“The Electric Ant” was originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction in October 1968. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 225–239.
Garson Poole wakes up in a hospital bed, after having lost his hand and suffered massive injuries in a massive traffic accident. He talks with Louis Danceman who runs Poole’s factory Tri-Plans when he is absent. Later, the doctor tells Poole that he needs to be transferred to a service facilities for robots because he is an “electric ant.” The doctor explains that, this is not an uncommon occurrence.
As his hand was being replaced, Poole discusses the situation with the technician. Poole realizes that he never knew because he was programmed to not pick up on the signs that he was not human. He was, in fact, a mechanical slave. Still, he lived a good life. At home Poole starts to explore his body to figure out how he was constructed and how he works. He wants to kill himself and realizes that he can do this by accessing his chest panel and cutting off his reality tape that controls his memory and consciousness. He later has a better idea. His subjective reality is controlled by that tape. Perhaps he can learn how to manipulate it to control his world. As an experiment he covered up some hole on a part of the tape that will be experienced in around six hours.
Around that time, he is with Danceman at a bar. Danceman confesses that he knew Poole was a robot, ever since the owners of Tri-Plan wanted a manager that they could control. He notices that part of the wall disappears. This confirms that covering up the punch holes in the tape changed his reality, eliminating an object. Leaving the bar he notices many things are missing and assume others are as well. He goes home and finds Sarah Benton in his room. He tells her that he is an electric ant and begins immediately experimenting on his reality tape again, blocking out a ten minute segment around midnight. He wonders aloud if his quasi-organic brain can hand multiple images at once.
As scheduled, around midnight, his reality begins to fade away. Sometime later he returns to full sensory consciousness and is surrounded by technicians. They tell him that his manipulation of the reality tape, jammed his system, which is why he did not return to consciousness after ten minutes. The jamming is a safety mechanism to prevent the end of the machine. Poole, however, is determined to use the reality tape to experience everything at once, if possible.
Poole tells Sarah that for his next experiment he will try to reverse time, by cutting a segment of tape out and reversing it. He is working up to a total experience, which may only take a moment, of ultimate reality. Poole punches some holes in the tape. This change gives him the experience of ducks flying through the room. To Sarah’s shock, she also sees them. He decides to go ahead with his plan to cut the tape. The tape moves faster than he planned, preventing him from reattaching the tape. He experiences a total sensory overload, taking in countless images. His final thought is of burning in his mouth.
Sarah Benton contacts Danceman to tell him that they are free from Poole who has destroyed itself. Sarah starts to experience the fading of some of the reality around her, including Poole’s body.
“The Electric Ant” shares much in common with the earlier, and mostly neglected, Dick story called “The World She Wanted.” That story was about a woman who realizes that she is in total control of her universe and begins to manipulate it, until the man she is dragging around comes to realize that the world he is experiencing is also his to control. “The Electric Ant” may be more mature as science fiction, giving an explanation about why this happens with the use of a “reality tape,” which feeds the experiences of the robot and can be manipulated. Still, I find “The World She Wanted” a more beautiful story. The most politically powerful reading of these two stories is to start with the everyday solipsism of the “one percent.” I would point out that there is a small group of people who literally have the ability to manipulate reality to serve their interests, the small elite. Using that wonderful invention of money, they can do everything from raising palaces to starting wars to changing governments. This is not conspiracy theory stuff, they actually have this power and there is little democratic forces can do to stop them (at least given the power regimens we live under.) If they desire it, they can choose to live in a 1930s Washington babyland (to borrow Dick’s idea from Now Wait for Last Year). They can manipulate reality and most of the time make us suffer those changes. Poole is not surprisingly a member of that elite class, running a company. He is used to having this power. Realizing he is an electric ant allows him to expand his manipulations of reality. It is much the same in “The World She Wanted,” but without the clear class dimension.
The second way to read “The Electric Ant” (and “The World She Wanted”) is as an example of radical freedom. A change in the programming and he can change how others look, the smell of his environment, or any other detail. In this sense he is an omnipotent figure, but only from his subjective reality. Suddenly, Poole became radically free. “My universe is lying within my fingers, he realized. If I can just figure out how the damn thing works. . . . With this he did not merely gain control of himself; he gained control over everything.” (23) Like with the heroine in “The World She Wanted,” Dick is defining freedom as the capacity to remake the world from our individual will, not the will of outside forces. It remains ambiguous if these changes he makes to his subjective reality have any effect on others (and from the point of view of Poole it is impossible to determine), however such a conclusion would require that everyone was in some shared delusion such as those described in Eye in the Sky or The Maze of Death.
Wikipedia page for “The Electric Ant”