Philip K. Dick’s Philosophy of History: Part One

Part One: The Promise of the Frontier

Not much has been written about Philip K. Dick’s philosophy of history as revealed in his fiction. On the one hand, this is surprising because from the beginning of his career Dick was concerned with the fate of human civilizations. Even if his stories and novels did not reach the level of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels in respect to historical vision, they remain memorable posing important questions about the role of resistance movements, individual agency, and collectively-experience historical change. One the other hand, the neglect of studies of Dick’s philosophy of history is not so shocking in part because many of his most famous and memorable works suggest the limits of history. Novels such as The Maze of Death and Radio Free Albmeuth place characters in a type of eternal return, where the “empire never ends.” These are works that are horrifying because they imagine the end of history. Dick’s well-known novel, The Man in the High Castle, is set in an alternative universe where the Axis won the Second World War. However, Dick casts doubt on this setting by placing in the context of the novel a third alternative reality where the Allies win (but not quite following the historical events of the real Second World War). Dick’s experimentation in ontological ambiguity created poor material for thinking about historical change. If we do not know where we are, how is it possible to plan a future or understand our past? How can we have a grounded relationship with the past without a metaphysical certainty?

Readers of Dick’s stories and novels know very well that he had a profound interest in history, especially of the early modern period. He commonly gave his characters encyclopedic knowledge of history and the Western humanities. It is not clear what historical works he read and digested during his career, but there are two historians who likely influenced Dick’s thinking about the timeline of the human experience: the British historian Arnold Toynbee and the American historian of the frontier Frederick Jackson Turner. His awareness of Toynbee is made clear in the opening of Time Out of Joint, when a character studied a mail-order book club mailing advertising an abridged volume of Toynbee’s A Study of History. Ragle Gumm identified in it as an important historical and cultural text. Dick also mentioned Toynbee’s history in Eye in the Sky, strongly suggesting a more than passing familiarity with the work and its thesis. It is more difficult to prove Dick’s awareness of Turner, but whether he got to Turner through the cultural DNA of 1950s science fiction, through direct encounter with the author, or through his experiences living in California in the graveyard of the American frontier is not clear. As I hope to show below, Turner’s frontier thesis is often applied in Dick’s writings from the 1950s and early 1960s.


Arnold Toynbee was a historian active during Dick’s lifetime. In his massive, multi-volume work A Study of History, Toynbee invented the field of world history, including many of its more important innovations, such as the study of the relationship between civilizational characteristics and environments. Toynbee argued that civilizations arise out of a particular struggle with the local environment (both natural and human). The innovations, institutions, ideas, and values of each civilization were rooted in that struggle and fine-tuned to match their needs in that specific context. Once the victory over that environment is won, civilizations will tend to mature into decadence and stagnation, until finally an inevitable collapse begins.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis pre-dated Toynbee’s by three decades. Frederick Jackson Turner made the most memorable argument placing the frontier into American history. Earlier historians tended to look to Puritan New England or even Europe as the home of American values and driving force of North American history. Turner argued instead that the frontier was the location where American identity, institutions, and values were made and remade. Turner’s groundbreaking essay was 1893’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” He begins with the claim that while European frontiers were static (such as the line between nations) the American frontier was mobile, moving like a wave across the continent. It does not take him long to find state his thesis:

The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man.

All of this is not entirely a bad thing because it allows the frontier resident to be reborn as an American, fully liberated from stifling European influences. Turner wrote: “Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it.” The rest of the essay describes the movement of the frontier, particularly the rough and uneven nature of the wave moving westward. Ultimately, his focus is on the roots of American democracy and the American intellectual character.

Frederick Jackson Turner

Frederick Jackson Turner

While Turner provides a more American, dynamic model and Toynbee offers up a model that is more rigid and static, they are actually quite similar arguments. In fact, it fair to see Turner’s frontier as the environment that had to be overcome for American civilization. Both would agree that the end of that frontier would cast doubt on the future of American civilization. Unfortunately, by the time Dick began writing the only hope for a revived frontier could be found in the imagination of science fiction writers.

