Big Echo

Critical SF

An Alligator That Can Talk

On Philip K. Dick's The Zap Gun and the Superhuman Task of Mourning

by Laurence A. Rickels

Laurence Rickels is reinventing science fiction. Since first postulating the existence of a technophantasmic mode of German literature he called “psy fi” in Nazi Psychoanalysis (2002) [Amazon], Rickels has been using (avant-gardish) psychoanalytic literary techniques to show, among other things, how Philip K. Dick is not simply a viable subject of such analysis but a knowledgeable and engaged participant (I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick, 2010) [Amazon], and that the Cold War erasure of Germany from the history of science fiction was followed by a spectral return which reflected the post-war integration of Germany and the onset of collective mourning (Germany: A Science Fiction, 2014) [Amazon]. It is in this latter book that these three threads – psychoanalysis, Philip K.Dick, Germany – are wound together into the forceful and timely argument that the untenable android testing for empathy or its failure, psychopathy, in Dick's postwar worlds, offers an inside view of the complex relationship of future mourning to the combo of technological fantasy and psycho violence that found its most spectacular political manifestation in Nazi Germany. Following his most recent book on slasher and splatter film, The Psycho Records (2016) [Amazon], Rickels is currently completing a study tentatively titled: Critique of Fantasy; or: How Star Wars Became Our Oldest Cultural Memory

In the following paper, delivered at a conference in Cracow in 2015, Rickels pursues many of his usual themes, but of particular interest to Big Echo are his thoughts on the interface of fantasy and science fiction. We are also fascinated by his performance. The style of an argument can be as significant as its content and here you can get a sense of how Rickels goes about tipping over the sacred cows of science fiction canon builders. He disrupts the vertical, stable, dreary, patriarchal genealogies of who begat who by rushing at breakneck speed from text to text, horizontally, pursued by his demons or pursuing them, illuminating with his energy and humor unexpected connections, unexamined ideas, unread books, and so doing shows us new ways to think about things. Rickels points us towards new lines of escape from the stifling structures of mainstream interpretation, from the jealous clutches of traditional authority, even from the endless entangled internecine squabbles of enthusiasts and schismatics.


Philip K. Dick set his compass to the alternate realities of science fiction by turning up the contrast with Fantasy, the genre in which he first tested his decision to write. In the 1974 interview with Arthur Cover, Dick explains: “In fantasy, you never go back to believing there are trolls, unicorns … and so on. But in science fiction, you read it, and it’s not true now but there are things which are not true now which are going to be someday. … It’s like all science fiction occurs in alternate future universes.” Five years later, in his afterword to K. W. Jeter’s Dr Adder, Dick defended science fiction against Fantasy’s hostile takeover bid: “Endless novels about sword fights and figures in cloaks who perform magic – in other words clones of the Hobbit books – have been cranked out, published, sold, and the field of science fiction has been transmuted into a joke field.” And then, making the pitch for Dr Adder: “aren’t you tired of reading about magic and wizards and little people with turned-up fuzzy feet?” (249). In Dr Adder Orange County in the future postwar world rules the Southland via electronic technology that blends the boundary between life and death for rulers who come across undead or live. Prosthetic technology, which was outlawed following the war, draws the narrative onward, until at the Happy End Dr Adder delivers Los Angeles from the psychotic-electronic forces. Jeter’s novel is after all an instance of fantasy but with focus fixed on heroism rather than on the other world. Dr Adder’s weapon and cross is the flashglove, a classic prosthesis, at once amplification and amputation, and a synthesizer of diverse mediatic connections and violations whereby the operator introduces himself and his opponent into an in-between zone.

J. R. R. Tolkien chose “fantasy” over “fairy tale” to name the genre he derived from the folklore and heroic epics of the era of transition from Paganism to Christianity. His choice dared name its synonym and significance, which Tolkien otherwise sought to circumvent through the turn to the Gospel, the fantasy that is true. The other world, the fantasy genre’s ultimate address according to Tolkien, redeems everyday fantasy, which otherwise carries out the circumvention, as Freud argued in “The Poet and Day-Dreaming,” of the present tense (and its ongoing tensions) via a jump cut from an idealized past to a future of wish fulfilment. However the focus on wish fulfilment – erotic, appetitive, but also aggressive and death-wishing – renders the simple daydream intensely private: the narcissism it flexes is embarrassing and boring, its content not only inartistic but even antisocial. And yet contact with the omnipotence of wishing is the foundation of psychic reality and is carried forward from animism and magic to the technical media. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego Freud argued that the first poetry was the heroic epic and the first hero in fact the poet, certainly to the audience, because he had succeeded in giving our private second nature as daydreamers a publishable form or forum – a public access, in other words, to the all-important omnipotence hidden away with our daydreams.

