Short Story Review: Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1974)

The following review is the 8th post in my series searching for “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. And that is okay! I relish the act of literary archaeology.

Previously: Kris Neville’s “Cold War” in Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (October 1949). You can read it online here.

Up next: Frederik Pohl’s (as Paul Flehr) “The Hated” in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (January 1958). You can read it online here.

4/5 (Good)

Philip K. Dick wrote “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1974) after a two-year hiatus. He explains that a friend brought by a copy of John T. Sladek’s brilliant “The Poets of Millgrove, Iowa” (1966) that spurred him to write again: “the first sf story in years that galvanized me into new life—like Kant reading Hume.” He further explains that Sladek’s satirical deconstruction of the cult of the astronaut “can stand in the ranks of the all-time great short stories in the English language” and that it “changed in a flash my entire conception of what a good sf story is” (source). I, too, adore Sladek’s story. One of three authors– along with Barry N. Malzberg’s general characterization of astronauts and the space agency and Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah” (1967) that inspired this series.

Dick explains in The Best of Philip K. Dick (1977) that “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” encapsulates his “vast weariness in the space program, which had thrilled us so at the start—especially the first lunar landing–and then had been forgotten an virtually shut down, a relic of history.” He speculates that a time travel agency will follow a similar evolution of popular conception and contain an even darker secret “within the very nature of the paradoxes of time-travel” (source). In the afterword to the story in Final Stage (1974), Dick describes his own experience of “futility about futility” and how for a time-traveler this would be an “existential, physical horror-chamber” (283).

I bring up both points of personal context as the story is not explicitly about the space agency but fits this series for two reasons: 1) PKD was galvanized to write it by Sladek’s subversive take on 60s glorification of the astronaut and his perfect family 2) It evokes the emotional landscape PKD identifies surrounding the American space program in the 70s.

I have resisted writing about PKD on my site for years (I reviewed “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1966) in 2017). In part, I find it far more enjoyable and liberating to write about lesser-known authors. However, Dick’s grim rumination on the “futility of futility” not only fit the premise of my series but pulled me into its nightmare.

The story is deceptively simple. Three American time travelers (Tempunauts)–Doug, Benz, and Crayne–plan to travel 100 years into the future (twice the successful Soviet jump). Instead, they emerge one week into the future where they learn that their reentry into the past resulted in their deaths. They replay the same sequence–their painful discovery that they are in a closed time loop: “which attempt is this? Maybe the millionth; we have sat here over a million times, raking the same facts over and over again” (262). Evidence discovered at the crash site indicate the explosion was deliberate. Were the tempunauts attempting suicide? Will they be able to break the time loop?

Moments in “A Little Something” touch on the role of the media in creating the cult of the astronaut. General Toad provides a canned speech to the media when the tempunauts will reappear at their own funeral procession (266). The funeral itself plays out with the same speech now in the hands of the newscasters, who follow the script and reinterpret the tempunauts’ soul-crushing sadness as heroic science in action: “The already tragically deceased U.S. tempunauts, with determination that could emerge only from the rigorous training and discipline to which they were subjected […] have already analyzed the mechanical slip-up responsible […] for their own deaths, and have begun the laborious process of sifting through and eliminating causes of that slip-up” (273). The depressed snark of the three tempunauts about the spectacle of their own funeral, “you could distribute microscopic purple-stained slices of your own gut to mourners along the way,” cuts to the futile sadness of it all. (266).

As mentioned above, the story was written at a moment of crisis in PKD’s life and the personal anguish leaks through. The ending is pitch perfect–multiple interpretations are possible. The most likely (in my view) explanation is that Doug created the time-loop in the first place by causing his own death and the implosion upon re-entry. And by replaying the same sequence of self-realization, he becomes possessed by a feeling of “futility of futility” — i.e. the existential horror of worrying about worrying. The stakes are far higher (queue Malzbergian black comedy) as the repercussion of his action might have trapped the entire world in a “dreadful and weary miracle of eternal life” (282)

If you enjoy Philip K. Dick’s fiction, give this one a read! It’s possessed by relentless sadness. The central sequence–watching one’s own funeral and the spectacle of national mourning–is the perfect metaphor for the story’s discussion of existential inevitability.

Fun tangent: I listened to selections from the following albums while writing this review. Yes, it takes me this long to takes notes and write a review. I get distracted by my garden and twitter.

Funkadelic’s Standing on the Verge of Getting it On (1974), 4/5 (Good)

Moody Blues’ Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971), 4.5/5 (Very Good)

Spirit’s Spirit (1968), 3.5/5 (Good)

The Cure’s Faith (1981), 4/5 (Good)

The Cure’s The Top (1984), 3.5/5 (Good)

And Also The Trees’ The Millpond Years (1988), 4/5 (Good)

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For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

18 thoughts on “Short Story Review: Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1974)

  1. A fairly good story, far from one of his best though I think, as your rating implies. Yes, it is sad, to the point of penetrating to the heart of the truth, which is good, as I’ve come to expect of Dick, but it just seems to be sad for it’s own sake, rather than being infused with the humour, quirkiness and insight of his many earlier pieces that elevated them above their morbid content. Perhaps that’s the point though, as you suggest above, it’s grimness represents his angst and his changes in outlook since last he ceasesd writing.

    • I think the “just seems to be sad for its own sake” is definitely PKD’s personal experiences. I can’t remember if you’ve read the Sladek story I mentioned in the review? The one that played a role in convincing PKD to write again? It’s a bit more humorous, quirky, and satirical although it has a punchy cut-to-the-heart of things ending.

