I’m still reading Philip K Dick and still be amazed by the richness contained in his short novels. As I keep turning ideas about time and objects and how his fictional meditations on in the future of the past can inform how I think about archaeology, his 1969 novel, The Galactic Pot-Healer, would seem to be the most blatantly archaeological. In some ways, it is archaeological, but for me, it did more to underscore the anxiety of archaeological “progress” than reveal profound truths about artifacts or time.
In his The Galactic Pot-Healer, Dick tells the story of a pot-healer named Joe Fernwright who was living a life of quiet desperation in a future world dominated by a benignly totalitarian global government. Fundamental to his despair was that he hadn’t worked for seven years because no one had pots that required healing. He spent most of his time playing something called “The Game” (which has echoes of the contest played by Ragle Gumm in Time Out of Joint). In The Game, contestants consult over the phone any number of translation computers which retranslate into English translations of common book titles until they are barely recognizable nonsense. Apparently Fernwright is good at The Game, but otherwise his life is bleak until he is invited by a strange alien called the Glimmung to come to his planet to work as the pot healer on an intergallactic team assembled to raise a mysterious cathedral called Heldscalla. This task is eventually completed when most of the team combines with the Glimmung to help it raise the cathedral and restore some kind of mystical old order.
As with many Dick novels the plot itself is a thinly disguised McGuffin and the novel’s main themes of the alienation and despair of modern world. The mission proposed by the Glimmung represented an antidote to a world which increasingly marginalized the pot healer’s skills and job and the unfulfilling tedium of unemployment in world dominated by automation, secularism, and conformity. The final scenes of the book show the pot healer attempting to throw his own pot and being rather less than successful. Fulfillment is elusive.
Readers of my blog and my work know that I have been expressing a growing anxiety about the change in my discipline. Like the pot-healer, I’m increasingly worried that my archaeological skills – such as they are – will be usurped by a generation of increasingly tech-savvy scholars who have little time for my deliberate pace, outmoded methods, and peripatetic practices. I’ve voiced this anxiety in my calls for a slow archaeology, but I must admit that I’ve struggled to turn my angst-ridden prose into a compelling call for a new method. Like Joe Fernwright, I know what I learned to do is no long as relevant as it was before, but I despair that the archaeology of the future will not offer me the same kind of professional fulfillment.
Like so many of Dick’s novels, The Galactic Pot-Healer is filled with anxiety and despair that is ultimately unresolved. The future isn’t a place of happiness, and progress does not bring humanity fulfillment, but only anesthetized conformity. The future of the past may be very grim indeed.