Doctor Jim Parsons experiences a terrifying day dream that entails the destruction of the world that he knew while on his commute to work. One of the reasons that he can allow his mind to flow during that commute is that the car is automated, along with all the others rushing to their destinations in the sixteen-lane highway into San Francisco. He thinks about how central planning has helped preserve some of the beauty of the countryside by eliminating much of the odious advertisements. He, however, is confident that the government will never nationalize the professional industries. Suddenly the car drives off the road and he falls into a gray void. When he awakens from the void, Parsons finds he cannot understand the highway signs. He also notices that the entire look of the city in front of him changed. Wherever (or whenever) he is, Parsons is confident that a doctor will always have a place. As he walks down the road, he is almost struck by a vehicle that made no effort to miss him. A young man driving the car lets him into the car, but Parson realizes that he was really trying to run him down, or thought that Parsons wanted to be run down.
Jim Parsons studies the young man who picked him up. He is speaking a strange language that seems based on English but is polyglot. His skin color suggests a multi-racial background. Parson talks to him in an effort to learn the language. As they enter the city, Parsons realizes that the city’s population is divided into tribes identified by totem emblems, but there are no clear racial or ethnic divisions. He also notices that the population is extremely young. Under the lights of the city, the boy turns on him and accuses him of being sick. Having a clear view of Parson’s white skin, the boy is horrified. The boy lets him out amongst some warehouses. Looking at a pamphlet, Parsons learns that he can begin to understand the polyglot language. He uses his doctor’s tools to break the lock of a warehouse and enters in hopes of finding a place to hide. Inside is a small group of people, one of who urges him to close the door. Parsons understands the language well enough to follow their conversation, which is a pseudo-philosophical dialogue about their non-existence.
The group concludes that Parsons is a shupo because he broke into their warehouse. When he denies this, they ask him to show them his real face. A heavy-set man realizes that Parsons is a real outsider. His skin color is normally associated with a dangerous disease and his clothing is from the past, he suspects 1910. Parsons clarifies that he is from 2010. The man, named Wade, replies that they are in 2405. He also warns him that outsiders to groups are commonly killed, but each tribe is non-ideological and lacks distinct cultures. They are arbitrary tribal divisions. The people in the warehouse are identified with the eagle. The group in the warehouse work on correcting Parsons’ skin color and smell (which is also all wrong) using make-up and perfumes. They are shocked to learn that Parsons is 32. Parsons is still confident that he can make a life outside of the tribes as a doctor, but the others have no ideas about medicine. A competing tribe, the shupo, break into the warehouse and begin attacking the eagle tribe, critically injuring one of them, a woman named Icara. He carries her away to a hotel. Someone asks to get the hotel euthanor, but Parsons ignores them and begins working on saving her life.
Jim Parsons clears the area and works to save the life of the young women. An official named Al Stenog interrupts him, instructing him to wait for the building euthanor. Parsons finishes saving her life, just as the euthanor arrives. When the euthanor realizes that Parsons saved her life, he is horrified and calls him a maniac and a pervert. Stenog places Parsons under arrest for crimes against the United Tribes. Parsons realizes that this society is insane. Meanwhile, two people observing these events despair that their operation has gone wrong. Later, Parsons is being interrogated by a clerk about his history. Stenog and a dark-haired woman takes over the interrogation asking about what physicians do. He is amazed that an entire society would find value in saving lives. They are curious about this since it proves the potential diversity of human values. Stenog begins to explain why the average age in their society is only 15 years old, but moves onto the issue of time travel. They had attempted experiments in time travel but abandoned them. Apparently time travel is possible, but it creates a legal problem. Parsons must follow the rules of the society regardless of being a willing part of that society. Stenog tells Parson that he will be sent to a prison colony instead of being “rehabilitated.” Stenog also explains that the role of the shupos is social regulation—the destruction of illegal political groups—and are not involved in the prison worlds. Finally, Parsons is told about the fate of the young woman, who underwent a Final Rite after making her complaint against Parsons.