In this and the subsequence essays, I will look at Dick’s philosophy of history through these two influences, identifying three major stages in Dick’s writing. The first phase, corresponding to the years 1947 until 1963 and comprising the bulk of his fiction, reveal Dick to be a follower of Turner and a believer in the need for an interplanetary frontier for humanity to have a future. The frontier was the geographical space for historical change or even future evolutionary change. This perspective both reaches its climax and denouement in Martian Time-Slip. The second phase of Dick’s historical vision overlaps with the first in the novel Martian Time-Slip and matures in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. In these works, we see the limits of the frontier. Instead of becoming a place for human recreation and innovation, the frontier is transformed into a banal extension of suburban civilization at best. At worst, it is a degraded place provided no hope, but only misery and mental illness. The final phase, beginning with The Maze of Death and continuing through the VALIS trilogy presents the end of history and its replacement by an eternal return. The famous phrase uttered by Dick repeatedly in his later work, “the empire never ended,” is code for this end of human social transformation. At the end of this essay, I will also step back at grapple with where, if not the frontier, Dick saw hope for a revival of human history. Both individuals and movements would play a role in breaking free of the Black Iron Prison of stagnation.

In a series of short stories published in 1953, Philip K. Dick established the hope of the interplanetary or interstellar frontier, going so far as to suggest that humanity cannot progress without coming to terms with a frontier. New planets and new environments were not just a solution to population growth or environmental destruction, they were crucial for human evolution and progress. In the story, “Mr. Spaceship,” Terra is bogged down in an endless, stalemated war with the Yucconae of Proxima Centauri. Through the use of organic, automated technology the Yucconae create an unbreachable ring around their planet, preventing the end of the war and stopping in its tracks any Terran expansion in the galaxy. Terran military experts focused on finding a technology that could out maneuver the Yucconae technology. Eventually they decide to try using a human brain to replace the mechanical system controlling the ships. While not conscious, it would have increased abilities and quicker response times. The prototype fails because the brain that was used—that of an aging and dying professor named Thomas—maintained its consciousness and used the ship for another, non-military purpose. He takes his former student, Philip Kramer, and leaves the solar system to find a new planet to settle.

Professor Thomas believed, like Toynbee, that each civilization had a central defining characteristic. For Terrans, that characteristic had become war. Thomas—through the mechanisms of the ship—tells his former student of his vision. “The world has been fighting for a long time, first with itself, then with the Martians, then with these beings from Proxima Centauri, whom we know nothing about. The human society has evolved war as a cultural institution, like the science of astronomy, or mathematics. War is a part of our lives, a career, a respected vocation. Bright, alert young men and women move into it, putting their shoulders to the wheel as they did in the time of Nebuchadnezzar. It has always been so.”[1] Thomas believes that only by projecting humanity to an entirely foreign environment can it remake itself free from the civilizational burden of war. While it would take centuries to develop, the new colony established far from Terra would be capable of breaking free of the “deeply ingrained habit” of war. The story ends with the question whether a new environment, a new frontier, is enough to overcome the problem of war or if war is an unfortunate part of human nature. Philip Kramer, however, is convinced that new beginnings are possible.

Piper in the Woods” written at the same time as “Mr. Spaceship” shows precisely how the frontier could be a space for recreating human values and expectations. In this story, workers and soldiers on a forested asteroid suddenly either come back with a strange disease causing them to think they are plants or created the most clever form of passive labor existence. As more people return from the forests thinking they are plants and refusing to do anymore work, the entire enterprise is imperiled. The military sends a psychiatrist to investigate. When he realizes that they all share an emotional tie to a entity they call the Pipers, he explores the woods himself, only to come down with the “illness” himself. The humans in the story are tied to an industrial system. Perhaps borrowing from Lewis Mumford, Dick has one of the characters describe the operation as the peak of human innovation. He says: “We have a garrison, a good modern garrison. We’re probably the most modern outfit in the system. Every new device and gadget is here that science can produce. Harris, this garrison is one vast machine. The men are parts, and each has his job, the Maintenance Crew, the Biologists, the Office Crew, the Managerial Staff. Look what happens when one person steps away from his job. Everything else begins to creak. [. . .] No one can leave. We’re all tied here and these people know it. They know they have no right to do that, run off on their own. No one has that right anymore. We’re all too tightly interwoven to suddenly start doing what we want.”[2] By encountering the aliens on the asteroid (the reality of the Pipers is unclear at the end of the story), the crew slowly begins to realize that being tied to a vast integrated machine is not the end of human evolution. In this case, the frontier offered that opportunity to rethink whether humans were simply parts of a vast machine, or capable of individual dreams (even if they are based on childhood memories of long gone green spaces).

