“The Piper in the Woods,” Philip K. Dick

Earth maintained an important garrison on Asteroid Y-3. Now suddenly it was imperiled with a biological impossibility—men becoming plants!


“WELL, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”

As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!

Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.

“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”

The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”

“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”

“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”

“And what were you before you became a plant?”

“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”

There was silence. Doctor Harris took up his pen and scratched a few lines, but nothing of importance came. A plant? And such a healthy-looking lad! Harris removed his steel-rimmed glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. He put them on again and leaned back in his chair. “Care for a cigarette, Corporal?”

“No, sir.”

The Doctor lit one himself, resting his arm on the edge of the chair. “Corporal, you must realize that there are very few men who become plants, especially on such short notice. I have to admit you are the first person who has ever told me such a thing.”

“Yes, sir, I realize it’s quite rare.”

“You can understand why I’m interested, then. When you say you’re a plant, you mean you’re not capable of mobility? Or do you mean you’re a vegetable, as opposed to an animal? Or just what?”

The Corporal looked away. “I can’t tell you any more,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Well, would you mind telling me how you became a plant?”

Corporal Westerburg hesitated. He stared down at the floor, then out the window at the spaceport, then at a fly on the desk. At last he stood up, getting slowly to his feet. “I can’t even tell you that, sir,” he said.

“You can’t? Why not?”

“Because—because I promised not to.”

THE room was silent. Doctor Harris rose, too, and they both stood facing each other. Harris frowned, rubbing his jaw. “Corporal, just who did you promise?”

“I can’t even tell you that, sir. I’m sorry.”

The Doctor considered this. At last he went to the door and opened it. “All right, Corporal. You may go now. And thanks for your time.”

“I’m sorry I’m not more helpful.” The Corporal went slowly out and Harris closed the door after him. Then he went across his office to the vidphone. He rang Commander Cox’s letter. A moment later the beefy good-natured face of the Base Commander appeared.

“Cox, this is Harris. I talked to him, all right. All I could get is the statement that he’s a plant. What else is there? What kind of behavior pattern?”

“Well,” Cox said, “the first thing they noticed was that he wouldn’t do any work. The Garrison Chief reported that this Westerburg would wander off outside the Garrison and just sit, all day long. Just sit.”

“In the sun?”

“Yes. Just sit in the sun. Then at nightfall he would come back in. When they asked why he wasn’t working in the jet repair building he told them he had to be out in the sun. Then he said—” Cox hesitated.

“Yes? Said what?”

“He said that work was unnatural. That it was a waste of time. That the only worthwhile thing was to sit and contemplate—outside.”

“What then?”

“Then they asked him how he got that idea, and then he revealed to them that he had become a plant.”

“I’m going to have to talk to him again, I can see,” Harris said. “And he’s applied for a permanent discharge from the Patrol? What reason did he give?”

“The same, that he’s a plant now, and has no more interest in being a Patrolman. All he wants to do is sit in the sun. It’s the damnedest thing I ever heard.”

“All right. I think I’ll visit him in his quarters.” Harris looked at his watch. “I’ll go over after dinner.”

“Good luck,” Cox said gloomily. “But who ever heard of a man turning into a plant? We told him it wasn’t possible, but he just smiled at us.”

“I’ll let you know how I make out,” Harris said.

HARRIS walked slowly down the hall. It was after six; the evening meal was over. A dim concept was coming into his mind, but it was much too soon to be sure. He increased his pace, turning right at the end of the hall. Two nurses passed, hurrying by. Westerburg was quartered with a buddy, a man who had been injured in a jet blast and who was now almost recovered. Harris came to the dorm wing and stopped, checking the numbers on the doors.

“Can I help you, sir?” the robot attendant said, gliding up.

“I’m looking for Corporal Westerburg’s room.”

“Three doors to the right.”

Harris went on. Asteroid Y-3 had only recently been garrisoned and staffed. It had become the primary check-point to halt and examine ships entering the system from outer space. The Garrison made sure that no dangerous bacteria, fungus, or what-not arrived to infect the system. A nice asteroid it was, warm, well-watered, with trees and lakes and lots of sunlight. And the most modern Garrison in the nine planets. He shook his head, coming to the third door. He stopped, raising his hand and knocking.

“Who’s there?” sounded through the door.

“I want to see Corporal Westerburg.”

The door opened. A bovine youth with horn-rimmed glasses looked out, a book in his hand. “Who are you?”

“Doctor Harris.”

“I’m sorry, sir. Corporal Westerburg is asleep.”

“Would he mind if I woke him up? I want very much to talk to him.” Harris peered inside. He could see a neat room, with a desk, a rug and lamp, and two bunks. On one of the bunks was Westerburg, lying face up, his arms folded across his chest, his eyes tightly closed.

“Sir,” the bovine youth said, “I’m afraid I can’t wake him up for you, much as I’d like to.”

“You can’t? Why not?”

“Sir, Corporal Westerburg won’t wake up, not after the sun sets. He just won’t. He can’t be wakened.”

“Cataleptic? Really?”

“But in the morning, as soon as the sun comes up, he leaps out of bed and goes outside. Stays the whole day.”

“I see,” the Doctor said. “Well, thanks anyhow.” He went back out into the hall and the door shut after him. “There’s more to this than I realized,” he murmured. He went on back the way he had come.

IT was a warm sunny day. The sky was almost free of clouds and a gentle wind moved through the cedars along the bank of the stream. There was a path leading from the hospital building down the slope to the stream. At the stream a small bridge led over to the other side, and a few patients were standing on the bridge, wrapped in their bathrobes, looking aimlessly down at the water.

It took Harris several minutes to find Westerburg. The youth was not with the other patients, near or around the bridge. He had gone farther down, past the cedar trees and out onto a strip of bright meadow, where poppies and grass grew everywhere. He was sitting on the stream bank, on a flat grey stone, leaning back and staring up, his mouth open a little. He did not notice the Doctor until Harris was almost beside him.

“Hello,” Harris said softly.

Westerburg opened his eyes, looking up. He smiled and got slowly to his feet, a graceful, flowing motion that was rather surprising for a man of his size. “Hello, Doctor. What brings you out here?”

“Nothing. Thought I’d get some sun.”

“Here, you can share my rock.” Westerburg moved over and Harris sat down gingerly, being careful not to catch his trousers on the sharp edges of the rock. He lit a cigarette and gazed silently down at the water. Beside him, Westerburg had resumed his strange position, leaning back, resting on his hands, staring up with his eyes shut tight.

“Nice day,” the Doctor said.


“Do you come here every day?”


“You like it better out here than inside.”

“I can’t stay inside,” Westerburg said.

“You can’t? How do you mean, ‘can’t’?”

“You would die without air, wouldn’t you?” the Corporal said.

“And you’d die without sunlight?”

Westerburg nodded.

“Corporal, may I ask you something? Do you plan to do this the rest of your life, sit out in the sun on a flat rock? Nothing else?”

Westerburg nodded.

“How about your job? You went to school for years to become a Patrolman. You wanted to enter the Patrol very badly. You were given a fine rating and a first-class position. How do you feel, giving all that up? You know, it won’t be easy to get back in again. Do you realize that?”

“I realize it.”

“And you’re really going to give it all up?”

“That’s right.”

HARRIS was silent for a while. At last he put his cigarette out and turned toward the youth. “All right, let’s say you give up your job and sit in the sun. Well, what happens, then? Someone else has to do the job instead of you. Isn’t that true? The job has to be done, your job has to be done. And if you don’t do it someone else has to.”

“I suppose so.”

“Westerburg, suppose everyone felt the way you do? Suppose everyone wanted to sit in the sun all day? What would happen? No one would check ships coming from outer space. Bacteria and toxic crystals would enter the system and cause mass death and suffering. Isn’t that right?”

“If everyone felt the way I do they wouldn’t be going into outer space.”

“But they have to. They have to trade, they have to get minerals and products and new plants.”


“To keep society going.”


“Well—” Harris gestured. “People couldn’t live without society.”

Westerburg said nothing to that. Harris watched him, but the youth did not answer.

“Isn’t that right?” Harris said.

“Perhaps. It’s a peculiar business, Doctor. You know, I struggled for years to get through Training. I had to work and pay my own way. Washed dishes, worked in kitchens. Studied at night, learned, crammed, worked on and on. And you know what I think, now?”


“I wish I’d become a plant earlier.”

Doctor Harris stood up. “Westerburg, when you come inside, will you stop off at my office? I want to give you a few tests, if you don’t mind.”

“The shock box?” Westerburg smiled. “I knew that would be coming around. Sure, I don’t mind.”

Nettled, Harris left the rock, walking back up the bank a short distance. “About three, Corporal?”

The Corporal nodded.

Harris made his way up the hill, to the path, toward the hospital building. The whole thing was beginning to become more clear to him. A boy who had struggled all his life. Financial insecurity. Idealized goal, getting a Patrol assignment. Finally reached it, found the load too great. And on Asteroid Y-3 there was too much vegetation to look at all day. Primitive identification and projection on the flora of the asteroid. Concept of security involved in immobility and permanence. Unchanging forest.

He entered the building. A robot orderly stopped him almost at once. “Sir, Commander Cox wants you urgently, on the vidphone.”

“Thanks.” Harris strode to his office. He dialed Cox’s letter and the Commander’s face came presently into focus. “Cox? This is Harris. I’ve been out talking to the boy. I’m beginning to get this lined up, now. I can see the pattern, too much load too long. Finally gets what he wants and the idealization shatters under the—”

“Harris!” Cox barked. “Shut up and listen. I just got a report from Y-3. They’re sending an express rocket here. It’s on the way.”

“An express rocket?”

“Five more cases like Westerburg. All say they’re plants! The Garrison Chief is worried as hell. Says we must find out what it is or the Garrison will fall apart, right away. Do you get me, Harris? Find out what it is!”

“Yes, sir,” Harris murmured. “Yes, sir.”

BY the end of the week there were twenty cases, and all, of course, were from Asteroid Y-3.

Commander Cox and Harris stood together at the top of the hill, looking gloomily down at the stream below. Sixteen men and four women sat in the sun along the bank, none of them moving, none speaking. An hour had gone by since Cox and Harris appeared, and in all that time the twenty people below had not stirred.

“I don’t get it,” Cox said, shaking his head. “I just absolutely don’t get it. Harris, is this the beginning of the end? Is everything going to start cracking around us? It gives me a hell of a strange feeling to see those people down there, basking away in the sun, just sitting and basking.”

“Who’s that man there with the red hair?”

“That’s Ulrich Deutsch. He was Second in Command at the Garrison. Now look at him! Sits and dozes with his mouth open and his eyes shut. A week ago that man was climbing, going right up to the top. When the Garrison Chief retires he was supposed to take over. Maybe another year, at the most. All his life he’s been climbing to get up there.”

“And now he sits in the sun,” Harris finished.

“That woman. The brunette, with the short hair. Career woman. Head of the entire office staff of the Garrison. And the man beside her. Janitor. And that cute little gal there, with the bosom. Secretary, just out of school. All kinds. And I got a note this morning, three more coming in sometime today.”

Harris nodded. “The strange thing is—they really want to sit down there. They’re completely rational; they could do something else, but they just don’t care to.”

