The Simulacra by Philip K Dick (1964)

Philip K Dick’s novel “The Simulacra” is set in 2041, fifty years after West Germany joined the US as the fifty-first state of the Union. Society is controlled by the Geheimnis, called Ges, the infocratic elite who know the secret: the current president of the USEA is a robot known as Der Alte, just as previous presidents have also been simulacrum for nearly the past half-century. The true leadership lies with the pretty first lady, Nicole Thibodeaux, who not only directs policy, but also holds “American Idol”-like TV broadcasts to promote new cultural ideas and shape the morals of the country.

The instigating event for “The Simulacra” is the McPhearson act, which outlaws psychoanalysis in favor of chemical treatment. One psychiatrist, however, Dr. Egon Superb is allowed to continue practicing. He’s told by a representative from the government that they have used their time-travel machines to discover that he will fail to treat a patient, and that will have a significant effect on the path of history.

The novel follows the threads of some of the people who eventually end up seeing Dr. Superb. Vince Strikerock is a Ge who works at Karp und Sohnen, while his brother Chic is a salesman for Frauenzimmer Associates, a competing company that builds simulacra as companions for moon colonists. Ian Duncan lives in the same building as the Strikerock’s, and his goal is to reunite with his partner Al Miller so their classical jug band can perform at Nicole’s White House concerts. Al Miller, however, works Loony Luke, who owns the Jalopy Jungle lots - an enterprise slightly outside of the law that provides cheap rockets to people who want to escape the heavy-handed Earth government. Meanwhile, Nat Flieger has made a pilgrimage to the home of Richard Kongrosian, the telekinetic pianist, in hopes of recording some new must for his record company.

As if this isn’t enough plot, Dick decides to pack more element into the mix: Nicole’s government has an ornate plan to use their time-travel device bring Herman Goering from the past to use against the Sons of Job. The side effect, they hope, will be a collapse of Hitler's third reich, saving thousands of Jews. Meanwhile, the shadowy leader of the Sons of Job, Bertold Goltz, has somehow appropriated some time-travel machinery and is using it to stay one step ahead of Nicole and her government.

Like “The Man in the High Castle” and “Martian Time-Slip,” “The Simulacra” is an excellent example of Dick’s early 60’s work where he was trying to write a novel that also happened to be science fiction. Of the three, “High Castle” is the best example, while “Time-Slip” tended to be more experimental, and suffered from that. “The Simulacra” works, but Dick packed it so full of ideas that instead of the story unfolding, it tends to snap and pop open, making it feel less natural than “High Castle.”

In “Vulcan’s Hammer” and “The World Jones Made” the stories involved cults based on charismatic leaders, but “The Simulacra” is the first time he directly uses Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in the story. Of course, being science fiction, Dick can make up something like the Von Lessinger time-travel equipment, and then bring Goering directly into the story. Also, considering the amount of research that must have gone into “High Castle,” it’s not surprising that Dick would want to reuse the Nazis, perhaps bringing them into the future, which is exactly what he’s done by creating Der Alte, the artificial leader of the USEA.

The papoola bothers me. First, everyone in the story knows that the actual papoolas are extinct, yet they still like this artificial one. Second, everyone knows that they are being persuaded artificially by the papoola, yet they still go with it. Is the papoola like advertising? I’d have to say: No. In fact, for Dick it seems like advertising is more insidious, more like the Theodorous Nitz commercial that infiltrates the car. A bug that gets to you, no matter where you are, and then delivers its message in a vile way. PDK has many examples of this sort of infiltration: the public shamer in “The Unteleported Man,” or the juveniles - mechanical insect spies - who expose Allen Purcell’s acts in “The Man Who Japed,” or even the flying spy extensions of “Vulcan’s Hammer.” But the papoola isn’t invasive or evil, it seems to be liked by everyone. What inspired Dick to create the papoola? In an interview Dick says that he thinks the papoola’s ultimate scene is “funny matter, because it's a comic tragedy and a tragic comedy. That they have pinned all their hopes on this moment and then this little animal which normally is completely benign, suddenly takes it into its head to bite the first lady.” So, perhaps the papoola is humor, that thing which everyone likes, but it can be used subversively, and it can bite you when you least expect it. PKD has a fair amount of humor in his books, but it’s often so tongue-in-cheek that some people may miss the punchlines.

