. Perhaps Benny Cemoli was indeed a small-time fringe radical before the war. Perhaps he did not even exist. His historical significance is entirely overblown. In some notes on the story, Dick suggested that “[p]erhaps even Karl Marx was invented, the product of some hack writer.” (376) While I doubt this is true of many people there are likely examples of humans being transformed into legends and myths overtime. Mostly there are known to be myths and do not contribute to a massive deception, but in some cases (takes religious figures) millions of people do believe in the historicity of mythical figures. In that case, Dick’s concerns here are not entirely misplaced.
The Centaurus Urban Renewal Bureau is a wonderful creation on Dick’s part. There are many examples of such bureaus in our world. They are made up of engineers, aid agencies, transnational organizations, banks, and corporations eager to take advantage of a disaster. Whether it is a coup, a revolution, a flood, or an earthquake destroying a city. These groups are there waiting ready to turn the disaster into an opportunity. It is a form of what Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine.” Sometimes these agencies create the shock, but just as often the profit from it. Urban renewal itself is a destructive force that often eradicates communities, businesses, and vernacular cultures in the name of social order, progress, or “development.” Beware these people when they come to your town. The wrecking ball is likely coming in their wake, if it is not already at work.