“Well?” Cox said. “What are you going to do? Have you found anything? We’re counting on you. Let’s hear it.”

“I couldn’t get anything out of them directly,” Harris said, “but I’ve had some interesting results with the shock box. Let’s go inside and I’ll show you.”

“Fine,” Cox turned and started toward the hospital. “Show me anything you’ve got. This is serious. Now I know how Tiberius felt when Christianity showed up in high places.”

HARRIS snapped off the light. The room was pitch black. “I’ll run this first reel for you. The subject is one of the best biologists stationed at the Garrison. Robert Bradshaw. He came in yesterday. I got a good run from the shock box because Bradshaw’s mind is so highly differentiated. There’s a lot of repressed material of a non-rational nature, more than usual.”

He pressed a switch. The projector whirred, and on the far wall a three-dimensional image appeared in color, so real that it might have been the man himself. Robert Bradshaw was a man of fifty, heavy-set, with iron grey hair and a square jaw. He sat in the chair calmly, his hands resting on the arms, oblivious to the electrodes attached to his neck and wrist. “There I go,” Harris said. “Watch.”

His film-image appeared, approaching Bradshaw. “Now, Mr. Bradshaw,” his image said, “this won’t hurt you at all, and it’ll help us a lot.” The image rotated the controls on the shock box. Bradshaw stiffened, and his jaw set, but otherwise he gave no sign. The image of Harris regarded him for a time and then stepped away from the controls.

“Can you hear me, Mr. Bradshaw?” the image asked.


“What is your name?”

“Robert C. Bradshaw.”

“What is your position?”

“Chief Biologist at the check-station on Y-3.”

“Are you there now?”

“No, I’m back on Terra. In a hospital.”


“Because I admitted to the Garrison Chief that I had become a plant.”

“Is that true? That you are a plant.”

“Yes, in a non-biological sense. I retain the physiology of a human being, of course.”

“What do you mean, then, that you’re a plant?”

“The reference is to attitudinal response, to Weltanschauung.”

“Go on.”

“It is possible for a warm-blooded animal, an upper primate, to adopt the psychology of a plant, to some extent.”


“I refer to this.”

“And the others? They refer to this also?”


“How did this occur, your adopting this attitude?”

Bradshaw’s image hesitated, the lips twisting. “See?” Harris said to Cox. “Strong conflict. He wouldn’t have gone on, if he had been fully conscious.”



“I was taught to become a plant.”

The image of Harris showed surprise and interest. “What do you mean, you were taught to become a plant?”

“They realized my problems and taught me to become a plant. Now I’m free from them, the problems.”

“Who? Who taught you?”

“The Pipers.”

“Who? The Pipers? Who are the Pipers?”

There was no answer.

“Mr. Bradshaw, who are the Pipers?”

After a long, agonized pause, the heavy lips parted. “They live in the woods….”

Harris snapped off the projector, and the lights came on. He and Cox blinked. “That was all I could get,” Harris said. “But I was lucky to get that. He wasn’t supposed to tell, not at all. That was the thing they all promised not to do, tell who taught them to become plants. The Pipers who live in the woods, on Asteroid Y-3.”

“You got this story from all twenty?”

“No.” Harris grimaced. “Most of them put up too much fight. I couldn’t even get this much from them.”

Cox reflected. “The Pipers. Well? What do you propose to do? Just wait around until you can get the full story? Is that your program?”

“No,” Harris said. “Not at all. I’m going to Y-3 and find out who the Pipers are, myself.”

THE small patrol ship made its landing with care and precision, its jets choking into final silence. The hatch slid back and Doctor Henry Harris found himself staring out at a field, a brown, sun-baked landing field. At the end of the field was a tall signal tower. Around the field on all sides were long grey buildings, the Garrison check-station itself. Not far off a huge Venusian cruiser was parked, a vast green hulk, like an enormous lime. The technicians from the station were swarming all over it, checking and examining each inch of it for lethal life-forms and poisons that might have attached themselves to the hull.

“All out, sir,” the pilot said.

Harris nodded. He took hold of his two suitcases and stepped carefully down. The ground was hot underfoot, and he blinked in the bright sunlight. Jupiter was in the sky, and the vast planet reflected considerable sunlight down onto the asteroid.

Harris started across the field, carrying his suitcases. A field attendant was already busy opening the storage compartment of the patrol ship, extracting his trunk. The attendant lowered the trunk into a waiting dolly and came after him, manipulating the little truck with bored skill.

As Harris came to the entrance of the signal tower the gate slid back and a man came forward, an older man, large and robust, with white hair and a steady walk.

“How are you, Doctor?” he said, holding his hand out. “I’m Lawrence Watts, the Garrison Chief.”

They shook hands. Watts smiled down at Harris. He was a huge old man, still regal and straight in his dark blue uniform, with his gold epaulets sparkling on his shoulders.

“Have a good trip?” Watts asked. “Come on inside and I’ll have a drink fixed for you. It gets hot around here, with the Big Mirror up there.”

“Jupiter?” Harris followed him inside the building. The signal tower was cool and dark, a welcome relief. “Why is the gravity so near Terra’s? I expected to go flying off like a kangaroo. Is it artificial?”

“No. There’s a dense core of some kind to the asteroid, some kind of metallic deposit. That’s why we picked this asteroid out of all the others. It made the construction problem much simpler, and it also explains why the asteroid has natural air and water. Did you see the hills?”

“The hills?”

“When we get up higher in the tower we’ll be able to see over the buildings. There’s quite a natural park here, a regular little forest, complete with everything you’d want. Come in here, Harris. This is my office.” The old man strode at quite a clip, around the corner and into a large, well-furnished apartment. “Isn’t this pleasant? I intend to make my last year here as amiable as possible.” He frowned. “Of course, with Deutsch gone, I may be here forever. Oh, well.” He shrugged. “Sit down, Harris.”

“Thanks.” Harris took a chair, stretching his legs out. He watched Watts as he closed the door to the hall. “By the way, any more cases come up?”

“Two more today,” Watts was grim. “Makes almost thirty, in all. We have three hundred men in this station. At the rate it’s going—”

“Chief, you spoke about a forest on the asteroid. Do you allow the crew to go into the forest at will? Or do you restrict them to the buildings and grounds?”

WATTS rubbed his jaw. “Well, it’s a difficult situation, Harris. I have to let the men leave the grounds sometimes. They can see the forest from the buildings, and as long as you can see a nice place to stretch out and relax that does it. Once every ten days they have a full period of rest. Then they go out and fool around.”

“And then it happens?”

“Yes, I suppose so. But as long as they can see the forest they’ll want to go. I can’t help it.”

“I know. I’m not censuring you. Well, what’s your theory? What happens to them out there? What do they do?”

“What happens? Once they get out there and take it easy for a while they don’t want to come back and work. It’s boondoggling. Playing hookey. They don’t want to work, so off they go.”

“How about this business of their delusions?”

Watts laughed good-naturedly. “Listen, Harris. You know as well as I do that’s a lot of poppycock. They’re no more plants than you or I. They just don’t want to work, that’s all. When I was a cadet we had a few ways to make people work. I wish we could lay a few on their backs, like we used to.”

“You think this is simple goldbricking, then?”

“Don’t you think it is?”

“No,” Harris said. “They really believe they’re plants. I put them through the high-frequency shock treatment, the shock box. The whole nervous system is paralyzed, all inhibitions stopped cold. They tell the truth, then. And they said the same thing—and more.”

Watts paced back and forth, his hands clasped behind his back. “Harris, you’re a doctor, and I suppose you know what you’re talking about. But look at the situation here. We have a garrison, a good modern garrison. We’re probably the most modern outfit in the system. Every new device and gadget is here that science can produce. Harris, this garrison is one vast machine. The men are parts, and each has his job, the Maintenance Crew, the Biologists, the Office Crew, the Managerial Staff.

“Look what happens when one person steps away from his job. Everything else begins to creak. We can’t service the bugs if no one services the machines. We can’t order food to feed the crews if no one makes out reports, takes inventories. We can’t direct any kind of activity if the Second in Command decides to go out and sit in the sun all day.

“Thirty people, one tenth of the Garrison. But we can’t run without them. The Garrison is built that way. If you take the supports out the whole building falls. No one can leave. We’re all tied here, and these people know it. They know they have no right to do that, run off on their own. No one has that right anymore. We’re all too tightly interwoven to suddenly start doing what we want. It’s unfair to the rest, the majority.”

HARRIS nodded. “Chief, can I ask you something?”

“What is it?”

“Are there any inhabitants on the asteroid? Any natives?”

“Natives?” Watts considered. “Yes, there’s some kind of aborigines living out there.” He waved vaguely toward the window.

“What are they like? Have you seen them?”

“Yes, I’ve seen them. At least, I saw them when we first came here. They hung around for a while, watching us, then after a time they disappeared.”

“Did they die off? Diseases of some kind?”

“No. They just—just disappeared. Into their forest. They’re still there, someplace.”

“What kind of people are they?”

“Well, the story is that they’re originally from Mars. They don’t look much like Martians, though. They’re dark, a kind of coppery color. Thin. Very agile, in their own way. They hunt and fish. No written language. We don’t pay much attention to them.”

“I see.” Harris paused. “Chief, have you ever heard of anything called—The Pipers?”

“The Pipers?” Watts frowned. “No. Why?”

“The patients mentioned something called The Pipers. According to Bradshaw, the Pipers taught him to become a plant. He learned it from them, a kind of teaching.”

“The Pipers. What are they?”

“I don’t know,” Harris admitted. “I thought maybe you might know. My first assumption, of course, was that they’re the natives. But now I’m not so sure, not after hearing your description of them.”

“The natives are primitive savages. They don’t have anything to teach anybody, especially a top-flight biologist.”

Harris hesitated. “Chief, I’d like to go into the woods and look around. Is that possible?”

“Certainly. I can arrange it for you. I’ll give you one of the men to show you around.”

“I’d rather go alone. Is there any danger?”

“No, none that I know of. Except—”

“Except the Pipers,” Harris finished. “I know. Well, there’s only one way to find them, and that’s it. I’ll have to take my chances.”

“IF you walk in a straight line,” Chief Watts said, “you’ll find yourself back at the Garrison in about six hours. It’s a damn small asteroid. There’s a couple of streams and lakes, so don’t fall in.”

“How about snakes or poisonous insects?”

“Nothing like that reported. We did a lot of tramping around at first, but it’s grown back now, the way it was. We never encountered anything dangerous.”

“Thanks, Chief,” Harris said. They shook hands. “I’ll see you before nightfall.”

“Good luck.” The Chief and his two armed escorts turned and went back across the rise, down the other side toward the Garrison. Harris watched them go until they disappeared inside the building. Then he turned and started into the grove of trees.

The woods were very silent around him as he walked. Trees towered up on all sides of him, huge dark-green trees like eucalyptus. The ground underfoot was soft with endless leaves that had fallen and rotted into soil. After a while the grove of high trees fell behind and he found himself crossing a dry meadow, the grass and weeds burned brown in the sun. Insects buzzed around him, rising up from the dry weed-stalks. Something scuttled ahead, hurrying through the undergrowth. He caught sight of a grey ball with many legs, scampering furiously, its antennae weaving.

