“What the Dead Men Say” was originally published in Worlds of Tomorrow in June 1964. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 245–288.
Johnny Barefoot is struggling with his duty to bring Louis Sarapis back to life using half-life technology. Sarapis’ will insists that he be kept alive. Johnny, however, wants to move on with his life with the company. Sarapis’ half-life will bind him to the company. Sarah Belle, his wife, suggests that putting Sarapis in half-life may give Johnny more power over the company, which controls much of the shipping between Earth and Mars. In all, half-life gives about one year of extended life, but that can be spread out over many years. Johnny thinks about how respected Sarapis was and his prominent public role. This influenced his decision to work for him. It also explains the many people at the funeral.
Herbert Schoenheit works at Beloved Brethren Mortuary. A customer arrives to take his grandmother out of half-life. Herb imagines that he will want to be taken out one day a century so he can observe all of human history. Another customer complains that his father is looking a bit frail. Next, Johnny Barefoot arrives to arrange for the resurrection of Sarapis. When the procedure does not work, Barefoot threatens legal action. Herb is horrified at the scale of losing such a high profile case.
Owen Angress, a chief technician at a radio telescope, picks up a signal originating between Earth and Proxima. It is a human voice, discussing business.
Claude St. Cyr, with Gertrude and Phil Harvey, is listening to news on the recently discovered radio signal. St. Cyr has designs on Harvey’s small time shipping company. He is trying to work for Harvey, using the fact that he was cut out of Sarapis’s will as a justification. St. Cry predicts the decline of Sarapis’ empire. The half-life attempt was botched and the company was willed to his unstable granddaughter named Kathy Egmont.
Kathy Egmont contacts Johnny Barefoot by phone asking for a ride and a place to stay. Johnny and Sarah discuss the dubious future of the company. St. Cyr is fired and gone, Kathy is an unknown, and Sarapis still cannot be revived.
The next morning, Johnny finds Kathy eating breakfast at the hotel he arranged to have her stay at. They discuss the efforts at reviving Sarapis. They go to the mortuary and see Herb Schoenheit. Kathy thinks she can help because she knows the experiences of half-lifers because she was technically dead due to a drug overdose. She claims that the voice in space (originating from one light-week away) is Sarapis, who died one week earlier. He is not the type of man who would settle for half-life.
St. Cyr is shown a three-day-old telegraph from Louis Sarapis by Alfonse Gam. It urges Gam to run for President again. Gam was a political stooge for Sarapis and St. Cyr urges him to not run. St. Cyr thinks about his plan to offer Kathy Egmont a buy out of the company to Harvey. He wants to take advantage of the weakness on Sarapis’ old company. Although Barefoot is trying to revive its image, Kathy is discrediting it by her public pronouncements of being in contact with her grandfather. He listens again to the voice from space and realizes that it could be Sarapis.
Kathy confesses to Johnny Barefoot that she is back on drugs right before their meeting with Harvey and St. Cyr. Johnny tells her to accept their offer and then go to recovery in a hospital. At the meeting, Johnny agrees to Harvey’s proposition to exchange Sarapis’ company for most of Ganymede. A phone call interrupts the discussions. It is Sarapis who demands that Johnny give Kathy a chance to run the company. Rattled, Johnny tries to close the deal.
Johnny threatens to quit if Kathy does not take the deal, but Kathy insists that she listen to her grandfather. Johnny continues to receives messages from Louis demanding that he allow Kathy to run the company and that Gam run for president again. Johnny begins to despair.
St. Cyr finds a cryptic message in the lead article of the newspaper. It is difficult to decipher but he realizes that it is Sarapis telling them that Johnny Barefoot is about to kill himself at a hotel.
Kathy stops Johnny from jumping from the window. She hands him the phone which has yet another message from Sararpis, this one demanded that Johnny support Gam’s nomination for president. St. Cyr and Harvey come as well, having been called there by Sarapis.
St. Cyr discusses his plans with Elektra Harvey—his employers ex-wife. He promises her that the deal will help her recover what she lost in the divorce. He is working with Harvey to find Sarapis’ body, which will—he hopes—stop the interference to their plans.
Gam and Johnny discuss the possibility of a political campaign. Gam hopes that Johnny can articulate his message, since he is an experienced public relations specialist.
St. Cyr tracks down Sarapis’ body and shoots it. The communications continue, proving that there is no connection between the body and the voices from space.
St. Cyr and Harvey are trying to figure out the origin of the Sarapis broadcasts on their way to the convention hall, where Gam will likely be nominated. They approach Johnny when they arrive at the hall, threatening him if he will not reveal where Kathy is or the source of the messages. St. Cyr believes that the messages are being created by Kathy. Together they find Kathy at the hospital. Kathy reveals that the half-life failed because she consumed Louis. The transmissions were coming from pre-recorded tapes placed in space years earlier, with the hopes of using it to ensure that Gam would be nominated and elected. When St. Cyr mentioned committing her, Kathy demand a jury trial.
Gam wins the nomination and will likely win the general election. The story ends with Johnny, St. Cyr, and Harvey discussing how to destroy the transmission, but since that will take a month they will need to murder Kathy. They draw matches. Johnny selects the short one.
There is a lot of interesting political and social tensions going on in “What the Dead Men Say.” The primary one is about the tension between the youth and elders in our institutions and politics systems. Louis Sarapis represents the endurance of the old. Whether it is through the technology of half-life or the messages coming from space, Sarapis is a symbol of the gerontocracy—the perpetual control of our society by the elders. What is so horrifying about half-life is not what it means for those in it (that is explored well enough in Ubik), but what it means for those who are outside. Johnny Barefoot is actually horrified to find that Sarapis’ will assumes his own will as well. He had hoped his employer’s death would allow him to move on in his life. He had no such luck. The will ensures that he will be tied to Sarapis for the foreseeable future. There is some relief in the failure of half-life to work in his case. Sarapis’ death also provides an opportunity for new companies to emerge. The role of St. Cyr and Harvey is to represent the insurgent company opposing the ancient, dominant monopoly. Kathy, at least initially, is also a representative of the next generation. She is unable to break free as easily. She has addictions that likely had their roots in being raised in a dysfunctional family, and she is unwilling to let go of the company even through selling out means she can live in relaxed luxury the rest of her life. The problem of half-life is the problem of all life-extending technologies. As promising as they are in extending our preciously short lives, it denies that our social stability is based on the presumption that eventually the old release their hold on the world and pass on the torch to the next generation. If the “dead men” never stop talking, the rest of us will never get a voice.
Another social tension at work in this story is clearly about media infiltration. What Johnny realizes at the end, is that Kathy and Gam have won because they had the most thorough saturation of the media. Kathy used a powerful transmitter to literally dominate all the media outlets so they conform only to Sarapis’ (really her own) message. “What can anyone do? All the means of communication are gone; the media have been taken over. They have the radio, TV, newspapers, phone, wire services . . . everything that depends on microwave transmission or open-gap electric circuitry. They’ve captured it all, left nothing for us, the opposition, by which to fight back.” (286) Is this not the situation we are in with corporate domination of the airways? Even the solution given in “What the Dead Men Say” is radical. The source of the message must be killed.
Essentially these two problems are the same. Both media centralization and the gerontocracy limit the potential of others to express themselves and their values. They both make “free speech” am absurdity. Yes, the young and the powerless are free to speak, but their voice will not be heard because they are pushed out by those who control the system.
How a handful of companies control the media.
Since the above report mentions this, here is the scene on BGH from The Corporation