Let’s take a moment to talk about the title: “The Simulacra,” which is the plural form of the latin word “simulacrum.” According to Wikipedia it means “likeness” or “similarity", and “was first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century, used to describe a representation, such as a statue or a painting, especially of a god. By the late 19th century, it had gathered a secondary association of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original.” Dick spends a lot of time in his books working with ersatz environments and people. In his (undelivered) essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later,” he says

“what I consider important. I can't claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time. The two basic topics which fascinate me are "What is reality?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?" Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?”

But what I find especially interesting is a comment he makes later in the essay:

“In my writing I got so interested in fakes that I finally came up with the concept of fake fakes. For example, in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feel when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces. For instance, suppose the Matterhorn turned into a genuine snow-covered mountain? What if the entire place, by a miracle of God's power and wisdom, was changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, into something incorruptible? They would have to close down.”

In “The Simulacra” the Ges know that Der Alte is an ersatz leader, an android. But the true secret of leadership is that Nicole is also a false leader, placed there as a figurehead. Even so, she has power on a daily basis, and when the government is threatened she takes the initiative to act as a leader. The fake leader becomes an actual leader.

I haven’t read much Baudrillard, the famous postmodern philosopher who wrote “Simulacra and Simulation” and many other books, but in my cursory research, although Baudrillard doesn’t mention Dick, he is following the same idea: that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right -- the hyperreal.

Because “The Simulacra” is so packed with ideas, and also because of the way Dick seems to take the oblique path to humor, it’s worth reading the novel more than once. At first you will see the simulation, an imitation of a novel, cached in science fiction. But subsequently, you will find a story of humans, working toward their ambitions despite the science fiction world.

From the back of the 1970's Ace edition:

This is a novel of some very extraordinary people in the very extraordinary world of the 21st Century.
They include a striking beauty who had ruled the White House for nearly a century, a pianist who played without touching the keyboard, the world’s last practicing psychiatrist, a rabble-rousing time traveler, and a host of other men, women, simulacra, “chuppers,” and conniving things, all meshed together in an intricately plotted novel of idea and counter-idea, action and reaction.
It’s a Philip K Dick story of the future, a steady pyrotechnic display such as has made its author a top-rate Hugo Winner.


How to Solve Any Problem: Divide and Conquer

Today I read a LinkedIn article titled "Be A Hero: Five Steps to Vanquish Any Problem."  It seems to promise a lot: how to be a hero, how to not only solve problems, but to vanquish them.  With that sort of promise, I had to check it out. 

The problem with the article, however, is that it doesn't  this isn't really "how to solve a problem." This is an inspirational piece about leadership, but it only provides half the information needed to get to a solution.

I agree with steps 1, 2 and 3.  They are saying: 
  1. There is a problem
  2. One person should be in charge of solving this problem
  3. The solution should be stated as a positive outcome.  Saying what you want to avoid is insufficient.
But he leaves out the mechanics of solving the problem.  Assuming #5, "Failure is not an option," he doesn't give you any path to achieve a solution.  I'm assuming the problem is complex, and probably something large enough that it can't be "solved" in a day.  How does one begin to approach a solution?

As I see it, here are the steps to solving an problem::
  • Define the problem. Try to consider all perspectives on this problem.
  • Envision a range of solutions, from necessary to ultimate. Dream a little.
  • From this range of solutions, decide what's an acceptable solution.
  • Decompose the problem into smaller, more manageable problems.
  • Repeat these steps:
    • Solve one of the smaller problems
    • Determine whether you've reached an acceptable outcome
  • Until you've reached an acceptable outcome
The secret to solving any large, complex problem is to decompose it into smaller, more manageable parts. By the way, this is essentially this is the backbone of the agile methodology known as Scrum.