The meadow ended at the bottom of a hill. He was going up, now, going higher and higher. Ahead of him an endless expanse of green rose, acres of wild growth. He scrambled to the top finally, blowing and panting, catching his breath.

He went on. Now he was going down again, plunging into a deep gully. Tall ferns grew, as large as trees. He was entering a living Jurassic forest, ferns that stretched out endlessly ahead of him. Down he went, walking carefully. The air began to turn cold around him. The floor of the gully was damp and silent; underfoot the ground was almost wet.

He came out on a level table. It was dark, with the ferns growing up on all sides, dense growths of ferns, silent and unmoving. He came upon a natural path, an old stream bed, rough and rocky, but easy to follow. The air was thick and oppressive. Beyond the ferns he could see the side of the next hill, a green field rising up.

Something grey was ahead. Rocks, piled-up boulders, scattered and stacked here and there. The stream bed led directly to them. Apparently this had been a pool of some kind, a stream emptying from it. He climbed the first of the boulders awkwardly, feeling his way up. At the top he paused, resting again.

As yet he had had no luck. So far he had not met any of the natives. It would be through them that he would find the mysterious Pipers that were stealing the men away, if such really existed. If he could find the natives, talk to them, perhaps he could find out something. But as yet he had been unsuccessful. He looked around. The woods were very silent. A slight breeze moved through the ferns, rustling them, but that was all. Where were the natives? Probably they had a settlement of some sort, huts, a clearing. The asteroid was small; he should be able to find them by nightfall.

HE started down the rocks. More rocks rose up ahead and he climbed them. Suddenly he stopped, listening. Far off, he could hear a sound, the sound of water. Was he approaching a pool of some kind? He went on again, trying to locate the sound. He scrambled down rocks and up rocks, and all around him there was silence, except for the splashing of distant water. Maybe a waterfall, water in motion. A stream. If he found the stream he might find the natives.

The rocks ended and the stream bed began again, but this time it was wet, the bottom muddy and overgrown with moss. He was on the right track; not too long ago this stream had flowed, probably during the rainy season. He went up on the side of the stream, pushing through the ferns and vines. A golden snake slid expertly out of his path. Something glinted ahead, something sparkling through the ferns. Water. A pool. He hurried, pushing the vines aside and stepping out, leaving them behind.

He was standing on the edge of a pool, a deep pool sunk in a hollow of grey rocks, surrounded by ferns and vines. The water was clear and bright, and in motion, flowing in a waterfall at the far end. It was beautiful, and he stood watching, marveling at it, the undisturbed quality of it. Untouched, it was. Just as it had always been, probably. As long as the asteroid existed. Was he the first to see it? Perhaps. It was so hidden, so concealed by the ferns. It gave him a strange feeling, a feeling almost of ownership. He stepped down a little toward the water.

And it was then he noticed her.

The girl was sitting on the far edge of the pool, staring down into the water, resting her head on one drawn-up knee. She had been bathing; he could see that at once. Her coppery body was still wet and glistening with moisture, sparkling in the sun. She had not seen him. He stopped, holding his breath, watching her.

She was lovely, very lovely, with long dark hair that wound around her shoulders and arms. Her body was slim, very slender, with a supple grace to it that made him stare, accustomed as he was to various forms of anatomy. How silent she was! Silent and unmoving, staring down at the water. Time passed, strange, unchanging time, as he watched the girl. Time might even have ceased, with the girl sitting on the rock staring into the water, and the rows of great ferns behind her, as rigid as if they had been painted there.

All at once the girl looked up. Harris shifted, suddenly conscious of himself as an intruder. He stepped back. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I’m from the Garrison. I didn’t mean to come poking around.”

She nodded without speaking.

“You don’t mind?” Harris asked presently.


So she spoke Terran! He moved a little toward her, around the side of the pool. “I hope you don’t mind my bothering you. I won’t be on the asteroid very long. This is my first day here. I just arrived from Terra.”

She smiled faintly.

“I’m a doctor. Henry Harris.” He looked down at her, at the slim coppery body, gleaming in the sunlight, a faint sheen of moisture on her arms and thighs. “You might be interested in why I’m here.” He paused. “Maybe you can even help me.”

She looked up a little. “Oh?”

“Would you like to help me?”

She smiled. “Yes. Of course.”

“That’s good. Mind if I sit down?” He looked around and found himself a flat rock. He sat down slowly, facing her. “Cigarette?”


“Well, I’ll have one.” He lit up, taking a deep breath. “You see, we have a problem at the Garrison. Something has been happening to some of the men, and it seems to be spreading. We have to find out what causes it or we won’t be able to run the Garrison.”

HE waited for a moment. She nodded slightly. How silent she was! Silent and unmoving. Like the ferns.

“Well, I’ve been able to find out a few things from them, and one very interesting fact stands out. They keep saying that something called—called The Pipers are responsible for their condition. They say the Pipers taught them—” He stopped. A strange look had flitted across her dark, small face. “Do you know the Pipers?”

She nodded.

Acute satisfaction flooded over Harris. “You do? I was sure the natives would know.” He stood up again. “I was sure they would, if the Pipers really existed. Then they do exist, do they?”

“They exist.”

Harris frowned. “And they’re here, in the woods?”


“I see.” He ground his cigarette out impatiently. “You don’t suppose there’s any chance you could take me to them, do you?”

“Take you?”

“Yes. I have this problem and I have to solve it. You see, the Base Commander on Terra has assigned this to me, this business about the Pipers. It has to be solved. And I’m the one assigned to the job. So it’s important to me to find them. Do you see? Do you understand?”

She nodded.

“Well, will you take me to them?”

The girl was silent. For a long time she sat, staring down into the water, resting her head against her knee. Harris began to become impatient. He fidgeted back and forth, resting first on one leg and then on the other.

“Well, will you?” he said again. “It’s important to the whole Garrison. What do you say?” He felt around in his pockets. “Maybe I could give you something. What do I have….” He brought out his lighter. “I could give you my lighter.”

The girl stood up, rising slowly, gracefully, without motion or effort. Harris’ mouth fell open. How supple she was, gliding to her feet in a single motion! He blinked. Without effort she had stood, seemingly without change. All at once she was standing instead of sitting, standing and looking calmly at him, her small face expressionless.

“Will you?” he said.

“Yes. Come along.” She turned away, moving toward the row of ferns.

Harris followed quickly, stumbling across the rocks. “Fine,” he said. “Thanks a lot. I’m very interested to meet these Pipers. Where are you taking me, to your village? How much time do we have before nightfall?”

The girl did not answer. She had entered the ferns already, and Harris quickened his pace to keep from losing her. How silently she glided!

“Wait,” he called. “Wait for me.”

The girl paused, waiting for him, slim and lovely, looking silently back.

He entered the ferns, hurrying after her.

“WELL, I’ll be damned!” Commander Cox said. “It sure didn’t take you long.” He leaped down the steps two at a time. “Let me give you a hand.”

Harris grinned, lugging his heavy suitcases. He set them down and breathed a sigh of relief. “It isn’t worth it,” he said. “I’m going to give up taking so much.”

“Come on inside. Soldier, give him a hand.” A Patrolman hurried over and took one of the suitcases. The three men went inside and down the corridor to Harris’ quarters. Harris unlocked the door and the Patrolman deposited his suitcase inside.

“Thanks,” Harris said. He set the other down beside it. “It’s good to be back, even for a little while.”

“A little while?”

“I just came back to settle my affairs. I have to return to Y-3 tomorrow morning.”

“Then you didn’t solve the problem?”

“I solved it, but I haven’t cured it. I’m going back and get to work right away. There’s a lot to be done.”

“But you found out what it is?”

“Yes. It was just what the men said. The Pipers.”

“The Pipers do exist?”

“Yes.” Harris nodded. “They do exist.” He removed his coat and put it over the back of the chair. Then he went to the window and let it down. Warm spring air rushed into the room. He settled himself on the bed, leaning back.

“The Pipers exist, all right—in the minds of the Garrison crew! To the crew, the Pipers are real. The crew created them. It’s a mass hypnosis, a group projection, and all the men there have it, to some degree.”

“How did it start?”

“Those men on Y-3 were sent there because they were skilled, highly-trained men with exceptional ability. All their lives they’ve been schooled by complex modern society, fast tempo and high integration between people. Constant pressure toward some goal, some job to be done.

“Those men are put down suddenly on an asteroid where there are natives living the most primitive of existence, completely vegetable lives. No concept of goal, no concept of purpose, and hence no ability to plan. The natives live the way the animals live, from day to day, sleeping, picking food from the trees. A kind of Garden-of-Eden existence, without struggle or conflict.”

“So? But—”

“Each of the Garrison crew sees the natives and unconsciously thinks of his own early life, when he was a child, when he had no worries, no responsibilities, before he joined modern society. A baby lying in the sun.

“But he can’t admit this to himself! He can’t admit that he might want to live like the natives, to lie and sleep all day. So he invents The Pipers, the idea of a mysterious group living in the woods who trap him, lead him into their kind of life. Then he can blame them, not himself. They ‘teach’ him to become a part of the woods.”

“What are you going to do? Have the woods burned?”

“No.” Harris shook his head. “That’s not the answer; the woods are harmless. The answer is psychotherapy for the men. That’s why I’m going right back, so I can begin work. They’ve got to be made to see that the Pipers are inside them, their own unconscious voices calling to them to give up their responsibilities. They’ve got to be made to realize that there are no Pipers, at least, not outside themselves. The woods are harmless and the natives have nothing to teach anyone. They’re primitive savages, without even a written language. We’re seeing a psychological projection by a whole Garrison of men who want to lay down their work and take it easy for a while.”

The room was silent.

“I see,” Cox said presently. “Well, it makes sense.” He got to his feet. “I hope you can do something with the men when you get back.”

“I hope so, too,” Harris agreed. “And I think I can. After all, it’s just a question of increasing their self-awareness. When they have that the Pipers will vanish.”

Cox nodded. “Well, you go ahead with your unpacking, Doc. I’ll see you at dinner. And maybe before you leave, tomorrow.”


HARRIS opened the door and the Commander went out into the hall. Harris closed the door after him and then went back across the room. He looked out the window for a moment, his hands in his pockets.

It was becoming evening, the air was turning cool. The sun was just setting as he watched, disappearing behind the buildings of the city surrounding the hospital. He watched it go down.

Then he went over to his two suitcases. He was tired, very tired from his trip. A great weariness was beginning to descend over him. There were so many things to do, so terribly many. How could he hope to do them all? Back to the asteroid. And then what?

He yawned, his eyes closing. How sleepy he was! He looked over at the bed. Then he sat down on the edge of it and took his shoes off. So much to do, the next day.

He put his shoes in the corner of the room. Then he bent over, unsnapping one of the suitcases. He opened the suitcase. From it he took a bulging gunnysack. Carefully, he emptied the contents of the sack out on the floor. Dirt, rich soft dirt. Dirt he had collected during his last hours there, dirt he had carefully gathered up.

When the dirt was spread out on the floor he sat down in the middle of it. He stretched himself out, leaning back. When he was fully comfortable he folded his hands across his chest and closed his eyes. So much work to do—But later on, of course. Tomorrow. How warm the dirt was….

