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.

Spoilers follow...

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.


k johnson said...

Hi, Dr. Charlton. I was born in the early 80's, so I can definitely relate to the kind of entrapment that video games seem to do (I used to be quite into them). The simulation tends to take over your consciousness and literally limits it. Video games are only as complex as the engines or consols can make them. Open world, free roaming video games are quite popular these days, and it's easy to see where this can go. The programming will eventually be more and more complex, and will seemingly simulate REAL life. Now, I'm curious how this looks from an Anthroposophical view (I found your blog through a search on Steiner, by the way). Could it be said that the programming, the illusion, is Ahrimanic and the effect is Luciferic? It feels as though the end game (no pun intended) of these simulation games, is a type of homunculi who's body is practically inert and the mind is completely entrapped in this illusory world... one of Steiner's harrowing cautions for our present time.

I've never met anyone who feels invigorated and lively after a binge session of playing video games, only drained and somewhat "soulless" (for lack of a better way to say it), temporarily.

Side note: Would love to hear your take on PKD's "Our Friends From Frolix 8." Also seems quite relevant today with the filtration of knowledge happening.

Bruce Charlton said...

@k - Your take on video games is pretty much how I would understand them. It is the Luciferic which draws people in, and them the Ahrimanic which locks them there. Or, this is an essentially Ahrimanic/ bureaucratic world, that uses our instinct and impulses to grow and strengthen the system.

BTW I am not 'an anthroposophist', and I tend to take selective aspects of Steiner and develop them in light of my own rather different basic beliefs from Steiner's. This is the case with Ahrimanic and Luciferic, and the role of Christ. Steiner sees these on a kind of scale, wit hChrist in the middle, but I regard that as wrong.

A and L are two general types of evil (types that Steiner distinguished brilliantly and originally) but I understand evil as the opposite (opposers) of Good. Good is the side of God and creation, evil is the side against God and creation.

I haven't yet got around to Frolix 8. I am currently listining to Counter-Clock World. Next on the list is probably Clans of the Alphane Moon, then maybe Frolix.

k johnson said...

Yes, there very much is the drawing in and locking aspect in games. And simulating certain scenarios that most, with some kind of moral compass, wouldn't do in real life. It may seem extreme to call it evil in our current popular belief, but it definitely does oppose what is good!

Regarding Steiner's views on Ahriman, Lucifer, and Christ. I understand the scale concept, and even his prediction of an actual incarnation of Ahriman sometime in this millennium.. but I have to admit, I honestly don't understand why Christ is a balance between two evils (according to him, and which is supposed to be 'good?').

Thank you for your reply!

Epimetheus said...

How did this man come up with such ideas? Downright prophetic.

Used to be heavily into videogames myself. At some point I couldn't successfully suspend disbelief - couldn't help but sense that the maze was only a maze. I think videogames are appealing because they simulate things Western Men are starving for: war, hunting, struggle, brotherhood, creativity, conquest, achievement etc, not to mention the kind of free-wheeling decision-making that's denied us by the totalitarian bureaucracies.

Chent said...

I read a comment on the Internet (I don't know where, it may have been here). The comment said that the purpose of these simulations (mass media, social media, virtual reality, etc) is for the people to live a normal real life, while having a degenerate virtual life.

The rationale was that you cannot have a society with people behaving in anti-social ways, because the society would collapse. You need a minimum degree of virtue so the society can keep on existing.

But you can have people behaving externally with virtue while being sinful in their minds (for example, a husband who is monogamous in real life but he has virtual sex with a virtual female character using a virtual reality device). This way, you get all the sin you want without the external consequences of sin. You can have Ahrimanic good performance with Luciferic sin.

This blew my mind. I had never thought that. I have always expected this society to collapse because its sinful ways but a design like that this last indefinitely.

Bruce Charlton said...

Society will collapse, one way or another. Indeed, it has already collapsed. What matters is salvation and theosis, the spiritual side. I am trying not to be distracted by speculating about exact details of material conditions during and post collapse.