Androids, Solipsism, and Abyssal Idleness: Inactivity in Philip K. Dick, by Matthew Englund

Stasis and idleness share a connotation of inactivity, a terminal slowness that seems to place each in opposition to the possibility of action. What this apparent synonymy hides however is the opposition that lies in the etymological heritage of these terms. Stasis is a kind of situated inertia or a state of equilibrium that necessarily calls attention to the system or frame within which movement has become arrested. Such an equilibrium, when it obtains for an individual, results in the imposition of inactivity, as the system of power that governs the static individual determines both how one may function within it and the limits of one’s resistance to it. This is expressed in the more obscure definition of stasis as a civil disturbance within the Greek city-state. In this sense of the word, the city-state is brought into a state of disequilibrium by factions within it, but the city-state itself remains the context within which such strife takes place. Any resistance that an individual or group might offer operates within the system of power that is the object of the struggle. Any movement or change that may obtain as a result of such a struggle would be superficial because the persistence of the city-state itself is overdetermined by the nature of the conflict. The equilibrium or disequilibrium that situates the inactivity of stasis become comprehensible only with reference to the system within which such inactivity obtains.

The etymological underpinnings of idle, however, are abyssal. The oldest, now obscure, meaning of idle to the Oxford English Dictionary is “empty, vacant, and void (of).” Later, more common usages are likewise negative: unemployed, without occupation, without purpose, lacking in meaningful value. It is precisely because of this that idleness offers the condition of possibility for escape from the state power or imperious rationality that has conferred upon the idle subject of this emptiness. The void of idleness leaves this subject unfixed by its inactivity. To be idle is to be insignificant or meaningless, unemployed and therefore without value. Negativity is the essential connotation of the word in its many uses, and it is this negativity that leaves the inactivity of idleness undetermined. Because this indefiniteness obtains in the condition idleness, it emerges as the ideal position from which one may escape structures of power that asserts a model of reality as reality itself.

A comparative study of Philip K. Dick’s novels and stories reveals a sustained concern with the distorting influence wielded by systems of power and the extent to which an individual may struggle against such influence. Dick’s narratives often begin with an abject figure who has been coerced into inactivity—either by a syndrome of power so ubiquitous that transformation appears impossible or through the weight of his own neuroses—and the dynamism of such a character is a function of his or her ability to transform apparent immobility and powerlessness into a substantive transformation of his or her relation to, or understanding of, the world. The success or failure of these attempted transformations can be expressed in terms of the etymological opposition of stasis and idleness. This opposition is founded upon Dick’s deep mistrust of deterministic systems and an ontology whose highest ideal is creative production and individual transformation. Though instances of these two types of inactivity can be found throughout Dick’s large body of work, the present remarks will be limited to four novels of the 1960s— Martian Time-Slip, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Galactic Pot-Healer, and Maze of Death. These four novels fall within Dick’s most productive period which is also the period of his output when he was most centrally concerned with the reality distorting influence of systems of power seeking to render its subjects inactive or ineffectual. When taken together this quartet of novels illuminate the essential difference of idleness and stasis as Dick makes use of them.

The threat of stasis in Dick is equivalent to an ossification of being that is opposed to the stochasticity of becoming. This threat emerges in one of two ways. The first is a turning inward upon oneself, a kind of terminal solipsism in which the individual achieves the equilibrium of stasis by shutting out the balance of the world. In this model the shared world, or in Dick’s terminology the koinos kosmos, is rejected in favor of a withdrawal into the autotextual fantasies of the idios kosmos, the world of the individual. The problem of this withdrawal is that without the provocations of a sometimes difficult and intransigent world, change is no longer necessary and so ceases to obtain. In his 1962 novel Martian Time-Slip Dick has his protagonist, Jack Bohlen, make just such a reflection, as the static self appears as a figure of psychosis and death:

Now I can see what psychosis is: the utter alienation of perception from the objects of the outside world, especially the objects which matter: the warmhearted [sic] people there. And what takes their place? A dreadful preoccupation with—the endless ebb and flow of one’s own self […] It is the stopping of time. The end of experience, of anything new. Once a person becomes psychotic, nothing new ever happens to him again. (170)

This stopping of time is the self in stasis, a rejection of the conflict that necessarily characterizes the experience of a shared world, and the stasis that obtains in psychosis is here explicitly identified as equivalent to death.

