How Phil K Dick took over the world
[ opinion - august 06 ]
You don't expect eerily accurate prophecy from science fiction. It's especially weird when the work in question comes from the pen of Philip K Dick, a writer with no particular interest in science or the future. But somehow his 1965 novel The Zap Gun anticipates the modern world in a way that nobody else did.
Although people who never read it sometimes assume that it's trying to foretell the future, science fiction is rarely about predictions. More often it gives writers the chance to experimenting with ideas, writing in a realm that gives free rein to the imagination. Sometimes it's laziness. In SF, you can churn out thrillers without any knowledge of how the CIA operates, use detailed exotic locations without ever having been there, and write war stories without any need for historical accuracy. Iain M Banks refers to research as "the R word" and tries to avoid it as far as possible. SF writers can make up pretty much everything in their work, including the science.
In any case, imagined futures invariably look ridiculous long before their due date. Writers are stuck in their own present, and any work they produce will contain elements that look incongruous to later eras. Forties and Fifties SF is always funkily retro; when the space-age husband flies home his jet-car, he will still find his wife baking apple pie in the atomic oven, attended by stereotyped kids. Orwell's 1984, with its bombsites and pervasive smell of cabbage, is perfectly representative of post-war England. And don't even get me started on Star Trek and the Sixties.
Phil K Dick is beginning to be well-known because of film adaptations of his works. Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, the little-known Impostor and now A Scanner Darkly are all based on his stories. Hollywood likes to use them as pegs to hang action-adventures on, with shoot-outs and punch-ups for the likes of Arnie and Tom Cruise, but the originals have a very different style. Dick wrote ‘inner space' SF, concerned with issues like what it means to be human (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis of Blade Runner), whether you're the still same person if you lose your memory (Total Recall) , and whether it would be just to punish someone for what they will do in the future (Minority Report).
He was an extremely prolific writer, churning out some 44 books in a frantic attempt to stay solvent. Some of his stories push out into the strange end of the spectrum with characters enduring weird, surreal experiences. This is hardly surprising as he described himself as "a flipped-out freak" with an extended history of drug use. The junkies and dealers in Scanner Darkly come from personal experience.
In 1974 he had a series of visions in which a god-like entity which he referred to as VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligent System) contacted him via a pink laser beam. He also believed that as well as living in the 20th century he had a parallel existence in first-century Rome, where he was a persecuted Christian.
Bearing this in mind, you would expect Dick's books to be freewheeling fantasy with no connection to reality, but The Zap Gun is closer to our world than we could expect. It is set in the futuristic world of 2004 AD, and while it has many of the traditional trappings of SF (flying cars, an alien invasion) it has some unusual elements of its own.
It is set during a continuation of the Cold War, with ‘weapons fashion designers' on both sides vying to outdo each other in creating new and bizarre weapons to threaten the other side. This being Phil K Dick, the designers can only produce their work under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Weapons research is a cornerstone of the economy, as the advanced designs are ‘ploughshared' into civilian products, and in fact their commercial use may be more important than their military value.
One trend described in the book is for precision, ‘needle-eye' weapons: "Needle-eyeification was the fundamental direction which weapons had been taking for the last half century. It meant, simply, weapons with the most precise effect conceivable. In theory it was possible to imagine a weapon… that would slay one given individual at a given instant at a given intersection in one particular city."
This is exactly the direction which modern weapons have indeed followed, from television-guided weapons to laser-guided ‘smart bombs' and more recent GPS-guided bombs and missiles. Even greater precision is on the cards, with the US Air Force researching weapons like the Advanced Tactical Laser, a high-powered beam weapon so accurate it will supposedly be able to melt the tyres of a truck without hurting anyone. Or indeed slaying a single individual at a given spot in a city without harming other around them.
Non-lethal weapons are a vital part of Dick's imagined future warfare. These include the Eastern Bloc's "Sheep dip isolator", which creates a stench so powerful that it drives people out of the area. This exactly anticipates the Pentagon's malodorant:
"The US Army wants a stink to drive away enemy troops or hostile crowds and to enforce no-go zones around sensitive military installations. It could also help peacekeeping forces keep warring factions apart by creating stench-filled exclusion zones," writes Stephanie Pain writing in New Scientist.
