The Cosmic Puppets was originally published by Philip K. Dick 1957. Its plot centers on the mystery of a middle-aged man–Ted Barton–realizing that the town of his childhood has completely changed. As he investigates, he learns that the town was actually transformed by a destroyer god as part of a cosmic struggle with creator god. With the help of the creator god’s offspring, Barton distrust the balance between these two gods, restoring the town in the process.
Peter Trilling and Mary are playing on the porch of a boarding house with some other children. They are making clay into various shapes, including animals and machines. Dr. Meade arrives to pick up Mary. Mrs. Trilling discusses here allergies with the doctor. As Mary leaves, Peter takes up the clay and begins reshaping it.
Peggy Barton and Ted Barton are travelling in a car in the Virginia backcountry. Barton is insisting on visiting his hometown Millgate during their vacation from New York City, but Peggy was disinterested and skeptical that the side trip would be worth the time. Eventually he finds the right road and Barton begins boring Peggy with stories about his childhood in Millgate, showing her once again his childhood compass. When he arrives, he finds that the entire town has changed beyond recognition.
Ted Barton surveys how the town has changed. Even the clearly old buildings were changed. Barton enters a hardware store that looks older than himself. The owner explains that he has been there for forty years. Barton asks the owner if he remembers him or the old park with a Civil War cannon on Pine Street. The hardware store owner insists that there has never been a street named “Pine” in Millgate. Instead of a leather goods store he knew well, he finds a grocery store that the owner insists has been there since the nineteenth century. After exploring more of the changed town, Barton entered the building of the Millgate Times (although he remembered the newspaper as the Millgate Weekly). He looked up the records of his birthdate and confirms that he was born on the same day. When he examined the newspaper for the day his family moved out of the town, the newspaper reported on a scarlet fever epidemic that killed a boy named Ted Barton. After leaving the newspaper office, he realized that even his lucky compass had changed into a piece of old bread.
Peter Trilling is playing in his yard over the objections of other children. He is reshaping balls of clay into various forms, especially humans. One of the clay figures begins moving and runs toward Doctor Meade’s station wagon, but Peter stomps on it before it can get away. A stranger, who turns out to be Ted Barton, asks the boys for directions to the boarding house. Peter fetches his mother who is excited at the prospect of a stranger patronizing the boarding house. He rents a room for an indefinite period of time. Ted Barton had previously left his wife in the nearby town of Martinsville while he explores the mystery of Millgate.
Barton casually chats with Peter, who reveals that he can stop time and that he has power over “its” creatures. Peter also discusses his experience building golems, wondering if Barton has this ability as well. He explains his goal of tracking the Wanderers. Later, Peter is upset to discover that Barton has been leading him on for information, not having any knowledge of these special talents. Nevertheless, Peter tells Barton that he knows who he is.
Peter Trilling is upset about the unfortunate results of his encounter with Barton. He had given away too much information. He enters his barn and looks at his creatures, mostly rates and spiders. He wonders why Ted Barton would be in Millgate at this time. He is attacked by two bees and he worries that they will send information back to “her”.
Ted Barton encounters Doctor Meade at the boarding house dining room. Meade confirms that the lived in Millgate all of his life. Barton asks about the scarlet fever epidemic, which Meade recalls vividly. Later, Meade confirms that he saw the young boy, identified in the newspaper as Ted Barton, die. Barton explains that he wants to find out some truth about Millgate. Meade suggests he see the county records office, and then the town librarian. Barton then asks about Peter Trilling and Meade confirms that Peter intelligent, if not odd. As Barton pushes for answers more aggressively, Meade attempts to prescribe some drugs to him. Two “Wanderers”—ghost-like humanoids—pass by and through the wall. Meade is surprised to hear that ted does not have these where he is from.
Mary Meade is talking to her bees about what they observed in the barn. She informs the bee that Peter must be getting more because he tried to reshape Mary’s clay instead of his own. They then discuss the newcomer, Ted Barton, who is likely to cause complications for Peter.
