Philip K. Dick’s fiction offers us a deeply psychological reading of the relationship between humans and objects, or between the notion “human” and the notion “thing”. PKD imagines the future, the present and the past in ways that make even normal scenes of everyday life – sitting down to dinner, playing in the backyard – seem alien and uncanny. “The Father-Thing” is an example of a story that can act as a kind of prototype for the science fictional “thing”. I will use Lacan’s mirror stage as well as some details from Dick’s text to show how “The Father-Thing” presents the Thing as a psychological force.
By reading PKD’s “The Father-Thing,” I want to show that there are two related ways that “thingness” often plays a role in science fiction. The first is the motif of “the Thing as alien Other,” either represented as something that gets inside you and takes over, or as a thing which takes the form of radical alterity. Things are radically other, and they have a propensity to get inside us and affect or control us. These aspects account for much of the disturbing or horrific character of the story.
The second role thingness plays in this story is related to the first, and is perhaps a special case of the first: the thing is a mirror image. It looks like me, talks like me, but isn’t the psychological “I”; rather, the thing is externalized “I”, the Ego-as-object. The Thing reflects myself back to myself, either faithfully or as a distortion. Lacan will be a useful starting point to show how these texts illustrate the human being as it is mediated through the thing-ness of its double.
Lacan’s Mirror Stage
Lacan’s famous essay “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function” will serve as a useful template for the interpretation of alien otherness to follow. For Lacan, the mirror stage represents the period of development when the “I” recognizes itself as an image, consequently recognizing itself as a “whole”, when until that time it had seen itself as a collection of parts. The self encounters itself as Other, as an external self rather than the disjointed set of affective experiences by which life has so far been characterized. (Lacan hypothesizes that the mirror stage typically occurs between six and eighteen months of age.) Mediated through the mirror image, a child understands itself as an object in the world, an object which has a relationship to other objects and other people. Rather than the “I” as it is experienced, however, the mirror image represents an “Ideal-I”, or the perfectly whole self that the child wishes to be. The notion of an ideal self does not square with lived experience. We are born, and remain for our entire lives, physically vulnerable to, and psychologically under siege by the pressures of the outside world, and increasingly, the modern world of technological production and consumption. Lacan recognizes “in the spatial capture manifested by the mirror stage, the effect in man, even prior to his social dialectic, of an organic inadequacy in his natural reality…” (77) That is, in the recognition of our selves in the “imago” (the image of our self) we are ever haunted by the difference between our experience of self and the ideal I. This haunting is the source of what Lacan calls “paranoiac knowledge”, which he claims is the structure of all human knowledge. (77)
The mirror image represents for the young child its first realization that the self is separate from other things, that it has independence; this is Lacan’s interpretation of the joy (jouissance) that children take in their first recognition of themselves in the mirror. Human being for Lacan has the structure of the Double. Recognition of the thingness of our bodies through a misrecognition of our self in the mirror image is the key to the development or growth of human being in consciousness and other social powers. The double-ness of the human self – its experience as a subject and at the same time as an object, its sense that it is not really itself, or that something is missing – is grounded in the very basic psychoanalytic notion that human egos are at the intersection between the Innenwelt and Umwelt (inner world and external world, or environment).
“The Father-Thing” plays with the notion of inner and outer existence, as well as with the paranoia that is expressed in the appearance of the thing that is the alien double.
Charles, having run away from the father-thing at dinner, discovers the dried, lifeless skin of his real father in the garbage bin in the garage. The skin is all that is left of his father: “The insides were gone. The important part. This was all that remained, just the brittle, cracking skin, wadded down at the bottom of the trash barrel in a little heap. This was all the father-thing had left; it had eaten the rest. Taken the insides – and his father’s place.” (103-4) Charles is caught up short, and the narration does a double-take by repeating “all that is left”, “taken the insides”. It is as though Charles needs time to process this horrifying fact: his father, who previously was whole, is now separated into pieces. Even though the story announces that the Thing has eaten the insides, considering the shed skin, like the dried husk of a snake, it almost seems as though the Thing has been unleashed from within, escaped from the dark Innenwelt of his father’s psyche.