Stenog takes Parsons past where he works at “the Fountain,” the location of the Soul Cube. Stenog is Director of the Fountain. Stenog invites Parsons into his home to await emigration to Mars. After dinner, he invites Parsons to the Fountain in order to explain how their society works. He corrects Parsons’ misconception that their society is obsessed with death. Rather, their society is based on life. The Soul Cube is revealed to be alive, filled with a steady number of zygotes, in order to keep a stable population of 2.75 billion. The genetic material making up the zygotes is taken from the Tribes that had been most successful in competitions. Of these winning tribes, the most successful competitors have their gametes harvested. All reproduction takes place through this system and from the Soul Cube. This ensures that the society is constantly improving. Every time someone dies, a “superior” zygotes is drawn from the Soul Cube, taking the deceased person’s place in the tribe. On the way back, Parsons considers the ramifications of this society. Stenog feels that this is more honest because it acknowledges and faces death. Parsons’ culture—and profession—attempts to evade death. Their society is more perfectly planned because it takes into account the inevitability of death. Stenog implies that some people are resisting this society and that they may be responsible for Parsons’ arrival. Back at the house, Stenog’s puella (a type of formal relationship short of marriage) Amy plays some pieces from a musician for Parsons and they enjoy some bourbon. Stenog offers Amy to Parsons for the night, but recants when he recalls that Parsons has not been sterilized. This reminds him that Mars really is the best place for Parsons.
At four in the morning, Stenog is woken up by some strange men who escort him immediately to a ship. In this ship he sees a large machine running from a rat’s brain. He explains to Parsons that the trip to Mars will take 75 minutes. After taking off, the machine explains that the ship will detonate if anything is tampered with. The ship gets closer to Mars but is diverted. An hour later, the machine—thinking the ship is ready to land—announces their arrival at Mars. He puts on some protective gear as the doors open into the void of space. The ship is prepared again for the shuttle voyage. After another 75 minutes, the ship arrives at an object in space. This time, when the ship doors opened a two men welcome him, explaining that they could not get to him on Earth. A shupo kills the two men but dies in the process. Leaving the three dead men on the ship, Parsons leaps out of the police ship riding a cable toward the “rescue” ship.
Alone on the ship, Jim Parsons experiments with the controls, eventually landing on a red planet that he assumes is Mars. On the planet surface, Parsons finds no signs of life and only an extended desert. Eventually he notices an upright marker, on which is engraved his name. On the slab is instructions on how to run the ship. Looking at the sky, he realizes that the moon orbiting the planet is Luna and that he must be on the Earth in the distant future. Following the instructions, Parsons uses the ship, which takes him back in time to a period when Earth is still lush and green. Within moments he returns to the future time that he was brought to. He is welcomed by a man and a woman. The woman is very beautiful and he recognizes her are Loris, the Mother Superior of the Soul Cube. Loris and the man—Helmar—welcome Parsons to the Lodge, which has been active for three hundred years. They ask which of the loudspeaker markers he followed to return to their time. Parsons say that he followed instructions on a plaque. This surprises everyone since they did not leave any physical instructions in the far future.
Jim Parsons is told that he has been brought to the future to help the members of the Lodge (all of the Wolf Tribe) in a medical problem. The Wolf Lodge has managed to master time travel, using government technology, however as far as they know the government has not mastered time travel. They are using time travel to attempt to achieve their political goals as well as bring relics from the past to their own time. Loris says that they are opposed to the society that has become a death cult, without a true future into the stars. As long as the population is kept stable, the other planets will only be used for exploitation or as a prison colony. This culture developed from the white colonization of the New World. The Wolf Tribe is most interested in the sixteenth century conquests, which they see as the beginning of 500 years of white domination that only ended in Parsons’ own generation, but still directs the character of the global society. Parsons is brought to a replica of the Soul Cube, which is holding a single adult human in stasis. Loris denies that this is her lover (although they have lovers). He was apparently killed with an arrow through his chest.
Loris shows him how they have saved Jim Parsons’ doctor’s bag before he was arrested. Loris wants Parsons to attempt to save the man in stasis, who she reveals is his father. He has been in stasis for thirty-five years, since before Loris was born. Parsons is given a tour of the Lodge, which is self-sufficient. Parsons observes a physical resemblance between the tribe members, all who look distinct from others in the society. Parsons agrees to make an attempt to save the man in the cube and begins preparing for the operation.
A large crowd gathers to observe Jim Parsons’ operation on the man in stasis due to the uniqueness of any medical procedures and the importance of the man. Parsons protests but cannot clear the room. Loris pushes Parsons to complete the procedure in one sitting, although the doctor wants a more conservative approach. He removes the arrow and works to repair the heart. With the procedure done, Loris talks to Parsons about how wasteful the society is. The girl Parsons saved earlier was only damaged in her face and did not have any defect that would be inherited, yet she willingly died in order not to hold back her tribe. Loris discusses with Parsons how difficult it is to change the past. They exchange an intimate moment, but are called back to the operation room, where they find that the man once again has an arrow through his chest. This proves that their enemies also have control of time.
