• Rowan Fortune

Dick’s Realities

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The essay is a review of Philip K. Dick’s Time Out Of Joint, an exploration of Gnosticism and Postmodernism. It was first published May 22 2020.

Because I’m the center of the universe. At least, that’s what I’ve inferred from their actions. They act as if I am. I only have that to go on. They’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to construct a sham world around me to keep me pacified. Buildings, cars, an entire town. Natural-looking, but completely unreal. The part I don’t understand is the contest.

The premise of Philip K. Dick’s Time Out Of Joint — published in 1959–60 — is simple. Ostensibly, the protagonist Ragle Gumm lives in a late fifties all-American suburb routinely solving a regular magazine puzzle, from which he earns his living. However, in ‘reality’, ‘This was the year 1997. Not 1959.’ And in this future the Earth and Moon colonists, so-called lunatics, are in a stalemate war in which the latter demand sovereignty, dropping nukes on earth until it is granted.

Ragle’s answers to the magazine puzzle are important because they somehow perfectly anticipate where the bombs will land, but as he is unable to consciously cope with that responsibility, ‘we found a system by which we could let him live in his stress-free world.’ That is, so that he can ‘still plot our missile intercepts for us’, but ‘without the sense of load on his shoulders. The lives of all mankind. He could make it into a game, a newspaper contest.’ When Ragle does discover (or, rather, rediscover) the truth, he escapes, sides with the lunatics and quits his occupation, effectively forcing Earth to give in to their enemy’s just demand.

What makes Time Out Of Joint interesting is not its somewhat hackneyed pulp sci-fi depiction of the ‘future,’ nor even its evocation of a literal and contemporaneous late fifties, but both Dick’s ability to evoke how the future would nostalgically falsely remember the fifties and his further insight into the inherent constructedness of the past. Dick is anticipating, from the vantage of the 50s, that this period would become an important object of nostalgia. Even this ‘real’ future is a part of that nostalgia; something Mark Fisher would call a lost future — a paradoxical retrofuture.

For example, in the simulacrum world Ragle inhabits references are often made to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but, ‘That thing was written a century before my time. That’s a really ancient book.’ The point is precisely that what is supplied by a nostalgic fantasy does not have to be accurate, is not even enhanced by accuracy. Ragle is given a past ‘for your security and comfort. Why should it be accurate? If Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a necessity of your childhood, it was included.’ Everything else in this false past, from his idealised suburban neighbours to Ragle’s carefree patriarchical domestic life, follows that formula. The past being invented here serves a pacifying role.


The point being made is about how collective memory functions like personal, individual memory, which is to say, necessarily flawed. How memory operates by constantly editing itself, such as we see in the characters of Ford Maddox Ford’s books, or folding back on itself, in the characters of Marcel Proust’s, but which is now also shown to hold true for cultures via the device of Dick’s protagonist. Reality, as it comes to us always recalled, is an unreliable process of storytelling, ‘We have a hodge-podge of leaks in our reality, he said to himself. A drop here, a couple of drops over in that corner. A moist spot forming on the ceiling. But where’s it getting in? What’s it mean?’ Ragle is ultimately not comforted by this too comfortable world that is made for him; he is disturbed by it.

The radical doubt about the nature of the real is not merely deployed by Dick to say something about particular societies and their historical situatedness. Dick, like William Blake, was an author-mystic. And his theology is demonstrably Gnostic, so that for him the falseness of the everyday is a spiritual challenge that most (the numerous unelect) fail to encounter, ‘The odd thing in this world is that an eager-beaver type, with no original ideas, who mimes those in authority above him right to the last twist of necktie and scrape of chin, always gets noticed.’ Ragle’s feeling of being special is the only truth, his spiritual superiority over those who ‘had no fixed store of morals, no verities.’

In this quite religious philosophy, the enemy truly is ‘everywhere around us. I don’t know their names. But they’re everywhere. I guess they’re the Reds.’ In this book, as in Do Android Dream of Electric Dreams and The Man in the High Castle, Dick uses speculative fiction to narrate what he considers a real and fundamentally spiritual war that is beyond all false realities, including realities that weave other false realities, for which the ostensive conflicts in his book serve merely as veiled metaphors:

But, he thought, I will consider them my family, because in the two years and a half at Old Town they have been a genuine family, along with Sammy. And June and Bill Black are my neighbors. I am walking out on them, family and relatives, neighbors and friends. That is what civil war means. In a sense it’s the most idealistic kind of war. The most heroic. It means the most sacrifices, the fewest practical advantages. I’m doing it because I know it is right. It comes first, my duty. Everyone else, Bill Black and Victor Nielson and Margo and Lowery and Mrs Keitelbein and Mrs Kesselman — they all have done their duty; they have been loyal to what they believe in. I intend to do the same.

Later on, Dick and his notion of simulated realities, his concept of our relation to shared time as critically unreliable, his paranoid individuals caught in a web of impossibly complex intrigues within intrigues, would influence postmodern thought. That is, Dick would chime with the postmodern sense of the decay of reality behind simulacra; Baudrillard’s simulation of that which never existed. For Dick, however, the simulated realities in which he trapped his characters was never the point. The point was that they disguised a deeper, spiritual drama, whose hiddenness was precisely its essence.

Dick certainly anticipated and fed into many postmodern themes; with a keen insight, he saw into some of the faultlines of his period and understood a bit of what was to come — Francis Fukuyama’s death of history finds many echoes in his novels and stories. But unlike, for instance, J. G. Ballard, whose fiction takes its point of departure from Freud’s idea of the perverse and the futility of historical projects to contain it, Dick owed his ideas most to Carl Jung and the idea of mystical drives hidden in the unconscious. Ragle’s simulated world does not obscure the dessert of the real, as in Baudrillard; it does not even obscure the future world in which he is ‘truly’ living; rather, it disguises a deeper archetypal reality in which he is playing out a timeless battle.


This storytelling tradition of a super-reality that supersedes the detritus of history, which is not really a postmodern tradition, has continued long after Dick. The 1985Back to the Future film and the trilogy it begun are examples, depicting a world where whether we are taken to the ’50s, the Wild West or a sci-fi future United States, the same essential archetypal narrative of underdog overcoming bullies is retold and retold, with all the different parts played out not so much by people, but representatives of certain universal types. Moreover, 1998 films The Truman Show and Pleasantville both owe a lot more directly to Time Out Of Joint, including their essential kernel that the fake reality is, in itself, like a Matryoshka (or Russian) doll, contained within another fake reality, and that it is moments of spiritual resistance and self-liberation that exposes the truly real. These are the tropes of dualist esotericism, transposed onto sci-fi and satire.

For Dick, what is interesting is not the illusion in which we are trapped, the mundane world. Nor is it the fact that it is an illusion. As Ragle speculates about the moist spot forming on the ceiling, the real questions are, ‘where’s it getting in? What’s it mean?’ It is the real that is at issue, leaking into a world of illusory time, of constructed periodisations, a real that is coming, somehow, from outside of time itself.

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