In Scrum you have the product owner (the person who defines the problem) and the scrum master (the person who helps to facilitate the process).  The team defines the problem, creates a backlog of solutions, and sets the definition of done -- what's an acceptable solution.  The loop of solving smaller problems and then evaluating your progress is called a sprint.

Although Scrum is normally used with software development, it is simple and useful enough to solve any large, complex problem in the workplace.


Galactic Pot-Healer by Philip K Dick (1969)

“Galactic Pot-Healer” is one of Philip K. Dick’s more allegorical novels. Joe Fernwright is barely employed as a pot-healer -- someone who can take a broken ceramic pot and mend it to be whole. Since the advent of plastics, there’s not a lot of call for pot-healing, so instead he whiles the days away playing The Game, translating well-known book titles into foreign languages, and then back to English, challenging friends across the globe to guess the original title.

Despite his dabbling in The Game, Joe finds life empty and futile. As a way out, he has saved up enough pre-war quarters to pay for a visit to the Oracle of Cincinnati, a fortune-telling machine who can tell him what to do with his life. Unfortunately, he meets some beggars on the way, and feels compelled to give away his life savings. Despondent, he returns home where he’s contacted by the Glimmung, an extra-terrestrial, almost godlike being that lives on Sirius Five, also known as the Plowman’s Planet. The Glimmung enlists Joe to become part of an expedition to raise Heldscalla, a mystical cathedral embedded on the ocean floor of Plowman’s Planet.

Joe considers joining the expedition, but wavers in making the decision -- it would mean leaving behind Earth and everyone he knows. The Glimmung persuades him through enticement, threats, and finally by tricking the police into trying to arrest Joe, forcing him to escape to Plowman’s Planet.

Once there, the team of experts meet to plan the raising of the cathedral, but they discover there is a black Glimmung opposing the Glimmung’s efforts, as well as a submerged black cathedral lurking ominously near to Heldscalla. The two Glimmungs clash, and the experts, led by Joe and an alien female called Mali Yojez, help the Glimmung by merging in polyencephalic fusion -- a shared mind -- to give the Glimmung strength to fight the black Glimmung.

Ultimately, as predicted, they fail to raise Heldscalla, but most of the beings involved in the expedition decide to remain in fusion with the Glimmung. Only Joe and a multi-legged gastropod decide to split from the group. Joe, losing Mali to the fusion, decides to give up pot-healing, and instead turn to creating pots.

Throughout the book Dick has Joe Fernwright comparing the Glimmung to Goethe’s Faust. According to Wikipedia, the Faust story is that “Mephistopheles makes a bet with God: he says that he can lure God's favourite human being (Faust), who is striving to learn everything that can be known, away from righteous pursuits...Faust makes an arrangement with the devil: the devil will do everything that Faust wants while he is here on Earth, and in exchange Faust will serve the devil in Hell.”

If “Galactic Pot Healer” is the Faust saga in space, who is the devil? Is it the Glimmung, who promises to provide anything Joe wants as long as he will help with the quest to raise Heldscalla -- a quest which is foretold to end in failure? Or, are we to assume that Earth is hell, and Plowman’s Planet is heaven? After all, Joe Fernwright’s life on Earth is miserable: he toils at nothing all day, among the drab masses, without hope for the future. Most likely, however, the devil is the black Glimmung, amid the murky depths of the oceans on the Plowman’s Planet. Dick describes the oceanic underworld in existential terms, similar to the kipple in “Do Androids” and the gubble of “Martian Time-Slip.” As Mali explains:

