More Philip K. Dick and Archaeology

I spent a little time over the holidays continuing my trek through Philip K. Dick’s substantial oeuvre looking for insights into the archaeologists’ craft. I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this, but as I explain in earlier posts, I was inspired (for lack of a better word) by Bill Brown’s recent book Other Things and using Dick’s work to spice up an otherwise ordinary paper for the American Schools of Oriental Research annual meeting.

Anyway, I read two of Dick’s more tightly regarded works, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). The latter book was loosely adapted as the movie Blade Runner. Both books deal with typical Dickean themes of dystopian future worlds. In both cases Earth has become a challenging place to live. In Palmer Eldritch, global warming has made it the planet so hot that being outside is dangerous. In Androids, the final war has laced the entire planet with radioactive dust that has killed or damaged almost all life on Earth. In both books, the future of humanity depends on the colonization of other worlds, but, for most humans, this has proven to be less than satisfactory. In Palmer Eldritch, life on Mars or Venus has become dominated by the use of the drug Can-D which transports user for a short time to an immersive virtual, fantasy world. In Androids, the government uses androids as an incentive to promote emigration from Earth, but their ability to control androids and the level of happiness on the Martian colony seems in doubt. In fact, the main character in Androids is a bounty hunter who de-activates androids who escape and return to earth (as people who have seen Blade Runner know!).

Androids provides an archaeological setting for the story. Far from the bustling world of Blade Runner, the setting is an abandoned earth with empty buildings filled with “kipple.” Kipple is Dick’s word for the abandoned stuff that emigres left behind on Earth. In one of the most archaeological musing of Dick, he has one of the main characters in Androids describe the encroachment of kipple into every corner of their every day lives. Anticipating the cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and our contemporary fascination with post-industrial ruin porn, the derelict apartments form a chilling post-human backdrop to the confrontation between the bounty hunter and his prey. The deterioration of this world is palpable and the spread of kipple is inevitable. 

The plot of Palmer Eldritch is too complicated for me to attempt a concise description (check out Wikipedia for that or just read the book). Dick maintains his persistent interest in things, however, even as he explores the drug-induced virtual world of Can-D and, its competitor, Chew-Z. For Can-D to work, it requires miniaturized “layouts” that provide a setting for the virtual world of Perky Pat and her wealthy friends. One of the characters in the book, for example, produces ceramic pots that are miniaturized to be included in these layouts. Ceramics appear throughout Dick’s novels as a anchor for physical reality. To throw a pot is the ultimate life-affirming act and to handle a pot connects you with the experience of haptic reality. Not a few characters in Dick novels are drawn back from the edge of despair, depression, and delusion through the intervention of a ceramic object. In Palmer Eldritch, the risk that Can-D competitor Chew-Z poses is that it does not require a layout. The drug immerses the user in a completely unreal or virtual world. To make matters worse, the immersive experience in the world encountered under the influence of Chew-Z does not require the passage of time in the real world. So the layouts of Can-D users anchor experience not only in a physical place, but also in human time. Objects and time, like the inevitable spread of kipple in Androids, are linked. The human reality requires the experience of entropy.

For archaeologists this connection between time and objects may seem almost too basic to deserve mention, but it remains fundamental to how we understand the creation of the past. At an archaeological site, objects -whether made by humans, geological, or organic – provide our only contact with the passage of time and the past. Dick’s novels make this connection so profoundly clear. 

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