Faith of Our Fathers

Story Background
“Faith of Our Fathers” was originally published in Dangerous Visions in 1967. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 197–222.


Plot Summary
Tung Chien is walking the streets of Hanoi and meets a street peddler. Chien denies needing any of his wares, which mostly include home remedies. He tries to escape, but the peddler reminds him that the law requires that Chien purchase something. The peddler offers Chien an herbal remedy to cure eyes tired from the long political monologues citizens are forced to endure on the television. Chien goes into the Postwar Ministry of Cultural Artifacts and meets a colleague, Tso-pin, and Darius Pethel, who is in charge of a new school (“ideological and cultural establishment”) being set up in San Fernando, targeting the youth of the western U.S. Chien’s task will be to read the student essays to see who is in most need of ideological correction at such a school. This is a tricky mission because American youth are particularly good at faking their ideological commitment. Pethel shows him two essays in order to test his ability to identify the right students. He pushes Chien to give an answer after a cursory examination of only one of them, making use of an old Arabic poem from the Thousand and One Nights, and arguing for the brutal repression of anti-Party groups in the U.S. Chien manages to delay a final verdict and considers the failings of ideological training in the U.S.

At home he looks at the second paper, which is also an essay built around a poem. This one interprets John Dryden as an early critic of capitalism. A message from the Great Benefactor is announced on the television. In the message, the Great Benefactor mentions the great task before Tung Chien. Chien figures this was a personalized message and not broadcast widely. He opens the package purchased from the vendor, finding snuff. He takes it. Ignoring the television for a moment leads to a knock on his door. The Building Warden, Mou Kuei, fines him for looking away and reminds him that the message is directed toward him today. Back at the television Chien sees the image of the Great Benefactor fade away. It is replaced with a robotic monstrosity. Chien immediately contacts the Secpol and reports that the peddler was selling a hallucinogenic drug. A few minutes later, police arrive, investigate the snuff, take Chien’s story, and send the dubious drug to the lab. The lab report comes back quickly through Chien’s vidphone. They tell him that the drug is phenothiazine, an anti-hallucinogen. The doorbell rings. He answers to fid a woman who asks him if he still has the snuff and what he saw when he used it. Specifically, she wants to know what form the Great Benefactor took for him. She explains that everyone who uses the drug sees one of twelve different creatures. Chien’s machine is called the Clanker. There are also a Lovecraftian horror, a bird, and an alien. The woman says she sees a whirlwind. She reveals herself to be Tayna Lee, a minor clerk at Chien’s ministry. She is part of a group that has learned that the water in circulation is being tainted with hallucinogens. There is one common hallucination shared among all who drink water, but strangely there seem to be twelve distinct realities. Chien threatens to turn Lee in, but she convinces him that she is not anti-Party, but is part of a group devoted to learning the truth about who, or what, rules them. Lee wants to help him choose the right essay, so he will be promoted. If he can use the anti-hallucinogen in the physical presence of the Great Benefactor, he will be able to see its true form. Lee identifies the more aggressive essay as the heretical one, saturated with Party jargon.

Chien meets with Pethel and Tso-pin, correctly identifying the heretical essay. Pethel informs Chien that the image of the Great Benefactor is manipulated. He is actually a Caucasian named Thomas Fletcher. He is told this because he will be meeting the Great Benefactor at the Leader’s villa. Chien wonders if Lee was an agent attempting to learn if Chien was actually anti-Party. On the day of his visit to the villa, Chien is stopped by the peddler who hands him some of the anti-hallucinogen drug. The package has a note from Lee warning him not to try to locate her after the party. He takes the drug.

Chien is checked before entering the party, which is populated by men in formal dress and nude women. Women pass around drinks for the crowd. A woman near Chien, a guest as well, is anxious to meet “His Greatness.” When he arrives, Chien is horrified. It is not any of the twelve images seen on the television. It is beyond form and violently consumed the life of the people in the room, draining their life force with an insatiable appetite. Chien thinks that the creature is God. It starts talking to Chien directly. It tells him that the things it consumes means nothing to it and are undifferentiated to it. Each will be consumed. He interprets the Arabic poem Chien read in the essay to mean God is death. It stops Chien from killing himself by grabbing his shoulder and tells him that he founded both the Party and the anti-Party, and all other institutions. Chien hits it and falls unconscious. Sometime later he is woken up and scolded for getting drunk and making a fool of himself. He is sent out in a cab.

