Jan 23, 2010

On The Minority Report by P.K. Dick

This survey covers the book more than the movie. Before discussing the story, let’s review the major and minor characters:

John Anderton, founder of Precrime. He is the police commissioner. He is paranoid about losing his job to the new assistant, Ed Witwer. He is proud of his achievements with Precrime, believes it has truly helped society by reducing felonies. After the car crash scene, he goes into hiding under the assumed identity of “Ernest Temple.”

Lisa Anderton, wife of John Anderton. Lisa is an executive in Precrime and met John when she was a secretary. John is paranoid about her as well; he thinks she and Witwer are conspiring against him. Tod Fleming also implicates her as being behind the frame job of Anderton, but this is false. She actually stands by her man and attempts to help him flee the police building.

Ed Witwer, the new assistant to Anderton. Witwer has ambitions for replacing Anderton as police commissioner. When Anderton stands accused, Witwer leads the investigation to find and prosecute him. Anderton’s paranoia, however, is unfounded. Witwer does not attempt to frame him.

The Precogs: Donna, Jerry, and Mike. These are the oracles in the story. Semi-retarded mutants, they are attached to machinery that  records their garbled visions. The Precogs see the future, in particular crimes that are going to be committed before they occur. They live in an area of the building called the monkey block. Typically, two of the three will concur on a prediction (the majority report), with the third’s vision called a minority report. The narrators describes these variations as being out of phase. In other words, there are multiple timelines, multiple futures being predicted. Without this possibility, the whole notion of PreCrime would be a lie, for how could you prevent a crime from happening? 

Wally Page. Page is a subordinate in charge of the monkey block. He assists Anderton in regaining access to the block after he’s been in hiding. Page, however, is also an Army plant, passing information from the police department to Army officials.

The Senate. The governmental body responsible for authorizing the Precrime division. They have the power to deauthorize them as well.

Leopold Kaplan. The man Anderton is supposed to kill, according to the Majority Report. He is in his seventies, a retired general from the Army of the Federated Alliance. He is head of an exclusive, secretive veterans organization: the International Veterans League. Since the wars, the power of the military has been divided and split off. Kaplan seeks to regain power on their behalf by discredting Precrime. 

Tod Fleming. A man who rescues Anderton from the car crash and pretends to be from a police oversight agency. Apparently an ally of Anderton’s, he provides Anderton with a new identity so he can hide from the police. He later resurfaces when John and Lisa Anderton are escaping from police headquarters. He assaults Lisa, having accused her of framing Anderton. Anderton prevents him from strangling her and knocks him out. His identity papers reveal his affiliation with the Internal Intelligence Department of Military Information, answerable to Leopold Kaplan.

Plot summary.
I. This chapter provides exposition. We are introduced to our protagonist, John Anderton. We have an explanation of how precrime works and our first major plot point comes: Anderton sees his own name turn up on a card fingering him as a murderer to be.

II. Anderton suspects his wife Lisa and assistant Witwer are conspiring against him to take away his job. He has 24 hours to escape before Precrime comes after him. Lisa points out to him that he doesn’t know the man’s name he is going to kill: Leopold Kaplan.

III. Anderton is packing to escape. He his abducted in his own home and transported to Kaplan’s house. A conversation between them ensues. Kaplan orders his men to take him back to the police.

IV. On the way back, Anderton discusses the possibility that Precrime may be imprisoning innocent people. Then their car crashes. He is dragged away by a man named Fleming.

V. Fleming provides him with a new identity (Ernest Temple) and Anderton escapes to the seedy side of New York City. He hides out in a hotel, listens to radio reports of his escape and the news that a minority report exists. He needs to read it. Perhaps it will exonerate him.

VI. Anderton phones Wally Page and asks to be allowed entrance to the monkey block. Page points out to him the Precog who produced the Minority Report: Jerry. Jerry’s vision took the majority report conclusion (that he would kill Kaplan) as datum and produced a conflicting, time-phased report where he doesn’t commit the murder. Lisa enters and offers to help him escape.

VII. Lisa and John discuss important ethical questions about Precrime. She convinces him (with a little help from her gun) to turn himself into the police, so as to prove that the majority report was not wrong, thus saving Precrime from Kaplan’s designs to discredit it. Fleming, who is hiding in the police cruiser, attacks Lisa and intends to strangle her and  throw her out of the car. Anderton knocks him out. They return to police HQ. Anderton identifies him as working for Kaplan’s group.

VIII. Anderton talks to Witwer and explains the plot against Precrime. Kaplan’s organization wants to prove Precrime wrong so they can regain power. He studies the data tapes to see how he would kill Kaplan. He discovers that there are three time paths: Donna’s, Mike’s, and Jerry’s. Meanwhile, an Army rally is being prepared where Kaplan plans to expose the fraud of Precrime. He will then ask the senate to deauthorize Precrime and return policing power to the Army. Anderton realizes he will have to kill Kaplan after all.

IX. At the army rally, Anderton and Kaplan discuss what is about to happen. Kaplan’s critique of precrime is given. Anderton kills him in public.

X. Anderton, who has plea bargained for a sentence of exile, is packing  to leave with his wife. We discover that there were three minority reports in consecutive order: Donna’s, Jerry’s, Mike’s. One provided datum to the next, which superseded the timeline of the previous. In Mike’s tape (the last in the sequence), Anderton kills Kaplan to save the integrity of Precrime. Anderton warns Witwer (acting police commissioner) that those who have access to the cards are at risk for the same sort of circumstance that he experienced.

Discussion questions
We can compare and contrast this story to Oedipus Rex with respect to the themes of oracles, seeing the future, fate, destiny, and freewill. What do Dick and Sophocles share in common, and how do they differ?

Do you agree with the philosophy of Precrime? Is it right or wrong?

Is Kaplan’s criticism a fair one? Do his ulterior motives taint your judgment?

Can you think of modern day examples where people have been rounded up and imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit yet? Does this happen today? Can it happen? How might it happen?

Is Anderton’s decision to kill Kaplan made freely or is it an inevitability? How does this compare with Oedipus’s will to action?

The Minority Report raises questions about fate and free will. It is a good example of science fiction (also known as speculative fiction), which speculates on the possibilities , what our world might be turning into and whether we are headed in the right direction.

Anderton consciously decides that he must kill Kaplan, so could he just as easily have decided not to kill him? If you interpret the answer to be yes, then why are other potential killers not given the chance to make a conscious choice? If the answer is no, then the story seems to be an elaborate, roundabout way of fulfilling the ultimate vision (Mike’s, the last in the series), and Anderton paradoxically wills to do what he was inevitably going to do anyway.

Another question raised by the story concerns the social/political dimension. Would we want something like precrime in our society? Is Anderton correct in his belief that precrime is all for the social good, and that the benefits (crime prevention, saving people from victimization) outweigh the costs (the forced incarceration of people who have not actually committed a crime)? And is the military takeover a greater danger to society than the Precrime system? We can’t be sure whether we should go a long with the implied author of the story (P.K. Dick’s authorial persona), who apparently is siding with his protagonist. This sense of instability was exploited by the film version (Speilberg’s Minority Report), which took a much tougher, more critical stance against the philosophy of Precrime, making it part of a state that was prying into people’s private lives in many areas: policing and detective work, advertising and niche marketing, security, and entertainment.  Dick’s story ends neatly with a satisfying resolution: the “prophecy” is fulfilled bythe freely willed, conscious act of Anderton, who chooses to save his Precrime from being dismantled. Anderton is sent into exile -- but thematically, there is less resolution. There are no easy answers or choices when considering matters of fate, free will and the choice between private freedoms and public security.