Ted Barton calls his wife at the Martinsville hotel he left her at. Quite upset at being abandoned in a small and boring part of the country, she threatens a divorce. After the call, Peter arrives with a handful of spiders in his hand. He enters the car with Barton and directs him to a ledge overlooking the town. Looking over the landscape, Barton notices a visible haze. Peter explains that that haze is “him.” After looking through a special magnifying glass, Barton is able to see a gigantic man whose legs became the mountains, motionless but outside of time. When Barton announces he intends to leave, Peter explains that he will not be able to.
Ted Barton attempts to leave Millgate using a road. Instead of being stopped by some mystical force, he is obstructed by an overturned lumber truck. Walking around the truck is impossible due to an apparently bottomless chasm surrounding the road. Next he tried climbing over the overturned truck and the logs. He makes some progress, but is later stopped by Peter Trilling. This reveals that Barton has been on the logs for most of the day. Peter tells him he cannot leave unless “they” want him to. Peter was the one who let him onto the truck and he left him there to prove a point. In recompense, Barton refuses to give Peter a ride back to town.
Barton returns to Millgate and visists the Magnolia Club, a collapsing dive bar. After a few bourbons, a drunk named William Christopher introduces himself to Barton. Although initially welcoming to Christopher’s company, Barton begins telling his story to the drunk. Christopher informs him that he will never find the places he is trying to remember anymore, explaining that they have been gone for many years. The pleasant neighborhood of Pine Street was replaced with Fairmount. Christopher and Barton are the only two people who recall that Pine Street even existed.
While William Christopher is weeping in despair, Ted Barton is enthusiastic at finding someone else who recalls how the town used to be. Christopher fills in some details. The change took place eighteen years ago, around the time the Bartons left. After the change, the Wanderers began to appear. Most of the changes in the town have been for the worse. Christopher, who was proud of the home he build for himself, despairs over the condition of the home he lives in now. In almost every way, the condition of the town deteriorated after the change. Christopher shared a bottle of wine with Ted. He then shows Barton a small device he made, which he calls a “spell distorter”. When he uses the device on the wine bottle, it reveals an old coffee-grinder. The wine bottle was a fake. This means that the real town still exists underneath the facade of the new Millgate. The device, however, only works when he can recall what used to be there and it only lasts for a few minutes. Christopher then shows him a piece of string which he insists was “Aaron Northrup’s tire iron,” the memory of which was shared by both men. Barton vows to attempt to bring the tire iron back.
William Christopher helps Ted Barton use his “spell remover” to bring back the tire iron. After some effort, the attempt is successful due to Barton’s ability to remember holding the tire iron. Barton begins to think that maybe the two of them can remember the entire town and bring it back. Christopher realizes that the spell remover is simply a focus for the act of remembering and does not really matter. The scale of their restoration is only limited by how much they can recall about the way the town used to be. They decide to begin with the public park, with a memorable Civil War-era canon, since both had clear recollections of that park.
Mary is in her room and encounters a young Wanderer named Hilda. She tells Mary that they have mapped out most of the town but still need some information and additional power. They ask her for help in controlling Peter Trilling. When she refuses, the Wanderer threatens Mary. Mary directs the Wanderer to pay attention to the newcomer Ted Barton, instead of Peter. Mary sees one of Peter’s small clay golems running past her. She manages to capture it and returns the figure to her room. She knows that Peter’s power over the golem will decline in time, especially this far into her territory. She experiments with creating her own golem avatar. She walks out with a completed avatar of herself in her pocket. At the park she sees two men, she assumes to be drunks. On closer inspection they turn out to be Ted Barton and William Christopher. They are working at restoring the park to how it used to be, which after some trial and error they eventually achieve. Mary decides that it is time to reveal herself to the newcomer.
Ted Barton recognizes Mary from the boarding house. She asks Barton and William Christopher how they restored the park. She warns them not to go to the boarding house since Peter will be there, but that they should instead go to Shady House, which is on the other side of the line.
When Barton and Christopher leave, Mary becomes worried that Peter will soon realize that his golem has been taken. She uses the golem as an avatar to approach the barn where Peter often does his work. Once the golem is set up in the barn, Mary decides to head toward an all-night cafe since it would be a while for her avatar to witness anything important. While passing the bushes, she is attacked by spiders, rats, and snakes, which quickly kill and devour her.