"There are Glimmungs and there are Black Glimmungs. Always on a one-to-one ratio. Each individual Glimmung has his counterpart, his opaque Doppelganger. Sooner or later, during his life, he must kill his Black counterpart, or it will kill him."
"Why?" Joe said.
"Because that's the way it is. It's like asking, ‘Why is a stone?' Do you see? They--_evolved_ this way, on this strange parity basis. They are mutually exclusive, antagonistic entities, or, if you prefer, properties. Yes, properties, like chemical combinations. You see, the Black Glimmungs are not precisely alive. And yet they're not biochemically inert either. They're like malformed crystals with the formdestroying principle motivating them; tropic specifically as regards their matching Glimmung. And some say that it's not limited to Glimmungs; some say-" She broke off, staring acutely ahead. "No," she said. "Not this. Not already; not the first time."
A decaying hump of flopping fabric mingled with threads of cloth tottered toward them, propelled by the currents of murky water. It had a humanoid look, as if once, long ago, it had held itself erect, had walked on strong legs. Now it bowed from the waist, and its legs dangled as if the bones had been scooped out of them. He stared at it and it came nearer and he continued staring, because it seemed somehow to want to eddy into his vicinity... clumsily, so that its pace was slow. And yet it made progress forward. He made out its face, now.
And felt the world within him disintegrate.
"It's your corpse," Mali said. "You must understand; time down here is simply not-"
"It's blind," he said. "Its eyes-they've-rotted away. Gone. Can it see me?"
"It's aware of you. It wants-" She hesitated.
"What does it want?" he demanded, snarling at her so that she shuddered.
"It wants to talk to you," she said, then. And became totally silent; now she merely observed, merely saw. And did nothing, in either direction. She did not assist him; she did not assist his corrupted corpse. As if, he thought, she has withdrawn and is not here. I am alone with this thing.

In addition to its black doppelganger, the Glimmung also has to deal with failure as predicted by another race on the planet, the Kalends, who have a self-writing book that tells the history of Plowman’s Planet. I can’t say what 1968 influences spurred Dick to imagine this book, but from the 2013 perspective it brings to mind the Internet. On the Internet we are constantly writing our own history, almost before it happens.

In fact, there are some other quaint pre-internet devices in “Galactic Pot-Healer.” At several points Fernwright picks up the phone to use an automated 24-hour-a-day dictionary service, in the way we might use a search engine. Since this is PKD, however, there’s a government-imposed daily limit to the number of searches, after which the service will politely inform him to look elsewhere. He also uses a computer phone service to translate book titles for The Game. There’s even an obligatory dream service where people plug into commercially written dreams that promote social values, a sort of cross between Second Life and educational television.

Fernwright’s Game consists of creating phrases like “The Lattice-work Gun-stinging Insect,” which translates to “The Great Gatsby” (grate gats bee). In "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" Dick talks about translation, but in that case it meant translation of your consciousness into the Perky Pat layout via drugs. Does he mean that this game of translation is a drug for Joe, a way to avoid the grim reality of a hopeless future? Yet, the challenge of the Game is that the translations are imperfect. The goal is to understand the original based on the ersatz title. Not only does this reflect one of Dick’s most favorite themes, the challenge of trying to understand reality (and also perhaps god) based on man’s imperfect subject interpretation, but also echoes the mirror image theme throughout “Galactic Pot-Healer” of the Glimmung and the Black Glimmung, Joe and the black Joe, and other duplicates.

Considering the title and when it was written, is “pot” a tongue-in-cheek joke? I’d have to say that the answer to this is: no. In “The Simulacra,” “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” and several other books Dick uses ceramics and pots to signify creativity, but also the human condition. He also spends a considerable number of pages discussing an amazing array of information about ceramics in this the book.

At the end, the octopoid alien suggests to him that he should start creating pots with the tools Glimmung has given him instead of just healing them. The final page admits that the first pot he created was 'awful.' Does this mean that Dick considers Joe a hack, just as he has struggled with his own self-doubt, considering himself a hack? The answer is in this quote from Goethe’s “Faust” - "He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still." The ultimate goal of the Glimmung is to create something from the blackness, despite inevitable failure, and when Joe decides to make a pot he is still following the Glimmung’s lead, just as Dick uses his writing to try to understand the world despite the ultimate impossibility of this task.