It is significant then that this tropism is all too frequently the threat that is posed by the figure of the Dickian demiurge, a figure that seeks to replace the aleatoric transformations of reality with a hyperreality that is abhorred because of its rigid stillness. In Dick’s other Martian novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the eponymous antagonist seeks to wrest the living essence from his victims by replacing the koinos kosmos with an endless succession of self-created and self-perpetuating fantasies. One of the novel’s viewpoint characters, Barney Mayerson, finds himself trapped in one of Eldritch’s worlds and attempts to relive again and again a crucial moment of his past in order to revise it, to get it right. He cannot do so, however, either because of the fixity of the past or because of his own neurotic resistances and discovers that he may only live through it again and again. When he discovers this, Eldritch offers him stasis in another form, to become a dead dog in a ditch, by which he means to become Eldritch himself at the moment of his own promised end. The static rigidity that Eldritch offers to Mayerson, first as the opportunity to revise his past and subsequently to take Eldritch’s place, is in each case an expression of the death drive, the desire for the inertial stillness of non-being.

In the cases of Jack Bohlen’s reflection on mental illness, and Mayerson’s struggles against the irreal worlds of Palmer Eldritch, the emergence of stasis as an outcome occurs as a result of the overdetermination of self, specifically in its relation to time. Mayerson ultimately escapes his fate because he is able to recognize the impossibility of transformation in such a repetition—he wishes to be otherwise and rejects the temptation of Palmer Eldritch in favor of the dynamic uncertainty of the koinos kosmos. Jack Bohlen reflects on the hellish quality of such a frozen world, as the overdetermination of a self turned upon itself arrests any possibility of difference. This is exemplified in the figure of Manfred Steiner in Martian Time-Slip, the autistic boy that Bohlen is tasked with reconnecting with the world. In the eponymous time-slip that is the novel’s climax, Bohlen, his boss Arnie Kott, and his mistress Doreen Anderton relive a confrontation several times over as Manfred, through his contaminating influence, attempts to revise its unfortunate consequences, but this repetition changes only superficial differences and does not substantively affect its outcome.

Mayerson too, while he is in Eldritch’s worlds, has open to him possibilities that are limited only by his imagination, but chooses to return to moments from his past in an attempt to reconcile with his ex-wife. His desire to revise these moments is frustrated because he returns to the past as he was then, without the benefit of hindsight. The only clue he obtains that the world he experiences is irreal is the unnervingly ubiquitous presence of Eldritch himself, who regards Mayerson’s regressive desire as perverse (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch 169). The fantasy that competes with Eldritch for primacy over the Martian colonists is offered by the Perky Pat layouts and the drug Can-D that facilitates their use. The Can-D fantasies enfigure static repetitiveness not as open worlds but as an endless, mindless California Saturday into which the colonists may briefly escape from the wasteland of Mars. In both the Can-D and Chew-Z experiences, stasis takes the form of addiction, but the metaphor embedded in the colonists’ chemical dependency comments on the fantasies that are offered by those in positions of power in order to lure those in their thrall away from difficult realities and into an easy, empty dream. Mayerson’s rejection of both fantasies at the end of the novel closes his narrative on a primarily positive note, but the sudden and ubiquitous appearance of Eldritch’s stigmata throughout the star-system mitigate this by the implication that there has been and will be no escape from static fantasies Eldritch has loosed upon the world.