Later, Tayna Lee sees Chien in his room. He talks her into staying with him for the night. Chien is unable to describe what he saw and asks Lee is she believes in God. She finds a belief in God old-fashioned. Chien asks he if good and evil can be two sides of God. He tells her that he wants to stay on the hallucinogen. After having sex, Lee tells Chien that making love is a way to enter a timeless zone. Chien gets a towel for Lee in the bathroom and notices that the place that “it” touched him on the shoulder is bleeding and will soon kill him.

The theme at the heart of “The Faith of Our Father,” a work as important as any of Dick’s novels, is the central odiousness of the institutions. No other work makes as clear Emma Goldman’s point that human history is the struggle between the individual and the institution. The story follows Tung Chien, an agent of the Chinese Communist Party in Hanoi. The Chinese Communist Party had emerged victorious over all of its enemies and is the dominant ideology in the world. Bureaucratic authoritarianism is not limited to Communism in Dick’s world, but written during one of the peaks of Maoism, it was easy for Dick to imagine the emergence success of Chinese. The regime regulates every aspect of people’s lives. As Chien ponders after an unfortunate dialog with a peddler that the investigation of his private life by someone who is not of the government is appalling. He is however, required by law to purchase something from the peddler since he is a veteran. The product he purchases turns out to be a hallucinogenic drug of sorts, which he consumes in front of the television while watching the typical fare of propaganda. He promises Chien that the drug when ingested will “rest eyes fatigued by the countenance of meaningless official monologues. A soothing preparation; take it as soon as you find yourself exposed to the usual dry and lengthy sermons.” (198)

One of the main tools of control turns out to be education. After meeting the peddler, he met with an American communist who establishes schools that have the goal of locating and programming dissatisfied youth. Chien has been given the charge of reading admissions essays to locate those best suited to the program (that is those who are in most need of a proper ideological education). It seems that the Communists have had a notoriously difficult time indoctrinating Americans despite the easy of the military victory.

Nightly, the government beams message from the leader directly into individual’s homes. Chien highly suspects that these are often custom made for different people as Chien himself is mentioned by name and offered support in his new task with American youth. His observation of these broadcasts are observed. When he looked away for a moment at the item he purchased from the peddler, he was interrupted and disciplined by the Building Warden. He is ordered to begin watching again from the beginning. Instead, he takes the drug (in the form of a snuff). When the drug took affect he began to see the “Leader” differently. “He faced a dead mechanical construct, made of solid state circuits, of swiveling pseudopodia, lenses and a squawk-box.” (205) Terrified, Chien calls the authorities who investigate the drug. He soon learns that the drug is a drug, which counteracts the effects of hallucinogen.

Soon after this revelation, he is visited by a girl who explains that Chien has experienced what many others have (although the image of the leader that they see varies). Some like Chien see robots (“The Clunker”), others see a Lovecraftian horror (“The Gulper”), and yet others see a bird of “the Climbing Tube.” In all there are twelve different images that replace the leader when individuals take the drug. The image of a human leader giving speeches is a collective delusion imposed on the state through the massive consumption of hallucinogens in the water supply. Chien also learns that the movement to learn the truth wants to use him because he is clearly an upwardly mobile Party member who will possibly be in a position someday to reveal the truth about what it is that really rules us. The review of student essays is actually a political test of Chien before his promotion in the hierarchy. The movement hopes he can meet the leader in person under the influence of the anti-hallucinogenic drug and see, finally, what it is that is ruling humanity (as it is certainly not human). In almost fitting the image of a hedonistic, hypocritical dictator, the private meeting that Chien is soon invited to is a stag party.