Barton and Christopher approach Dr. Meade’s home who greets them with a loaded gun and questions about Mary’s whereabouts. Meade was out looking for Mary and noticed the park. Meade lets them know that they have achieved what the Wanderers were unable to. Meade questions their motives and the consequences of bringing the old town back. The people of the town, who did not exist before the change would cease to exist. Whatever caused the change in the first place it has since become reality for many people. Meade also reveals that the changed town was the result of a cosmic battle between Ormazd (the builder) and Ahriman (the wrecked). The new town is the domain of Ahriman. Meade introduces Barton and Christopher to the Wanderers.
Peter studies Mary’s dead body. Peter does not long relish his victory since he restored park. Many of his golems that were active there were “ungolemed” by the change. One of the golem’s explains to Peter that the ungolemed where those who entered the park. The restored park’s and Mary’s death meant that the line would no longer matter. He would be free to act across the entire town.
Ted Barton is working with the Wanderers correcting their maps of old Millgate. The maps must be perfect or they will not work. The park was only restored because their recollection was 100% accurate. The Wanderers come to realize that only Barton had a pristine memory because he had left the town before the change. They begin to wonder how Barton was able to return to the town at all. Dr. Meade, observing their work, relishes the situation the Wanderers are in. They must trust Barton, but not knowing if he is a plant or even a “super-golem,” they are helpless.
They move to where they can get a look at the entire town. They discuss Peter and Mary’s use of bees and moths and other creatures to stake their claim to parts of the town. They do not know how Peter plays into the powers behind the change in Millgate. Hilda, one of the Wanderers, theorizes that the restoration of the town must follow the principle of M-kinetics, meaning that the symbol (a memory or the map) must be identical. If it is, the symbol can be assumed to be the original. Viewing the town from above, they see that Barton’s recreation of the park is slowly being undone.
In the face of their defeat, Barton and Dr. Meade discuss the problem of evil. Why did Ormazd not aid them in their restoration? Meade suggests that Peter is interfering with their work and later confesses that he did not want to stop Peter because he still fears what will happen to him after the restoration. Moments later, Barton and the Wanderers are under attack by moths, rats, spiders, and golems armed with blades. He fights off creatures with the restored tire iron, but is eventually overwhelmed by the golems.
A golem that seemed about to strike Ted Barton, calls him by name. The golem tells him that the reconstruction he attempted was premature. Barton realizes that the golem is an avatar of Mary. She explains that the real reason she brought Barton to Millgate was not “civic reconstruction,” but to restore her father—Ormazd—from being trapped in the form of Dr. Meade. Barton rushes to Meade’s defense in the battle. When he confronts Meade on his true identity, Meade transforms into a creature with a hawklike beak, who emerges as Ormazd. Barton is pulled into Ormazd (“swept up into Ormazd’s parabola”), but he is able to escape by demanding the god remember Millgate. Ozmazd and Ahriman confront each other directly in a battle that may take billions of years. After the battle moves from Millgate, Mary reveals herself as the daughter of Ormazd, Armaiti. She was responsible for Barton arriving in Millgate. The Wanderers, although working hard, could not hope to restore the town. The only hope was to break the agreement between Ormazd and Ahriman. Barton restores Mary to another form, this time she manifests as a beautiful woman. Mary departs.
Ted Barton prepares to leave Millgate while observing the continuing restoration project. Barton and William Christopher share a sentimental farwell. Barton decides that the town will be best without him. He realizes that his marriage has probably collapsed. He thinks about Armaiti, who will be everywhere. He takes comfort knowing that he will be constantly reminded of her.
Urban Planning: One thing that makes The Cosmic Puppets such an enjoyable read is that Ted Barton’s experiences in his hometown are very familiar. In this liquid world, where people often move away from the town of their birth, they find that returning to those communities to be disturbing. When changes are experienced from the inside, they are less jarring. When you experience all of those changes at once, you literally feel like Barton does when he realizes that the community is no longer the town he grew up in. For this reason, I think that the best way to read this novel is to down play the religious aspect of the novel and focus on the question of urban planning and urban development. “The right to the city” is, after all, one of the most important issues facing our civilization.
