Sunday, March 4, 2012

I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon: A Paranoid Allegory

The entirety of the anthology is available in .rtf format at
. This commentary contains spoilers.


Philip K Dick published the short story "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon" in 1980. The story concerns Victor Kemmings and the interstellar passenger ship which has failed to completely put him in cryonic stasis for the ten year travel to his new home. The ship's AI struggles to provide stimulation to Kemmings that will keep him from going mad. Unfortunately, as the AI tells Kemmings, "I am a simple mechanism, that's all." The AI relies on memories of Kemmings childhood and first marriage, and subsequently on wish fulfillment fantasies of what it will be like when they complete the journey and arrive at LR4-6, the colonized planet around a distant star. 

"I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon" masterfully prefigures fantastic questions of SF that appear in films such as Primer, Moon, and Solaris. Dick uses the lens of SF to tell us stories about ourselves and often about where we are headed. Philip K Dick died in 1982, four years before my birth, and just two years after publishing this story. What strikes me is his keen observation of how technology doesn't give us any distinctly new tools to encounter the world. Kemmings, laying back in his malfunctioning cryonic sleep chamber and blessed with nearly two centuries of life, is still obsessed with a few brief events from his childhood and first marriage. This excursion to a distant place is intended to be a new start, though even this new start comes with all the weighty emotional baggage he has taken into every other adventure.

I have read this before as a cautionary tale from a paranoid genius. We ought to watch our technology and watch ourselves because we shouldn't expect our "simple mechanisms" to do more than we allow them. How I presently reread it was concerning the depth with which Dick portrays the technological goal as some obscure liberation from our histories (childhood and spoiled opportunities), our physical limitations (age and travel), and psychological neuroses (the trauma of guilt, responsibility, and authenticity) which is ultimately unattainable; at least through technology alone. In fact, the abilities of the ship's AI suggest that real transformation and liberation must come through interpersonal encounters and are beleaguered by the rich complexities and wish fulfillment of technology.

When he was four, Kemmings was stung by a bee he tried to extricate from a web. He says to himself, "It was unfair. It made no sense. He was perplexed and dismayed and he felt a hatred toward small living things, because they were dumb." After an inattentive mother tells him to put Bactine on the sting, he finds his cat Dorky reaching for a bird in the garage. With his newfound disgust of small, stupid animals, he helps Dorky to the bird who snatches it and with the crunch and ruffle of a fresh kill. This precipitates an entire new wave of guilt leading to a leaden sky chiding him for his wrongdoing. Dick uses a very basic, believable, traditional narrative for a child--sticking with succinct, uncomplicated sentences--but allows these brief episodes to erode the later development of complex relationships and guiltless pleasures.

The ship's AI began the fantasies with Kemmings's first marriage with a small French woman named Martine. He reminisces of their first home but it is all overshadowed by its inevitable decay. These are the realities that stick with Kemmings. Despite a luxurious future replete with a wine cellar and 20th Century counterculture kitsch ("Fat Freddy Say's")--an allusion to a richer and more fulfilling past--Kemmings cannot but notice the way these memories are undermined, eventually leading to their frantic and terrible decay. The ship can take Kemmings's memories and provide him with a playground of childhood and youthful recollection, but it is the neurotic and anxious mind that pollutes and strips out the richness of these earlier experiences.

Even with the wish fulfillment of arriving LR4-6, his anxieties build up so much that an aching wound is treated by the hotel's robot doctor. Kemmings engages the robot doctor concerning the verisimilitude of this new world, taking a scalpel from the robot doctor--who has been as obliging as possible--and unscrews the back of the television to reveal an empty box. "'Oh dear,' the robot doctor says," now clearly channeling the ship's AI. Through various repetition of this landing fantasy, Kemmings makes it alive, if not entirely well to his new home. In the meantime, the ship has contacted Martine in order for her to meet Kemmings at LR4-6 and provide some form of recuperation or at least comfort. This is when we see the profound unraveling of Kemmings's mind:

"'There's no use turning [the TV] on,' Victor Kemmings said. He stood by the open closet, hanging up his shirts.
"'Why not?'
"Kemmings said, 'There's nothing in it.'
"Going over to the TV set, Martine turned it on. A hockey game materialized, projected out into the room, in full color, and the sound of the game assailed her ears.
"'It works fine,' she said.
"'Look at this.' He paused in his work of hanging up his clothes. 'Watch me put my hand through the wall.' He placed the palm of his right hand against the wall. 'See?'
"His hand did not go through the wall because hands do not go through walls; his hand remained pressed against the wall, unmoving.
"'And the foundation,' he said, 'is rotting away.'"

We are taken to appreciate the fear that Martine must feel being told that she is not real, that the TV is not real, that the wall is not real. Kemmings is living the virtual despite the material. His perception, once infused with the anxieties of youth, is now infused with the contamination of the virtual and imagined. The ship's AI has succeeded in keeping Kemmings in some way functional, but by resorting to cross-pollinating memories and wish fulfillment, Kemmings has conflated them all. I reflect more and more on the infiltration of the world with the hyperreal. Professor Jennifer Musial discuss how Twitter might support class questions by posting them to the classroom wall via the projector. A typed 240 character question is not a replacement for a raised hand. It is not real in the same way, even if it is real in its own way. 

Kemmings recalls the 1980s when the poster he and Martine received as a wedding gift was made. The poster is framed and preserved, a valuable antique that Martine confesses she has had to sell since the ending of their marriage. In his dream-like state, Kemmings questions the poster's authenticity. He worries that the signature of Gilbert Shelton may be forged, applied after Shelton's death. Even the certificate of authenticity could have been added after the fact to provide certainty to a fake. He and Martine default to the friend who gave it to them, an expert on late 20th century counterculture. It is a human being not some artifice that provides him some measure of reassurance. Later, not even Martine can be the direct contact Kemmings needs to bring him back to the present and the real. At the story's close, he reflects to himself, "We didn't have sense enough to take care of it. Now it's torn. And the artist is dead."

I find this story haunting not because it is grim and paranoid, as is Dick's overall style, but because it seems so prescient. Between social media and video chatting, 3-D televisions and semi-immersive media environments, we seem to be overlapping with the moment when the virtual eclipses the material. In many ways, this may already be so. Online fora and chatrooms provide reinforcing environments for like-minded zealots of one bent or another. News sources and "objective" resources (see become so intermingled, either narrowing into blind fomenting certainty or broadening into untamable absurdity, when both have become subject to the whims of 24-hour news cycles and unchecked user-generated content. Our virtual and material have entered the hyperreal in which neither attain the certainty for which both strive.

These contemporary anxieties are not because of our "simple mechanisms" run amok. At least not according to Dick. Rather, we are seeing what neurosis, paranoia, anxiety, and fear turn into when given powerful technology and neverending play. Kemmings is stung by a bee, lifts a cat to snatch a bird, and dreamily squashes a feeble fluttering alien insect. His mother's cold demeanor and his parents desire to get rid of their cat Dorky plant a seed that yields a deep taproot into his subconscious which manifests as a grim karmic ritual throughout his life. His demeanor and self-destruction, as well as his fear from a grim omnipotent sky-god, become mind-numbing and deconstruct even the infirm barriers that hold his mind together. Technology offers us both a looking glass and a magnifying lens, an MC Escher artifact constantly reflecting ourselves onto the world in myriad beautiful and horrible amalgams. Our tools do not make us wise, it is how we use what we have. As Dick's story attests, we are not men with the tools of the wise; rather, we are children stumbled into the gardens of ancients and gods.