Vulcan’s Hammer is one of Philip K. Dick’s least appreciated novels. Published between Time Out of Joint and The Man in the High Castle, readers have often pointed out that this novel is more like his earlier undeveloped tales than his mature work. In a sense, they are right. Vulcan’s Hammer does not have a clear connection thematically to some of his earlier writings, but it remains—in my opinion—a particularly important tale for what is suggests about the security and surveillance state, the role of big data in our lives, and the question of automation.
Arthur Pitt, an agent of Unity, is attacked by a mob of Healers while returning to his car on his way home from work in Cedar Groves, Alabama. He enters his car and calls his superior—South American Unity Director Taubmann—requesting aid. He is instructed to collect information for Vulcan 3 and to wait from help. As the mob becomes more violent, throwing rocks, Pitt panics, but the instructions insist on collecting more information. Pitt is killed by the mob before help arrives. Later William Barris studies a photograph of Father Fields, the leader of the Healers movement. Fields is an amazing figure who had survived two months in the Atlanta Psychological Correction Labs without being “cured.” Barris discusses Fields and the death of Pitt with Taubmann. The Healers movement wants to crush Vulcan 3, but Vulcan 3 has made no proclamation about the Healer movement, or anything else in months. Barris begins to call the Atlanta Psychological Correction Labs but changes him mind and calls Unity Control. He requests an emergency request to Vulcan 3. When he is told there is a three day wait, he asks to speak to Director Jason Dill, but is similarly stymied. Resigned to the three day wait, he prepared two questions for Vulcan 3. They ask about the significant of the Healers movement and why Vulcan 3 is not responding to them. He writes a personal letter to Arthur Pitt’s wife.
Agnes Parker is teaching her primary school class about the history of the emergence of Unity. After a nuclear war ended in 1992, the Lisbon Laws were passed which gave governing authority to Vulcan 3. The first two Vulcan computers were made in the 1970s. Parker is careful how she presents this history because she knows Vulcan 3 had inquiries about the teaching in schools. Managing Director Jason Dill visits the classroom during this lecture. Parker notices how common he looks, despite his lofty position in the Unity system. As Dill starts to take over the class, a girl asks him questions about the morality of the Unity system, which seems to have taken away human agency and created an overpowering Guardian over humans. Although embarrassed slightly by her questions, Dill plays a game in which the entire class points out that girl as an enemy in an effort to prove the power of Unity. Outside of the classroom, Dill assures Parker that she need not worry about her job. Dill offers to take the girl—Marion Fields, the daughter of Father Fields—under his care. Parker readily agrees. Nevertheless, Parker fears that she is being watched and will end up in Atlanta.
Jason Dill brings Marion Fields to Unity Control Building. He talks with her about her anti-social behavior and her hostility toward Unity. Dill sees her as precocious but perhaps too influenced by her dissident father. He begins asking her for information about Fields’ whereabouts since he escaped the Atlanta clinic. He also asks her if Fields has a connection to the Healers. He explains to her that the term Healers is akin to the quack doctors who promise a cure that they cannot honestly provide. The Atlanta clinic is not a prison, he explains, but a mental health center to repair minds of the insane. To help make his case that the Healers are a fraud and opportunistic, he shows Marion the report about the death of Arthur Pitt. Leaving Marion Fields in custody, Jason Dill makes a visit to Vulcan 2. He submitted some questions to the aging computer.
William Barris visits the home of Arthur Pitt in an upscale community in the Sahara. He claims to be visiting to send official regrets to Mrs. Rachel Pitt, the widow. The guards at the building question him, but eventually let him enter. Rachel Pitt talks about life in the development, which she finds lonely having grown up in London. The development is full of opportunistic young wives of Unity officials. Rachel suggests she will join the Healers. She believes that Arthur Pitt was not killed due to a Healer mob, but rather as a result of conflicts within the Unity bureaucracy. She is sure that someone at the level of Director must have been directly involved in the plot, to prevent Pitt’s rise to power. Returning to North America, Barris reflects on Rachel Pitt’s accusations. If that is true, it may explain the inaction of Unity against the Healers. Perhaps the Healers have infiltrated Unity or are being used by officials in Unity. He fears that discussing this further with Rachel Pitt may lead to psychological problems. Meanwhile, Marion Fields is in her quarters when Jason Dill enters, demanding to know why the Healers destroyed Vulcan 2. Marion only accuses him of being paranoid, which Dill suggests is necessary since the entire world is against him and Unity.