While the sentencing of desire in the wish has been dropped from the foreground of psychoanalytic investigation, one wish had such a long run in Freud’s thought that it cannot be ignored. Freud considered the death wish both the first application of omnipotence of thoughts and the main ingredient in the untenable mix and mess of ambivalence. In his discussion of haunting in Totem and Taboo, Freud argued that mixed feelings set up mourning’s obstacle course, one that initially only projection can get around, because, once the fantasy goner in fact goes, the death wish cannot be admitted up close. The death wish opens up a long-distance relationship whereby the omnipotence flexed has to be shared with the goner, who by this power returns.

The rulers in the setting of the future in Dr Adder choose electronic undeath for themselves and, in circumvention of the prosthetic relation, elimination or simulation for their subjects. The counterculture that ultimately wields the flashglove inhabits the suppressed prosthetic relation in a district called the Interface. A momentum develops in the close quarters of psychopathy and empathy, where wish fantasy focuses on a double cut, which in the end overthrows the forces of unmourning. A certain Betreech, who hails from the prehistory of Adder’s Passion (a friend who ends up betraying him after helping affix him to the flashglove), makes his first appearance in the novel caught in the act of libidinizing the cuts of cinema. “The unconscious old man was dressed in a woman’s Civil War-period crinoline ball gown …. Betreech’s little vice consisted of dressing up like characters in his collection of old Hollywood films and stroking himself to a climax at the thought of the sexual activity imagined to be occurring in the ellipsis between one cut and another” (88). In the Interface, the cut, by and large in the flesh, is the main sexual outlet. Based on the earlier surgical adjustment of the worker to the machine, the district’s sex industry cuts up prostitutes to order. First the surgeon interviews the client (either the specialty john or a volunteer prostitute eager to specialize) under the influence of ADR, an interrogation drug left over from the war, which brings to the fore unconscious and pre-human desires. “All the submerged, bestial layers are united with the topmost, conscious layer into a single entity. An alligator that can talk” (80). The session releases fantasies of “amputation or mutilating or altering of the sexual object. Hence, all of the chopped hookers out on the street. The rich customers get one cut to the exact specifications of their ADR-revealed hunger – there’s never any problem finding the girls for it“ (83).

When the moral majority next door in Orange County destroys the Interface, the hypocrisy of their regular visits to the red light district doesn’t go away. A “vital release of tension,” as it is called, can only be displaced or control-released by its amusement park simulation beneath what was once Disneyland’s Matterhorn (179). A visitor to the park-in-progress encounters one of the robots in the underworld: “The hooker was a simulated amputee. She had one hand resting on the shoulder of another automaton to balance herself, and was rubbing the stump of her right leg ... against him. He perceived another evidence of painstaking attention to detail. Right at the edge of the stump, where the synthetic whore’s real-life counterpart would have had her grinning snake’s head tattoo, there was the amusement park’s own version of the mark. A little cartoon mouse head, two perfect black circles for ears, grinning insanely friendly with button nose and wide-sprung eyes” (180-81).

In the series of Dick’s psy-fi novels, The Zap Gun occupies the border to Fantasy, specifically the German-Wagnerian and Anglo-American brands of superheroism. The novel as a whole counts as a James Bond spoof. The protagonist, Lars Powderdry, is something of a wizard who goes into trance-states to raise to consciousness the designs for new weapons. Preliminary to the status quo of this future world was the consensus that it was too dangerous to wage total war with nuclear weapons but just as dangerous to forego war in its entirety. There is too much to gain from war’s staging area of preparedness – and the culture industry therefore stepped in to keep it going. By its future-world setting The Zap Gun joins a grouping of Dick novels specializing in the potentiation of the mediatic globalization of conflict following the final total war. Derrida pointed out that globalization – or globalatinization as he renamed it – was in fact still spreading, via the live media, the word wide web of Christianity. The live report from Kabul must be believed in: the reporter asks us to believe in him and his broadcast, the word made flesh. That surveillance as fully functioning system is in the first place a belief system is so obvious no one can recognize it. Thus the culture industry of weapons fashion designing takes the place of religion. But Lars protests that his trance states remain within range of secular transferences: “His experiences with the hyper-dimensional realm had disabused him of any dogmatic or devotional faith. If anyone living was qualified to claim knowledge of the ‘next world’ it was he, and as yet he had discovered no transcendent aspect to it” (47).

