Not that I usually give a fig about being in fashion, but it does feel a bit strange to see Philip K Dick, one of my favourite SF authors, being so popular again. His star seems to rise and wane with alarming regularity – popular in the eighties, less so in the nineties, barely remembered in the noughties, starting to come back in the tens. Much as I like his novels, it’s his short stories that I really admire because they often deal with ideas and theories that probably couldn’t carry a hundred thousand words without veering off into lunacy.
I really like The Hood Maker, the first of his stories to be broadcast as part of Channel 4’s Electric Dreams series, which gave me the idea of reading all the original stories in the order that they were shown – partly because I prefer reading to viewing but also because I have the collected stories somewhere and it seemed a great excuse to dig them out. So before anyone asks – no, I haven’t watched the series and I probably won’t either, so I’m not necessarily aware of any differences between the two.
The central conceit of The Hood Maker is that people’s thoughts are no longer their own; the state employs telepathic mutants (“teeps”) to scan one’s unconscious thoughts and report any disloyalty. The state’s justification is that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to worry about. But some people do feel that there are secrets worth keeping and it isn’t long before strange alloy headbands (the “hoods” of the title) are being received by notable government employees which prevent the teeps from reading their thoughts. The state, unsurprisingly, drafts legislation banning them, but the story ends before the keynote vote (and reveals how it will fare).
Dick was, I suppose, something of a typical Californian libertarian; he was also quite paranoid and so the idea of the government spying on him using telepaths was something he revisited regularly – I suppose the best known version is Minority Report, also originally a short story, where people are arrested for crimes before getting the chance to commit them by (essentially) thought police. It raises questions about whether or not people have the right to keep secrets and the level to which a state can erode civil liberties before it becomes totalitarian. Given that the overwhelming majority of governments run on secrets – otherwise intelligence services wouldn’t be required – you can see why they would be concerned about “disloyalty”, for example. Whether or not it’s ever likely to happen is anyone’s guess – I’m fairly sure that people who have lived through the whims of a totalitarian regime before the fall of Communism would be able to vouch for Dick’s veracity here.
It’s a clever story, and it doesn’t seem dated – a flaw which has befallen a few of his novels, if I’m honest. It has elements of science fiction and spy thriller, which makes me wonder if there is such a thing as spy-ence fiction. On which note, I’ll move on to the next story….