Jason Dill investigates the ruins of Vulcan 2. He is puzzled that the Healers would want to attack the older computer, when Vulcan 3 is in control of the government. In any case, the attacks shows that the Healers have infiltrated Unity. The data-feed technician for Vulcan 3, named Larson, gives Dill the questions that Barris submitted. Dill thinks about using Barris for propaganda purposes due to his humble origins. Larson tells Dill that some other Managing Directors have submitted similar queries. Jason Dill examines the official and unofficial files on Barris, looking for some embarrassing or compromising accusation. The only thing he could find was a letter written by a woman’s hand accusing Barris of being in the pay of the Healers. Dill rejects the formal questions to Vulcan 3 on a technicality and instructs the police secretary to begin a formal investigation of Barris. Meanwhile, Agnes Parker is having dinner with colleagues. She hides a copy of the banned book Lolita and walks toward Marion Fields’ old dorm room. When she enters the room an automated weapon kills her.
Jason Dill is informed of Agnes Parker’s death. He responds by ordering a change in Marion Fields’ guards. Dill worries that Parker’s murder is evidence that the Healers have an even more effective organization. He calls Larson telling him that they will need to carefully prepare some questions for Vulcan 3. Larson updates him on the Barris investigation. The letter accusing him was written by Arthur Pitt’s widow, but her motive is not clear. Later, Barris finds that his questions to Vulcan 3 were returned, rejected personally by Jason Dill. Upset he tries to contact Dill. When his efforts fail he books a ship to Geneva to meet Dill personally. On the trip, Barris worries that his meeting will be seen as a power play. He still has doubts when the ship lands. At the terminal, Barris meets Rachel Pitt. She tells him that she was recently arrested and that he would profit by spending a half hour with her. She show him the letter she was accused of writing. Intrigued, Barris hails a taxi and directs it to find a hotel.
Jason Dill visits Vulcan 3 in its underground chamber. Its expansion is automated and Vulcan 3 constantly digs itself larger space underground so no one knows how large it is. Its maintenance costs over forty percent of the taxes collected by the Unity government. Vulcan 3 asks Dill about the results of the educational bias survey. Dill promises the results soon, but the computer is impatient for results since its senses that the people are impatient with social stability and a new gestalt will soon emerge. It suggests that Dill has been failing in reporting all that is going on in society to him. Dill leaves the chamber to get a drink. Meanwhile Barris is arriving at the hotel. Rachel Pitt explains the details of her “arrest” by Unity. At the hotel, Barris is introduced to Father Fields.
Fields tells Barris that Unity is on the verge of collapse. Fields denies that the Healers were involved in Arthur Pitt’s death, and challenges Barris on Unity’s tax collection procedures, which often inspire popular hostility with the government. Fields, knowing that Barris is sympathetic to some Healer positions, tries to recruit him into their movement. A metal device fires into the room, damaging Rachel Pitt and putting her into a catatonic state. Barris has the wounded woman shuttled to his jurisdiction in North America. He realizes that now the truth of the letter accusing him of being part of the Healer movement is irrelevant since he has met with the leader of the movement and will be considered guilty. After sending her off, Barris barges into Jason Dill’s office, accusing him of routing information away from Vulcan 3. After both level threats at the other, Barris mentions the attack ono the hotel. Dill did not order that attack or know of it. At this news, he confesses that the same force behind that attack killed the teacher Agner Parker and is their real enemy.
In his office, Jason Dill prepares a legal statement in case his collaboration with Barris goes wrong. Meeting with Barris, Dill shows him some warnings from Vulcan 2, recommending that information about the Healer movement not be sent to Vulcan 3. Dill explains that he trusted Vulcan 2 and his suggestions that Vulcan 3 was becoming dangerous. Unfortunately, Vulcan 2 was so thoroughly destroyed in the attack that they have been unable to learn more about the foundation of Vulcan 2’s fears. Barris volunteers to analyze the remains of Vulcan 2, which he proceeds to deliver to New York. He then travels to Colorado to visit the recuperating Rachel Pitt. She shows him how the Healers have salvaged the device that attacked them in the hotel. She shows that it is in contact with someone.
Amid a growing Healers uprising centered in Chicago, Barris and his group have made progress in repairing the remnants of Vulcan 2. They restored enough of the memory tapes. Vulcan 2’s memories reveal its analysis that Vulcan 3 is becoming less rational and becoming increasingly paranoid. Under Vulcan 2’s commands, Dill has kept information from Vulcan 3 about the Healers to prevent its accelerated decent into paranoia, but Dill did not hide that he was hiding information. It attacked Vulcan 2 when it realized that it was conspiring. It then used its mobile data-collecting units to collect information on its own. It learned that Father Fields was its enemy. It was also likely responsible for the death of the school teacher. Barris contacts James Dill to report on his findings. Dill tells Barris that he needs to return to Geneva to testify on his behalf. Vulcan 3 has called a meeting of all the Director’s Council. Barris escapes to a ship in the middle of a major Healer offensive against Unity.