      • Yes, I can agree that it’s from his personal experiences, which were pretty dire up to the time he wrote it. I haven’t read the Sladek story, and have only read one by him, in “Dangerous Visions”, besides the only novels of his I’ve read, the two volumes of the “Roderick” novels [one book]. I’ve read a very great amount of biographical material about Dick, but I hadn’t heard about this one to do with John Sladek before. I’m glad you brought my attention to it.

        I know that both authors were influenced by each other though.

  2. Yes, I know he had a very dark sense of humour, and can see what you mean in regards to the tempunauts’ awful but absurd plight, but somehow it didn’t penetrate me when rereading this one. It’s probably because I didn’t find it as powerful or sprightly as his earlier pieces, such as “Second Variety”,
    “The Turning Wheel”, “Apon the Dull Earth”, “Precious Artifact”, “The Days of Perky Pat” and “Faith of Our Fathers”.

    • Like Malzberg, the existential trap itself is a form of black comedy — and yes, their interaction with the “absurd plight” is part of the humor. But it’s definitely a PKD of A Scanner Darkly vs. earlier stuff.

      Remember the scene in the story when one of the Tempunauts grasps Addison’s hand and said something along the lines of, “it’s okay, we probably imploded upon reentry” (as if that would be reassurance!)? That’s the type of morbid humor in this one.

      • Yes, the entire concept can be seen as an absurdist nightmare. I know what “A Scanner Darkly” is like compared to his earlier fiction, but darker changes were already occuring in his writing when he wrote “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said”, just before his hiatus and two and a half years before writing “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts”.

        The more morbid his fiction becomes,the funnier it often is, but I didn’t notice it this time, probably because it didn’t have the panache of his earlier fiction, as you say.

  3. ‘Tempunauts’ and ‘The Pre-Persons,’ both from 1974, are pretty much the last real short stories that PKD squeezed out (aside from a bunch of squibs that don’t convince me, but got published, sometimes posthumously). And I think Richard’s right — they’re a little flat.

    Indeed, I think PKD really did lose his mind in the 1971-74 period and never got his former powers and skills all the way back.

    A wife left him in ’71, the years of amphetamine abuse caught up with him, he went to Vancouver for a convention and tried to commit suicide up there, got incarcerated in a Synanon-type situation, and when he finally returned to California in 1974 wrote letters to the FBI that accused Stanislaw Lem of being a composite committee of writers operating on Communist party orders and Fredric Jameson of being an agent of the Warsaw Pact. I used to live in Berkeley and years later there were still people who’d tell stories about stuff like PKD becoming paranoid at a party, hiding a bathroom, and then climbing out the window and fleeing down the street.

    He continued to write novels, which are big, baggy things that forgive a lot of slop — especially when you’re infused with visions about VALIS and all the gnostic logorrhea that fueled the EXEGESIS — and a couple of them are fine (A SCANNER, DARKLY and THE TRANSMIGRATION OF TIMOTHY ARCHER) and the others are okay and certainly get by on the deranged weirdness front (the VALIS trilogy).

    But being a prolific, adept short-story writer — as PKD had been — seems a bit like being a musician or an athlete; you stop being a practitioner and let the reflexes rust, and they can disappear completely. It’s happened to other writers. PKD found part of his way back with ‘Tempunauts’ and ‘Pre-Persons’ in 1974. But they don’t sing and swing like a lot of his old stuff did.

    • Hello Mark,

      Thank you for the background of this period in his life. Some others who stop by might not know. Over the years I’ve read quite a bit about PKD’s life, general evolution of his work and mental state, and details like his letters to Lem (Lem and PKD were favorites of mine pre-site).

      I even attempted to be an extra in Richard Linklater’s film A Scanner Darkly (2006) (filmed while I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Austin). I headed north to the neighborhood (most likely sections of Hyde Park if I remember correctly) on a bus with a bunch of others. I can’t tell exactly if I’m in one of the scenes or not due to the rotoscope technique of the film which obfuscates a lot of details.

      While very little of his work is reviewed on this site, I’ve read the vast majority of it. Including multiple volumes of those omnibus editions of short stories and a good ~23 of his novels (including A Scanner Darkly, at least one of the Valis books, etc.).

      I, too, prefer his early works — Martian Time-Slip (1964) is probably my favorite novel of his and short stories like “The Preserving Machine” (1953) and struggle mightily with the later novels.

      That said, as my review indicates, elements of this story still sing — the morbid humor, the commentary on media, and the sheer emptiness of it all (the futility of futility made manifest via a Malzbergian nihilistic trap humanity cannot escape).

  4. JB: ‘Lem and PKD were favorites of mine pre-site’

    Lem is a favorite of mine, too — the SF writer with maybe more intellectual candlepower than any other. Lem worked in a wide variety of modes, so I thought PKD’s letter to the FBI accusing him of actually being a committee of writers working to further the dastardly aims of the communists was understandable in a way, and apt.

    JB wrote: _’I even attempted to be an extra in Richard Linklater’s film A Scanner Darkly (2006) (filmed while I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Austin.’

    That is real commitment to being a Dickhead!

  5. Oh, I say, “For certain values of SF.”

    There are plenty of other perspectives on whatever the hell it is SF as a literature is supposed to be doing than Lem’s in HMV.

    Even Lem has very various ideas about that, given that he was also the author of MEMOIRS FOUND IN A BATHTUB, THE CYBERIAD, THE CHAIN OF CHANCE, and the Pirx and Ijon Tichy stories. And UBIK and THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH, say, are doing something else yet again.

    But I can’t think of anyone else besides Lem in HMV — except Arthur C. Clarke, maybe — who’s managed to do the Stapledonian “deep time/ultimate fate of intelligence in the universe” thing (and in some moods I feel that’s maybe the Thing Itself, the purest form of SF) and marry that to a straight, convincing culture of science novel and then to a Cold War-era geopolitical frame.

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