So here Dick creates a tension between two aspects of thing-ness. First, he shows that as humans we are constituted by an inside and an outside. The inside is the “important part” and is in some way the dangerous part, either because it can be unleashed or because it can be taken and replaced by the insidious Other. This replacement is the second aspect of thing-ness. What haunts and horrifies in this story is what Lacan calls “paranoiac knowledge”: the very distinction between the apperceptive experience of self and the Double image that idealizes our self as external object. Paranoia here has distinct political consequences as well.
In a move much like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (dir. Siegel, 1952) or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), the “thing” in Dick’s short story is an alien Other that gets inside and inhabits the role of its human target, takes over their body, spreads its malevolent control. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was meant to both evoke the horror of aliens but also reflect the Second Red Scare, politicizing purely imaginative fiction to underscore the conflict between independent humans (democratic Americans) and the infiltrating aliens (Russian communists). The Thing that takes control of a human is an allegory of the internalization of control that Foucault historicizes in his work. Or, from the perspective of the politically paranoid subject, alien Things (read: immigrants, spies, foreigners) are out to get us, to take our jobs and our land and our freedom; in other words, to take over.
We see this paranoia of usurpation clearly in Dick’s story not only in the kidnapping of the bodies of the father, and soon the mother and Charles himself, but also in the clear Oedipal conflict that occurs between Charles and the father-thing: “‘What’s got into you?’ He pointed sternly at the boy’s chair. ‘You sit down there and eat your dinner, young man. You mother didn’t fix it for nothing.’” (102) What begins as a benign, everyday example of parental authority darkens into the realm of terror, and a physical contest between father and son. “‘Ted went on eating. His face was grim; his eyes were hard and dark. ‘That kid,’ he grated, ‘is going to have to learn a few things. Maybe he and I need to have a little private conference together.’” (102) “Private conference” suggests the worst. Again, we encounter the everyday words of authority as if they have the ring of sinister plans behind them. “‘You have a spanking coming, Charles,’ the father-thing droned on. ‘What got into you? Your poor mother’s out of her mind with worry.’” (108) The “droning” of the father reminds us that he is in fact a drone, not a human any longer. He is a Thing to be feared and destroyed. Charles frames his fear as a reaction against the alien presence, but the father expresses his position as one of stern and punitive authority. The struggle against internal and external control is at the heart of the story, and this struggle is both psychological and political.
The climax of the story comes when Charles comes face-to-face with the “Charles-thing”, the alien doppelgänger that is meant to eat him and take his place, just as the father-thing has done to Charles’ father. “The Charles-thing’s mouth opened and closed. It reached greedily toward Charles.” (110) The thing-ly representation of the self is horrifying and threatening. It reaches toward Charles like the child reaches toward its image in the Lacanian mirror. Charles can “grow up” or become independent when he confronts (and in this case destroys) the alien thing which threatens to overwhelm him.
The Thing is an alien and in this case is a double or mirror image, something that threatens to surpass or overcome us – but certainly a force that haunts us, resulting in the intensely paranoid character of this story and of Dick’s work in general. It should be clear, though, that through “The Father-Thing” we can show that human beings become humans as such through a developmental process that forces the human to confront their relationship to objects and things, either the objects around them or the objects that are them.
The notion of growth and development plays a key role in “The Father-Thing”: the larval alien things which grow in the darkness of the bamboo are symbolic of the growth of the thingness of the human, but also the conflict between Charles and his father is essentially an Oedipal struggle for self-control and independence.
The “thing” as a threat is ultimately a threat that comes from within ourselves. The threatening object in science fiction is an emblem of the fear we have of our own vulnerability, of our own mortality. The horror of a dead body – the human as thing – and the horror of the alien thing that overtakes us and devours us is a matter of coming to terms with the facticity of our being. We are objects among objects, things among things, and our recognition of this elemental fact is important for a truer understanding of cultural reality.
Dick, Philip K. “The Father-Thing”. The Philip K. Dick Reader. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub. Group, 1997. Print.
Lacan, Jacques, Héloïse Fink, and Bruce Fink. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function”. Ecrits: the first complete edition in English. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006. Print.