In the book the West's response is the ‘Garbage Can Banger', which produces an intolerable sound - "a horrid sneering sound. Buzzing." - which drives off its victims without harming them. This is remarkably like the LRAD Long Range Acoustic Device, famously used against Somali pirates in 2005. Although supposedly intended just as a super-loudhailer, it functions as a nonlethal weapon.
"They turned it on full and let them have it," said Steven Bradbury, product and development manager at American Technology Corp, the device's manufacturer. "You have a hard time shooting at somebody with both hands over your ears."
But the ultimate nonlethal weapon, according to Surley G Febbs, the book's drooling hardware enthusiast, is the fearsome "Civic notification distorter". This works by disrupting the very basis of government, the data which it relies upon. In this world of 2004, all government information is stored in triplicate or quadruplicate:
"All micro-copies, after being Xeroxed, are carried over co-axial lines to file-repositories," says Febbs. He explains how the Civic Notification Distorter is delivered by missile and then burrows into the ground and attaches itself to these lines and "diverts integers of the data, the fundamental message units, so that they no longer agree."
This type of corruption is exactly the sort of thing that the Pentagon would like to be able to unleash at will.
"The US military has assembled the world's most formidable hacker posse: a super-secret, multimillion-dollar weapons program that may be ready to launch bloodless cyberwar against enemy networks - from electric grids to telephone nets. " (Wired.)
The US claims never to have launched an offensive cyber-operation, but they have the capability: "Verton said the unit's capabilities are highly classified, but he believes they can destroy networks and penetrate enemy computers to steal or manipulate data."
This type of data manipulation is exactly what Dick was envisaging, decades before universal computerisation and the Internet. But rather than turning enemy databases into gibberish, Dick expresses the corruption in a typically surreal manner: Febbs says that the weapon would not make the victim disappear from government records, instead, they would be ‘converted.'
"Converted," Febbs said, "into a rug."
He adds that this is because "…something should remain as a reminder. So you know you achieved it. A trophy."
But perhaps the most striking piece of prophecy occurs perhaps when one of the weapon designers comes across one of his inventions that has been ‘ploughshared' and converted into a civilian application. Sitting on a coffee table is a sphere:
"This sphere was precise the size and shape of the guidance system from [weapon system] 202. Fourteen thousand minned parts… it could solve problems… to a magnitude of sixty constituents."
The weapon guidance system has been turned into "…a novelty to fill the vacant tine and brains of men and women whose jobs had degenerated into repetitious psychomotor activity on a level that a trained pigeon could better perform."
In 1961, Texas Instruments found a way to miniaturising electronic components so they could be packed into a much smaller space than previously. Their invention was incorporated into Solid Circuit Network Computer. Described as ' a microminiature digital computer utilizing semiconductor networks', this marvel was a three-hundred gram computer which did the same job as a vacuum-tube system weighing thirteen kilograms. It was designed for the US Air Forces missile program, to show that chip-based computers would be useful for guidance and telemetry, and was adopted on a massive scale for the new Minuteman nuclear ballistic missile.
At first it was assumed that this technology would be confined to the military, but as costs fell and the usefulness of the new device became obvious they became more common and moved into the civilian world. The microprocessor, more commonly known as a silicon chip, brought with it a whole new range of devices, including the personal computer and videogames.
You'll find silicon chips in your mobile phone, your dishwasher and your car, as well as your PC. But in many household, by far the most powerful computing device is one that uses its capabilities for sheer entertainment.
In Dick's book, the ploughshared guidance system is a sort of home oracle, quoting Shakespeare and Wagner. In the real world, its equivalent is the ubiquitous Playstation which uses its tremendous computing power to generate virtual worlds of adventure and mayhem.
When I was researching my book Weapons Grade, which charts the influence of military technology in the civilian world, I was repeatedly surprised at just how much of our modern technology comes from the defence sector. Computers are just the start; everything from mobile phones to airliners, from the internet to satnav systems and microwave ovens comes from the same source, in some cases quite directly.
To get some idea of how impressive Dick's feat is, you need to compare it to the competition. Dick's friend and fellow-writer Robert Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers in 1959. Unlike his hippy associate, Heinlein was very much a military man, having served for several years in the US Navy any doing aeronautical engineering work for the military during WWII. Heinlein was a nuts-and-bolts SF writer who cared about getting the science right.