This theme plays out more subtlety in works like “The Infinites” (1953) and “Strange Eden” (1954). In these two stories, the interplanetary frontier literally becomes the location of human biological evolution. In “The Infinities” a group of scientists and explorers are exposed to a type of stellar radiation which rapidly accelerates their evolution. While the story assumes a form of teleological evolution coded into human begins, it is significant that the acceleration must take place beyond Terra. One of the more malevolent people undergoing this transformation, named Blake, plans to return to Earth a conqueror to usher in a new age of humanity. He is stopped by the others, along with help from hamsters who had accelerated even faster because they were exposed to the radiation first. Dick also encodes in this evolution greater powers and distinct morality. As one character warns: “Blake will want to go back to Terra, not as an ordinary man, but as a man of the future. We may find ourselves in relation to other Terrans as geniuses among idiots. If the process keeps up, we may find them nothing more than higher primates.”[3] The even more advanced hamsters realize this danger and force the band of now posthumans to return to Earth unaltered, warning about advancing too fast. “Strange Eden” is about an explorer who meets an alien. She warns him away, but his curiosity prevents him from taking her advice. She explains how she observed and guided human evolution over the centuries. After the man gives in to the alien’s beauty and has sex with her, he undergoes a form of teleological evolution similar to that of the crew in “The Infinites.” In this case, he turned into a type of giant cat, the fate of all men who were seduced by the alien woman. While significant as one of Dick’s rare ventures into the currently popular concept of ancient alien astronauts, it is yet another example of how humans need some sort of outside pressure to evolve. In both of these stories, that location is deep in space, affecting the pioneers first.

It is the 1953 novella “The Variable Man” which must be looked at as one of Dick’s central stories articulating the theme of the frontier as an agent of historical change. In fact, this brilliant story is so powerful because it combines Dick’s passion for the old ways of doing things with his desire to see humanity break out of its stagnation. The character of Thomas Cole, a handyman from the early twentieth century, is accidentally brought to an Earth at war with Proixma Centauri. His ability to tinker with machines allows him to manipulate technologies that a military bureaucracy can only use for war. Due to planning, every technology has its role and planned obsolescence makes repairs unnecessary. Thomas Cole—although not understanding the technologies—has an uncanny ability to fix broken machines and create new applications for other technologies. It sounds like a call for a conservative resistance to a technological bureaucracy inspired by Lewis Mumford’s studies on “man and the Machine.” Yet, it is what Cole creates that helps us look toward the future.

The Icarus Project was a failed effort at a faster than light engine. It was hoped by the military leaders that it would make an effective weapon of war. In the war with Proxima Centarus no battles are fought. They are all simulated based on the current tech level of the belligerents. The Terrans hold off their attack until the computer simulations make victory likely. Slowly, the odds seem to be shifting to Terran’s favor (although Thomas Cole’s arrival suddenly makes predictions impossible, which is why he becomes the “variable man”). While Icarus failed as a faster than light engine because it causes a massive explosion when re-entering normal space, it is reworked into a brutal weapon that can potentially destroy a sun. One more creative scientists finds Thomas Cole and commissions him to complete Icarus. Instead of turning it into a weapon, he fixes the faster than light drive, giving humanity another chance at exploring the stars, no longer bound by the constraints of the aging Centaruan Empire. While the military is horrified that their ultimate weapon failed and the war was lost, a handful of more forward-thinking people imagine new boundaries for humanity. The scientist Sherikov says: “The whole universe is open to us. Instead of taking over an antiquated Empire, we have the entire cosmos to map and explore. God’s total creation.”[4] Thus old-fashioned industry and creativity become the key to humanity reaching out into the stars. Reliance on a stagnant bureaucracy only brings stability.

In “The Variable Man” and “Mr. Spaceship,” the interplanetary frontier is largely aspirational. We are left only knowing that humanity will be trying something new beyond their home system. The 1954 story “Souvenir” gives us a look at how such a frontier may develop a distinctive culture, economy, and even attitude toward technology. Frank Williamson led the first group of settlers, beginning what would be a great period of Terran expansion in the galaxy. However, this original expedition was never heard from again. Much like the English colony at Roanoke, it was never heard from again and its fate could only be speculated on. It would not be the last, however, and humanity spread slowly and surely. Because most of these colonies remained culturally, economically, and politically tied to Terra, their cultures were homogenized in a vast galactic empire. In fact, maintaining a uniform culture is the key task of the state. They justify the often brutal application of this policy through the language of progress. “There are two reasons. First, the body of knowledge which men have amassed doesn’t permit duplication of experiment. There’s no time. [. . .] When a discovery has been made it’s absurd to repeat it on countless planets throughout the universe. Information gained on any of the thousand worlds is flashed to Relay Center and out again to the whole Galaxy. [. . . And the second reason is if] uniform culture is maintained, controlled from a central source, there won’t be war.”[5] This is an interesting example of a society committed to technological progress but lacking diversity or real cultural change. Their empire is the empire of the technocrat. A similar model is pursued in Dr. Futurity.