He was sound asleep in a moment.

Tree house update, October

Growth report:



I had to move it from its old spot on the bookcase because it was getting too big. We also had no more room for books. For reference, at the last tree house update two months ago our little tree was 62 cm, and it’s now 71 cm, plus its foliage is quite a lot wider and the trunk is turning into a real trunk. I think we’re going to need a bigger pot.

When I decided to quit my moping around

Yesterday I got a *ping*ping* on my WhatsApp from Sarah, Anna’s daughter. The conversation as it transpired went like this:

Sarah: Hey Kate, it’s Sarah, I made mittens today

and I’d like to show them to you

[Insert slightly blurry video of her modeling her very finely knit mittens, which caused feelings of shock and admiration and a little bit of jealously to arise within. Yes indeed, I was envious of a ten-year-old.]

Me: WOW!!! I’m so impressed! Mittens are my next project, I made some once but without fingers like those. Was it hard?

Sarah: No not at all, it took me a day to make both

It’s easy

Me: What? Are you joking?? You’re so fast!! [Please note that I was not dispensing patronizing encouragement to a young knitter. I really was in awe of her talents.]

Sarah: No it’s super easy

Me: Are they a kid’s size? [Note pique of interest on the part of time-crunched adult knitter.]

Sarah: No, my mom can wear them

Me: Because I’m going to make mittens for my mother in law and sister in law but I haven’t picked out the pattern yet

Hmm hmm!

Do you have the instructions?

Sarah: Yes but I can teach you

Me: That would be cool! [In my head: thank god, maybe I really will get all my Christmas presents done in time this year.]

Sarah: Yup

but when??????

maybe next week

Me: Dunno. I’ve been a bit sick since yesterday but normally I’m going to be at Utopiana tomorrow. But you’re at school. [Damn elementary school!]

Sarah: Ah too bad. But at 4 maybe I could come if you’re still there

Me: Ok let’s do that, next week. We’re at Utopiana every Thursday so that would work

Sarah: Ok at 4

I’ll be there

Me: Great, I’ll stick around for you to get there. But talk to your mom to coordinate. [I'd just realized that Sarah needs to ask permission for stuff like going somewhere to hang out after school.]

So this Thursday? Or next week?

Sarah: Next week

and Mom said ok

Me: Ok cool it’s a date :)

Sarah: Ok see you next week

This whole situation seems very weird to me. I’ve got a knitting lesson with a fifth grader, and the fifth grader is the one doing the teaching. It seems very backwards, but doesn’t it give you a tiny amount of hope for the world? All this bemoaning the decline of craft and traditional know-how with each successive generation until we’re left with a definition of DIY that means little more than personalizing an IKEA picture frame with sparkles, and here we have suddenly the knowledge of knitting skipping over two generations to take hold full force in someone who wasn’t even alive in the twentieth century, and who in turn is transferring it to someone two decades older than her. Wrinkle in time.

I really needed this, too. I’ve felt completely burnt out in so many areas for the past month. I’ve been keeping up with making stuff, baking bread and knitting mostly, but I’ve felt a loss of hope, motivation, joy, whatever you want to call it, for it and a lot of other things. The world is just so damn messed up that I can only chug along for so long with my utopian visions for the future before ugliness overwhelms it all and I just toss up my hands with a Why bother? It’s people like Sarah who make me think that it is worth the bother, and that maybe the world isn’t always so entirely messed up as I sometimes think.

I’m still feeling a bit in the dark with my research, but this week I decided to be a big girl about it and make a plan. I’ve come to a spot in the woods where I don’t know where to turn, so I made myself a list of books, some of which I’ve already read but think I should read again, and others that I’ve never read but keep meaning to. My plan is to read these books in this order:

Bertrand Russell, Roads to Freedom

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Kathi Weeks: The Problem with Work

Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread

Christian Marazzi, La Place des Chaussettes

and then decide where to go from there. Not the lightest reading list ever, so I’m reading Mafalda when I need a break. (Same reading subject, different format, super funny, and it counts as studying Spanish in my book. Win-win-win-win.)




What to do

Janis and I are organizing a group project on climate change (I could be more precise, but it’s not the point of this post) for the first-year master students at CCC, and we picked Mike Davis’s “Who Will Build the Ark” (New Left Review) as a first assigned text. An aside: when searching for the text online just now so I could link it — you need a subscription to the NLR to read it on their site — I came across the blog of an urban planner who posted it on his blog with the intro “New Left Review article that nobody has the time to read right now (even me). But I’m posting it anyway.” I don’t even know how to respond to that.

Anyway, I did read it, as did Janis, and we thought it would be a good text for everyone to read for discussion, not because it contains any astonishing facts about climate change (besides, it was published in 2010 so many of the statistics noted have changed) but rather because of the sentiments Davis expresses regarding being “realistic” and being “optimistic”:

[T]his essay is organized as a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable. …

In the first section, ‘Pessimism of the Intellect’, I adduce arguments for believing that we have already lost the first, epochal stage of the battle against global warming. …

The second part of the essay, ‘Optimism of the Imagination’, is my self-rebuttal. I appeal to the paradox that the single most important cause of global warming—the urbanization of humanity—is also potentially the principal solution to the problem of human survival in the later twenty-first century. Left to the dismal politics of the present, of course, cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins of hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. Since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias.

I really needed to read this essay when I did (last week) because lately I’ve been experiencing a bit of mission drift with my research, and also feeling hopeless in the face of It All. Davis isn’t optimistic per se, but our reason for choosing this essay to kick off the project can be summed up in its last sentence:

If this sounds like a sentimental call to the barricades, an echo from the classrooms, streets and studios of forty years ago, then so be it; because on the basis of the evidence before us, taking a ‘realist’ view of the human prospect, like seeing Medusa’s head, would simply turn us into stone.

In our first group meeting yesterday we discussed the old question of individual actions being worth anything or not. We all agreed on the naivety in believing that things like recycling and changing light bulbs is going to topple a global web of economic, environmental and social injustice.


From “As the World Burns” (with Stephanie McMillan, The Derek Jensen Reader, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012). Jensen writes in the intro to this series of comic strips:

We [McMillan and he] absolutely despise books like 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Planet because they’re wrong and they trivialize tremendous suffering. They trivialize the murder of the planet. They point away from the real problems, which are capitalism, civilization, and this entire exploitative way of life. It’s absurd to think that you can inflate your tires and that’s going to stop global warming. Someone actually did that math on all the suggestions that Al Gore makes in An Inconvenient Truth, and even if every person in the United States did everything he suggests, it would only reduce carbon emissions by about 20 percent. Since Gore doesn’t speak against a growth economy, all of that would disappear in a few years anyway. 

So… what does a person do, then? I’d like to know, and if I knew I’d be out doing it right now, not sitting here staring at my Ferris Bueller poster.

March in the streets? Mas and I had a long discussion about the whole NYC climate march, to which I was completely oblivious before it happened because it happened while I was in the states visiting my family, and I’d decided that I would go on technology detox while there, which is a glorious thing to do from time to time, you should try it. Except, tech detoxes occasionally cause you to miss things like climate marches going on four hours from your parents’ front door. I found out about it the day of, from my mother, who was not on technology detox. I wouldn’t have gone anyway, though, because I’m on the fence as to whether actions like that do much good. For a problem like this anyway. If anyone reading this would like to try to convince me one way or the other, go ahead. All ears. (Really.)

Though I was tempted to break my tech fast I held off until we got back to this socialist utopia called Europe and then I did some reading up ex post facto and found the following articles to be of interest in figuring out what I thought about the whole thing:

My opinion of the march itself lies more or less among the opinions in the latter two of those links — I don’t have a problem with Facebookifying a movement (which often means dressing it up a little with flashy graphic design) if it gets more people to join in even the smallest of ways, because broadening a support base normalizes an issue — meaning more people will feel comfortable saying X or Y without fear — and that holds possibility for paving the way for further momentum. Yes, there’s a danger of watering down, but as Smucker notes:

The dead-end alternative is for radicals to work only with other radicals—and to remain stuck in a story of the righteous few, whose protagonists bravely fight the good fight but always lose. Part of our trouble is that we are at the end of a decades-long period of fragmentation and decline in the broad social justice left. Some on the left have become so accustomed to powerlessness that they have become attached to it. Success itself becomes suspect, andpolitics becomes framed only in terms of expressing values and making righteous stands—instead of as intervention in the terrain of power. Accustomed to the margins, we can have a hard time recognizing how many of our ideas have actually become popular.

So there’s that. But it’s not enough.

What is definitely not going to help anything is getting a Jesus complex and thinking one can find all the answers, wanting to save everything all at once, right now. On that note I’m going to stop racking my brain for an answer right now, go gather up my things, and head down to Fonderie Kugler for the first day of Emergency!.

EMERGENCY! looks to test out new forms of economy and sharing. Through a plurality of artistic practices focusing on the research process, we invite you to collaborate in the imagining of other forms of production.

Emergency! is organized by three friends of mine. Everyone has been asking me for the past month, “How’s Emergency going?” and I keep having to explain that I don’t know because I’m not one of the organizers. I just show up.

Susan Sontag, “The Imagination of Disaster”

published 1965

Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.

The fantasy to be discovered in science fiction films does both jobs. These films reflect world-wide anxieties, and they serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction that I for one find haunting and depressing. The naïve level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alien-ness, with the grossly familiar. In particular, the dialogue of most science fiction films, which is generally of a monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like: “Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub”; “We must do something about this”; “Wait, Professor. There’s someone on the telephone”; “But that’s incredible”; and the old American stand-by (accompanied by brow-wiping), “I hope it works!”—are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something which is painful and in deadly earnest.

Science fiction films are one of the most accomplished of the popular art forms, and can give a great deal of pleasure to sophisticated film addicts. Part of the pleasure, indeed, comes from the sense in which these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent. It is no more, perhaps, than the way all art draws its audience into a circle of complicity with the thing represented. But in science fiction films we have to do with things which are (quite literally) unthinkable. Here, “thinking about the unthinkable”—not in the way of Herman Kahn, as a subject for calculation, but as a subject for fantasy—becomes, however inadvertently, itself a somewhat questionable act from a moral point of view. The films perpetuate clichés about identity, volition, power, knowledge, happiness, social consensus, guilt, responsibility which are, to say the least, not serviceable in our present extremity. But collective nightmares cannot be banished by demonstrating that they are, intellectually and morally, fallacious. This nightmare—the one reflected in various registers in the science fiction films—is too close to our reality.

A typical science fiction film has a form as predictable as a Western, and is made up of elements which are as classic as the saloon brawl, the blonde schoolteacher from the East, and the gun duel on the deserted main street.

