Thursday 23 July 2020
Victims of The Zap Gun (Philip K Dick, 1967)
I am now reading some of the more minor works of Philip K Dick, most recently The Zap Gun from 1967. I bought and read this in, I think, 1984; expecting very little based upon its title and the cover illustration - I assumed it would be some kind of fighting adventure... Nothing of the kind!
All I could remember about the book until I took it up again a few days ago; was that it was surprisingly good, and surprisingly thought-provoking - and indeed that is the case. It is classic PKD territory, written at the height of his powers - and it is Not about a zap gun! - or, at least, the 'deadly' weapon turns-out to be very different from a gun, and very relevant for our current malaise.
The world of The Zap Gun is one in which a cognitive elite ('cogs') rules the masses - pursaps, or 'poor saps' - by a version of the 1984 strategy of pretending perpetual war between Western and Eastern blocs. But this war is in fact a permanent state of mutual deterrence, secretly agreed by the governments, who pretend to be continually developing deadly anti-personnel, tactical weapons.
The process involves using rare individuals who have the psychic or mystical ability to go into a trance and return with accurate illustrations. These are made into blueprints and then fake weapons; shown to the masses via faked videos of them having terrible effects on human-lookalike androids.
The fake-weapons are always something else that is either useful (e.g. a household artefact) or amusing (a game), and this is reverse engineered from the plans; and the technology is 'plowshared' (referencing the proverb about turning swords into plowshares) into these new devices.
This situation is destabilised by the appearance of insect-like alien slavers in satellites who are incrementally taking the population of the planet - when a real weapon is needed to defeat them. Since this is a PKD novel - we never actually encounter the aliens (their nature is inferred); and the 'action' of their destructive slave raids, and their eventual defeat, are described only indirectly - happening 'off-stage'.
The surprising twist is that this alien-defeating weapon turns-out not to be any kind of gun, but a maze game toy; a toy made by an animated figure in a maze who cannot ever escape.
The game player comes (by a telepathic empathic field) to identify with the creature in the toy maze; and with trying to help it escape this unsolvable, because pre-emptively shifting, maze. The earth maze toy was originally manufactured with only a mild empathic field, to function as an enjoyable, educative pastime.
But to make it a weapon, the strength of the empathic involvement is amped-up. The mazes are put into the possession of the alien creatures, who cannot resist trying-out the game, by which they are quickly trapped in the endless, changing loop or this artifical world from which escape is impossible. The invaders soon lapse into a cut-off, psychotic state; and the invasion is defeated.
This maze game now seems exactly like an allegory for the many hand-held 'entertainments' of recent decades, beginning with the 'Game Boy' devices in the 1980s, and culminating in the smart phone - by a process of empathic amplification...
But of course this was actually PKD using his own remarkable intuitive 'precog' abilities to foresee and describe how individually- and socially-lethal such technology could be in a spiritually-empty world that has no motivating values higher than personal comfort, convenience and distraction.