In his notes in “In Pursuit of Valis,” Dick admits that he was on the edge of a psychotic breakdown while writing “Galactic Pot-Healer.”
“Galactic Pot-Healer shows the very real possibility of encroaching madness. The archetypes are out of control...the book is desperate & frightened, & coming apart, dream-like, cut off more & more from reality...what Brunner said, ‘That one got out of control’ is correct & has vast psychological significance.”
Unfortunately, the story reflects this lack of control, and suffers from it.

Incidentally, before “Galactic Pot-Healer” Dick wrote a children’s science fiction novel called “Nick and the Glimmung” set on Plowman's Planet, but it wasn’t published until 1988.

From the back of the first paperback edition:
There he was, Joe Fernwright, citizen of a devilishly dull and cowardly brave new world.
Joe’s dwelling place was Cleveland, (once “Ohio”), and he was a skilled mender or, as he like to think of it - healer - of ceramic pots. And in a solidly plastic world, Joe was out of work, bored to death, and in a dangerous, try-anything mood. Bored enough to accept an extremely chancy proposition from an extremely peculiar and powerful Thing. This Thing wanted Joe to go to a distant planet, and help raise...Heldscalla.
Well, if you were a free spirit trapped in Cleveland-no-longer-Ohio in the year 2046, you’d be tempted by an offer to raise a little hell yourself.
Joe’s experiences are the subject of this witty and stimulating new SF novel from Philip K. Dick.


Happy Birthday Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss

On March 2, 1904, one hundred and nine years ago, Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Massachusetts.

His mother's maiden name was the origin of his middle name, and ultimately his best-known nom de plume, although he also published as Theo LeSieg, an obvious anagram.

Geisel didn't always write books for kids. According to Wikipedia, while in college at Dartmouth he was working at the school humor magazine when he was caught drinking gin while on the job and banned from the publication.  To continue work on the Jack-O-Lantern without the administration's knowledge, Geisel began signing his work with the pen name "Seuss."

After college, he worked in advertising, and when the US joined World War II, he worked to create propaganda for the War Production Board and the US Army.  Later he illustrated various books, including The "Pocket Book of Boners", a sort of "Kids say the darnedest things" compilation.

Of course, after he wrote "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street", he shot straight to stardom, right?  Not really. Even getting that book published was apparently difficult. Sources say it was rejected between 27  and 43 times before being published by Vanguard Press.

Mulberry Street, however, was pretty complex compared to Cat in The Hat, or Green Eggs and Ham.
Bennett Cerf, Theodor Geisel’s (Dr. Seuss) editor, challenged him to write a book using 50 words or less. He actually made this challenge when Seuss was writing The Cat in the Hat (which used 225 words) but Geisel never backed down from a challenge and wrote Green Eggs and Ham with exactly 50 different words. Those words are:

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

Even though they are books for kids, there's something in the simple language that Dr. Seuss uses that sticks in your head, almost like an advertising jingle. In the middle of "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" there's a happy hobo who expresses his human state:

"A gherkin is a native who runs after people with a knife" (from "The Pocket Book of Boners)

My hat is old.
My teeth are gold.
I have a bird I like to hold.
My shoe is off.
My foot is cold.

My shoe is off.
My foot is cold.
I have a bird I like to hold.
My hat is old.
My teeth are gold.
And now my story is all told.

Is this existential or what? Clothing, money, health, friendship, suffering, death -- summed up in rhyme.

A couple years ago I wrote another blog post pondering a fellow called Marvin K. Mooney. The library summarizes "Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now?" as: "Suggests in rhyme a number of ways for Marvin K. Mooney to travel as long as he gets going--now! In merry verse and illustrations, Marvin is asked to leave by every conceivable means of transportation."  You can read my post here.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss, and thank you. You're not just for kids.
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