One model scenario proceeds through five phases:

  1. The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien space-ship, etc.) This is usually witnessed, or suspected, by just one person, who is a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not married, but has a sympathetic though also incredulous girlfriend.
  2. Confirmation of the hero’s report by a host of witnesses to a great act of destruction. (If the invaders are beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully.) The local police are summoned to deal with the situation and massacred.
  3. In the capital of the country, conferences between scientists and the military take place, with the hero lecturing before a chart, map, or blackboard. A national emergency is declared. Reports of further atrocities. Authorities from other countries arrive in black limousines. All international tensions are suspended in view of the planetary emergency. This stage often includes a rapid montage of news broadcasts in various languages, a meeting at the UN, and more conferences between the military and the scientists. Plans are made for destroying the enemy.
  4. Further atrocities. At some point the hero’s girlfriend is in grave danger. Massive counterattacks by international forces, with brilliant displays of rocketry, rays, and other advanced weapons, are all unsuccessful. Enormous military casualties, usually by incineration. Cities are destroyed and/or evacuated. There is an obligatory scene here of panicked crowds stampeding along a highway or a big bridge, being waved on by numerous policemen who, if the film is Japanese, are immaculately white-gloved, preternaturally calm, and call out in dubbed English, “Keep moving. There is no need to be alarmed.”
  5. More conferences, whose motif is: “They must be vulnerable to something.” Throughout, the hero has been experimenting in his lab on this. The final strategy, upon which all hopes depend, is drawn up; the ultimate weapon—often a super-powerful, as yet untested, nuclear device—is mounted. Countdown. Final repulse of the monster or invaders. Mutual congratulations, while the hero and girlfriend embrace cheek to cheek and scan the skies sturdily. “But have we seen the last of them?”


The film I have just described should be in technicolor and on a wide screen. Another typical scenario is simpler and suited to black-and-white films with a lower budget. It has four phases:

  1. The hero (usually, but not always, a scientist) and his girlfriend, or his wife and children, are disporting themselves in some innocent ultra-normal middle-class house in a small town, or on vacation (camping, boating). Suddenly, someone starts behaving strangely or some innocent form of vegetation becomes monstrously enlarged and ambulatory. If a character is pictured driving an automobile, something gruesome looms up in the middle of the road. If it is night, strange lights hurtle across the sky.
  2. After following the thing’s tracks, or determining that It is radioactive, or poking around a huge crater—in short, conducting some sort of crude investigation—the hero tries to warn the local authorities, without effect; nobody believes anything is amiss. The hero knows better. If the thing is tangible, the house is elaborately barricaded. If the invading alien is an invisible parasite, a doctor or friend is called in, who is himself rather quickly killed or “taken possession of” by the thing.
  3. The advice of anyone else who is consulted proves useless. Meanwhile, It continues to claim other victims in the town, which remains implausibly isolated from the rest of the world. General helplessness.
  4. One of two possibilities. Either the hero prepares to do battle alone, accidentally discovers the thing’s one vulnerable point, and destroys it. Or, he somehow manages to get out of town and succeeds in laying his case before competent authorities. They, along the lines of the first script but abridged, deploy a complex technology which (after initial setbacks) finally prevails against the invaders.

Another version of the second script opens with the scientist-hero in his laboratory, which is located in the basement or on the grounds of his tasteful, prosperous house. Through his experiments, he unwittingly causes a frightful metamorphosis in some class of plants or animals, which turn carnivorous and go on a rampage. Or else, his experiments have caused him to be injured (sometimes irrevocably) or “invaded” himself. Perhaps he has been experimenting with radiation, or has built a machine to communicate with beings from other planets or to transport him to other places or times.

Another version of the first script involves the discovery of some fundamental alteration in the conditions of existence of our planet, brought about by nuclear testing, which will lead to the extinction in a few months of all human life. For example: the temperature of the earth is becoming too high or too low to support life, or the earth is cracking in two, or it is gradually being blanketed by lethal fallout.

A third script, somewhat but not altogether different from the first two, concerns a journey through space—to the moon, or some other planet. What the space-voyagers commonly discover is that the alien terrain is in a state of dire emergency, itself threatened by extra-planetary invaders or nearing extinction through the practice of nuclear warfare. The terminal dramas of the first and second scripts are played out there, to which is added a final problem of getting away from the doomed and/or hostile planet and back to Earth.

I am aware, of course, that there are thousands of science fiction novels (their heyday was the late 1940’s), not to mention the transcriptions of science fiction themes which, more and more, provide the principal subject matter of comic books. But I propose to discuss science fiction films (the present period began in 1950 and continues, considerably abated, to this day) as an independent sub-genre, without reference to the novels from which, in many cases, they were adapted. For while novel and film may share the same plot, the fundamental difference between the resources of the novel and the film makes them quite dissimilar. Anyway, the best science fiction movies are on a far higher level, as examples of the art of the film, than the science fiction books are, as examples of the art of the novel or romance. That the films might be better than the books is an old story. Good novels rarely make good films, but excellent films are often made from poor or trivial novels.

Certainly, compared with the science fiction novels, their film counterparts have unique strengths, one of which is the immediate representation of the extraordinary: physical deformity and mutation, missile and rocket combat, toppling skyscrapers. The movies are, naturally, weak just where the science fiction novels (some of them), are strong—on science. But in place of an intellectual workout, they can supply something the novels can never provide—sensuous elaboration. In the films it is by means of images and sounds, not words that have to be translated by the imagination, that one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.

Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art. In science fiction films, disaster is rarely viewed intensively; it is always extensive. It is a matter of quantity and ingenuity. If you will, it is a question of scale. But the scale, particularly in the wide-screen Technicolor films (of which the ones by the Japanese director, Inoshiro Honda, and the American director, George Pal, are technically the most brilliant and convincing, and visually the most exciting), does raise the matter to another level.

Thus, the science fiction film (like a very different contemporary genre, the Happening) is concerned with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess. And it is in the imagery of destruction that the core of a good science fiction film lies. This is the disadvantage of the cheap film—in which the monster appears or the rocket lands in a small dull-looking town. (Hollywood budget needs usually dictate that the town be in the Arizona or California desert. In The Thing from Another World [1951], the rather sleazy and confined set is supposed to be an encampment near the North Pole.) Still, good black-and-white science fiction films have been made. But a bigger budget, which usually means Technicolor, allows a much greater play back and forth among several model environments. There is the populous city. There is the lavish but ascetic interior of the space ship—either the invaders’ or ours—replete with streamlined chromium fixtures and dials, and machines whose complexity is indicated by the number of colored lights they flash and strange noises they emit. There is the laboratory crowded with formidable machines and scientific apparatus. There is a comparatively old-fashioned looking conference room, where the scientist brings charts to explain the desperate state of things to the military. And each of these standard locales or backgrounds is subject to two modalities—intact and destroyed. We may, if we are lucky, be treated to a panorama of melting tanks, flying bodies, crashing walls, awesome craters and fissures in the earth, plummeting spacecraft, colorful deadly rays; and to a symphony of screams, weird electronic signals, the noisiest military hardware going, and the leaden tones of the laconic denizens of alien planets and their subjugated earthlings.

Certain of the primitive gratifications of science fiction films—for instance, the depiction of urban disaster on a colossally magnified scale—are shared with other types of films. Visually there is little difference between mass havoc as represented in the old horror and monster films and what we find in science fiction films, except (again) scale. In the old monster films, the monster always headed for the great city where he had to do a fair bit of rampaging, hurling buses off bridges, crumpling trains in his bare hands, toppling buildings, and so forth. The archetype is King Kong, in Schoedsach’s great film of 1933, running amok, first in the African village (trampling babies, a bit of footage excised from most prints), then in New York. This is really not any different from Inoshiro Honda’sRodan (1957), where two giant reptiles—with a wingspan of five-hundred feet and supersonic speeds—by flapping their wings whip up a cyclone that blows most of Tokyo to smithereens. Or, the tremendous scenes of rampage by the gigantic robot who destroys half of Japan with the great incinerating ray which shoots forth from his eyes, at the beginning of Honda’s The Mysterians (1959). Or, the destruction, by the rays from a fleet of flying saucers of New York, Paris and Tokyo, in Battle in Outer Space (1960). Or, the inundation of New York in When Worlds Collide (1951). Or, the end of London in 1968 depicted in George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960). Neither do these sequences differ in aesthetic intention from the destruction scenes in the big sword, sandal, and orgy color spectaculars set in Biblical and Roman times—the end of Sodom in Aldrich’sSodom and Gomorrah, of Gaza in de Mille’s Samson and Delilah, of Rhodes in The Colossus of Rhodes, and of Rome in a dozen Nero movies. D. W. Griffith began it with the Babylon sequence in Intolerance, and to this day there is nothing like the thrill of watching all those expensive sets come tumbling down.


In other respects as well, the science fiction films of the 1950’s take up familiar themes. The famous movie serials and comics of the 1930’s of the adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, as well as the more recent spate of comic book super-heroes with extraterrestrial origins (the most famous is Superman, a foundling from the planet, Krypton, currently described as having been exploded by a nuclear blast) share motifs with more recent science fiction movies. But there is an important difference. The old science fiction films, and most of the comics, still have an essentially innocent relation to disaster. Mainly they offer new versions of the oldest romance of all—of the strong invulnerable hero with the mysterious lineage come to do battle on behalf of good and against evil. Recent science fiction films have a decided grimness, bolstered by their much greater degree of visual credibility, which contrasts strongly with the older films. Modern historical reality has greatly enlarged the imagination of disaster, and the protagonists—perhaps by the very nature of what is visited upon them—no longer seem wholly innocent.


The lure of such generalized disaster as a fantasy is that it releases one from normal obligations. The trump card of the end-of-the-world movies—like The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962)—is that great scene with New York or London or Tokyo discovered empty, its entire population annihilated. Or, as in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil(1959), the whole movie can be devoted to the fantasy of occupying the deserted city and starting all over again—Robinson Crusoe on a world-wide scale.

Another kind of satisfaction these films supply is extreme moral simplification—that is to say, a morally acceptable fantasy where one can give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings. In this respect, science fiction films partly overlap with horror films. This is the undeniable pleasure we derive from looking at freaks, at beings excluded from the category of the human. The sense of superiority over the freak conjoined in varying proportions with the titillation of fear and aversion makes it possible for moral scruples to be lifted, for cruelty to be enjoyed. The same thing happens in science fiction films. In the figure of the monster from outer space, the freakish, the ugly, and the predatory all converge—and provide a fantasy target for righteous bellicosity to discharge itself, and for the aesthetic enjoyment of suffering and disaster. Science fiction films are one of the purest forms of spectacle; that is, we are rarely inside anyone’s feelings. (An exception to this is Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man [1957].) We are merely spectators; we watch.

But in science fiction films, unlike horror films, there is not much horror. Suspense, shocks, surprises are mostly abjured in favor of a steady inexorable plot. Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technologicalview. Things, objects, machinery play a major role in these films. A greater range of ethical values is embodied in the décor of these films than in the people. Things, rather than the helpless humans, are the locus of values because we experience them, rather than people, as the sources of power. According to science fiction films, man is naked without his artifacts. They stand for different values, they are potent, they are what gets destroyed, and they are the indispensable tools for the repulse of the alien invaders or the repair of the damaged environment.

The science fiction films are strongly moralistic. The standard message is the one about the proper, or humane, uses of science, versus the mad, obsessional use of science. This message the science fiction films share in common with the classic horror films of the 1930’s, like Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Georges Franju’s brilliant Les Yeux Sans Visage [1959], called here The Horror Chamber of Doctor Faustus, is a more recent example.) In the horror films, we have the mad or obsessed or misguided scientist who pursues his experiments against good advice to the contrary, creates a monster or monsters, and is himself destroyed—often recognizing his folly himself, and dying in the successful effort to destroy his own creation. One science fiction equivalent of this is the scientist, usually a member of a team, who defects to the planetary invaders because “their” science is more advanced than “ours.”