The Cold War opposition between Wes-Dem and Peep-East is maintained as a front for a division of labor in what is in fact one media operation. Lars works for Wes-Dem’s weapons fashions design industry, which stretches “subsurface from San Francisco to Los Angeles” (155). The weapons are props in demo films that simulate their efficacy in tactical operations against localized threats, including criminality in one’s own society. Many designs are then turned into toys or adult gizmos, like Ol’Orville, a talking head that answers questions, as in a party game or like an oracle. The gizmo that consists of all the parts that were to go into the original weapon Lars designed gives oracular-therapeutic counsel. Now in the lingo of Wagnerian heroism, now in the plain text of successful mourning, Ol’Orville steers Lars clear of suicide. First he diagnoses Lars’s castration anxiety, namely, his dread that after going under in a mediumistic trance, he should bring nothing back. The prospect of being even in fantasy waffenlos like Parsifal, says Ol’Orville, brings to a crisis point the lack of real weapons in his line of work. Lars’s partner, Maren Faine, hovers over this exchange accompanying the counsel with jabs of her own that bring the castration home. At the same time Ol’Orville picks up that the Cold War opposition holds in store a way out for Lars via Lilo Topchev, the Peep-East main medium. Although Lars has only glimpsed his faux rival in blurred surveillance photos, she in fact already occupies the foreground of his wish fantasizing (something Maren also picks up from this exchange).

Lilo and Lars are brought together by an actual threat from Outer Space. Spaceships from Sirius are beaming all the Earthlings from whole territories into alien slavery. Together they work to project a real weapon in the Earth’s defense. However, their trance states prove capable of communicating and picking up only fantasy constructs. The saving device proves to be a toy-prototype that one of Lars’s colleagues at the design plant, Vincent Klug, conceived as teaching tool: by telepathy-enriched identification with the little critter in the maze, a child playing the game of torment and escape would understand the significance of empathy. Klug’s toy, however, which offers a constructive and corrective response to the problem of psychopathic violence, is never produced. That’s why Klug takes a roundtrip to the future. When he returns as ancient veteran from a world that survived the Outer Space attack he attracts attention. But he can’t impart anything from the future. “I can come back here from 2068 … But I can’t bring anything. Weapon, artefact, news, idea … I can see ahead and I can’t tell anything – I can’t inform you; I can’t be an oracle” (160-61). All he can do is point to something already in the present environment. “Its presence must not in any way be dependent on my return here from your future” (161). Only by guessing games can Klug show Lars the way to the toy prototype existing now that contains the kernel of the future weapon.

The provenance of Klug’s toy with its capacity for reversal into a weapon seems to be that of the android test, which Dick would formulate two years later in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Originally Klug proposed a project using androids that were “really human-like,” but it provoked in his supervisor an uneasy feeling. Upon abandoning the android project Klug developed the game of critter-identification within the labyrinth of animal testing. “The psychiatric theory is that this toy teaches the child to care about other living organisms. … He wants to help the creature, and that stud on the right permits him to do so” (168). Lars points out, however, that there is the other stud, too. Although the game can’t foster sadistic tendencies because the telepathic empathy-circuit renders the kid the victim who must win against all odds, “to keep the game going, you stop pressing the decrease stud and activate the increase, and the maze-circuitry responds by stepping up the difficulty which the trapped creature faces” (ibid.). By increasing the output of the telepathic empathy circuit and altering the controls so that both studs augment the difficulty the maze-victim undergoes, the altered toy cannot but induce “a rapid, thorough mental disintegration” in “any life form that was intelligent enough to receive the emanations” (169).

