“The Last of the Masters”
by Philip K. Dick
1954, Orbit Science Fiction #5
I like Philip K. Dick. I appreciate how earnestly weird he is. Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep meant almost as much to teenaged me as Blade Runner did. Dick was a pioneer of science fiction that explores the mental and spiritual landscape instead of just outer space.
“The Last of the Masters” is one of his first stories (technically a novellete, I suppose) and was published when he was 25. It’s also, in my research thus far, the only story he’s written that explicitly deals with anarchism.
The little man with beard and glasses leaped up. “There’s nobody here has anything to do with governments! We’re all good people!”
The story (which is public domain and may be read online) takes place 200 years after a worldwide anarchist revolution has knocked civilization back a number of pegs. There’s no government anymore, and people apparently live in villages and towns, eking out their livings from the land. There’s a market economy, and these small-town anarchists are xenophobic and lecherous.
The only anarchist organization is the Anarchist League, a collection of (presumably autonomous) cells that wander the earth on foot, monklike, wielding iron staves and fighting against any who attempt to reform government.
One protagonist is one such anarchist. The other protagonist is a government robot.
Oh, right. Philip K. Dick wrote this story. So the government that the anarchists destroyed had been run by Masters, which were benevolent dictatorial robots. And apparently the revolutionists missed one in their purge, and the robot has rebuilt a little industrial civilization in a valley, complete with war machine and strict hierarchy.
It’s a morally ambiguous story about “anarchy” and government as opposing forces. But the anarchy suggested is far more of a “return to a government-less world” than the anarchism advocated by the majority of anarchist thinkers and activists—if nothing else, we rarely endorse market economies. Dick presents a world of communities that haven’t come up with any new ideas about how to live in the absence of the old one.
The government exampled in the story is intentionally inhuman and extreme—the governing robot is incapable of selfish thought and represents benign dictatorship, that impossible ideal. And, once again, it’s Philip K. Dick, so really the robot is explicitly Jesus-like. As the author states:
Now I show trust of a robot as leader, a robot who is the suffering servant, which is to say a form of Christ. Leader as servant of man; leader who should be dispensed with — perhaps. An ambiguity hangs over the morality of this story. Should we have a leader or should we think for ourselves? Obviously the latter, in principle. But — sometimes there lies a gulf between what is theoretically right and that which is practical.
The anarchist society is poor and dirty and presumably not remarkably safe. The government society is inhuman and fanatical, war-like and doomed.
When my friend handed me a copy of the story to read, he told me it was libelous against us and he questioned what left Dick with an axe to grind against anarchists. But I don’t buy that interpretation. One could just as easily propose the opposite: by representing government as inherently inhuman, Dick is advocating for self-rule. Of course, that’s an over-simplified reading as well. Dick’s not taking sides, he’s just attacking an exaggerated anarchism and an exaggerated government.
This story, by my reading, is neither libel nor advocacy, just a thought experiment by someone only peripherally versed in anarchism. Which frankly doesn’t make it feel all that valuable to the conversation.
As an aside, what the hell is up with his obsession with talking about character’s breasts? Every woman presented is sexualized in her description, even the protagonist’s daughter.
“His daughter’s canvas shirt clung moistly to her arms and breasts. […] Under her jeans her thigh muscles rippled wearily.”
Another woman has just unbuttoned her blouse because of the heat and “sweat streaked her tanned skin. Her half-covered breasts trembled with the motion of the car.”
And so it goes. Women exist to get captured and rescued, and the brawny man can save everyone. It’s been too many years since I’ve read anything else by Dick so I can’t compare this casual sexism to his other works. At the very least, I’ll say that the fifties sure were weird.
At least the politics in the story aren’t black and white, though. And I’d be more than happy to wander the world on foot with an iron staff and smash governments.