Williamson’s World developed aloof from this central control and could play with creative reconstruction of what they had. They borrowed from a diversity of Terran cultures, encouraging conflict among various tribes as a means to promote and defend honor. They used technologies that were human-scaled. They kept the automobile but rejected robots, for instance. Work is valued for its own sake, unlike Terra which abolished it with stunning efficiency. What resulted as a mixture of tribal villages, medieval manors, and specialized factory communities. Not only the cultures of various Earth cultures preserved, they also mixed a variety of economic systems used throughout history. In spite of their conflicts and differences, they created a governing body over their entire society. In doing so they created something entirely new in the history of civilization: a functioning grassroots anarchy. The rediscovery of Williamson’s World was unacceptable to the authorities of the empire and when they refused to incorporate—which really meant accepting the death of their culture—the entire planet was destroyed. As with “Variable Man,” “Souvenir” looks back to find the best of humanity (the ethic and skill of the crafter, a diversity of historical potentialities) and looks forward to how those can be applied in the creation of a new world. In these stories, Dick almost challenges the prediction of the “end of history” by seeing the entire record of human accomplishment as evidence that there is a future—or, at least that we should reserve some hope that humanity can learn from its mistakes and build on its greatest creative achievements.

The Planet for Transients” expounds on Dick’s frontier thesis in surprising ways. Due to some ecological catastrophe, Earth is no longer suitable for humans who have hidden in a series of bunkers. Rapidly running out of food and supplies, the survivors explore the surface for new supplies or a means off the planet. They find the surface environment is actually alive with posthuman life, but is deadly to humans. After encountering the posthumans (who notably are not violent or indifferent to the survivors). At the end of the tale, the survivors find a means to travel to another planets, leaving Earth for the posthuman, while finding new frontiers. In the context of his other works on the frontier, this it not simply humanity fleeing a world that they destroyed, but the promise of two new paths of human development. One group, the posthumans, will develop Earth in new ways. The fate of the humans who departed is not known but will likely result in new cultures and a new civilization.

The World Jones Made is yet another early work by Dick that believed strongly in the need for a projectural mission for humanity, most easily found in the frontier. As the novel opens, Earth is still recovering from a nuclear war. The post-war world government, Fedgov, that was established in the war’s aftermath worked to eliminate what they saw as the root cause of war: ideological certainty. To do this they created and implemented a philosophy called Relativism. In practice it trained people not to make unsubstantiated opinions. Those who openly make dangerous ideological claims—without evidence—could be sent to labor camps. Relativism did create peace—controlled by a police state—but it made progress hard and it suppressed a basic human desire to transcend the logical. Even the exploration of space slows down, likely because it was seen to be the project of dangerous dreamers. Intro this world emerges Floyd Jones, a precog who can see one year into the future. When he is arrested for using his talent to predict something that only the government knew, he revealed that he had both an ability to read the future and a grand mission for humanity. His knowledge that aliens­—called Drifters—were coming to Earth opened his eyes to the need for a bolder human purpose. “[T]here’s a whole universe! You spend your time rebuilding this planet—my God, we could have a million planets. New planets, untouched planets. Systems of them. Endless resources . . . and you sit around trying to remelt old scrap. Pack rats, misers, boarding and fingering your miserable pile.”[6] Floyd Jones may be the villain of the novel, but in the context of his contemporaneous works, Dick seems to hold admiration for his view of history and human progress.

