1/9/13

The Unteleported Man by Philip K Dick (1964)

“The Unteleported Man” is a quick read - barely 100 pages. It has the best mix of Philip Dick’s science fiction ideas balanced against his paranoid visions of the future. Set in 2014, Dick’s estimate of a world crowded with 7 billion people is surprisingly accurate. In the story, Rachmael ben Appelbaum is the heir of the Appelbaum corporation, a multi-million dollar space ship line that went broke almost overnight on the day that Dr. Sepp von Einem invented teleportation. Quickly, the Trails of Hoffman Limited company discovers a planet around a distant star and starts providing services for people who want to emigrate to this new garden of Eden. Unfortunately, due to the way the universe works, teleportation is one way - people can emigrate but they can’t return. Under the stress of this new competitor, Appelbaum is forced to liquidate his father’s company, except for the flagship of their fleet, the Omphalos. This ship could make the trip to Formalhaut IX in eighteen years, and Appelbaum plans to become the “unteleported man” of the title, except he can’t get some parts for the life support system. They are only manufactured by his nemesis Trails of Hoffman Limited. Luckily, he gains support from Earth’s largest private security service, LIES, Incorporated, and he tries to get the parts through subterfuge.

The “one way” teleportation idea is interesting. Dick seems to have a fascination with this theme, and he plays with it in various ways in his books. In “The Crack in Space” he also uses teleportation, but the return trip is guaranteed. But in “A Maze of Death” all the characters travel by disposable “nosers” - rockets that only travel one way and then are useless. In other books, like “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” and “Now Wait For Last Year,” it’s a drug trip. Once the person has taken the drug they are addicted, and possibly still undergoing the experiences of the drug at all times, so there’s no return from this trip. Of course, death is the ultimate trip, that “undiscovered country,” which Dick also plays with in “Counter-Clock World” where the old-birth revive in their graves, live life, and then return to the womb.

Dick also uses this one-way trip to explore people’s faith. Would you step into a chamber based on the faith that there’s an Eden waiting for you on the other side? How bad would this world have to be before you considered the trip? The correlations to the Nazi concentration camp showers / gas chambers are chilling. Yet, he manages to create a story where this is plausible.


I have to wonder how well Dick’s references to Nazi Germany work in the 21st century? When he was writing “Unteleported Man” World War II was only 19 years in the past, whereas we are now almost 50 years from when the novel was written. We have the benefit of seeing his future, so it’s hard to reconcile the belief that German culture would exist in 2014 much the same way it existed when the book was first written in 1964.

Despite its shorter length, the story is packed with fun sci-fi details. For example, the creditor balloon that annoys Appelbaum at the beginning (similar to the Theodorous Nitz advertising fly in “The Simulacra.”), literally hanging over his head in an attempt to shame him into paying his debts. There are several action scenes, so laser cannon, bone marrow melting guns, and time-warping weapons all get a chance to be described and then used against someone. Speaking of action, one passage particularly interested me: an agent of LIES, Inc. named Al Dosker is helping Rachmael ben Appelbaum transmit the secret of what they found out about the secret of the the Telpor planet. They are in a tense situation where another spaceship is trying to destroy them, yet Dick pauses the action to explain how the secret message is encoded.
“We started out by flipping a coin for each letter of the alphabet. Tails made it zero or gate-shut; heads means one or gate-open. It’s either zero or one; that’s the binary computer’s modus operandi. Then we invented fifty message-units which describe possible conditions on the other side; the messages were constructed in such a way that each consisted of a unique sequence of ones and zeroes...there is nothing intrinsic in this binary sequence that can be decoded, because it simply acts as one of the fifty unique signals known to our box...”

This passage reminds of the scene in “A Scanner Darkly” where they describe how to make cocaine from Solarcaine. It’s probably not likely to work, but it sounds really plausible and I’m captured by the idea that it might work. I guess that sums up most of what I like of the books of PKD: they’re not likely, but I like the idea.

In 1984, after Dick's death, an expanded version of this story was published as "Lies, Inc."

From inside flap of “The Unteleported Man”
Nobody would go to the stars the long way when you could travel to your new planetary Utopia the instant-teleportation way. That is, nobody reasonable would want to spend eighteen long years in a spaceship just to be stubborn about electronic transit.
Which is what made Rachmael ben Applebaum such a thorn in the side of the giant industrial combines that had made the Telpor what it was. Because Rachmael was all set to head for Newcolonizedland by his own starship -- alone.
But just being eccentric and a doubter would hardly justify the incredible concentration of effort to prevent his trip. The Unteleported Man suspected he was on the track of a secret too dangerous to get out -- even after an eighteen year journey.
Yet even he did not guess him terrifyingly right he was!