At the party, Chien soon sees the real form of the “Absolute Benefactor.” “It had no shape. Nor pseudopodia, either flesh or metal. It was, in a sense, not there at all. . . It was terrible; it blasted him with its awareness. As it moved it drained the life from each person in turn; it ate the people who had assembled, passed on, ate again, ate more with an endless appetite. It hated; he felt its hate. It loathed; he felt its loathing for everyone present—in fact he shared its loathing. All at once he and everyone else in the big villa were each a twisted slug, and over the fallen slug carcasses the creature savored, lingered, but all the time coming directly toward him—of was that an illusion?” This image of an all-consuming, hating, yet all powerful deity is Dick’s image of the state, consuming all it comes across, presenting itself as a positive force while committing its endless crimes. Chien’s recollection of the party ends with a dialog between Chien and this being, in which it is made very clear that although the “Absolute Benefactor” created the Party, the anti-Party, and everything else and observes it all with utter contempt. As he concludes to Chien: “The dead shall live, the living die. I kill what lives; I save what had died. And I will tell you this: there are worse things than I. But you won’t meet them because by then I will have killed you.” (217–219) This self-confidence is also stereotypical of Dickian imaginations of state power. Even when sustaining massive delusions (and none as quite so universal as the one in “Faith of Our Fathers”), it is confident in the ultimate power and the incapacity of most to imagine resistance.

When Chien returns home at the end of the story, he meets the girl from before and they proceed to have an intimate evening together. Chien learns that the “Absolute Benefactor” is indeed going to have him killed but he seeks a final moment of happiness. He informs the girl that resistance is impossible outside of the acknowledgment of the horrors he witnessed. “Believe in it” is the only advice he can manage, but he knows that it is not enough to achieve any real resistance and he longs for a return to the delusion. The violence and terror of the state, acknowledged at times by political philosophers from the days of Divine Right and the writings of Thomas Hobbes, is still often hidden from view. Like the users of the anti-hallucinogen, we can catch pieces of the state’s character through leaked documents, scandals, or the occasional work of journalism. On a case by case basis, the lies are not sustainable. The twelve different forms that the lie took for the users resemble these fractional cracks in the edifice. Seeing the whole may not be possible, even for the most brave and open-minded critic of power. Indeed, it is not even known by most of the people who serve the state.

Wikipedia page for “Faith of Our Fathers.”

Philip K. Dick Fan Site review.

Another bloggers take on this story.

Rationalwiki’s take on the water fluoridation conspiracy.



About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Alien Invasion, Bureaucracy, Drug Use, Empire, Knowledge, Mental Illness, Philip K. Dick, Politics, Power and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Faith of Our Fathers

  1. essexric says:

    Dick took his lead from Orwell and wrote of a totalitarian government as he could never have imagined it.Tung Chien is Dick’s Winston Smith,a much more radical individual,who ventures much further than him to discover the truth behind the identity of the dictator and pays the ultimate price.It’s difficult to know who is the most fortunate,and if revelation is better than dim uncertainly,no matter what the outcome.

    A metaphysical nightmare is the real truth behind an ordinary if awesome political government.Here,politics and religion seems to have merged with devastating effect,and have no definition.It is far beyond institutionalized thought,and our hero cannot defeat it outside of the “reality” he knew,but is doomed now anyway.It is as you say it seems,you can best defeat the enemy in the world you know.

    Is his vision within the pages of the novelette then,a product of what you call the liquid world of late capitalism? What of the drug then,which is anti hallucinogenic,and is supposed to show the truth?How can you be certain of anything in a web of ambiguity and change?

    • tashqueedagg says:

      I think there are parts of Bauman’s liquid modernity here. My understanding of the concept is not that we cannot know any truth, but that the truth can (like a liquid) quickly fill a new container. (Or if you like the Daoist idea of a river, we can step into the same river but it is not the same due to the flowing water.)

      I take this story as a metaphor for the indifference and horror of the state and bureaucracy. A taxonomy of Dick’s political visions reveal a great diversity of systems. What they all seem to have in common is a search for stability and order, as a key to securing the position of the ruling class. Here the motives are more malevolent, but still about securing a stable order. It is much like the contemporary calls for empire as a means to stabilize an increasingly unstable global system.

      • essexric says:

        I don’t really disagree with you,but his literary universe causes “real” happenings that are too concrete and unstable I think to be wholly abstract,and the metaphorical comes to life as it merges with manic visions,whether it be by drugs or some other catalyst.Probably closer to what you think,is that different political subjective realities project illusion when the more powerful and foreign of them,comes into contact with the opposing individual.The weird stigmata afflicting the protagonist,is probably the result of his terrifying conviction,even though it means his doom.

        Politics itself is only maybe a delusion entertained as a cerebral notion then.Once again I suppose,the evil that deludes us into believing it to be something concrete,as to be fought against a solid enemy.

  2. Pingback: Vulcan’s Hammer (1960) | Philip K. Dick Review

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