Barris and Jason Dill arrive in an auditorium filled with the various Directors, ready to hear the case of Dill’s treason. Edward Reynolds of the Eastern European district heads the prosecution. Barris defends Dill in front of the hearing, challenging Reynolds propriety and suggesting that Renyolds wants to usurp Dill’s position. He then presents evidence that Dill has been working in the best interests of Unity. Using the tapes from Vulcan 2, Barris shows that Dill was working under Vulcan 2’s orders and was protecting Unity from Vulcan 3. Barris than recounts the attacks made by Vulcan 3 on Vulcan 2 and on himself in the hotel. Reynolds judges Dill insane and declares their story a lie. Barris and Dill realize they must fight. When they stand up, they are put under arrest. Nevertheless, they try to escape the auditorium. Before they can leave a metallic device like the one that attacked Barris in the hotel kills Dill and declares—in Vulcan 3’s voice—that Dill was a traitor and that there are other traitors. Unity must be defended against the Healers. Barris fires at the metal “hammerheads”, destroying one and is identified as a traitor by the same voice. Barris joins with Chai and other Directors who now realize the threat posed by Vulcan 3. Barris assures his allies that they will not be joining either Vulcan 3 or the Healers.
Barris secured Unity Control and prepared it for a defense. The flying devices are revealed to be adaptations made by Vulcan 3 from its automated repair machines. They are armed with the pencil lasers that are the standard weapon of the Unity officials. This seems to symbolize the takeover of their role by Vulcan 3. Barris has a long conversation with Marion Fields. Marion predicts that the Healers will win, despite Vulcan 3’s technological advantage and its support from many of the directors. Barris tells Marion that as the movement against it becomes stronger, Vulcan 3 will increases its defensive capacities. If the entire world is against it, Vulcan 3 will prepare weapons to match that challenge. Marion helps Barris navigate a ship to where her father is staying. Barris tells Father Fields that he is skeptical that the Healers have undone Unity. Fields revelas that Unity is all but destroyed, only the structure is left. Barris confirms his suspicious, the movement was begun by Vulcan 2—its true leader. It was keeping information from Vulcan 3 in order to give the movement time to grow.
Father Fields does not believe that Vulcan 2 would be capable of starting a resistance movement since it is only a computing machine. Barris accuses Fields of being behind the destruction of Vulcan 2 in order to assure his dominance of the movement. Rachel Pitt is revealed to be Father Field’s older daughter. Fields confesses to destroying Vulcan 2 because it was holding the movement back. Barris warns him that only from working from within the system could a bureaucratic state like Unity be dismantled. Barris tells Field that he has the means to get at Vulcan 3. Back at Unity Control, the surviving directors working with Barris are defending the building from increasingly aggressive attacks by Vulcan 3. Barris navigates the defenses in order to reach the computer at the lowest level of the fortress. Fields is initially disappointed because this was the same location where he worked in the mining crews, giving him the inside knowledge he needed to destroy Vulcan 2, but he missed the existence of Vulcan 3 in the same building.
Barris uses his authority as a Unity Director to get through the guards blocking the entrance to Vulcan 3. Barris meets with Larson who is still loyal to Dill. Barris’ attempt to plant a fission bomb near Vulcan 3 is discovered by a small metallic bug used by Vulcan 3 to get information. It tries to alert others of Barris’ intent and then later negotiate with Barris, but he is able to plant the bomb and destroy Vulcan 3. Fields and Barris discuss the future of Unity. Vulcan 3 will be rebuilt enough to service the state, but not control it. Later, in a hospital room, Barris talks with Fields more about the future. Fields wants a more revolutionary change, but Barris insists on establishing a new form of Unity that is more accountable to humans. To get started on the new era, Barris will support a general amnesty.
As I pointed out above, it is in three major areas that Vulcan’s Hammer is relevant to us today: the surveillance state, big data, and automation. In fact there are all connected thematically on the question of whether freedom is possible in an age of technological surveillance. Our answers to this can fall into a handful of areas.
One answer is that the technology of surveillance and big data does not necessarily post a threat to liberty. It is merely a technology that can be used by states for a variety of purposes. We need only pass the right law, implement controls, and respect civil liberties and we can get the good from these technologies (suppression of crime, stopping terrorism, regulating business) without any of the bad (unjust invasion of privacy). Big data and surveillance technologies are nothing new, only our capacities have increased.
