I often wonder what it felt like to read these early science-fiction pulp magazines in the 1950s. Imagine getting home after a busy day at work, preparing a whisky sour and lighting a camel cigarette. In reality, I think the fifties in my part of the world would have been a half-pint of bitter and a puff on the old pipe (that’s tobacco, not crack). However, it all brings a feeling of nostalgia for a time when I didn’t even exist. Also, if you are a bit weird like me, you can always pretend it is 1953. Technological advances in society happen at an earlier time, and your copy of Galaxy Science-Fiction Magazine is delivered straight to your hand-held reading device. Or you could read it, free of nostalgia or visions of unrealistic realities, if you want! In January 1953, The Adventures of Superman was flying onto the television screen, Eddie Fisher and Perry Como sang from Jukeboxes across a rockabilly landscape, and finally, Galaxy Science-fiction presents The Defenders by Philip K. Dick. The story would be later adapted into the novel The Penultimate Truth, 1964.
During eight years of Nuclear War, including eight years of Fear, Men, Women, and Children lived in underground bunkers waiting for a victory to cheer. Above, man-made machines fight to protect their makers, sending down footage of war-torn landscapes and the destruction that awaits us. After many years of tragic events, observers find an issue in their strategic defence. Finally going back above ground to find out the reality of the war, the defenders still try to protect us from humanity’s flaws.
I have enclosed a link to the short story below. The Defenders, by Philip K. Dick, is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included.
The Defenders, Philip K. Dick, 1953.
So, humanity is reduced to nothing more than an earthworm in Philip K. Dick’s new and exciting cautionary tale. I have to admit, I had to sit with this story for a while, and it took numerous re-reads before I could find something to appreciate. I guess this is what Philip K. Dick had to do to put food on the table in his early career. Each one of the short stories I have read up until now has a different flavour to appease the readers of early pulp magazines. However, it must have been a great learning curve to deliver simple messages about society in so many creative ways.
There is no way of getting away from the fact this was written in the early fifties, regardless of the timeless undertones of Philip K. Dick’s observations of society. Taylor, a war planner, is the first character introduced in the story. Philip K. Dick quickly tries to point out that life underground is starting to become restless. Superb writing, as you can also start to feel the tension and isolation begin to build. However, his wife Mary is the over-anxious flapping kitchen hand, giving warmth to her hard-working husband, which feels quite dated and out of touch.
“Taylor looked up at his wife. She was thinking too much about it, the last few months. They all were. “Forget it,” he said. “It’s all in the past. There isn’t anybody up there now but the leadys, and they don’t mind.” “But just the same, I hope they’re careful when they let one of them down here. If one were still hot—” He laughed, pushing himself away from the table. “Forget it. This is a wonderful moment; I’ll be home for the next two shifts. Nothing to do but sit around and take things easy. Maybe we can take in a show. Okay?”
The United States and the Soviet Union have finally done it! A nuclear war so destructive that each nation has fled underground, leaving the leadys to do their fighting. The robots are happy to protect their creators, use their weapons and send video footage of a broken society. However, Taylor receives a call from Moss, an internal programmer for the war effort, and is ordered to visit the lab at once. Both men meet with Commander Franks, and as a trio, I refer to these men as the boy band. Taylor, Moss and Franks all have a different approach to the trouble that lies ahead, each with an individual response to the revelations that come next. The leadys above have been informing the military that the scorched Earth above is radioactive, which Commander Franks has just learnt, is a lie!
I do not know if it’s a sign of the times, but Philip K. Dick missed an opportunity in this story. Franks, Taylor and Moss go to the surface to find out what is happening above ground. There’s a lot of resistance from the leadys, and to be honest, it started to become quite annoying. Maybe that’s the point because I think I would have gone back to my hole in the ground to shut them up. However, a battle begins, with the visitors finally realising that the landscape is no longer radioactive. The Earth is returned to its natural state, glowing with trees, wildlife and breathable air. In the meantime, the leadys seal up the tubes that brought the men above ground, so the team can’t return to their families. Well, for a short time, at least.