This is the case in The Mysterians, and, true to form, the renegade sees his error in the end, and from within the Mysterian space ship destroys it and himself. In This Island Earth (1955), the inhabitants of the beleaguered planet Metaluna propose to conquer Earth, but their project is foiled by a Metalunan scientist named Exeter who, having lived on Earth a while and learned to love Mozart, cannot abide such viciousness. Exeter plunges his space ship into the ocean after returning a glamorous pair (male and female) of American physicists to Earth. Metaluna dies. In The Fly (1958), the hero, engrossed in his basement-laboratory experiments on a matter-transmitting machine, uses himself as a subject, accidentally exchanges head and one arm with a housefly which had gotten into the machine, becomes a monster, and with his last shred of human will destroys his laboratory and orders his wife to kill him. His discovery, for the good of mankind, is lost.

Being a clearly labeled species of intellectual, the scientists in science fiction films are always liable to crack up or go off the deep end. In Conquest of Space (1955), the scientist-commander of an international expedition to Mars suddenly acquires scruples about the blasphemy involved in the undertaking, and begins reading the Bible mid-journey instead of attending to his duties. The commander’s son, who is his junior officer and always addresses his father as “General,” is forced to kill the old man when he tries to prevent the ship from landing on Mars. In this film, both sides of the ambivalence toward scientists are given voice. Generally, for a scientific enterprise to be treated entirely sympathetically in these films, it needs the certificate of utility. Science, viewed without ambivalence, means an efficacious response to danger. Disinterested intellectual curiosity rarely appears in any form other than caricature, as a maniacal dementia that cuts one off from normal human relations. But this suspicion is usually directed at the scientist rather than his work. The creative scientist may become a martyr to his own discovery, through an accident or by pushing things too far. The implication remains that other men, less imaginative—in short, technicians—would administer the same scientific discovery better and more safely. The most ingrained contemporary mistrust of the intellect is visited, in these movies, upon the scientist-as-intellectual.

The message that the scientist is one who releases forces which, if not controlled for good, could destroy man himself seems innocuous enough. One of the oldest images of the scientist is Shakespeare’s Prospero, the over-detached scholar forcibly retired from society to a desert island, only partly in control of the magic forces in which he dabbles. Equally classic is the figure of the scientist as satanist (Dr. Faustus, stories of Poe and Hawthorne). Science is magic, and man has always known that there is black magic as well as white. But it is not enough to remark that contemporary attitudes—as reflected in science fiction films—remain ambivalent, that the scientist is treated both as satanist and savior. The proportions have changed, because of the new context in which the old admiration and fear of the scientist is located. For his sphere of influence is no longer local, himself or his immediate community. It is planetary, cosmic.

One gets the feeling, particularly in the Japanese films, but not only there, that mass trauma exists over the use of nuclear weapons and the possibility of future nuclear wars. Most of the science fiction films bear witness to this trauma, and in a way, attempt to exorcise it.

The accidental awakening of the super-destructive monster who has slept in the earth since prehistory is, often, an obvious metaphor for the Bomb. But there are many explicit references as well. In The Mysterians, a probe ship from the planet Mysteroid has landed on earth, near Tokyo. Nuclear warfare having been practiced on Mysteroid for centuries (their civilization is “more advanced than ours”), 90 per cent of those now born on the planet have to be destroyed at birth, because of defects caused by the huge amounts of Strontium 90 in their diet. The Mysterians have come to earth to marry earth women and possibly to take over our relatively uncontaminated planet. . . . In The Incredible Shrinking Man, the John Doe hero is the victim of a gust of radiation which blows over the water, while he is out boating with his wife; the radiation causes him to grow smaller and smaller, until at the end of the movie he steps through the fine mesh of a window screen to become “the infinitely small. . . .” In Rodan, a horde of monstrous carnivorous prehistoric insects, and finally a pair of giant flying reptiles (the prehistoric Archeopteryx), are hatched from dormant eggs in the depths of a mine shaft by the impact of nuclear test explosions, and go on to destroy a good part of the world before they are felled by the molten lava of a volcanic eruption. . . . In the English film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, two simultaneous hydrogen bomb tests by the U.S. and Russia change by eleven degrees the tilt of the earth on its axis and alter the earth’s orbit so that it begins to approach the sun.

Radiation casualties—ultimately, the conception of the whole world as a casualty of nuclear testing and nuclear warfare—is the most ominous of all the notions with which science fiction films deal. Universes become expendable. Worlds become contaminated, burnt out, exhausted, obsolete. In Rocketship X-M (1950), explorers from Earth land on Mars, where they learn that atomic warfare has destroyed Martian civilization. In George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (1953), reddish spindly alligator-skinned creatures from Mars invade Earth because their planet is becoming too cold to be habitable. In This Island Earth, also American, the planet Metaluna, whose population has long ago been driven underground by warfare, is dying under the missile attacks of an enemy planet. Stocks of uranium, which power the force-shield shielding Metaluna, have been used up; and an unsuccessful expedition is sent to Earth to enlist earth scientists to devise new sources of nuclear power.


There is a vast amount of wishful thinking in science fiction films, some of it touching, some of it depressing. Again and again, one detects the hunger for a “good war,” which poses no moral problems, admits of no moral qualifications. The imagery of science fiction films will satisfy the most bellicose addict of war films, for a lot of the satisfactions of war films pass, untransformed, into science fiction films. Examples: the dogfights between earth “fighter rockets” and alien spacecraft in the Battle of Outer Space (1959); the escalating firepower in the successive assaults upon the invaders in The Mysterians, which Dan Talbot correctly described as a nonstop holocaust; the spectacular bombardment of the underground fortress in This Island Earth.

Yet at the same time the bellicosity of science fiction films is neatly channeled into the yearning for peace, or for at least peaceful coexistence. Some scientist generally takes sententious note of the fact that it took the planetary invasion or cosmic disaster to make the warring nations of the earth come to their senses, and suspend their own conflicts. One of the main themes of many science fiction films—the color ones usually, because they have the budget and resources to develop the military spectacle—is this UN fantasy, a fantasy of united warfare. (The same wishful UN theme cropped up in a recent spectacular which is not science fiction, Fifty-Five Days at Peking [1963]. There, topically enough, the Chinese, the Boxers, play the role of Martian invaders who unite the earthmen, in this case the United States, Russia, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.) A great enough disaster cancels all enmities, and calls upon the utmost concentration of the earth’s resources.

Science—technology—is conceived of as the great unifier. Thus the science fiction films also project a Utopian fantasy. In the classic models of Utopian thinking—Plato’s Republic, Campanella’s City of the Sun, More’s Utopia, Swift’s land of the Houyhnhnms, Voltaire’s Eldorado—society had worked out a perfect consensus. In these societies reasonableness had achieved an unbreakable supremacy over the emotions. Since no disagreement or social conflict was intellectually plausible, none was possible. As in Melville’s Typee, “they all think the same.” The universal rule of reason meant universal agreement. It is interesting, too, that societies in which reason was pictured as totally ascendant were also traditionally pictured as having an ascetic and/or materially frugal and economically simple mode of life. But in the Utopian world community projected by science fiction films, totally pacified and ruled by scientific concensus, the demand for simplicity of material existence would be absurd.

But alongside the hopeful fantasy of moral simplification and international unity embodied in the science fiction films, lurk the deepest anxieties about contemporary existence. I don’t mean only the very real trauma of the Bomb—that it has been used, that there are enough now to kill everyone on earth many times over, that those new bombs may very well be used. Besides these new anxieties about physical disaster, the prospect of universal mutilation and even annihilation, the science fiction films reflect powerful anxieties about the condition of the individual psyche.

For science fiction films may also be described as a popular mythology for the contemporary negative imagination about the impersonal. The other-world creatures which seek to take “us” over, are an “it,” not a “they.” The planetary invaders are usually zombie-like. Their movements are either cool, mechanical, or lumbering, blobby. But it amounts to the same thing. If they are non-human in form, they proceed with an absolutely regular, unalterable movement (unalterable save by destruction). If they are human in form-dressed in space suits, etc.—then they obey the most rigid military discipline, and display no personal characteristics whatsoever. And it is this regime of emotionlessness, of impersonality, of regimentation, which they will impose on the earth if they are successful. “No more love, no more beauty, no more pain,” boasts a converted earthling in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The half earthling-half alien children in The Children of the Damned (1960) are absolutely emotionless, move as a group and understand each others’ thoughts, and are all prodigious intellects. They are the wave of the future, man in his next stage of development.

These alien invaders practice a crime which is worse than murder. They do not simply kill the person. They obliterate him. In The War of the Worlds, the ray which issues from the rocket ship disintegrates all persons and objects in its path, leaving no trace of them but a light ash. In Honda’s The H-Men (1959), the creeping blob melts all flesh with which it comes in contact. If the blob, which looks like a huge hunk of red jello, and can crawl across floors and up and down walls, so much as touches your bare boot, all that is left of you is a heap of clothes on the floor. (A more articulated, size-multiplying blob is the villain in the English film The Creeping Unknown [1956].) In another version of this fantasy, the body is preserved but the person is entirely reconstituted as the automatized servant or agent of the alien powers. This is, of course, the vampire fantasy in new dress. The person is really dead, but he doesn’t know it. He’s “undead,” he has become an “unperson.” It happens to a whole California town in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to several earth scientists in This Island Earth, and to assorted innocents in It Came from Outer Space, Attack of the Puppet People (1961), and The Brain Eaters(1961). As the victim always backs away from the vampire’s horrifying embrace, so in science fiction films the person always fights being “taken over”; he wants to retain his humanity. But once the deed has been done, the victim is eminently satisfied with his condition. He has not been converted from human amiability to monstrous “animal” blood lust (a metaphoric exaggeration of sexual desire), as in the old vampire fantasy. No, he has simply become far more efficient—the very model of technocratic man, purged of emotions, volitionless, tranquil, obedient to all orders. The dark secret behind human nature used to be the upsurge of the animal—as in King Kong. The threat to man, his availability to dehumanization, lay in his own animality. Now the danger is understood as residing in man’s ability to be turned into a machine.


The rule, of course, is that this horrible and irremediable form of murder can strike anyone in the film except the hero. The hero and his family, while grossly menaced, always escape this fact and by the end of the film the invaders have been repulsed or destroyed. I know of only one exception, The Day That Mars Invaded Earth (1963), in which, after all the standard struggles, the scientist-hero, his wife, and their two children are “taken over” by the alien invaders—and that’s that. (The last minutes of the film show them being incinerated by the Martians’ rays and their ash silhouettes flushed down their empty swimming pool, while their simulacra drive off in the family car.) Another variant but upbeat switch on the rule occurs in The Creation of the Humanoids (1964), where the hero discovers at the end of the film that he, too, has been turned into a metal robot, complete with highly efficient and virtually indestructible mechanical insides, although he didn’t know it and detected no difference in himself. He learns, however, that he will shortly be upgraded into a “humanoid” having all the properties of a real man.

