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.
Today: Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” in Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology, ed. Barry N. Mazlberg and Edward L. Ferman (1974) [You can borrow this anthology online in one-hour increments]
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. Along with Barry N. Malzberg’s general characterization of astronauts and the space agency, it 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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