Fantastic involutions of reality are not the only means through which the powerful may exert themselves in order to render the individual incapable of action. Most potent among these other means is what Dick calls the androidization of the individual. The stasis of solipsism begins as a resignation to the difficulties of shared existence and ends in a self-terminating withdrawal into the phantasmagoria of an idios kosmos that shares nothing in common with the world at large. Androidization is a capitulation of free action and thought to the determinations that found the rationality of systems that seek total control. To become androidized is to assimilate oneself into a system of dissimulating power that posits itself as the first and final rationality of the world. In Dick’s own words from the 1972 speech “The Android and the Human”:

Becoming what I call, for lack of a better term, an android, means … to allow oneself to become a means, or to be pounded down, manipulated, made into a means without one’s knowledge or consent—the results are the same … Androidization requires obedience. And, most of all, predictability. It is precisely when a given person’s responses to any given situation can be predicted with scientific accuracy that the gates are open for the wholesale production of the android life form. (191, emphasis original)

It is this figure of the human denatured by a deterministic programmaticity that Dick opposes to the ideally human ethos. The android is problematic for Dick because its behaviors fall exclusively within the codified rationality of the structures of power that assail the essentially human on every side.

There is a strong humanist emphasis in Dick’s work but the human essence itself is something that always defies strict definition precisely because to act humanly is to resist the androidizing influences that are the tools of regimes of power that would replace such behaviors with programmatic predictability. In “The Android and the Human,” Dick’s answer to the question of what is human is twofold. On the one hand, there is the totally irrational employment of the faculty of empathy in which the individual breaches the limits of the self in order to stand in the place of another through techniques of representational substitution. Solipsistic withdrawal precludes this substitution and so robs the individual of his or her humanity. It is because of this that such a withdrawal is treated as an existential threat in Dick. The other essential component of an ideally human ethos involves a perverse unpredictability that, in this particular essay, appears as a kind of illogical unlawfulness with a special emphasis of disobedience for its own sake. The nature of such resistance acts as a reminder to those among us that have not yet become androids that, though the regimes of power that seek to bring us into stable equilibrium within their deterministic framework may claim to have exhaustively codified the contents of the world, there are things that lie outside of their static models of programmaticity.

The idle protagonist is also a common figure in Dick’s fiction precisely because of this same volatile stochasticity. The idle man is without meaning, without signification, without use-value to the global capitalistic superstructures that govern life in a Dickian future and because of this he largely escapes notice in these universally surveillant societies. Additionally, the idle man is frequently idle not by choice but because of the structures of power that have forgotten him or have simply left for him no place in which to ply his trade. The desperation that is the result of his enforced inactivity gives rise to the special attention he pays to the lines of flight that are offered him when they arise. Stasis is very often an end in Dick’s work, both in terms of its expression as a terminal solipsism and as the transformation of the individual into a means for another’s ends in the process of androidization. Idleness is, on the other hand, a deceptively fruitful beginning for Dick’s characters. This is the case not only because such characters lie outside the synthetic rationality of androidized state structures, but also because such characters, in spite of their despair, remain engaged with the world that has left them without purpose and occupation rather than retreating into a self-imposed fantasy. Idle characters in Dick’s fiction are capable of revolutionary change, for themselves if not for the world as a whole, because they are so thoroughly abject that they are unworthy of the attention of the surveillant power structures that dominate such worlds.

The archetype of the idle figure can be found in Dick’s 1969 novel Galactic Pot-Healer in the character of Joe Fernwright. Fernwright heals pots and is able to employ his chosen craft only when called to do so by another. But all the pots have been healed and there is no more work to do, and so for seven months he has languished unoccupied, surviving on the government dole and frittering away his time on games that he has devised together with other idle cubicle dwellers around the world. The opening lines of the novel make it clear that this is an individual who is defined by the work that he does, identifying his occupation in the first line of the novel but not deigning to give him a name until the third paragraph.

