Philip K. Dick and the Science Fiction of God

Does everyone else know the joke about the cat, the steak, and eating Jesus?

I came late to the Philip K. Dick party.  I suppose I had been vaguely aware of Dick’s work—maybe via Bladerunner—but I was fooled by the ‘science fiction’ label.  I like some scifi, but most of it leaves me pretty cold.

This year, I came across a reference to a posthumous publication of Dick’s unpublished theological rantings, Exegesis.  For someone like me, keenly interested in theological questions but utterly without religion, Dick’s meanderings came as a welcome bar-talk sort of theological seminar.

I picked up some of Dick’s novels.  I started with Valis, the fictionalization of Dick’s Damascus Road experience.   Apparently in real life, Dick experienced a beam of intelligent light.  The beam told him things he could not have known, such as the cause of his son’s vague health complaints.  What was this contact?  God?  LSD?  Psychosis?  Dick’s work seems like a steady stream of fictionalized meditations on all of these possibilities.  As apparently everyone knew but me, the label “science fiction” seems less apt than “theological fiction.”

The theme of divinity, insanity, and the fragility of humanity run through all the novels of the 1960s and 1970s that I’ve been reading this summer.  Here at ILYBYGTH we’ve been wondering lately about the Catholic mystery of transubstantiation.  Here is how Dick wrestled with the issue in his 1965 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch:

“Anne said, ‘What met Eldritch and entered him, what we’re confronting, is a being superior to ourselves and as you say we can’t judge it or make sense out of what it does or wants; it’s mysterious and beyond us.  But I know you’re wrong, Barney.  Something which stands with empty, open hands is not God.  It’s a creature fashioned by something higher than itself, as we were; God wasn’t fashioned and He isn’t puzzled.’

            “ ‘I felt,’ Barney said, ‘about him a presence of the deity.  It was there.’  Especially in that one moment, he thought, when Eldritch shoved me, tried to make me try. 

            “ ‘Of course,’ Anne agreed.  ‘I thought you understood about that; He’s here inside each of us and in a higher life form such as we’re talking about He would certainly be even more manifest.  But—let me tell you my cat joke.  It’s very short and simple.  A hostess is giving a dinner party and she’s got a lovely five-pound T-bond steak sitting on the sideboard in the kitchen waiting to be cooked while she chats with the guests in the living room—has a few drinks and whatnot.  But then she excuses herself to go into the kitchen to cook the steak—and it’s gone.  And there’s the family cat, in the corner, sedately washing its face.’

            “ ‘The cat got the steak,’ Barney said.

            “ ‘Did it?  The guests are called in; they argue about it.  The steak is gone, all five pounds of it; there sits the cat, looking well-fed and cheerful.  “Weigh the cat,” someone says.  They’ve had a few drinks; it looks like a good idea.  So they go into the bathroom and weigh the cat on the scales.  It reads exactly five pounds.  They all perceive the reading and one guest says, “Okay, that’s it.  There’s the steak.” They’re satisfied that they know what happened, now; they’ve got empirical proof.  Then a qualm comes to one of them and he says, puzzled, “But where’s the cat?”

            “ ‘I heard that joke before,’ Barney said.  ‘And anyhow I don’t see its application.’

            “Anne said, ‘That joke poses the finest distillation of the problem of ontology every invented.  If you ponder it long enough—’

            “ ‘Hell,’ he said angrily, ‘it’s five pounds of cat; it’s nonsense—there’s no steak if the scale shows five pounds.’

            “ ‘Remember the wine and the wafer,’ Anne said quietly.

            “He stared at her.  The idea, for a moment, seemed to come through.”

Get it?  I’m not sure I do.  But, then, I’m not sure I really know what the entire business of transubstantiation is all about.  Maybe it only makes sense if we are settlers on Mars.