The empathy device induces breakdown, therefore, even or especially in psychos. The Outer Space slavers count as empathy-proof. When Surley Febbs, the psycho protagonist of one of the novel’s subplots, is informed that he has been selected as statistically average citizen to serve on the Board that makes recommendations on the commodification of weapons designs, the meglo sense of self that lurked in his average profile is released all the way to the fantastic prospect of total world domination, which he plots with and against the other members of the Board. Based on a weapons fashion design he is able to realize the other real weapon in the novel. His psycho career comes to a full stop, however, when he starts playing the deadly empathy game.

An oracle in his own right and writing, Dick intervenes with the empathy game in the Fantasy impact he would later address in his afterword to Dr Adder. What had intervened between the interview with Arthur Cover and the afterword was Star Wars, a science fiction that also belongs to the Fantasy genre. But Lucas’s fiction is less a timeless hero saga along the lines of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces than a Fantasy-remix of the basic tenets of US propaganda movies during WWII. Against the invincible Death Star born losers band together to triumph against all odds. True winning presupposes losing but then gets past the losing streak to win. To win as a winner makes you another Nazi. Where empathy undergoes manipulation, however, the game plan can be reversed unto traumatization.

The happy outcome of Lars and Lilo’s search for the best defense against the invaders from Outer Space is followed by Lars’s second consultation of Ol’Orville, this time in the new setting of substitution. The success of substitution and mourning would appear to have wrecked Lars. Because Lilo and Lars were coupled while working on a functioning weapon, Maren Faine reacted as odd woman out. She killed herself on or off purpose: it looked like she was gunning for Lilo or for Lars. It is up to Ol’Orville to remind Lars that already prior to her exitus he had substituted Lilo for his ex. The proximity of empathy to psychopathy, out of which the saving weapon arises, also describes the close quarters in which Lars, to keep the game going, must apply the death wish to secure the prospect of living on in substitution.

In her 1940 essay “Mourning and its Relation to Manic-Depressive States,” Melanie Klein draws attention to the repeated references in Freud’s brief essay, “Mourning and Melancholia,” to both reality testing in mourning and the self-reproach in melancholia. Freud compares the prospect of reality testing’s success in losing the lost object with the terminal consequence of the implicit attack upon the lost object in melancholia. “Just as mourning impels the ego to give up the object by declaring the object to be dead and offering the ego the inducement of continuing to live, so does each single struggle of ambivalence loosen the fixation of the libido to the object by disparaging it, denigrating it and even as it were killing it” (SE 14: 257). But in the opening season of bereavement the disposal service also ambivalently extends the afterlife of the departed unto undeath. The self-reproach in melancholia addresses the goner, who is thus summoned in the exchange. And in mourning each visit to yet another memorial niche dedicated to the lost other to pronounce the verdict of reality in effect allows protracted contact with the deceased.

Lars wants to harness time travel to remembrance. “I just don’t understand where the past goes when it goes. … Where is she? Where’s she gone?” (173). He allows that he would come right back to Lilo following the visit with Maren in the alternate reality. It is an itinerary within the mediatic mortuary circuit often booked in so many of Dick’s novels. Through alternate realities the finite recording surface of remembrance is increased and extended. This sci-fi death cult is the mediatic application of the double cut over and against the dead that Freud elaborates in “Mourning and Melancholia.” But in Lilo it is substitution that counters: you’re either with me or you go join the dead as a fellow goner. She pronounces the paralyzing injunction that Freud attributed to the onset of mourning, which he saw countered and contained by the two-timing of ambivalence, in which elimination for a time preserves. She heads Lars off at the impasse of his underlying funereal fantasy of joining Maren in death or of waiting around until time travel becomes available in forty years so he can go back to visit her in the past. She constructs Lars’s unmourning fixation upon the question, where do the goners go, as a hysterical symptom, a faux incorporation that must yield precedence to the substitute. Lars at first resists the intervention but by the death wish scenario and its psychic quality, which he aptly identifies, he comes closer to the substitute’s truth: “That simple. That simple, anyhow, to the easy scene-fabrication faculty available within the psychopathically-glib human mind” (175). Although psychopathy is the logical counterpart to the empathy for which Dick ceaselessly tests, the term is almost never used in Dick’s fiction. This is the spectacular exception.