It is much the same argument in Time Out of Joint. The universe we are introduced to is set in the 1950s, but we quickly learn that this is a timeless, historyless construct carefully designed to match the needs of the insane Ragle Gumm. While Gumm believes that he is living a life, he is in actually frozen in the 1950s of his youth. No matter how long he stays there, there will be no change in his life. The middle-class suburban community is Dick’s strongest metaphor for the end of history. As this world falls apart for Gumm he learns about the truth. In reality, humans are engaged in a brutal civil war over the issue of human expansion into the stars. While the Earth government is working to prevent space exploration, the “lunatics” are fighting to preserve what they see as a central human need for creativity, curiosity, and rebirth, all of which are grounded in the explorer’s mission. Despite the “lunatics” use of weapons of mass destruction to secure their independence from Earth, Gumm learns to appreciate their perspective. A life of cultural recreation promised by the “lunatics” is preferable to the static life in an endless 1950s, which promises no change or evolution. Thus we see that throughout Dick’s early writings—particularly in the stories—a close association between the end of the frontier and cultural stagnation. Even in less appreciated novels such as Dr. Futurity, Vulcan’s Hammer, and The Man Who Japed we find that same frontier repurposed into a penal colony (with clear associations with the British American and Pacific colonies). More than a depository for the unwanted, however, the colonies becomes spaces of cultural creativity, resistance, or diversity in contrast to a culturally stagnant and homogenous Earth. On the opposite side of the coin we see an association between cultural rebirth and repurposing with a frontier. Dick’s perspective on cultural stagnation and banality is geographically bound. The later development of Dick’s historical vision needs to be examined in the context of this early-career optimism about the frontier, which promises an escape from the end of history.

[1] The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1, 109.

[2] The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1, 122.

[3] The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1, 143.

[4] The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1, 216.

[5] The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2, 360.

[6] Philip K. Dick, The World Jones Made (Boston: Mariner Press, 2012), 39.


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Alien Life, Bureaucracy, Cold War, Empire, Philip K. Dick, Politics, Posthumanism, Space Exploration, Technology, war and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Philip K. Dick’s Philosophy of History: Part One

  1. It’s needless to say,that you have written a very interesting,introspective and thorough thesis on the subject,but any comments I make now,won’t do it justice I think,and will need to wait to go into it at length.However,I think that I can make some concise,valid points at present regarding this integral structure in his multiplex stuff.

    Regarding his viewpoint upon this theme,he sometimes saw history or recorded history,as an unreliable source for carefully chronicling the events and current position of human civilization.The most obvious but pertinent example of this perhaps,occurs in “The Man in the High Castle”,where the Axis forces apparent victory in World War Two,appears to be unreliable misinformation and entirely spurious,with the truth existing only as a work of fiction,despite the ordinary fashion of everyday life and the conquerors seeming dominion.Apparently,the odd state of affairs,can be attributed to loss of memory too,a theme that also held a particular fascination for Dick,and of course,has shades of the earlier “Time Out of Joint”,where history again isn’t what it seems according to present day accuracy.

    Memory then is also unreliable,and much of what is thought of as verified fact,is false and misleading.In the short story,”If There Were no Benny Cemoli”,news and history is left to homeostatic machines to grind out.It appears that the charismatic but false revolutionary,Cemoli ,was fabricated for purposes of insurrection and change.Here,history is entirely reduced to letters it seems,yet not without a moral purpose.The pertinence of this,can be found in Dick’s comments that form the background to ITWNBC,where he says,”that many of the most famous people in history probably never existed.Karl Marx was probably the invention of some hack writer.” Historical certainty itself then,is only subjective.

    It appears in this case then,that often history is only as real as governments would have us believe.In “The Penultimate Truth”,that Larry Sutin in his biography of Dick,calls his “most pointed argument on the lies woven by government”,the authorities are trying to rewrite the whole of modern history,to subvert humanity into servile submission.The president is a mechanical construct created to feed the populace false news events to keep them in submission and bondage.History and the frontier then,is no more than a glorified mythology.

    It appears obvious in “A Maze of Death”,that the dissolution with the frontier theme,that any old rocky outcrop is good enough for getting rid of malcontents.The point is though,that it lies in a spiritual reality.That is a new frontier.It saves Seth Morley,with the appearance of the Intercessor, within their physical one.Here,history then,should be viewed with from a spiritual viewpoint.

    In “The Man in the High Castle”,Tagomi’s vision of historical truth is experienced firsthand through spiritual revelation.The “I Ching” also brings spiritual realization to Juliana Fink to the reality of actual history.In both cases though,it does not repair memory or dispel illusion,but that is not the point.

    The history of the frontier in his strange but sanguine stuff,should often be considered dubious then,due to the flaws in memory,and can be worked out through the salvation of spirituality.

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