“What’ll We Do With Ragland Park” was originally published in Amazing in November 1963. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 339–357.
Sebastian Hada is eating illegally-obtained fruit in his Oregon demesne, thinking about how he needs to get Jim Briskin as an announcer for CULTURE (Committee Utilizing Learning Techniques for Urban Renewal Efforts), his media company. Unfortunately, President Max Fisher has managed to disable the former computer president Unicephalon 40-D, allowing him to take over as president. He immediately put his rival Briskin in jail. They had previously locked horns when an alien invasion disabled Unicephalon, leaving Fisher—the stand-by president—in charge. Hada tells one of his wives that he must try to get Briskin released and orders a media onslaught against Briskin’s imprisonment.
Haba’s therapist Yasumi discusses with Haba his plans to free Briskin and maybe take power. Haba is coy and tells him that he needs to go to interview a new banjo artist named Ragland Park. Yasumi warns Haba that Park seems to have some mental illnesses that may be hiding a telepathy.
Before his meeting with Park, Haba goes to meet Jim Briskin in a New York federal prison. Both Briskin and Fisher had resisted Unicephalon’s return to power. Fisher disabled the machine somehow and Briskin continued to broadcast. Neither wanted to let go of their newly discovered powers. Haba offers Briskin full autonomy in his broadcasts, but Briskin fears the offer because of what happened to Unicephalon. CULTURE is a media empire, but really covers for a real-estate scheme. Haba hopes that when people return to Earth from the colonies they will fill up these empty cities.
Haba meets with Ragland Park and they discuss Park’s banjo act. Ragland preforms some songs for Haba. After a few tunes, it is revealed that “Rags” really does have some psychic powers. Rags thinks he can read the future as well as reading minds. He agrees to work with Haba in releasing Briskin.
Fisher watches the CULTURE broadcasts and does not miss its constant message that Briskin must be released. He investigates Haba’s eight eives, meeting one—Zoe—the next day. Zoe is Haba’s first wife and seems sympathetic to Fisher turning against her husband.
Yasumi reveals to Haba that his profile on Ragland Park does not reveal precognitive ability, but there is some psi ability. Yasumi asks Ragland Park to write a song about Jim Briskin being released from jail. Their meeting is disrupted by bodyguards who just stopped a bombing attempt by Zoe. Saxton, the bodyguard, wants to go directly after Fisher.
Fisher tells one of his advisors that he knows that when three people are competing, eventually two of them will get together. Fisher suggests releasing Briskin will help him win the media personality to his side against the upcoming struggle against Haba.
Ragland Park preforms his song detailing “Jim-Jam” Briskin’s release from jail to Haba. The song is put out on the air. Yasumi asks Ragland to set a haiku he wrote to music. The haiku is about how Briskin will feel gratitude for how his friend got him released.
President Fisher learns that Briskin has been released, which is exactly what Fisher was planning to do. The song being sung on the television by Ragland Park came true. Fisher realizes that Ragland Park’s psi ability is prophecy, not precognitive knowledge. Whatever he sings about comes true. He worried that he might sing about Unicephalon coming back.
Later, Yasumi reveals the nature of Park’s ability to Haba. He warns that if Ragland Park learns about this he will actually become the greatest threat.
Ragland Park is wondering what to sing about next. He is sick of overdone political ballads. He experiments with a song about how Ragland Park is deemed a menace to social morality and is shot dead by the police. He decides it is the best of his career. Moments after singing the song, he is shot by some of Fisher’s FBI agents.
Fisher does not know how he managed to entrap Park, but he wonders if he has a unique psi ability to make folk singer’s compose songs about themselves.
The stories “Stand-by” and “What’ll We Do With Ragland Park” form what appears to be two acts of an unfinished novel. We do not have completer resolution because there is still the upcoming conflict between Briskin-Haba and the government controlled by Max Fisher. This is okay, because we still have lots of interesting things to explore in these two stories, about politics, media, and even folk music.
We have another post-apocalyptic environment in these stories. Many people have left Earth, but there are plans to reclaim Earth. Sebastian Haba’s company, CULTURE, is poised to benefit from this effort. Most of the land in the world has been grabbed up by a rich few, into larger feudal-style holdings. When the people return to Earth and settle the cities, these people will become the new nobility. After the war, formal political power has been surrendered to a giant computer. This idea is recycled from Vulcan’s Hammer. The idea is that the society is so complex that only a computer can make rational decisions about policy. This is the end result of the logic of technocracy, and its great danger. If those who are most capable of managing a technological society should rule, democracy stands in the way of progress. Most people accept this. It was only when the computer, Unicephalon 40-D, broke down during an alien attack that the “stand-by” becomes president. These are appointed figure. Notice, people like Jim Briskin did not oppose the rule by a computer, but when an unelected man rises to power suddenly he becomes an advocate for the people having a say in their government. Initially, at least, this does nothing to challenge the logic of rule by computer.
After only a week of ruling, the uplifted stand-by, Max Fisher, realizes that he likes having power. When the computer comes back, he regrets having to step down. Sometime after the events of “Stand-by” Fisher arranges for the destruction of the computer. The computer’s return is something he fears greatly. Even Briskin challenges the orders of Unicephalon by continuing to broadcast political messages after the compute returns. For this he is imprisoned. The message of this is that human beings seem to want to rule, or at least to have control over their lives. When they get a taste of it they do not want to let it go. Once again we see Dick’s clear preference for human autonomy over automation. Fisher thinks: “In some respects I sort of enjoyed making decisions. I mean, it was . . . It was different from being a stand-by or drawing unemployment. [. . .] It was something.” (337) Perhaps this is an expression of the will to power, or just a deep desire to have control over his own life (unfortunately for his enemies he only experienced that as president, so he associated individual freedom with political control).
The media narrative of the story, surrounds CULTURE and Jim Briskin. Both have real political ambitions—or at least have those ambitions awakened by Unicephalon’s malfunction. The media, no matter how banal on the surface, has as its ultimate purpose the assertion of a political agenda. Briskin is more conventional. He transforms himself from “Jim-Jam Briskin” into a presidential candidate, losing much of his satiric and entertaining character. (Al Franken or Arnold Schwarzenegger are examples of this in our world.) Haba is more postmodern in this regard. His media company, CULTURE, is really a tool of economic and political domination over society, but his company only sells vulgarized high culture. He hires the folk singer Ragland Park, not because of his authentic cultural value, but because of apparent psi ability. The culture CULTURE sells is geared toward the lowest common denominator. The introduction of Park, reveals the total politicization of CULTURE’s message to the public. (CULTURE is like a combination of the Learning Channel, the History Channel, and Fox News.)
If you had read Dick’s stories closely, by this point you would have thought that Dick exhausted what he had to say about mutants. These stories do not add much, but as far as I know this was the first time he imagined a mutant with the ability of prophecy. Ragland’s Parks’ songs come true. Unfortunately, he is a folk singer so eventually he writes a song about his own misery and death. This is a very clever twist on Dick’s part. And maybe there is something to this. With musicians commonly dying young as a result of a lifestyle made necessarily by their profession, Ragland Park’s inadvertent self-destruction reminds us of the all too common early deaths of musicians.