The oracle supports Lilo’s paradoxical intervention – her encouragement of his suicidality – and then prescribes that Lars go have sex with her. If this devaluation of melancholia in Dick’s oeuvre seems unique, it is so in tandem with the perspective of the substitute, which for the first time is brought to bear outside the melancholic atmosphere of suspicion of murder.

Can substitution be seen as the quintessential task of super-heroism? It is hard to measure the success of the American superheroes on this score. What they have in common is that in childhood they were confronted too early with grievous loss. The origin of Batman, for example, lies in the murder of his parents, which the boy witnessed. He was bad boy, too poorly constituted to withstand loss. What was good was gone – good and gone – and couldn't be given up. We want those gone for good back for good. What's good in this setting of values can't be bad. The focus of Batman’s ongoing struggle is not on evil alone but on good and evil. The good coupled to evil is not bad. In fact badness is what we lose in this exchange or reversal of values. The unbearable badness of one's feeling deprived of the good, the unbearable prospect of the good being suddenly mortal, disposable, bad, gets circumvented in the context or contest of good versus evil.

The Zap Gun touches on American superhero culture when it turns out that the weapon designs Lars and Lilo were fashioning all these years on their different shores of the faux Cold War opposition originated in the same fantasy space to which a certain Oral Giacomini, the author and artist of the ongoing adventures of The Blue Cephalopod Man from Titan, had equal access. In fact the weapons designs the mediums summoned were featured at the same time on the pages of the comic-book adventures. The creator of this superhero series is an ex-inventor who, but for electroshocks and thalamic-suppressors, would be in complete autistic schizophrenic withdrawal. In sum the superhero fantasy in which weapons fashion designing was telepathically engaged consists of “worthless, grandiose, schizophrenic delusions of world-power” (135).

Another way to put it is that James Bond brings to the status of teen superheroism, in which his license to kill also partakes, the adult profile of the mourner, the composite picture Ian Fleming was assembling for himself in the course of his authorship of the Bond narratives.

Novels like The Zap Gun or The Penultimate Truth prompted Thomas Disch to charge Dick with denial of the grim reality of the Cold War. Another way to put it, however, is that Dick, a self-conscious mourner, picked up on the Cold War’s repressed recent past, the deeply frozen traumatic history of WWII, which inspired his invention of postwar media worlds running on empty. In The Penultimate Truth the simulation of conflict proceeds in tandem with the revisionism of history. World War II is rewritten to motivate the Cold War conflict. In this way West Germany’s irreversible membership by the 1980s in the Wes-Dem-Bloc is retroactively lubed, cleansed of its central role in the traumatic history of the recent past. In novels like The Simulacra or The Unteleported Man Dick depicted in the cooperation between the United States or California and Germany not the Fantasy repression or simulation of the recent past required for the streamlining of the Cold War opposition, but a process of integration, in the sense Klein introduced into the psychoanalytic lexicon to address one of the mechanisms of mourning. Fleming ensconced the disowned recent past within the underworld organization SPECTRE, which he introduced into the world of James Bond at a time of preparation for the crossover into the film medium, the medium of projection and haunting. The third-party organization that manipulates the Cold War opposition to promote its own ends seems crowded with figures from all the columns of conflict and loss during the traumatic history of World War II. SPECTRE, a true underworld, admits all the dead and discounts the former oppositions. In this way Ian Fleming was able to put to rest a vengeful ghost. His father’s death fighting Germany in the trenches of World War I introduced a period of substitution and respite for his son, one that brought him into close and positive contact with German culture. Via SPECTRE he succeeds in getting past this impasse.

This was the subject of my 2013 study SPECTRE. In my 2015 book, Germany: A Science Fiction, I followed Dick’s lead in showing the long and ongoing process of integration, which, stowaway in the Cold War opposition, addressed the problem of psychopathic violence in tandem with that of Germany’s inclusion in the postwar world.

In Dick’s future postwar worlds the process of integration in mourning is performed via time travel, a hub of Oedipal and Christian fantasy, which, however, fails to change traumatic history and lose the losses, but has more to offer by the dead end it sets to the ongoing attempt to reverse time. Time travel functions in The Simulacra, for example, to provide reality training for the would-be travelers in the reality of loss. In The Zap Gun, time travel is a diversion without outcome. But by its blind passage the close quarters in which empathy and psychopathy are interrelated, in particular in the individual case of mourning and substitution, are illuminated.

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