Of all the standard motifs of science fiction films, this theme of dehumanization is perhaps the most fascinating. For, as I have indicated, it is scarcely a black-and-white situation, as in the vampire films. The attitude of the science fiction films toward depersonalization is mixed. On the one hand, they deplore it as the ultimate horror. On the other hand, certain characteristics of the dehumanized invaders, modulated and disguised—such as the ascendancy of reason over feelings, the idealization of teamwork and the consensus-creating activities of science, a marked degree of moral simplification—are precisely traits of the savior-scientists. For it is interesting that when the scientist in these films is treated negatively, it is usually done through the portrayal of an individual scientist who holes up in his laboratory and neglects his fiancée or his loving wife and children, obsessed by his daring and dangerous experiments. The scientist as a loyal member of a team, and therefore considerably less individualized, is treated quite respectfully.

There is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films. No criticism, for example, of the conditions of our society which create the impersonality and dehumanization which science fiction fantasies displace onto the influence of an alien It. Also, the notion of science as a social activity, interlocking with social and political interests, is unacknowledged. Science is simply either adventure (for good or evil) or a technical response to danger. And, typically, when the fear of science is paramount—when science is conceived of as black magic rather than white—the evil has no attribution beyond that of the perverse will of an individual scientist. In science fiction films the antithesis of black magic and white is drawn as a split between technology, which is beneficent, and the errant individual will of a lone intellectual.

Thus, science fiction films can be looked at as thematically central allegory, replete with standard modern attitudes. The theme of depersonalization (being “taken over”) which I have been talking about is a new allegory reflecting the age-old awareness of man that, sane, he is always perilously close to insanity and unreason. But there is something more here than just a recent, popular image which expresses man’s perennial, but largely unconscious, anxiety about his sanity. The image derives most of its power from a supplementary and historical anxiety, also not experienced consciously by most people, about the depersonalizing conditions of modern urban society. Similarly, it is not enough to note that science fiction allegories are one of the new myths about—that is, ways of accommodating to and negating—the perennial human anxiety about death. (Myths of heaven and hell, and of ghosts, had the same function.) Again, there is a historically specifiable twist which intensifies the anxiety, or better, the trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life not only under the threat of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost unsupportable psychologically—collective incineration and extinction which could come any time, virtually without warning.


From a psychological point of view, the imagination of disaster does not greatly differ from one period in history to another. But from a political and moral point of view, it does. The expectation of the apocalypse may be the occasion for a radical disaffiliation from society, as when thousands of Eastern European Jews in the 17th century gave up their homes and businesses and began to trek to Palestine upon hearing that Shabbethai Zevi had been proclaimed Messiah and that the end of the world was imminent. But peoples learn the news of their own end in diverse ways. It is reported that in 1945 the populace of Berlin received without great agitation the news that Hitler had decided to kill them all, before the Allies arrived, because they had not been worthy enough to win the war. We are, alas, more in the position of the Berliners than of the Jews of 17th-century Eastern Europe; and our response is closer to theirs, too. What I am suggesting is that the imagery of disaster in science fiction films is above all the emblem of aninadequate response. I do not mean to bear down on the films for this. They themselves are only a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people’s response to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness. The interest of the films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naively and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation.

On vacation

Busy last week or so, plus came down with a bug, and now Alvaro and I are off to discover the New World. Will be eating my mom’s cooking till further notice.


Radical own-use production work & co-responsibility

Own-use production work
116. Production of goods and services for own final use is one of the oldest forms of work. Prior to the spread of markets for goods and services, households mainly produced their own food, shelter and other necessities, caring for the household members, premises and durables. As these products have become increasingly available through markets, the prevalence of production for own final use has steadily declined. Nonetheless, it remains widespread in countries at different levels of development. Such production, as in subsistence agriculture, continues to be central to survival in impoverished and remote areas throughout the world and is also a common strategy for supplementing household income, as in the case of kitchen gardens in many urban and rural areas alike. In more developed settings and among higher income groups, it predominantly covers unpaid household services, do-it-yourself work, crafts, backyard gardening and suchlike. (Report II Statistics of work, employment and labour underutilisation, ILO 2013)

Last Friday I went to have a coffee and a talk with Sophia Lawrence, a recently retired statistician for the International Labour Organisation. We met thanks to her daughter, a friend of mine who told me that for the good of my research I should talk to her mom. How right she was. Below is the transcript of our discussion as it related to my interest in the aforementioned form of work that I now know labor statisticians call own-use production.


SOPHIA: I’m so happy to hear that there are young people thinking about these things, because this is something I’ve been trying to push through the UN system for years now. I was a statistician with the International Labour Office, so with the agency that’s responsible for setting international standards on labor statistics. What we actually adopt are resolutions. They’re not legally binding, unlike the conventions of the UN, but they do set up standards and best practices for labor. There are seven core conventions on labor, which, if you become a member of that agency those are, you could say, the basic rules of labor.

ME: Is the US a member?

SOPHIA: Yes, and the US has adopted the fewest conventions. The US, Saudi Arabia, and one other that’s slipped my mind. It’s very sad, pathetic really. Anyway, those are the conventions of the ILO, and those are ratified and do become law. Resolutions, on the other hand, in statistics, are a good best practice, and they do really help countries to align themselves to a system, but they are not ratified and they are not binding. Nonetheless, in the statistical world, we do have a very strong weight with countries, and they all do look to these standards, because they are established on the basis of best practice in the countries themselves.

So, unfortunately, until 2013 most of the resolutions on statistics were very much in line with the problem you’re working on. Our resolution on work statistics has just changed, and the missing part that you’re looking at had also been missing in the resolutions. The simple definition of employment was very much based on GDP, based on the so-called idea of production, which was minus most of the kinds of contributions you’re looking at. It made sense to align employment with GDP calculations because you want to know what’s going into making those goods that you’re qualifying as being part of national production. However, because national production was ignoring all unpaid household work, all volunteer work, for example, employment was ignoring it, too. Which, in the end, we’ve decided is actually an okay thing — employment is what it is — but we have now said, employment is not all work. In 2013 we finally got a new resolution on work statistics adopted, which is bigger than employment and unemployment, and looks into and defines all those types of contributions that interest you, and others.

That doesn’t mean that the world today is beginning to measure all this, though some countries have been measuring it already. But the standards and objectives are there, and countries should start working on changing their national statistical programs. Because of course, it’s a question of how do you measure it, and that will require a certain amount of input, and financial input, for countries to change their surveys, their questionnaires, to begin to address these other issues. In the resolution we made it quite forceful, and it became a bit more watered down through the negotiation process in the conference of labor statisticians — which takes place every five years and all member states get together, with their national statistics office representatives, and we debate — so it became watered down to some extent, a bit forced by the industrialized countries, which already have strong systems [for labor statistics] put in place. And statisticians can be very conservative people, so it’s been a battle to change their ideas. But now that resolution is out there and that’s what I would recommend you read.

We created new categories of work, and so everything contributes to production. Everything has a value. Everything is worthwhile. In countries that have already been measuring the contribution of this type of work to the GDP — take Mexico, take the Scandinavian countries, the US, Australia, other countries as well — they’ve found that that type of production, that component of the economy which until now has been basically invisible or marginalized, ignored, represents over 30% of production.

For example, in Mexico in 2008 they measured all that contribution of unpaid household services, of volunteer work, etc., and they found that it was higher, in terms of GDP, than their petroleum exporting industry, which is what they’re known for.

ME: How do they quantify — well, how do they quantify anything — but how do they quantify and calculate something like that, what all household work, volunteer work, produces in terms of revenue toward GDP?

SOPHIA: There are different types of calculations that can be done. If you’re looking for more information on this when you look things up, usually what it’s called is “satellite accounts” — there are “national accounts” and “satellite accounts,” which I refused to use as a term. It is used in the resolution but I put it in quotation marks because it gives this sense that the World is here, and then there are all the little satellites.

And so the satellite accounts have been measured in countries, through various evaluation methods. There are three types of ways to go about that. They’re quite complex all of them, but basically one is that you can take a replacement value for each of the types of activities.

ME: So like what a maid would be paid –

SOPHIA: A maid, a cook, a seamstress, all of those. Of course that would give you a very high value because you’re combining so many occupations, and certain occupations like chef would be paid more than a maid who’s doing some cooking on the side. You could take those different values, or else you could just take an overall value for the lowest-level maid type of activity or different levels of maid activities. The third evaluation method is giving a replacement value for the outputs of work. What many countries have been complaining about is that statisticians will give a value to this or that individually, not taking into account production that’s taking place at the same time — multitasking. How can you give a value to things that are being done at the same time? They have the same value as tasks that are being done separately.

But people who are employed in occupations that involve supplying a service — an accountant helping you with your taxes, for example — countries know perfectly well what that equals in terms of money. This complaint that it’s hard to give a value for a service is baloney. It’s put there as an excuse because a) it’s not considered to be important work, b) since much of this work is being done within a household, it’s more difficult to send someone in and say “quantify that.”

There is an evaluation technique, a survey technique, for households called a time-use survey, and that’s when they go with a questionnaire divided in 15-minute portions of time, and they have you recording — or they record you — what you’re doing. This will happen over a 24-hour period, and they’ll sometimes do it on a weekday and a weekend. Time-use surveys are fascinating because they recognize, in developing countries for example, that so much production is going on but is not accounted for because it was in no way considered employment. It wasn’t paid for by somebody else. It was invisible.

In sub Saharan Africa because so many people are illiterate at the household level, women and children, what they did was a very expensive means of carrying out the survey — they sent a person who stayed and lived with a family for a week, and they would observe and write it all down. All this started giving some really interesting results, and of course the poorer you are the more time you generally spend on this kind of work, because you don’t have the technology to support you.

ME: And you can’t just go out and buy it. You have to make it. Or else first grow it, then make it.

SOPHIA: Or feed it, then kill it, then pluck it, then cook it. Can you imagine? Instead of just going to the supermarket and buying a filet of chicken. Some kids here don’t even know that a filet of chicken comes from a real chicken.

So these types of time-use surveys were being developed and those are what most countries who did satellite accounts used to figure out what people were involved in, and then how did that measure up.

You can no longer say it’s not possible to do it. Of course it’s possible to do it, and countries have to start thinking in terms of giving value, giving data, recognizing the status of this work. One element that I’m also really, really concerned with, is that recognition is not enough. From recognition we have to go toward what I term as — it’s not my own invented word, I heard it in the Latin American region — co-responsibility. Men and women in households and in society have to begin to take co-responsibility for all these functions, or for whatever stems from these functions. Until that happens it’s going to always be marginalized. One of the reasons why I think it’s so important is that in certain occupations considered in one context to be high-status and high-paying — take lawyers — as soon as women begin to “invade” that occupation, guess what? The status goes down and the pay goes down. It’s no longer such a desired occupation.

ME: You used the term “invisible labor” before — is that a term the ILO uses?

SOPHIA: No. We used to use “unemployment,” talking about all the people who did some kind of production but were still looking for work, but we’ve gone beyond that, trying to get rid of that, because that was vocabulary which was accepting the status quo.

