Review: “The Little Black Box” by Philip K Dick

  Philip K. Dick’s “The Little Black Box” is the short story where he first introduces Mercerism and Empathy Boxes, devices that play a central rôle in his 1968 Novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I’ve mentioned it a couple of times now, so I figured I’d go ahead and review it so that we can have a bit more context on the novel.

Dick, like many authors, especially in the SF genre, reused names and concepts fairly often. I think it’s important, however, that we approach individual texts as independent units; while it’s likely that an author who uses a character or a piece of fictional technology in two texts is exploring similar concepts in both, it’s probably a mistake to assume that both texts take place within the same fictional, but internally consistent world, unless we are explicitly told as much. Even Lovecraft, whose world remained remarkably consistent between stories, was uninhibited about altering elements as needed to convey a given feeling or idea. So, while I think reading “The Little Black Box” can give us a great deal of insight into the background landscape of ideas that Dick was drawing from when he was writing Do Androids Dream, we must at the same time be careful not to smuggle in too many assumptions and, of course, where the two texts may conflict, give primacy to the internal world of the text in question.

Briefly, the story centers on the first emergence of Mercerism on Earth, and the efforts of Earth governments to track down the leadership of the movement and suppress it. The story follows Joan Hiashi, an academic expert on Zen Buddhism, and her romantic partner Ray Meritan, a telepath, covert Mercerite, and prominent Jazz Harpist. The US State Department (secretly working with the government of Communist China) sends Hiashi on an ersatz mission to Cuba to spread dissent, where a Chinese telepath is to scan her for information on Meritan, who they believe to be one of the leaders of Mercerism. Action ensues.

Already we can see Dick’s experimentation with the concept of simulacra and layered realities, albeit in a less aggressive form than in Do Androids Dream. Hiashi’s academic trip to Cuba is really a subversive mission to spread counter-communist ideologies, but it’s really a ploy to extract information to her. The dissident professer who meets her is really a communist telepath, but he’s really an agent of her own government. Do Androids Dream focuses centrally on exploring the nature and implications of convincing deceptions and the uncertainty that comes with their ubiquity, while in “Black Box” that matter is more of a theme or mood than a primary line of inquiry.

For example, the psychological reality of the characters themselves is never called into question the way that it is in Do Androids Dream. There is a plenty of “free indirect” discourse, where the thoughts of characters are reported as part of the narration without “he thought” or “she said to herself” tags. Of course, the reality of internality isn’t in question here the same way that it is in Androids – it is implied by the reality of telepathy. But importantly, this demonstrates that the narrative distance from Rick’s thoughts in Androids is not merely a stylistic tic of Dick’s – he is capable of giving, and apt to give, an unmoderated view into the minds of his characters. In light of this, it’s clear that not to do so in Androids is an intentional stylistic decision. This nicely reinforces our interpretation of it as serving a specific narrative purpose – namely, to keep readers in the air about the brightline between the mind of a human and the minds of other sorts of things.

“The Little Black Box” is set in a world that seems much less distant from our own (that is, from Dick’s) than Do Androids Dream. There are no hovercars or choking radioactive dust. There are few indications that it might be set in a sci-fi future. Most obvious is the seemingly unextraordinary presence of telepaths. Another is the casual use of the term “non-terran” and its slangy contraction “non-T” to refer to alien life: Earth governments suspect that Mercerism may be a non-T plot, even though the existence of intelligent non-T life remains uncertain. The existence of widespread colloquialism to refer to off-world entities seems to very subtly point to an enlarged space program. But besides these, and the generally less chilly relations between the US and Communist governments than existed at the time Dick was writing, the world of “Black Box” is pretty much indistinguishable from a mundane mid-20th century. Where Androids is allegorical, “Black Box” is speculative: Dick asks, what if Mercerism suddenly appeared in our world? How would we react to a fully verisimilar religious experience? One piped in through the TV that we could simply passively receive? For that matter, how would the government react?

This is one of the critical differences between the two stories: in Androids, Mercerism is fully approved of and supported by the world’s governments, to the extent that the whole thing may be a state-sponsored invention. In “Black Box”, on the other hand, it’s viewed as dangerously subversive, a threat to be stamped out at almost any cost. This raises an almost certainly oversimplistic question: for Dick, is Mercerism a good thing or a bad thing? Both worlds read as dystopian: in “Black Box” the state is scheming, murderous, Machiavellian, and oppressive. In Androids, the government is at best questionably ethical, and at worst may not even exist per se, outside of a network of mostly-autonomous, thoroughly corrupt fiefdoms. So on one side of the issue, we have a brutal cold war espionage state, and on the other we have a nuke-scorched slave state dystopia. This doesn’t make the decision of which team to join easy. We’ll need a different metric by which to evaluate the question.

