“Precious Artifact” was originally published in Galaxy in October 1964. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 53–65.
Milt Biskle has just completed his lonely job of terraforming Mars for Terran settlement. He goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. DeWinter. DeWinter praises his creativity, but Biskle is anxious. He would like to return to Earth. DeWinter tries to tell him that Earth does has not changed. It is still overcrowded and quite miserable. He also tells him that since his family is coming to Mars to visit him, he had best stay and put on a proper wig and teeth (necessary since the fallout from a nuclear war on Earth some time earlier). DeWinter also warns him against burdening the other engineers on Mars with his bleak predictions. He plays with a yo-yo and encourages him to just prepare for his family. In exchange he will prepare tickets for Biskle to visit Earth. Biskle asks for DeWinter to prove he is human.
Biskle is on his way to Earth, accompanied by Mary Ableseth. He learns Central Park has been turned into a parking lot. When he learns other locations have been similarly destroyed, he gets depressed. Ableseth offers to share some wine with him. Later, Biskle is explaining that his purpose on Earth is to prove that humans have lost the war with Proxima and have been enslaved. Ableseth changes the subject to praise Biskle’s work terraforming Mars. Now half of the Terran population can move there.
Biskle goes to one of the surviving parks and tests the surroundings. He tests his surroundings. He tosses a rock at Mary, whose ears prick up. Nothing seemed quite right to him, but the replicas he thinks he is observing were well done.
At Mary’s conapt, Biskle sees that his wug plant has died of dehydration. This cannot be right since Earth should be more humid than Mars. He asks Mary why the Proxima keep up the facade now that he has finished his job terraforming Mars. She admits that maybe Earth needs to be terreformed as well. They head for the Museum of Modern Art.
At the Smithsonian, they see a historical exhibit from the war with Proxima. Frustrated at their evasion, Biskle says that he needs to know who he is terraforming for. Mary confesses that his suspicions are correct and that no other Terran survived. He should not worry because the human legacy will live on. The Proxima can interbreed with humans. He asks to go back to Mars and Mary allows this, but reminds him that he must continue his work on Earth soon. He asks is any life forms survived, and Mary tells him that dogs and cats still live in the ruins. Biskle goes to see the ruins of his planet. He imagines that the Prox men will soon replace these ruins with their cities and something like human life will continue on. Biskle collects a kitten.
On his return to Mars, Biskle tries to kill himself by flushing himself out the airlock, but is stopped by the stewardess.
He comes back to Mars and sees Dr. DeWinter. He has come to terms with continuing to work for the Prox men at terraforming Earth. It is revealed that each human engineer that survived the war is sustained by one precious memory of Earth, collected during a similar trip. For Biskle it is the kitten.
“Precious Artifact” is a very touching story about how the things that we love are used against us a tool of control. For Biskle, the survival of a single cat is enough to keep him going. For others, in our world, it may be a child, a spouse, a tryst, or a technology. We all have our precious artifact and they all serve to help make a horrible world palatable. Ultimately, they are tools of control and part of the mechanisms of power. I think the global capitalist system is sustained by much institutional power, enforced through various means, but a major reason why more of us do not resist the world that we live in is that power of the some precious thing that gets us through the day. “It would vary from Terran to Terran. A dog for one, a more elaborate simulacrum, possible that of a nubile human female, for another. In any case, each would be provided with an ‘exception’ to the true state.” (65) As often as not our own precious artifacts seem to provide a clear alternative to the world we live in. The solidarity of a family against the indifference and brutality of the economic system, or the liberty we feel from having an affair in contrast to the isolation and confinement of a domestic gulag. Our weakness is that we can unwilling or unable to fight to make the precious artifact the universal reality of the world.
“Precious Artifact” also speaks to important questions about urban development and urban planning. We have yet another example of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” at work here. The devastation of the war between Terra and Proxima created a clean slate for Biskle and the Proxmen to recreate the world to serve their needs. Klein’s argument, briefly, is that economic, political, or natural disruptions have become the means by which to open up parts of the world to global capitalism. Urban planning is a good example of this. When an earthquake destroys a city, urban planners are given an ideal space to work out their perfect vision of the world, and create the ideal city. In lieu of that destruction, they are not slowed down. The wrecking ball serves just as well as the earthquake, when Mother Nature holds back. In Dick’s writings, terraforming often takes on the role of urban development. Here, the devastation of Earth is just the beginning of a grand new project. “Some day a purely Prox city will rise up here: Prox architecture, streets of the odd, wide Prox pattern, the uniform box-life buildings with their man subsurface levels. And citizens such as these will be treading the ramps, accepting the high-speed runnels in their daily routines.” 62–63) This is the same dream of global capitalism, to remake the entire globe in their image. They are close to achieving this in the world’s cities, where one banking district look much like another, and one shopping center looking much like another.
“Precious Artifact” is a great story for looking at Dick’s politics of shifting realities. In my view (and readers of this blog will know this on some level), his concept of “shifting realities” must be looked at as an essentially political, not a metaphysical question. Here we have a man who is given a world that he knows is a fake and he worked to reveal the truth. But the reasons for the fakery are clearly about who is in control of the world. It is not enough to ponder if the world we see is real and then be in awe of the ambiguity of life. No! We must find who is shifting the realities, expose them, and challenge their right to do it. When liquidity devastates our autonomy, we must fight for solidity.
Philip K. Dick Fan Site review.