During his idle time at his work station, Fernwright occupies himself with the Game, a diversion that is constructed around the derangement and reconstitution of meaning. The structure of the Game takes as its basis the coincident difficulties of idiomatic expression and machine translation. Fernwright and his fellow players feed the titles of popular culture artifacts into a Japanese translation computer, record the audio translation, and retranslate the result back into English. In the course of this process The Great Gatsby becomes “the Lattice Work Gun-Stinging Insect”, The Sun Also Rises becomes “The Male Offspring In Addition Gets Out of Bed” and Ernest Hemingway becomes “Serious Constricting Path” (8). The void of idleness for these underemployed office drones is transformed into a process of the destruction and reconstitution of meaning. This in itself is significant and illuminates an important component of the despair that is the result of enforced idleness in Dick’s fiction, while hinting at what is necessary if Fernwright is to escape from the inertia of inactivity. What is at issue in Galactic Pot-Healer is an ethos in which productivity is central, but it is a productivity that lies outside conventional understandings of use-value. In the game, the players take something familiar and transform it into something that is unrecognizable so that other players may reproduce it. This is a literary version of precisely the kind of work that Fernwright now finds himself without, and occupies his idle time as he waits for his skills to be called upon.

He is called by Glimmung, a powerful alien that gathers together a corporation, to assist him in an ambitious undertaking on a distant planet. What these individuals share in common is that each among them had begun to waste away in their idleness and succumb to despair before Glimmung called to them.

Like the state imposed stasis of androidization, we find here that the idleness experienced by Dickian characters is frequently involuntary and imposed from without. Fernwright desires to work and languishes in meaningless insignificance because the skills that he has honed over a lifetime have fallen into disuse. Control is so complete in Fernwright’s world that even dreams are state-mandated and each night when he sleeps he is forced to dream the state-approved dream. In order to make use of his idle skill, Fernwright must leave the star system altogether and escape control of the androidized state that has left him devoid of self-determination.

While stasis in both the major forms that it takes in Dick’s thought is a function of the overdetermination of the individual, accomplished either by a surrender of self or the imperiousness of the state, here Fernwright’s enforced idleness leaves him wholly underdetermined as he casts about for occupation. In order to escape from his idleness and find meaning, he must escape from the system that imposes such idleness upon him. The ontology that Glimmung espouses to Fernwright is clear in its assertion that to be is to be productive, not for capitalistic or political reasons but because creative production is valuable as an end in itself:

No creature knows itself … You don’t know yourself; you don’t have any knowledge of your most basic potentials. Do you understand what the Raising will mean for you? Everything that has been latent, has been potential, in you—all of it will become actualized … You have never been, Joe Fernwright. You merely exist. To be is to do. And we will do a great thing, Joe Fernwright. (49)

Not only has Fernwright’s idleness robbed him of meaningful occupation but has also, in Glimmung’s estimation, stolen from him the possibility of even the most basic self-knowledge. In a somewhat later passage, Glimmung makes clear to Fernwright and the others that the raising of an ancient cathedral is likely to fail but that the attempt is valuable in itself because, as Glimmung says:

There is no abstract way of determining the limits of one’s own force, one’s ability to exert effort; it can only be measured in a way such as

this, a task which brings into view the actual, real limitation to my admittedly finite—but great—strength. Failure will tell me as much about myself as will success … Self-knowledge; that is what I will achieve. And so will you: each about himself. (87)

The ontology of creative production asserted by Glimmung in this novel reveals precisely why idleness serves as a beginning rather than an end in Dick’s fiction. The perceived worthlessness of an idle character like Joe Fernwright allows him to escape the notice of the universally surveillant police state in which he finds himself, and this underdetermination is experienced as unlimited potential as he begins to emerge from inactivity.

Both Glimmung and Fernwright nominally fail in their task. Glimmung does not raise the great cathedral, and Fernwright, who departs from Glimmung’s company following this failure, attempts to create a pot of his own. “The pot was awful” (177) is the final line of the novel, punctuating the near certainty of failure for these characters that have set out to escape the idleness that has attempted to thwart them. But out of Fernwright’s failure emerges a renewed sense of perseverance. Stirred from his idleness to activity, Fernwright discovers that significance is not a transcendental constant that is conferred from on high but something that must be produced. The potential for such activity is something that may only emerge from the underdetermination of idleness lest it becomes the overdetermined equilibrium of stasis.