With this latest failure, Jim Parsons is introduced to an old woman, Loris’ mother and the wife of the man in the cube—who is revealed to be called Corith. The old woman (named Jeptha), despairing that nothing can be done instructs the tribe to send Parsons back to his own time. Parsons, however, has a desire to help the Wolf Lodge more. He meets an even older woman, the mother of Corith and Jeptha named Nixina. Nixina tells how Corith had the idea of preventing the “Terrible Five Hundred Years” by stopping the conquest of the New World, by killing the European explorers as they arrived on the coast of America. This would stop the European invasion and allow the Native American people to control the destiny of world civilization. During an attempt to kill Francis Drake in California, Corith was shot with an arrow. Parsons sympathizes with their mission, despite being white and a beneficiary of the European conquest of America. Parsons investigates the arrow he removed from Corith’s body and finds that the feathers are synthetic and the flint arrow head was made with a metal chisel. Since sixteenth century Native Americans lacked this technology, Corith must have been shot by another time traveler.
Loris tells Jim Parsons more about the operation that lead to Corith’s fatal injury. He dressed as an Indian of Nova Albion, but planned to kill Drake with a modern weapon. This would convince the English that the Indians has superior weapons and may prevent future efforts to invade the continent. She also tells him how Nixina saved Corith from being sterilized and used his gametes to father the entire Wolf tribe when she was Mother Superior of the Soul Cube. Loris reveals that the Wolf tribe believe themselves to be full-blooded Iroquois. Parsons doubts this to be true, but Loris tells him that the mythology is more important than the truth. Parsons and Loris have sex at which time he tells her that he wants to go back in time to witness Corith’s death. Parons does not worry that this will change the timeline because it has already been altered. He has already figured out that the portrait of Sir Francis Drake closely resembles Al Stenog.
As Jim Parsons asks Nixina for permission to witness the death of Corith in his encounter with Drake, Nixina reveals that she intends to accompany the trip aided by a special chair built by Helmar. The Wolf Lodge prepares Parsons for the trip by transforming his skin color and eye color to resemble the Native Americans of the California coast in the sixteenth century. In the past, the party of Wolf tribe members attempts to locate Drake along the coast. Parsons identifies Drake as part of a landing party. After approaching Drake, Parsons identifies him as Al Stenog in disguise and reveals himself as the man who saved the young girl’s life. Stenog/Drake begins to laugh.
“Drake” and his party allow Parsons to go on his way. Parsons attempts to find Corith in order to complete his task of saving his life. He wonders if Stenog completed all the historical achievements of Drake and if the other conquistadors were also time travelers. Parsons identified Jepthe and Nixina from their previous mission to the past. The Loris he knows looks much like the younger version of Jepthe. Next he locates Corith at the edge of the cliff preparing to kill “Drake.” Parsons tries to alter Corith to his danger and is prepared to give Corith a better plan to kill Drake. When Corith realizes that Parsons is in disguise, he attacks the doctor. The fight results in Corith’s accidental death due to an arrow through the chest. Wondering who killed Corith the second time in the Wolf Lodge, Parsons considers that it was probably a future version of him, who goes back in time to prevent Corith from awakening and pointing him out.
Jim Parsons has a dilemma. He is certain that Wolf Tribe will kill him if they know what he has done, yet locating Drake/Stenog will result in him being sent once again to the prison colonies. An alternative is to wait sixteen years until the next encounter with Europeans in 1595 and then returning with the crew to England. Before he can make his decision his is found by Helmar and Loris. After explaining what happened, Nixina decides to punish Parsons by leaving him behind in the past. Abandoned in the past, Parsons wonders how he could have gotten access to another time ship to kill Corith a second time. Before too long, however, Loris returns (a month later by her timeline) to bring Parsons back under her protection.
Loris brings Jim Parsons to a safe location within the Wolf Lodge. She assures him that he is safe from retribution from her brother Helmar. Instead of going to sleep, he seizes a time ship over Loris’ resistance. He goes back in time a day and a half to the time that Corith should die a second time. Lacking an arrow, he went back thirty-five years to when Corith was planning his execution of Drake. He steals an arrow from Corith and returns forward thirty-five years, visiting Corith who is recovering from Parsons’ surgery. He chooses not to kill Corith and takes the time ship forward, finding that someone else completed the task of killing Corith yet again. He realizes that it was likely Hemlar who actually killed Corith a second time (although Parsons seems to have brought the arrow that killed him). He goes even father forward in the time ship and meets his children by Loris, a man and a woman of the Wolf Tribe, each around eighteen years old. They direct him to meet them at a point in the future.
