Review: ‘The Electric Ant’ by Philip K. Dick

‘The Electric Ant’ is a short story by the American writer Philip K. Dick (1928-82), written in 1968 and published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in October the following year. The story is about an ‘electric ant’ or robot which has always thought it was human; when it discovers the truth, it sets about trying to alter the reality around it.

First, here’s a brief summary of the plot of ‘The Electric Ant’. Garson Poole is the owner of Tri-Plan Electronics. When he is injured by a squib explosion, he loses a hand, and realises that he is not a man but a robot or ‘electric ant’, whose real flesh and blood conceal electric currents and circuitry beneath. The doctors at the hospital tell him that they cannot treat him and that he will need to get a replacement hand over at service facilities instead.

The rest of the story follows Poole’s reaction to this shocking revelation. He sets about trying to understand his circuitry and wiring and how he was put together. He reflects that he’s had a good life, despite being built to be a mechanical servant to humans.

Although he initially wants to kill himself, Poole realises that he can control his perception of the world by accessing the ‘reality tape’ within his chest and manipulating it: he can, in effect, reprogramme himself and, to all intents and purposes, the world around him. In particular, he wishes to experience everything at once, an idea he picked up from watching the television and reminiscing (to Sarah Benton, who works for him at Tri-Plan) about the days when there used to be over twenty TV channels. What if they were all playing simultaneously on the same television screen? Would we be able to make any sense of individual programmes?

His first attempt to experience this backfires and his system gets jammed: he falls unconscious and when he wakes, technicians are fixing his tape. But he is unperturbed. He tries again, reversing the tape and punching holes in it so that ducks will appear within the room. However, Sarah also sees the ducks. The tape spools too fast, he is overloaded again, and ‘dies’.

‘The Electric Ant’ ends with Sarah Benton telling Danceman – Poole’s second-in-command at Tri-Plan – that Poole is no more. But no sooner has she delivered this news than she realises her hands have become strangely transparent, and she cannot feel anything.

‘The Electric Ant’ is a quintessential Philip K. Dick story, treating the theme of reality and our subjective perception of it and using the science-fiction stock-in-trade of the robot (or perhaps more accurately here, cyborg) to explore the human impulse to influence and even shape the reality around us.

Indeed, the story cleverly overturns what had become something of a cliché in science fiction by the late 1960s: the idea of the robot as a mechanical drudge or slave (indeed, the word ‘robot’, a Czech word first used in Karel Capek’s 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots, literally means ‘slave-worker’ or ‘drudge’). Poole is no menial servant but the owner of a company (an electronics company, of all things) and so part of the elite. He has had, as he puts it, a ‘good life’.

And being in control and a position of power is something Poole is used to. By making alterations to his reality tape, he can shape not only his reality but the reality shared by others, too, including Sarah Benton.

This is the more unsettling aspect of ‘The Electric Ant’. We are reaching a point, over fifty years on from the story’s publication, when using technology to create our own ‘bespoke reality’, an individually tailored version of the world around us, is becoming ever more possible: Virtual Reality allows us to see things differently, but Instagram and Snapchat filters, video-editing software on every smartphone and laptop, and a whole panoply of other innovations make it possible for us to influence how others see the world, and us in it, too.

But perhaps technology is not an integral part of this moral question. Powerful media organisations have always attempted to shape people’s perspective on events, selectively showing certain things (in a certain light) and glossing over others. Perhaps ‘The Electric Ant’ is less a precursor to HBO’s Westworld TV series and more of a general riff on the age-old science-fiction trope of the individual being able to influence and alter the world around them.


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