“Something is wrong. I don’t mean with you or me or with any person. I mean in general." --Ragle Gumm

Monday, February 20, 2012

PKD’s “Stability” as a Quantum of Pure Perception

A story does not have to mean anything in order for it to give pleasure and astonishment. Philip K. Dick’s “Stability” is a perfect example. It is a mind-bending adventure in which events leap frog from one to another so that the story does not become fixed or predictable. At the end, all of the events of the story come together in a singular, multi-layered reality.

Robert Benton sits in the office of the Controller, who is an official in a totalitarian state. The Controller’s job is to keep civilization from disintegrating after it has attained its highest achievements. Stabilization is the mantra of government control. No progress, no falling back. Stasis. Anybody who might potentially upset stability is killed.

The Controller tells Benton that his invention, a time machine, has been rejected for use by the Control Board because it would endanger stability. Benton, however, says he never invented one. He doesn’t know that he has already built and used it because he is talking to the controller from a time before he built it. Nevertheless, Benton sets off to retrieve the time machine, which is being kept in a gigantic array of offices where a thousand men and women serve the machine which keeps the world in a state of stability.

At home Benton is puzzled by the machine. When he turns it on, he is suddenly in a new world, which is not earth as he knows it. There are forests and abundant fields of grain. When he finds a small glass globe and starts to pick it up, a voice urgently tells him not to. Doing so would upset stability. The voice tells Benton that he is under the control of the glass globe and that it is evil. The voice is the guardian of the globe. Its purpose is to prevent the globe from being broken open. Ignoring the voice, Benton takes the globe back to where he left the time machine.  

Under the influence of the globe, Benton returns to the Controller, who does not recognize Benton because Benton is now in a time after he built the machine while the Controller exists in a time before. Benton is astonished to realize that time has shifted. He leaves the time machine and plans with the Controller.

The Controller and the Control Council, from somewhere in time after both visits, discuss the  detection by the stability machine of an imminent destabilizing event. The time machine!

With no idea as to what is actually transpiring (or has transpired), the Controller and the Council rush to Benton’s apartment in order to retrieve the time machine. Benton is perplexed when they ask for it. He does not have the machine because he just left it at the Controller’s office. He does, however, have the globe, which has been telling him about its plans. The Controller discovers the globe and tells everybody that there is an evil city inside it and that the globe wants to be smashed so that the city can escape.

After a struggle with the Controller, Benton smashes the globe and releases into the room the “accursed city,” which sweeps all those in it into a reality where giant machines of “raging power” have reduced humanity to “sweating, stooped, pale men, twisting in their efforts to keep the roaring furnaces of steel and power happy.”  Benton’s awareness of his former life is quickly subsumed into this devastating world.

The ending is a shock but it opens the door to multiple perceptions of the events that precede it and begs for interpretation.

From one perception, these machines are the the stability machines of the future. They are a product of the decree imposed upon civilization by the Control Council far back in time.  The use of the time machine has destabilized civilization, which has disintegrated as predicted into the scenario of the evil city.

From a second perception, stasis has been maintained but the relationship between humanity and machine has become grotesque. The stability machines are serviced as in the past, but they have assumed dominance and become the tyranny of human life.

From a third perception, the stability machines operate outside of cause and effect and are not subject to the flow of time. From here past, present, and future are conjoined. The machines themselves are the source of time and function therefore as an evil entity.

Beyond these multiple layers of perception, a single image connects the events of the story into a whole as a quantum of pure, unmediated perception. The discrete image of Benson reaching down to pick up the globe for the first time is the story’s real and only “stability,” a source point through which all the other events of the story pass regardless of what meaning or time frame is attached them. Unfortunately, human beings have no access to this transcendent reality and can, therefore, never know stability.

Beyond that, one can project an infinite number of such discrete existences . . . 


  1. I just read that this story was originally written in 1947 when Dick was still in high school! It was not published until after his death. Perhaps it was an invention that did not exist until after it was published, and only retroactively was conceived...and that since we were both born in 1947, we ourselves were brought into being in the PKD universe simultaneously with this story. Whether this means we invented PKD or he invented us is an open question.

  2. Perhaps PKD inside a bubble reality resting on some devastated landscape waiting for folks like us to pick it up and release his reality. There must, indeed, be lots of PKD bubbles, many of which will be heading soon to SF to look at each other drifting through the open spaces of the meeting hall. I'm particularly fond of the bubbles that burst open in 1947. They likely have a quality to them that informs the younger, less seasoned time voyagers. Is 1947 a starting point, or is that where/when the controls are?