Wilbur Mercer’s self-sacrificial martyrdom begs analogies with Jesus, and perhaps the history of Christianity can shed light on the question of Mercerism’s social and spiritual rôle. The nascent Mercerism of “Black Box” could be compared with early Christianity, when it was a persecuted cult (feeding Christians to lions and all that). Likewise, the ubiquitous Mercerism of Androids could be compared with later Christianity as the state religion of the decadent and collapsing Roman Empire. This metaphorical identity with Christianity helps to resolve some of the more confusing questions about Mercerism in Androids: yes, it is a consumerist religion deployed by the state to pacify people who have every right to be dissatisfied. Yet at the same time, there is something genuine about the experience of faith that transcends the limited and oppressive way that it is deployed by power structures. This is basically the way that Dick portrays his experience of christianity in “How to Build a Universe”.

Dick’s writings are nothing if not inviting of interpretation. (Seriously, check out Valis.) When reading a text as laden with symbolism and allegory as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, we can use all the help we can get, and by checking out one of Dick’s staging grounds for central ideas in that book like simulacra, interiority, and weirdo technoreligion, we can approach a sometimes difficult text with a well-stocked critical toolbox.

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5 Responses to Review: “The Little Black Box” by Philip K Dick

  1. PKD professes in “How to Build a Universe…” that we’re living in the time of Jesus right now. If I understand him correctly, he’s convinced that everything that we think has already happened is happening right now. This goes with your first point that the SF universe constantly reuses names and ideas in unrelated stories. I wonder what role history plays in PKD’s universe of stories. Would the Mercerite story in “Little Black Box” ultimately take place at the same time as Do Androids Dream? Or are we experiencing a different time period in each story?

  2. I like what you said about the free indirect discourse in Dick’s short story vs. the very overt statement that these are the characters thoughts in the novel– I think it brings to the surface the sort of assumption we made in class that this was, in fact, very purposeful; this brings up the obvious question of Rick: android or not?, as well as what creates interioirty– if it’s this very coherent, sentence-structured thought process, wouldn’t android be capable of this level of interiority that we experience via the narrator’s presentation of Rick?

  3. fearthefin says:

    Agreeing with what confusionissects has already said, as soon as I read your graf about Dick’s lack of the “he said” and “he thought to himself” indicators, I heaved a sigh of relief. That smack-in-the-face exposition was so distracting for me while reading Do Androids Dream? that I almost couldn’t take the work as a whole seriously. I’m relieved to hear that Dick doesn’t sprinkle those unnecessary narrative techniques in all his writings, and I’m now eager to read “The Little Black Box” to contrast his stylistic choices.

    I agree with what you you (mercerism) suggest: that “the narrative distance from Rick’s thoughts” is done so not necessarily to make readers question whether he is an android, but more to tread the murky waters of empathy versus apathy. That is, I feel that Rick’s distanced thinking functions similarly to Resch’s cold-hearted killing, as a way for Dick to shade in the gray areas surrounding the question of empathy and humanity.

    As far as confusionissects’ question about the interiority of androids, I actually think that the previous post (“The Mind Decoded”) can offer some insight. haroldetmaude states that Jack Gallant and his team of researchers have trained computers to retain rudimentary learning and recognize certain patterns. That certainly points toward the idea that androids’ brains would function similarly (seamlessly?) to humans’. However, as the review later concedes, “scientists cannot get an entirely clear image of what is going on inside the participant’s brain.” Though Rick’s “he thought to himself” processes seem to convey a sense of android-esque apathy, a perfect and removed thought process would still be impossible for androids. I think it goes back to the Chinese Room; androids might have similar end results to humans like Rick, but they couldn’t possibly replicate exactly the mechanisms of the human mind — and they couldn’t reproduce the self-awareness inherent to Rick’s thought process.

  4. teithabess says:

    I was excited to see that PKD had developed the concept of the empathy box over time, and one of the things I found most interesting are the differing circumstances in which Mercerism emerges. The dystopia of “Androids” seems like the perfect environment for a new religion to emerge organically (as opposed to it being a government conspiracy). While I think it works as a possible placation tactic, using Mercerism to fuel capitalism is a little too conspiracy-theorist for me, considering its complexity, though I’m up for a debate. Yet after reading about “Wilcer, Incorporated” distributing the empathy boxes in “Black Box,” and even the “peddler” handing out cereal cartons to instruct Mercerites on how to build their own boxes, I’m a little more convinced that PKD had extreme conspiracy on his mind. Now why he switched the role of the government (to make story have fewer parallels to Christianity? to get a heightened sense of conspiracy in there?) can only be speculation, but at least the change resulted in a completely different story.

  5. Pingback: The Little Black Box | Philip K. Dick Review

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