Transcendence of Fiction

PrintThe Electric Ant was far the most reality bending, mind-blowing acid trip of a story I have ever read. Reality is a very baffling aspect of life that can never be explained, and the nature of it’s complex facet can be seen through Philip K Dick’s short story The Electric Ant. After reading such tale, my mind was engulfed and flummoxed by the amount of ideas and theories The Electric Ant entertained with.

Electric Ant has its own rhythm, its own slow grind towards Dick’s proselytizing of reality as a sustained and consensual hallucination. In broad strokes, Garson Poole wakes after an horrendous accident. It’s the near future, and yet. The loss of a hand, something Garson has ostensibly suffered, is still a setback. A slow dread mounts as Garson prepares himself for living with the best prosthesis future-money can buy. And yet, the absence of pain, and the absence of phantom-limb complex allows for an entirely other kind of dread to steadily mount. Why is there no pain?

Garson Poole of course is the titular Electric Ant, parlance for an organic robot. Garson Poole is an object, property that is owned, that has been traded, positioned into an artificial life, and ultimately is replaceable. His steady relationship with his partner, his friendship with his corporation’s CFO; these are nothing more than controls implemented by Poole’s perennially unseen owners.

How scary is having to reconfigure your life after the loss of a limb? It really is nothing compared with the deletion of a history. It was 1969 and PKD crafted a tale of pure terror. Electric Ant was and remains an exhilarating ride into fear, where perpetually unseen forces dehumanize the human spirit.  Electric Ant is also the unfurling of the human spirit. Taking his existence into his own hands, Garson Poole begins to manipulate the paper reel that runs his punch-card code that controls his reality. Garson Poole, on the terms of his new existence, begins to edit the code that represents his reality. And he slips anonymously away from objecthood into personhood. Very literally, Garson Poole re-humanizes himself. There is an indomitable refrain that appears. Not just in Poole’s courage to manipulate reality, but in PKD also. It is 1969. And PKD’s idea of reality being locked into place as a perception of a wide spectrum of possibility, narrowed to one code that must constantly re-run is 15 years ahead of Kanerva’s famous algorithm of distributed memory. It can be obviously dictated that the impact of PKD’s work is immense. It is a wave, reaching backwards in time as far as it crests forward.

However, with all this said there is also another theory that has unraveled itself through research of PKD himself. The theory of how there is a parallel that can be observed through the story of The Electric Ant with hallucinatory drug experimentation. PKD acquired a reputation as a “psychedelic writer” during the late sixties because of his fiction. In a interview, he even stated that he had a big drug problem, however it was only from prescription amphetamine abuse. To paraphrase from his explanation of his experience from lsd, the landscape froze over. God was judging him as a sinner and it went on for a thousand years. He could only speak Latin and the only part that captivated him was that when he looked in the refrigerator he saw that it was full of stalactites and stalagmites. Convenient and interesting how such a simply experiment can relate to so much of the experience explained within Electric Ant. Although many people including myself may prefer the first theory of PKD being ages ahead of his time, it doesn’t dispute the second theory that maybe he just got lucky with all the drug experimentation. However, no matter what PKD still transcended time with his story writing and opened up a whole new landscape of fiction and theory.

10 thoughts on “Transcendence of Fiction”

  1. Cool fact about PKD using drugs for inspiration, it sounds like a similar situation to Lewis Carroll and his creation of, “Alice in Wonderland,” because there’s also a theory that he wrote the story while on LSD.
    As to why he feels no pain, that’s a good question. Presumably manufacturers would want the robots to be as close to human as possible, so it would make sense for them to build a pain senor in him, in order to keep the illusion of humanity going. However I think an explanation might be that to feel pain serves no “useful” purpose, and so maybe he was programmed not to feel pain? I could be wrong because he feels his tongue burning at the end of the story, but that seems like a different sensation that losing an arm.