I do not want to interpret this novel page by page in respect to what David Harvey says in this talk, but I urge everyone to listen to the talk and then read the novel (or the other way around).
In both the Millgate of the novel and our own urban centers, the forces that are responsible for the changes in geography are distant. Urban planners are the gods of the postmodern city, capable of destroying neighborhoods and erected massive monumental architecture. They control how our cities look and how they function. They manage how we go to work and where we visit. As Robert Caro discussed in his book The Power Broker, these people are often unaccountable to democratic forces but are in practice the most important people in the urban power structure. If anything, the Zoroastrian gods working the novel are more accessible and accountable than the urban developers.
The novel also shows that the resistance to this cannot help but seem reactionary. It is also hard to see. The Wanderers float through the city like the unknown and largely unseen victims of our urban civilization: the underclass, the homeless, the excluded. Often our cities are designed to keep these people silent, powerless, and unseen. The problem, of course, is that all these people are struggle for is a return to the old way the city was. Barton and Christopher spend much of the book trying to remember how the city was and restore it to how it was. They are incapable of being a creative force in the world because they have romanticized and idealist the city of their youth. While they may be capable of pushing those powerful forces out of the city, all that does it leave the city in a stagnant place of the past. There are numerous examples of urban spaces that are ignored by urban planners and capital investment. These are almost worse off than the places where the ruling class invests its capital. Is out only choice to see our urban spaces’ development designed to serve the 1% and to see it neglected and decayed like the American rust belt?
Avatars: To return to the religious and fantastical aspect of the novel, we find a permanent struggle between Mary (the daughter of Ormazd) and Peter Trilling (an apparent avatar of Ahriman). Most of the struggle is acted out as childhood games. Peter controls golems, which can be turned into avatars, spiders, snakes, and rats. Mary controls moths and bees. Notice how one set is grounded and the other tied to flight. Mary eventually uses a golem as her own avatar to spy on Peter. This is one way that politics work, particularly in late capitalism and postmodernity. Perhaps this is seen most directly in the recent United States midterm elections, where both parties struggled largely through the use of external groups who seem to speak for candidates but do so with a bit of legal distance. Cyberspace allows many interesting questions about the use of avatars, and they seem to provide a space for freedom and anonymity. It is also very easily co-opted.
Family: Barely mentioned, but bracketing the entire novel is a failed marriage. Unlike later works, where Dick will analyze the failed marriage with great anguish and detail, this marriage fails in a very matter-of-fact way. Peg Barton does not want to experience her husband’s youth and is completely disinterested in what his passions are. She sits out the novel in a hotel, likely much of the time on the phone with a divorce attorney. While Peg seems a villain of sorts, disrupting Ted’s legitimate desire to visit his hometown, she is right in a way. The obsession with how things were in the past is a fundamentally reactionary perspective that adds little to an evolving relationship. In the first chapter, we learn that Ted Barton’s vision of the past is almost obsessive. “My God, I wish you’d forget at least something, I’m so tired of hearing all the details of your childhood, all the lovely facts about Millgate, Virginia—sometimes I just feel like screaming.” (5) In many ways it seems that Barton is similar to the aloof and indifferent husbands in “Human Is.” Barton’s failure to care when his wife leaves him is more evidence that he has infantilized himself with his obsession about memory. This is the dark side of Dick’s focus on memory. It is often important fr breaking free of the lies of the world, but rarely is it a liberatory force.
As I understand it, The Cosmic Puppets is one of the more commonly examined and appreciated of Dick’s early works. This is probably due to the fact that the themes that show up later in Dick’s writings such as memory, religion, and false realities are so clear. I also think it is one of his most important early novels, but for a different reason. To read back the themes of the Exegesis or the VALIS trilogy into Dick’s earliest writings is dangerous and helps suppress alternative readings. I think it fits into an entirely different set of themes that run through Dick’s early writings, but is less evident in the later works, those dealing with political and economic power. It is a prescient work not because it foreshadowed themes that appear in the Exegesis, but because it foreshadows the late capitalist conquest of our cities by unaccountable tyrannies. It also demands that we think hard about how we struggle against these forces. To look only to the past is politically banal. We need something new. We need a third Millgate.