Time to get back to the missed opportunity. Commander Franks still wants to fight against the Russians, thinking the Americans have the upper hand against their enemies. However, the soldiers have already dropped their weapons, removed their suits and started to enjoy the fresh air. Taylor cares less about war and more about his relationship with the World. However, I found Moss to be a weak character, and I believe the story would have made more sense to have Mary on the team. Not the neurotic Mary we met earlier, but a woman who is a professional in her field, a partner to Taylor and maybe the voice of reason to the leadys. I think a female point of view would have brought a different dimension to the group and help to make it feel more realistic, in today’s world at least.
I enjoyed this story a lot. After all, I read it four or five times for this review. However, the message of fear in our society is what caught my attention. I can only imagine what Philip K. Dick would have made of the mass media blanket in this modern world. I think twenty-four-hour news coverage would fascinate him while giving him a great sense of anxiety. As I get older, I have noticed that anxiety drips through my veins. I feel lucky enough to remember a time when we had three television channels, one local paper and the daily rags to get the news, and it felt secondary to our everyday life. Today, the world feels far more intense, and the landscape between countries is a little smaller. I understand that global events impact us all and are very important, but will hours and hours of continuous footage make it any better? At some point, it will start to debilitate your mental health, which affects your personal life. For me, it’s that way, but I can’t speak for everyone.
It’s not just the tragedy but constant information that is supposed to make you feel better. Eat your Five Fruit and Veg a Day. Drink a Glass of Red Wine a Day to keep the Doctor away. Alcohol is bad for you. Drink plenty of Water. Walk your 10,000 steps. If you fail to follow all this advice from your leaders, you will combust into a ball of flames whilst watching the news.
Remember Covid? in England, we had the outbreak charts. Each town and city had an individual case count, and I remember the fear creeping in as my local town headed for contagious stardom. Finally, I had to switch off from the insanity, check the government website, and go about my day. I have to say, the feeling of freedom was instant and is something I still try to do today. However, there is always that one breaking story that drags you back into the void.
The thing is, one person can’t worry about the entire Planet. I need to see the tranquillity of Nature, understand the value of Friendship and enjoy the beauty of Art in all its offerings. I make donations, check in on friends, and try to be nice to others. Unfortunately, I can also be cruel sometimes. Please don’t get me wrong! I am not going around booting cats and pushing pensioners over. I don’t mean to be that way, but the environments, incidents and moments in life make me that way. We, as humans, have a wide range of emotions, all clashing with each other at certain times. Unlike the leadys, we are simply not programmed for a single task. All I can do is try harder to be better. That is the uniqueness of humanity. We are all completely different, and not one of us is alike. That is what attracts me to the works of Philip K. Dick. The writer had many layers and was honest enough to share those feelings with his readers. I sometimes don’t get enough fruit and veg, and I like to enjoy things the government warns me against, but I want to enjoy some variety in life. I don’t just read science fiction for a peek into the future. I also want to learn about the past and most definitely want to learn something about today. In the final moments of the story, Philip K. Dick reminds the reader that the leadys vision of the future is not as easy as it seems. The Russians have also escaped their cages, and the two enemies will have to work together if they want to create a new civilisation.
“It has taken thousands of generations to achieve,” the A-class leady concluded. “Hundreds of centuries of bloodshed and destruction. But each war was a step toward uniting mankind. And now the end is in sight: a world without war. But even that is only the beginning of a new stage of history.” “The conquest of space,” breathed Colonel Borodoy. “The meaning of life,” Moss added.”Eliminating hunger and poverty,” said Taylor”
Not too bad for a story that is seventy years old. Sometimes, all you need from a story is a new perspective on life. It also reminded me of some early films that I watched at school as a child. When the Wind Blows, 1986 and Threads, 1984. Both these films made a lasting impression, with Threads scaring the life out of me. I don’t think this is the first time I have mentioned Threads, and I will revisit both of these films very soon.
Thank you for visiting today. What are your thoughts on The Defenders? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.
The Philip K. Dick Vault.