The plot of Starship Troopers follows new recruit Juan Rico through basic training and into combat with all the firepower that the 22nd century can provide. Rico enters battle in a heavy armoured spacesuit, equipped with servomotors giving him superhuman strength, and with built-in jets to fly short distances.
In the film version of Starship Troopers (1997), director Paul Verhoeven made some points about the aggressive militaristic government described by Heinlein by including a few Nazi trimmings in the design – but not enough to put off the vital young male 16-24 demographic who wanted to see aliens getting blown up.
In the book's first action, Rico's unit stages a terror raid on an enemy city. He is armed with a rocket-launcher firing nuclear rockets ("just a pee-wee, of course, less than two kilotons nominal yield") which he uses on "a lovely big group of public buildings". As a back-up he has a hand flamer - "primarily for incendiary work, but it is a good defensive anti-personnel weapon in tight quarters". He also scatters incendiaries called ‘fire pills,' and on his back is a Y-rack which fires grenades either side of him at intervals.
This is all spectacularly off-beam, partly because Heinlein clearly has no interest in the Geneva Convention or any other limits on total war. The use of incendiary weapons on civilians ("I toasted him," Rico says of one victim) thankfully stopped being policy some time ago.
The US Army did flirt briefly with tactical nuclear weapons, including the famous Davy Crockett ‘atomic bazooka' with a range of little over a mile, which was in service from 1961-1971, but the risks of nuclear escalation outweighed any possible use and such weapons were shelved. In The Zap Gun, nuclear weapons are described as being unusable and therefore completely useless.
The powered armour is the most famous of the book's inventions, but there is no sign that it will arrive. Although there is some worked on powered exoskeletons, soldiers continue to resist armour that covers much of the body. Attempts to introduce leg, arm, and face armour in Iraq have not been successful: it's simply too heavy and cumbersome to be useful. Troops would prefer to stay flexible and mobile. Anything that prevents you from getting out of a burning vehicle in a hurry, or which impairs your ability to hit the dirt when the shooting starts, is likely to be unpopular with the ground troops.
The jet pack was also an early Sixties phenomenon, but it was never going to find favour with the infantry for the same reason. On a battlefield the priority is to stay low and keep your head down. A device that carries you high into the air and makes you a highly visible target for every enemy for miles is not a good idea in a firefight.
(Entertainingly, Heinlein did foresee that the military would use psychics who would use their powers of ESP to map out enemy positions. He did not predict that the psychic spy project be a laughing stock which was closed down for lack of results.)
Generally though, there is a huge difference between Heinlein's wars, with mass destruction inflicted in indiscriminate fashion by human soldiers, and Dick's, where precision ‘needle-eye' strikes are carried out by unmanned systems equipped with their own guidance. While both of them bear some resemblance to modern reality, Dick's strikes the truer note on almost all counts.
The vision of an economy driven by technology derived from the military is a crucial one. Although it was a natural extension of the ‘military industrial complex' invoked by Eisenhower in 1961, it is this technology factor that has produced some of the biggest transformations in the world since then. Everything from nuclear power to mobile phones to cheap air travel comes from the same sector.
As Dick presciently points out, only the military can dream up completely bizarre ideas ("Hey, let's build a spacecraft powered by atomic explosions!") and then fund their transformation into working products. This can lead to some peculiar outcomes worthy of Dick himself – depleted uranium counterweights for aircraft must have made sense to someone, and whoever thought the Hummer was supposed to be a city car?
But there's more.
In one of the book's many twists, it turns out that the weapons fashion designers are not imagining new ideas themselves, they are channelling ideas from an obscure individual: a pulp science fiction writer. And not just any science fiction writer, an insane one: "without electroshock and thalamic suppressors he would be in a complete autistic schizophrenic withdrawal." Dick himself was diagnosed as being schizophrenic in his teens.
This leads to the interesting notion that Dick did not just foresee the current trend in military technology as create it. Perhaps he anticipated that future weapons designers would unconsciously pick up the thoughts from his brain and turn them into physical reality. And that this technology would then form the basis of the world we live in, including the Internet over which you are reading this.
And if this is the case, are we all now living inside a book written by Phil K Dick…?
Maybe not. But The Zap Gun, like his other works, is well worth a read.