Jul 15, 2014

Notes on P.K. Dick's The Second Variety

These notes refer to Dick’s story as it appears in Heather Masri's textbook: Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts.

Heather Masri in her headnote suggests we can read this in three ways:

1. Parable of the Cold War. How does the story reflect the ethos of its age (1950's)?

The cold war, which spanned the years 1945 to 1990, involved the two victorious superpowers from World War II, namely the USA and USSR, in an adversarial zero sum struggle for world domination. Each country had its economic, military and political sphere of influence -- for the USA that included most of the western hemisphere, Western Europe, the defeated Japanese empire, Israel, and other parts of post-colonial Asia and Africa; for the USSR this included the Eastern bloc countries behind the "iron curtain", communist China (technically China was an independent emerging third power, though allied ideologically with Russia), and various third world proxy nations such as Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, parts of Asia and Africa, the Middle East and Central America. The "war" was waged on several fronts, through diplomatic alliances, "hot" wars in third world nations (e.g. Korea, Vietnam, Central America), propaganda, the space race, and the arms race. The Americans dropped the first nuclear weapons on Japanese territory (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), thus bringing an end to World War II. The Russians then developed their own nuclear weapons, and both nations (and others) tested nuclear weapons, first atomic, then hydrogen bombs. Nuclear power was weaponized by means of missile defense systems, intercontinental ballsistic missiles. A policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (acronym MAD) persisted for over thirty years. The idea was to amass so much firepower that any one nation could obliterate the other, or upon being attacked, respond in kind, thus annihilating all life as we know it on planet earth. Again, this was standard foreign policy for decades. During the Cuban Missile crisis in 1963, when JFK faced down Kruschev over the placing of missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the mainland United States, the world was brought to the brink of nuclear war. The Russians agreed to remove the missiles, while the United States secretly agreed to remove missiles from Turkey, which were within easy range of the USSR.

So that is the background context. "Second Variety" was written in the 1950's, when Americans were realizing the acute threat of apocalypse posed by nuclear weapons. In his story, the Russians and Americans have destroyed the better part of the planet, and the remaining soldiers inhabit a post-apocalyptic landscape of ash, dust, and radiation. There isn't much left to live for.

2. Crisis of faith in humankind's ability to control its technological creations (cite examples from our present age)

How does the story divulge this crisis? Through out of control killer robots. This expresses the fear that our technology risks getting out of hand and coming back to annihilate us. We are building machines to kill indiscriminately, and one gets the sense here that by the end of the tale, machines will indiscriminately kill other machines. The carnage is senseless, absurd.

We might think here of the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, how logical it was and yet how insane to build guided missile systems capable of destroying life on earth as we know it. We made that possible. And the film Dr. Strangelove by Stanely Kubrick is a black comedy about how easily the end of the world could be triggered.

But I also think of smaller scale machines that can kill. Think of drone warfare, of flying machines that can be remote controlled from half a world away by humans sitting before telescreens with headsets and joysticks. There is something chilling about this. How one doesn't know the enemy any more. One cannot see his opponent.

3. Darkly ironic statement on human nature itself. Is Masri suggesting that we grapple with Dick's handling of themes such as trust and doubt, faithfulness, paranoia, empathy, gullibility?

How do the robots work so insidiously? By using our humane qualities of loyalty, compassion, attraction. The double-cross is liable to happen at every turn. One learns not to trust anyone, ever.

4. I would add a fourth dimension to the discussion, building on number three: how does Dick destabilize our sense of what is real? Is anything what it seems in this world? What makes this vision so nightmarish and how might we guard against it?