02 April 2008

The World Jones Made: The problems with precognition

The World Jones Made
Philip K. Dick

Our glimpse into the world Jones made begins in media res, as the reader enters the womblike Refuge, sees the little mutant people who live within, meets the novel's protagonist Cussick, and first hears about the titular Jones. Through a flashback, Cussick is introduced as a Fedgov agent; the world has apparently survived a cataclysmic nuclear holocaust and the surviving shards of various civilizations have come together under the aegis of a federal planetary government, with cultural relativism as its "non-ideology."

It is in this world, on April 4, 1995, that we meet Floyd Jones, a sad psychic working in a carnival with the gift of seeing how the world will be exactly one year ahead. After he makes his predictions to Cussick and they begin to come true, he is arrested and then released. Nothing comes of it for a few months until one day Cussick sees that Jones has become an ordained minister who is drawing large crowds, something that is immediately unsettling in the post-apocalyptic, post-ideological world of the late 20th century. Jones is a demagogue.

Dick gives us an eerie insight into the mind and life of Floyd Jones, who has been living every moment of his life twice, once in the "future" and then once again one year later in the "present." These moments include the very haunting images of Jones experiences in the womb and approaching the grave, having already experienced both thresholds.
For almost seventeen years his dual existence had been purposeless. It had been a burden, a great dead weight. Even the idea of utilizing it was lacking. He saw it as a cross, nothing more. Life was painful; his was twice painful. What good was it to know that the misery of next year was unavoidable? (p. 53)

This tortured existence is central to Dick's ambivalence about supposed "gifts" like precognition. As well, Jones' knack for seeing the future also presents a direct challenge to the probabilistic world of the Fedgov, because of its implications about free will and predestination, error and certitude:
For Jones, there was no guessing, no error, and no false knowledge. He knew; he had absolute certainty. (p. 57-8)

In typical PKD fashion (I don't know what it was with him, women, and betrayal) Cussick discovers that his new Danish wife, Nina, has secretly been involved with the Jones cult for several months, all while he himself has been a primary investigator of Jones and his people. Jones' people have begun to attack and burn the "drifters"--gigantic amoeboid alien creatures whose viscous (and apparently harmless) bodies have begun to drop occasionally into earth's atmosphere from space; his movement of Jones Boys agitated to end the tyrannical reign of relativism and its cadre of thought police (whose number, of course, included Cussick) and called for dedicated efforts toward making space migration a reality. After a universal referendum, Jones is appointed "Supreme Commander" to deal with the "crisis" of the alien blobs.
That was the chilling sight: the lines of tired people, worn out from a long hard day of work, willing to stand patiently in line. Not the enthusiastic faces of the dedicated followers, but the drab, ordinary citizens desiring to abolish their legal governments, wishing to end a government of law and to create in its place an authority of absolute will: the unqualified whim of an individual person. (104-5)

This is where the womblike Refuge and the miniature mutants enter the picture. Cussick learns that they are so helpless outside their sanctuary environment not through a defect but because they are perfectly built for Venus. The idea was that the project would go on for a while longer until the mutants were actually sent to Venus, but the "election" of Jones has forced Fedgov's hand and the mutants are sent to Venus. In a tender scene, the mutants first step out into the Venusian environment only to feel perfectly at home for the very first time.

Jones and his mobs continue to burn and destroy the drifters, until, too late it is discovered that they are gametes, one half of a reproductive structure that extends between planets. The parent creatures, "immensely complicated plant-like beings, so remote and advanced that we'll never have anything more than a dim picture of them" (p. 158), respond to this wanton destruction by quarantining the Earth and its immediate vicinity:

"They're going to seal us off. A ring will presently be set up around us. We'll have Earth, the Sol System, the stars we've already reached. And that's all. Beyond that--" Jones snapped his fingers. "The warships will simply disappear." (p. 159)

What had happened was that Jones in the future had died soon after all these events had transpired, and so his dual-vision was split between the present and absolute darkness. In other words, he had no idea what the human race had been up against, and so had bluffed. And lost.

He had no certain knowledge of what was to become of society because he would not be around to see it. Very shortly, he would die. He had been contemplating it for almost a year; it could be ignored temporarily, but always it returned, each time more terrible and imminent.

After death, his brain and body would erode. And that was the hideous part: not the sudden instant of torment that would come in the moment of execution. That, he could bear. But not the slow, gradual disintegration.

A spark of identity would linger in the brain for months. A dim flicker of consciousness would persist: that was his future memory; that as what the wave showed him. Darkness, the emptiness of death. And, hanging in the void, the still-living personality.

Deterioration would begin at the uppermost levels. First, the highest faculties, the most cognizant, the most alert processes, would fade. An hour after the death the personality would be animal. A week after, it would be stripped to a vegetable layer. The personality would devolve back the way it had come; as it has struggled up through the billions of years, so it would go back, step by step, from man to ape to early primate to lizard to frog to fish to crustacean to trilobite to protozoon. And after that: to mineral extinction, to merciful end. But it would take time.

(Philip Dick's speculation into the breakdown of consciousness here is just one of the sorts of gems that line his works.) Cussick comes to meet with Jones in response to this crisis, a gun battle ensues, and Jones steps into the fatal bullet like he knew it was coming. (Duh.)

So Jones dies, apparently along with humanity's dreams of conquering the known universe, yet he leaves behind him a new global legacy:
"He knew when to make his entrance and his exit. We thought we were going to be stuck with Jones for another six months...instead, we're stuck with Jones, the legend of Jones, forever."

He didn't need Jones' talent to see it. The new religion. The crucified god, slain for the glory of man. Certain to reappear, someday; a death not in vain.. Temples, myths, sacred texts. Relativism wasn't coming back in, not in this world. Not after this.

and Nina make their way to Venus, along with their new baby, to make a life with the Venusians until things back on the world Jones made return to a semblance of normality.

This was a fun read which raised quite a few interesting philosophical speculations and also provided some insight into the quasi-spiritual roots of demagoguery, a phenomenon discussed at some length elsewhere by Morris Berman.

No comments: