“Waterspider” was originally published in If in January 1964. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 217–243.
1–Aaron Tozzo is thinking about how Earth has been sending prisoners on doomed missions to Proxima on experiments on a functional one-way voyage to the other star. These have failed due to a problem of re-entry due to changes in mass caused by being shrunk down. Tozzo threatens his boss Edwin Fermeti that he will resign if another trip goes wrong. Fermeti tells him that they have a new plan. They will go to the past and bring back pre-cogs from a time before they were destroyed and use them to determine the formula for re-entry. The mid-twentieth century was a golden age for pre-cogs.
2–The Library of Congress finds the sole article on the problem of mass restoration and interstellar travel in a 1955 issue of a pre-cog journal called If. Reading the article Tozzo realizes that the piece is about their “Waterpsider” program, but was renamed “Night Flight.” While the story does not have the technical details, he believes that the author, “Poul Anderson” will know those details that he did not share in the article. The research team decides to send Tozzo and another man, Gilly, to a pre-cog convention in Berkeley California in 1955. Tozzo begins to research details of the social life of the time by reading these pre-cog journals.
3–Anachronistically dressed Tozzo and Gilly enter the pre-cog convention, claiming to be representatives of a regional pre-cog organization. Tozzo, amazed at what he sees, decides to hold off the mission in order to take in some of the culture of the pre-cogs. They talk with the pre-cogs at the gathering, and Gilly makes a mistake of discussing an article not yet written. Later, they track down Anderson and pull him to the present with the time-dredge.
4–Anderson is brought before Fermeti who explains what has happened. Fermeti assures him that he will be returned to his time shortly. Donald Nils, the commander of the ship heading toward Proxima complains about their unjust treatment. Pete Bailly suggests that they make the best of it and that they can read plenty of articles from the old pre-cog journals. One article called “The Variable Man” was relevant because it was about faster-than-light travel. But Nils ends up focusing on an article in the December 1962 issue of If.
Anderson, believed to be tricked by his agents, promises that he is working on a story. Fermeti asks about the mass-restoration formula implied in his article “Night Flight.” They explain that he is a pre-cog. They use the example of an article called “The Defenders” that proved to be exactly what happened after the Third World War in 1996. Anderson points out that some science fiction writers believe they can see the future, but that he does not buy that. He asks to go look at a store to buy something for his wife and escapes. He looks for a library so he can research what has happened since 1954. When he tells a clerk that he has a newborn child, he is accused of being a criminal. A woman helps him escape that situation. He tries to get her to help him find some library materials, but is horrified when he mentions educating children.
5–Fermeti knows that Anderson will soon be picked up. He looks just too strange for the times. Meanwhile, Anderson finds his path blocked by a slime mold that communicates telephatically. It explains to Anderson that there is a moratorium on childbirth and that there was a civil war between fanatics led by Gutman and liberals led by a general named McKinley. Anyone who does not seem to conform to society is labeled a follower of Gutman and a potential terrorist. Anyone who proposes a subjective value system is suspect. As he leads Anderson to the spaceport, he gives him some more details of Terra’s history. As Anderson prepares to leave for other planets, he is stopped by Fermeti. Anderson tries to fleet again and Fermeti shoots him with a stun pistol. Anderson wakes up and is put in front of a typewriter and told he must construct the mass-restoration formula. After he completes his task, Tozzo and Fermeti prepare to take him to the Department of Penology for a brain wipe.
6–Tozzo realizes that the manuscript Anderson wrote disappears as soon as the mind-wipe is done and he is returned to the 1950s. The article “Night Flight” no longer exists and that issue now has a story called “The Mold of Yancy” by Philip K. Dick. Anderson must have envisioned his experiences in the future as the basis of “Night Flight.” When his mind was wiped the story could no longer be written.
Back at the Science Fiction Convention, Anderson pulls out of his pocket some notes he wrote, with ideas for a future story about a tyrant named Gutman and intelligent slime molds.
“Waterspider” should probably not be taken too seriously. And I must say that in the early 1960s, when Dick went back to writing short stories he seems to have chilled out considerably. Alongside “Waterspider,” we have the lovely “Novelty Act,” “Oh, To Be a Blobel,” and “Orpheus with Clay Feet.” They are all humorous stories that still have important messages for us. They can still be horrible in a way, but the tone of that horror is muted by the way Dick presents the story.
So, we have several ways to think about what is going on in this story. One is that, in the middle of the twenty-first century people started to mine science fiction, thinking that they were written by precog futurists, and modelled their society off of that. That will explain the funky clothing, strange hairstyles, and bizarre ideas of the future society. This, however, is most likely not what is going on. The second is hinted at in the end. Anderson brings back from the future a piece of paper with ideas. Science fiction writers have seen the future, but they had their minds cleaned and are left with only some small relics of their experiences. This creates a nice little cycle. The people in the future think science fiction writers are precogs and pull them to their time, inadvertently implanting the ideas that will appear to predict the future. The most convincing explanation in the story is that science fiction writers are precogs. The evidence for this is the accuracy of “The Defenders” and the fact that Anderson’s mind cleansing made it impossible for him to write “Night Travel.” That would only happen if he was indeed using his precog abilities to see his own future.
Much of what Dick is doing in “Waterspider” is having fun with the culture of science fiction in the 1950s. It was a relatively small group of people who knew each other both personally and professionally. This story is a bit of a love letter to that community and some of its oddities.
Beyond the more playful parts of the story, we are actually presented with a quite horrific reality. Political prisoners are commonly experimented on in hopes of achieving interstellar travel. Those that are sent out never return. After a civil war, anyone who does not conform is deemed dangerous. Non-conformity is so harshly resisted that even having children is not allowed because it might allow greater diversity in society. This is a constant tension in Dick’s world, the unending struggle between individuality and the banality of mass culture. It is for this reason that Dick has his own story “The Mold of Yancy” replace Anderson’s story “Night Flight.” While Callisto in “The Mold of Yancy” achieves homogeneity through subtle cultural suggestions, in “Waterspider” it emerges through the use of secret police, gulags, and other terrors.
Wikipedia entry for “Waterspider.”
Please, will someone improve some of these!