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Reflections: Agency in The World Jones Made (Philip K. Dick)

Written in 1956 The World Jones Made shows some startling insight into a post apocalyptic 1950s America.

It asks a bold question. If a man can see his personal future as if it was his present, then when he acts is it because he decides to do so or because he was fated. What then is man? At the whim of an unrelenting universal nothing, or a driving force against that.In dramatic terms, agency – that is the action of the characters, their goals, desires, wants – is what drives a story. What keeps it for falling down on itself.

How then does Dick write a character seemingly at the whim of fate so they still have agency?

Jones talks about himself, not as if he knows the future but as if he lives in the future with a foot in the past. Reliving over again stuff he’s already lived as if his life force is displaced one year forward, and his body stuck in the present.

This is problematic. When Jones acts in the present he acts with full knowledge of the future, or at least the next year – in fact he acts only to fulfil what in his mind has already happened. Technically this is not a dramatic action. There is no character agency here, in the sense that a character decides they want something and then chases it.

Jones doesn’t feel like he lives in the present, instead he feels like he lives a year in the future on that edge where the unknown becomes known. As if Jones is a third party voyeur on his own life.

Jones (as voyeur on his future) then does not know what his future self is going to do at any moment to the next – he both becomes aware and lives it at the same time.  Interestingly at some point when his present self catchers up to this moment in time, his present self will have knowledge of the future and will therefore act accordingly, even if that action is merely to fulfil that knowledge of the future.

Jones then must always act as if with full knowledge of the next year of his life. The deeds and actions of his future self will only be those informed by the knowledge of the future his present self will have when he has finally caught up. When Jones peeks on his future, he’s watching a self with knowledge that he does not yet have. A self that will act with this knowledge a self that will act to fulfil a future not yet seen. This then is his agency. A self acting to fulfil an unknown future. Only for Jones this agency is external to his self. Yes, it’s an agency that drives Jones on to ultimate power, but it’s an agency that Jones has no control over. “I don’t know what to do. And the awful part is I don’t have any choice.” (39)

This external agency, out of grasp in some ethereal self, is both acting without any knowledge of the future, and living with full knowledge of the future.

Creating Drama.

Published inOn WritingReviews