restricted access The "Work" of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick and Occupational Masculinity in the Post-World War II United States
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The “Work” of Science Fiction:
Philip K. Dick and Occupational Masculinity in the Post-World War II United States

Sometimes I sat now at the round kitchen table, looking at my three published books and the manuscripts of the two that were to come out next year. . . . The books were cheap and ugly objects. Since I’d started writing SF in the autumn of ‘61, the four books Ace had bought had so far paid me three thousand eight hundred and seventy-five dollars . . . and a fan letter that claimed I didn’t exist. The whole situation seemed odd, awkward, incongruous. . . . I looked at them, lifted them, paged through them, played with them . . . hoping that somehow they might seem more familiar.

—Samuel R. Delany

In this passage from his memoir The Motion of Light in Water, the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany imagines writing pulp science fiction in the 1950s as alienated labor per se, his books staring back at [End Page 374] him, in their luridly packaged and heavily edited forms, as expressions of “an alien world inimically opposed to him” (Marx 111). In what follows, I argue that Philip K. Dick’s 1959 novel Time Out of Joint fictionalizes a similar case of alienation, operating on one level as an allegory of science-fiction writing. Far from being merely autobiographical, this allegory indexes major shifts in the nature of capitalism itself: specifically, the rise since World War II of the new form of multinational, monopoly capitalism—marked by the concentration of corporate power, increased intimacy between corporations and the state, and the shift from production to consumption—that we refer to as “late” capitalism (see Jameson, “Postmodernism” and Postmodernism). Many of Dick’s critics have, following Fredric Jameson’s influential lead, seen him as a precocious fictional theorist of late capitalism. 1 Unlike these critics, however, I stress work as the experiential and ideological matrix through which Dick’s model of late capitalist/postmodern culture gets channeled. In so doing, I seek to show how Dick’s fiction can help us to understand the limits of the totalizing theories of postmodernity that these other critics have used him to affirm.

In particular, I will focus on what I see as the constitutive gender biases that these theories transmit. Work has, of course, always been a highly gendered realm, and in the forties and fifties the redefinition of work around newly predominant white-collar jobs likewise triggered a redefinition of American masculinity. White-collar work threatened traditional forms of occupational masculinity grounded in manual labor or the free agency of the middle-class entrepreneur, even as it helped produce new forms of masculinity paradoxically based on the continual rearticulation of this threat—forms complicit with what Eve Sedgwick has identified as the white, straight, male “self-pity” saturating contemporary U.S. culture (Sedgwick 145). This is not to argue that Dick’s writing does not index very real economic and social changes taking place in the postwar U.S. It is, however, to contend that we can only understand, and perhaps influence, these changes by taking into account their specifically gendered (as well as raced and classed) character. Reading Time Out of Joint in light of such uneven development, as a book deeply concerned with white-collar occupational masculinity, allows us to see beyond its mere diagnosis of late capitalist anomie to its latent imagination of the possibilities for agency and even intersubjectivity within postmodern culture. [End Page 375]

Post-Marxist cultural studies has, unfortunately, tended to eschew work altogether in its insistent focus on consumption as the privileged site (often, indeed, the equivalent) of the economic. Even within the “post-production” late capitalist regime, however, most people are still forced (or worse, unable) to work in order to consume—albeit under circumstances radically altered since World War II. In particular, the shift away from production and towards white-collar and service work that has accompanied deindustrialization has meant the formation of a new working class: one that is no longer involved in industrial production but is still required to sell its (mental) labor; that is disengaged (even at the middle-management level) from...