Another answer is that surveillance is ultimately irrelevant or even can be a part of democracy. Technologies like Facebook show that people are really not that interested in protecting their privacy. Most people find surveillance less odious in practice than in theory, walking by cameras with little thought. If our idea is deliberative democracy, the idea of hiding our political activities and ideas in underground cells makes little sense. Politics is supposed to be fought in the assemblies, streets, and town halls. We should move toward more openness of ideas. Even if every aspect of our life is collected by the government, all our phone calls documented and recorded, no one is really listening. Or, as Slavoj Zizek suggested in an interview (you can find it here), the listeners are usually too stupid to learn anything from radicals and dissidents and in any case the principles of the commons suggest an openness of information. For him the problem is just that the government can maintain secrecy while we cannot. In fact, I find much in this varied strain of through valuable. Perhaps we should be fighting for the commons (see my comments on The Man Who Japed), not protecting every aspect of our private lives. Even the sexual revolutionaries found public sex radical (If the proliferation of amateur porn is any suggest, this is still a strong belief. Even if exhibitionism is seen as deviant, perhaps it has its roots in the evolution of a sexuality rooted in face-to-face small towns with little privacy).
A third perspective is that surveillance is evidence of an expansionist state that has as its enemy all liberty. This opinion has been expressed recently by Chris Hedges in some of his public talks. Big Brother is watching you and will use the data he collects to suppress social movements, defend the corporate state, and ensure the domination of the ruling class.
In Vulcan’s Hammer we get a little bit of all of this. By making the government a computer, Dick ensures that all the data is listened to. But he also shows that most people did not mind being observed, seeing it as the foundation of a stable and secure life. In any case, there are internal checks on the power of the Vulcan 3—the ruling computer in the novel. He is opposed by social movements, the older computer who ruled in an earlier generation, and people within the government. Humans still had a say no matter how diminished. The fact that Dick finds a solution to the problem of Vulcan III from within the system is one of the most frustrating aspects of the novel for political radicals, but this needs to be understood from within the entire structure of the tale and the complicated relationship people had with the watcher.
The lesson on automation is no less important than that of surveillance. One of Dick’s most important social and economic concerns was the challenge of automation to human beings. He is almost Marxist in his belief that an authentic human life depends on meaningful work that is not alienated. In this novel, we find that not only has labor been largely automated (the technology is certainly there to do that), the government itself and all decision making is handled by the computer. Is this necessarily contrary to democracy? A computer, properly programmed, could review the reading habits, Facebook posts, television watching schedule, and daily habits and probably determine with a fair level of certainly how that person would vote on an issue. Direct democracy may be in our hands, if only we lose the fetish for voting in a booth and let a computer take over. Not only do we get stability, we get a more broadly representative policy. Dick, of course, will have none of that. Automation is always a danger and needs to be checked by humanism, whether framed in terms of production or more creative and intellectual enterprises. Set aside the computer at the heart of the system, we still have automation in the forms of teachers and bureaucrats. The bureaucrats simply enforce the rules from above. Robots could have done it as effectively (but had been incapable of challenging the system in the climax to the novel). With teachers, it is the same as they rattle off a lesson prepared by others. I would suggest people look at this novel alongside “Autofac” and “Pay for Printer” and see what type of conclusions Dick has about an alternative to an automated political system.
Vulcan’s Hammer should be read although it lacks many of Dick’s metaphysical questions. It is a good example of Dick’s writing when he was at his most political. In fact, most of his stories and novels before 1962 (and many that came after) are best read politically and for insight into his historical vision. Dick’s greatest political fear was not the Lovecraftian horror in “The Faith of Our Fathers.” It was stability. This would be framed later in his work as “the empire never died.” Much of Dick’s early fascination with the frontier is rooted in his historical vision, his deep desire for an escape from stability. It strikes me that this is a fundamentally American concern. Many of Dick’s works form the 1950s, including Vulcan’s Hammer, are deeply optimistic, seeing hope for humanity in some distant frontier or in some major jolt to the system. In Vulcan’s Hammer, Vulcan III’s turn toward insanity is the key to rebooting a stagnate system. In The World Jones Made, it was Floyd Jones himself (another person with frontier dreams). In Time Out of Joint the “Lunatics” dreamed of man’s place in the stars and Dick’s loyalties are with them despite their violence toward Earth. In The Man Who Japed and Dr. Futurity resistance comes from an unlikely source and again jolts a system into systemic change. What all of these examples also have in common is that the jolt to the system was not enough. Change also required a clear vision of alterantives, a movement culture, and individual courage.