    1. Hi! Emma I thought the correlation you made with PKD’s drug use and Lewis Carroll’s creation of “Alice in Wonderland” was really interesting as it totally blanked out of my mind. Other than that I also really liked the way you replied to the reason of why he felt no pain. Dissimilar to your thought, I think it’s what truly separates humans from electric ants. Although it’s easy to to say that it could have been coded within him I also really don’t see a reason of it as you mentioned. If pain was to be the pressing factor of certain emotions such as anguish and sadness, wouldn’t it be easier to just encode those to certain actions instead of rerouting a longer transition of emotion. Thus i do believe that the lack of emotion is the symbol of an electric ant.

    2. Building on what Emma mentioned about using drugs for inspiration pretty much all the early Looney Tunes and Disney Cartoons featuring early version of Mickey Mouse were also heavily fueled by LSD. Hence the highly trippy nature of these cartoons.

  2. The fact that he feels no pain is something I didn’t think much about until now. I believe that pain does serve a purpose, as it reminds us that we are alive. It also serves as a survival mechanism to an extent, because it generally is a result of something being wrong with the body. Logically it makes sense for them to have programmed him to feel pain just as humans do, so I wonder if there was perhaps a reason that they programmed him to feel no pain. Did the humans want to keep one thing that would make them unique from the electric ants? Did they perhaps want to keep the feeling of truly being alive to themselves?

    1. I agree with what Emma is saying. In many ways Poole’s creators definitely blurred the lines between whether his ability to feel pain is to make him more human and give him a sense of humanity, or if it meant to allow him to suffer and realize he never fully be a human being. Another thing to think about, if the creators wanted to keep the feeling of being truly alive to themselves which is represented by pain what does that say about humanity? Should the ability to feel pain and suffer be the defining characteristic or one of the defining characteristics of what is means to be human?

      1. Responding to this idea of pain being a defining characteristic of what it means to be human, I think that pain is something humans need to survive. It is your bodies way of telling you that what you are doing will damage you. Without pain, a person could literally bite their own finger off, as if it were a carrot. In Electric Ant, the absence of pain does not indicate that his creators wanted him to suffer or realize he could never fully be a human.

  3. Again about the loss of his arm: Can we know whether Mr. Poole felt pain before losing his arm? We can infer that he did because he knows what pain is. Perhaps the lack of pain in his arm is symbolic of his lack of humanity, which he never knew about until he was told by the doctors that he is not real. Of course, he does mention his tongue burning as he “dies,” but dying is an inherently living trait. Do robots truly live? Poole seems to. Should robots be treated as humans? The first sentence of this blog post perfectly encompasses this short story.

  4. I like how Emma P remarked that pain reminds us that we are alive. Therefore, the absence of pain clearly signaled that something unusual was going on with Poole. Also, reading a little about PKD’s was interesting, and I would not be surprised if he really had been on drugs while he wrote this story.

  5. I thought the part about PKD’s drug usage was really interesting. It kind of explains the story more because it is such an unusual topic that seems like it could have been one of his experiences while on drugs. This reminded me of the novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” by Hunter S. Thompson, where the main characters go to Las Vegas and trip on acid the entire time. They have crazy experiences, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if PKD was inspired by his drug use to write The Electric Ant.

  6. Hi everybody, after reading your replies it seem to me that everybody is much more interested in PKD’s drug use with the story than any otehr factor introduced thus i have a new topic of interest for you guys. As professor Watkins mentioned to me, many authors have used substances to “help” their work, thus raising the question of whether the use of drugs diminishes PKD’s story. “If anything, PKD’s own biography and experimentation proves the point of the story-that consciousness and our perception of the world is fragile and subject to drastic alteration” was also something Prof Watkins mentioned about my post. Personally, i think that any use of drugs for a enhancement of performance is unfair. Just as it would be treated in sports, it gives an unfair advantage, although it’s not as drastic as the enhancement of athletes it’s still not justifiable. How would one feel if they found our that the stories of their most beloved author were all based of one crazy acid trip and that anybody could come up with the subject. Ironically, as Prof. Watkins indicated, it alludes to how Poole wakes up to realize his whole life was based on a lie. Thus, personally I would conclude that it does diminish the integrity of such astounding thoughts, however it’s still analogous with knowledgable literature. What do you think, class?

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