This distinction is only made clearer in the novel that Dick wrote immediately after Galactic Pot-Healer, 1970’s Maze of Death. In this text, fourteen people find themselves gathered together on a remote planet called Delmak-O. The novel’s primary viewpoint character, Seth Morley, is one of the last to arrive and when he does he finds that the rest of those who have been brought to this planet have waited for him to illuminate their reason for having been gathered, to rescue them from their idleness. As one of the colonists tells him shortly following his arrival “we have one vast fear, and that is this: there is no purpose to us being here, and we’ll never be able to leave” (28). When they attempt to discover the nature of their intended employment on this planet, the radio through which they are intended to communicate suffers a terminal malfunction and the meaning of their time on Delmak-O remains unclear. They then begin a series of interpretative experiments seemingly designed to, if not uncover the significance of sequestration on Delmak-O, then to outright produce a purpose for themselves. As was the case in Galactic Pot-Healer, the idleness of the congregation on Delmak-O leads directly to an attempt to actively create meaning and significance out of the underdetermined void in which they find themselves.

What distinguishes Maze of Death from Galactic Pot-Healer is that where in the latter we found that the dominant movement in the narrative was from idleness to productivity, and that it was precisely because of Fernwright’s idleness within the putative stasis of his globally disciplinary society that allowed him to escape, the latter presents us with a narrative in which the movement is from idleness to stasis, and it is the despairing sense of imprisonment that is the result of this that gives the novel’s conclusion its bleak tone. Once they have exhausted all other interpretative possibilities, what the residents of Delmak-O discover is that the content of their experience on the planet is in fact a collective fantasy and that they are instead the crew of a spaceship, the Persus 9, marooned in orbit around a dead star and despairing of the possibility of rescue. What had appeared to be an underdetermined purposelessness and a consequent attempt to produce meaning is in fact the overdetermination of a slow dwindling death, mitigated only by a series of wish-fulfillment fantasies that the Persus 9 crew have designed as a bulwark against madness and the crushing despair of their circumstance.

As an escape from the literal stasis of their stable orbit around a dead star and the figurative stasis of an inescapable imprisonment the Persus 9 crew chooses fantasies of meandering idleness. As they plan their next fantasy only one among them, Seth Morley, removes himself in order to reflect on futility of their situation and to pray for a more substantive and permanent escape from their predicament. Such an opportunity is presented to him when a divine entity from the fantasy world that he has just left appears to him—escaping from the fantasy or perhaps indicating how productive the idle fantasy had in fact been—and offers to him the opportunity to have a prayer answered. The choice that Morley makes is pointedly human because it appears unexpectedly, but it is tragic also because Morley exchanges one form of stasis for another, as Morley rejects the overdetermination of his unfortunate circumstance for the inward turning solipsism identified above as death in another form. It is only Morley, however, who chooses stasis over idleness, and perhaps the most tragic moment of this conclusion is when his wife, failing to find him aboard the ship, enters the fantasy with the balance of the crew and as it begins to take hold, the memories of her husband gradually disappear. She and the rest set off again in search of the illusion of something new, a fantasy that offers the illusion of productive significance. This ambivalent ending is a demonstration of the opposition of idleness and stasis, and a dramatization of the tension between these two states of inactivity in Dick’s conception of androidization and acting humanly. Even the illusion of idleness is preferable to the unproductive drudgery of stasis because idleness holds out the possibility that meaning and significance might be produced, while stasis offers only rigid stillness from which there is no escape.


Works cited

Dick, Philip K. “The Android and the Human.” The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. Ed. Lawrence Sutin. New York: Vintage, 1995. 183-210.

—. Galactic Pot-Healer. New York: Vintage, 1994.

—. Martian Time-Slip. New York: Vintage, 1995.

—. Maze of Death. New York: Vintage, 1994.

—. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. New York: Vintage, 1991.

“Idle, adj. and n.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 6 September, 2013.

Leave a Reply