Jim Parsons learns that his children are named Grace and Nathan. When Loris found she was pregnant, she decided to save Parsons from exile in the past. At some point in the future, Parsons meets Loris—now an old woman. The Wolf Lodge stopped making efforts to kill Drake, but Stenog stayed as Drake for ten years to ensure the timeline. The Wolf Lodge had stopped tampering with the past but have instead taken on the symbol of the caduceus and now attempts to preserve the values of life over death. In addition to reviving the profession of the physician, they are pushing for an end to forced euthanors and a revival of natural child birth. Loris, still as Mother Superior of the Soul Cube, has saved some men from sterilization. By dying, Corith has assured that the legacy of Parsons will continue in the Wolf Tribe. Parsons decides to return to his wife and his own time. Returned to the road to San Francisco, Parsons hitches a ride with someone who comments about his strange clothing.
Dr. Futurity Thematic Summary
Youth, Age, and Stagnation: In the hyper-Social Darwinian world of Dr. Futurity, there is little need for humans to age beyond their reproductive years, so the ideology of the society glorifies death. Those that achieve victory in their short life (mostly people die before thirty) have the promise of their genes being passed on in a giant eugenics project. Despite the promise of rapid social change due to the survival of the fittest, society is largely stagnant. In many ways the future described in the novel is more akin to the a gerontocracy, stuck in a single path waiting for new ideas. Those new ideas cannot emerge, due to the overwhelming death cult. As in a gerontocracy, war has been declared on the youth. As early as this work, Dick was pointing out that the mad dash for “progress” often sends up into stagnation.
Conquest of the New World: The resistance to the death cult in Dr. Futurity comes from those who see their ancestry tied American Indians. While this is not true, they clearly blame the triumph of Western civilization for the obsessive focus on progress. The solution to this is to attempt to murder the early conquistadores, while this shows a naïve perspective on the numerous causes of the conquest of the Americas, it does show that Philip K. Dick was interested in the critique of Western civilization and was aware of suppressed alternatives in history.
Middle Class Life and Profession: Jim Parsons begins the novel as a typical middle class professional, living in suburbs. The world he was born into already showed the signs of the later stagnation that would emerge in the future. Parsons does not know it, but his profession as a physician is already obsolete when the novel begins. Only by going to the future does he see the end result of his civilization. In the future, the physician is replaced with the professional euthanizer. Dick makes the difference between these two jobs similar on first glance, only by differing in their end result. Only in the context of the resistance—which requires Parsons’ expertise—is the difference between life and death made clear.
Frontier: As in his other early novel, The Man Who Japed, Dick imagines the frontier as a space in which creative alternatives are possible. In both novels as well, the frontier is a space for the deviants who cannot conform to the social order. But in creating such a space, the dominant social order provides a means of resistance.
I was once told that Dr. Futurity was one of Dick’s worst novels, only matched in feebleness by Vulcan’s Hammer. I responded that I think both are underappreciated, which pushed the conversation into one about literature as propaganda or literature as art. Someone who lives the themes in Dr. Futurity and Vulcan’s Hammer, clearly has a tin ear and cannot look beyond the underlying politics of the novel. Perhaps I am guilty of that.
I am not here to judge Dick’s writing or how he structured his novel. In fact, I am not sure his value is ever in literary elegance. (I can think of a handful of characters and lines that stick in my head, but it is largely that ideas that stay with me.) I do think that Dr. Futurity is one of Dick’s most important books highlighting his view of history and the nature of human progress. I have recently written an article in PKD Otaku (link here), that goes into Dick’s perspective on Malthusian thinking, population control, and their relationship to historical progress. That article says most of what I would want to say here.
At one point, one of the major members of the resistance points out the danger of social stagnation and its relationship with the cult of death (perhaps this is also under the surface of the story “Stability”). “We;’ve made our point, but we’ve achieved a clacified society that spends its time meditating about death; it has no plans, no direction. No desire for growth. Our nagging sense of inferiority has betrayed us; it’s made us expend out energies in recovering our pride, in proving our ancient enemies false. Like the Egyptian society—death and life so interwoven that the world has become a cemetery, and the people nothing more than custodians living among the bones of the dead.” (208, from the Gollanz Three Early Novels edition).
No, perhaps that is not the most pithy phrase Dick ever wrote, but it goes straight to the heart of his politics and is certainly relevant to us today in the doldrums of late capitalism.