ME: Right, because it’s saying somehow that you’re not really employed. You’re employed in the sense that you’re active, but not active in the way most people understand the word, as in employed for pay.

SOPHIA: Visible / invisible… In a way it’s not a bad idea [for a terminology], but it is actually visible. It’s visible all over the world.

ME: But it’s invisible in the accounting.

SOPHIA: Exactly. But then using that term gives the idea that if it’s invisible it’s because it can be invisible, it could be forgotten, because it could be marginalized, because it’s not important. And in human connections and communication, words mean something.

ME: Even the word “visible,” too, is a problem because it makes it sound like because it’s visible it’s valued.

SOPHIA: Exactly, right.

ME: So what is the term, then?

SOPHIA: We call everything “work.”

ME: What?

SOPHIA: Just, “work.” It’s all work. In the resolution on work statistics we break it down into types of work. We kept the word employment because everybody knows it but we’ve changed the definition.

ME: And so the word “work” applies to all the sorts of work we’re talking about, but then also to different kinds of salaried work…

SOPHIA: Well here, I brought this (pulls out the report and starts flipping through it). There’s one chart … This [on page 17] is one chart that’s interesting. So, we say the whole population is this [indicates heading "Total Population"], then there’s the working age population, however that’s defined in the country, and that brings up the question of needing to recognize that children are working, producing, etc. Even if you don’t condone it, you still need to measure it.

Then the “Labor Force” is the employed and the unemployed, and we’ve broken down those categories into others. Time-related Underemployment — that means they don’t have enough work.

ME: Part-time and not making enough money to get by.

SOPHIA: Mm hmm. And then there’s the Potential Employment Force, people who are “seeking” but they’re not necessarily available. With the way the statistics of the labor force have been measured, it’s been very much based on the fact that men are available immediately, pretty much, because that’s how society works. Therefore they [statisticians] imposed the same sort of strict requirements on everyone. And of course, women have children usually. They can’t just leave their children from one day to the next to start a new job. They have to make provisions for their children. Of course men do, too, especially in developing countries. They have to find the money to buy the uniform, or they have to figure out how they’re going to get from home to where they’re going to work.

This issue of availability was not recognized in the old standards, because it was very much based on the idea of an industrialized society where everybody is “available” — you jump on the truck to go to work, you get a car, you’re available. Your wife was taking care of the children, or like in the USSR, the system was taking care of your children. But that did not take into consideration all these different categories of persons. So we’re saying there is a potential labor force that could easily go into these categories if the necessary infrastructure is there. Very few people now are outside of the labor force.

ME: I was just going to ask, actually, because looking at this — so under “Potential Labor Force,” and “seeking” and “not available” and “not seeking,” etc. etc. This to me means “unemployed” so what’s the difference between someone unemployed and not seeking work, and someone outside the labor force?

SOPHIA: Because “unemployed” is actually a very strict definition. You have to fulfill certain criteria, otherwise you’re not considered as being within unemployment.

A quick aside, the ILO’s definition of “unemployment”:

The unemployed comprise all persons above a specified age who during the reference period were:

- without work, that is, were not in paid employment or self employment during the reference period;

- currently available for work, that is, were available for paid employment or self-employment during the reference period; and

- seeking work, that is, had taken specific steps in a specified recent period to seek paid employment or self-employment.

The specific steps may include registration at a public or private employment exchange; application to employers; checking at worksites, farms, factory gates, market or other assembly places; placing or answering newspaper advertisements; seeking assistance of friends or relatives; looking for land, building, machinery or equipment to establish own enterprise; arranging for financial resources; applying for permits and licences, etc.

This then is how we came up with a way of redefining everything, a revised classifications of persons. So you have your total population, like I said, with people engaged in a variety of productive activities, meaning any kind of production. Then we have people who are “exclusively in non-productive activities,” [See far right of the chart] and you almost find nobody there. People who are rich and don’t work and don’t do anything. Some people who are severely handicapped and can’t do anything. Old-age pensioners who don’t do anything anymore — but even then, they might knit a sweater or some sort of activity like that, right? So there are really very few people who are not doing anything, not engaged in the SNA [System of National Accounts -- the standards for how to compile economic statistics], neither seeking nor available for work, etc. All these other persons [indicating the other sections of the chart] who are doing something, they’re engaged either in so-called productive activities within the SNA — that’s the GDP calculation that is excluding all this so-called household production work — and so then we say they’re in employment, that means they’re working for pay or profit. Or they’re in own-use production work. So this new term that you were asking me what it’s called, we call it “own-use production work.”

People who are used to working in the labor force, they have to turn their minds around. I’ve found the majority of people who are not used to the old system found this new proposal intuitively quite correct. You have to get over the resistance holding on to the previous way.

So, own-use production work. And then there’s volunteer work. We put those two together.

ME: And why were those two put together?

SOPHIA: Well, volunteer work is not for your own use, it’s for the use of others. It could be contributing to the production of goods or services, which is usually what they do, but they’re not receiving any pay or profit for it, that’s the big distinction with volunteers.

And another thing, it used to be that if you were in employment and had one hour of work for the reference period [for the statistical data gathering] which was either a day or a week, then you could not be simultaneously in unemployment, because they had these priorities for measurement purposes. So we say, okay, somebody who has only one hour of work is not fully employed and therefore obviously is probably looking for more work at the same time. What you can see here with the new classifications for statistics is an innovation in that you can be in employment but you can also be doing your own production work, or volunteering. Then in this whole group of persons who are doing own-use production work and volunteering, they could also be looking for work on the side. Or you could be unemployed and also doing some sort of production. We’re trying to capture the manifold types of activities that humans do, and especially humans in a system which is not all employed from 9 to 5, because that’s disappearing even in the First World.

ME: I have a question, not at all tongue in cheek, I’m just curious. I’m looking at the headings saying productive activities and non-productive activities, and I’m interested in what falls under productive, what is considered a productive activity. For example, a politician works, but doesn’t actually produce anything. Or there are other examples. I was talking about this with my husband last night, thinking of trades and jobs that people do that don’t actually produce anything that we need. And how many different jobs are there in this world that are just that. Someone making a useless product, and then someone doing marketing for that useless product. But that person is still then producing something that is then quantified in GDP calculations, but a politician doesn’t produce anything. What’s considered productive then?

SOPHIA: Well, politicians provide a service. Production is goods and services, all activities that lead to, either directly or indirectly, the production of goods and services. That’s the SNA definition. But then what they did was they took this statement apart, saying that, actually, some goods are not included and some services are not included.

You’re interested in the sort of survival work, building your own house, etc. That kind of activity, even in the past, was considered part of SNA, was part of production, whereas cooking meals, preparing food, was not. Clearly they’re both productions, so many people have been asking for many, many years, why this distinction? How did they come up with that? Basically, little old men in the UK, in the USA, France, Germany, the big nations, thought that, well, building a house –

ME: is man’s work –

SOPHIA: Yes, and it’s big, it’s a structure. And the rest of the work was housewives’ work. It’s very much a simplistic representation of reality, and yet we [statisticians] have been turning around in circles trying to find things now to fit that stupid standard, which is entirely unrealistic. And people got very comfortable with that gymnastics, thought it was normal, so when we came along and tried to change it, they thought No!

Now, there are measurement issues, it’s not passed into law, but that’s the whole purpose of the resolution, and that’s the purpose of my colleagues who will continue on with the work.

ME: Is there any sort of itemized list for what counts as goods and services? You used the example of an elderly retired lady knitting something. Is knitting actually considered then a productive activity?

SOPHIA: Mm hmm.

ME: Really?

SOPHIA: There are lists of what is production, if we look here together at the resolution text. So, own-use production. Of services, of goods. Goods could be the sweater, it’s for yourself. Services, that’s the cooking and the cleaning. Funnily enough in the definition of services, a meal is considered a service. It’s not a good.

ME: That surprises me, actually, because it is a food product.

SOPHIA: Yeah. That was done because it’s easier to exclude then. They put the house as good, but the food is not. The food is a service. Which is baloney. There are all these excuses.

119. It has been argued that an advantage of treating own-use production of goods and of services as a single form of work is that it will be less likely for household production to be omitted during data collection than is the case at present (Goldschmidt-Clermont, 2000). Collection of the information by activity clusters, as recommended, will also reduce the problem of having to establish a boundary between goods and services. For example, fetching firewood, the processing of food for preservation, making butter or cheese, husking rice, slaughtering animals and grinding grain are all considered as production of goods, while cooking a meal is a service on the grounds that the meal is consumed immediately. In practice, the dividing line between cooking and these other activities is often difficult to draw, especially where fresh food is prepared daily. Similarly, construction and improvement of one’s dwelling is considered as fixed capital formation and thus included within the SNA production boundary, whereas smaller repairs are viewed as services and hence excluded. Yet it is difficult to distinguish between repair, improvement and construction, particularly where dwellings are built of materials such as mud, palm, wood and other perishables (Anker, 1983). (Report II, p.28)

ME: A lot of this [examples of work given under the report's own-use production heading] is household sorts of tasks that women typically do. I was thinking before coming here about what I would consider “invisible” work, and I thought of graduate students and interns. Is that also considered in any of the new categories?

SOPHIA: For trainees, that was a big contention between countries — Australia, UK, others, their trainee and apprenticeship systems are very, very formalized and integrated, and they said there’s no way they would exclude those from their statistics because it would bring their employment rates down and their unemployment rates up. But people who are in training, they’re not paid. Interns are basically free workers. Unfortunately they got considered to be in employment, because supposedly what they’re being “paid” in is experience.

Trainees, a lot of times even in very informal systems, in sub Saharan Africa for example, they get food, they are sometimes paid in a little bit of something. Volunteers for the International Red Cross, they do get something, a stipend sometimes. A lot of times that’s another problem with volunteer workers, that in the West what you might get is compensation for going and doing a particular task or project, and it’s sometimes higher than the salaries of government people in very poor countries. So what’s work, what’s volunteer work — the national context of wage levels etc. comes into play. So the idea is that volunteer pay should take into account the average local wages.

ME: How did you get interested in this?

SOPHIA: Well, I think I started to get into this because I’m a feminist from way back. For me, injustice against the poorest exists and is worrisome, but more so is the injustice done against women whether they’re rich or poor. And of course the worst is the poor women. If you look at a hierarchy anywhere in the world, whatever category you’re going to put down the line, it’s the women in that category who will be the least well-off, invariably. Women are more than half the world’s population, and so addressing this is fundamental. No matter what epoch you’re talking about, there has always been discrimination against women. I’ve gone to many parts of the world and given talks or done trainings, and I often like to take statistics with me that show how women are faring in the so-called developed world. People are shocked to see what’s happening in Scandanavia, Sweden, the UK, where they thought everything for women was fine. When you show the sort of basic statistics of employed, unemployed, household labor as it was called in the old days, it’s true that women are working less in employment for pay or profit, and that women who are in employment are more absent from work than men, and men work longer hours, so it’s seems like men are “carrying the burden of production,” and that women are having an easy time of it.

ME: But in a lot of cases men are only able to do that — work longer hours — because their partner is home taking care of things, children, etc.

SOPHIA: Exactly. In statistics you need to break down the data because otherwise statistics are meaningless. For example: household composition. Women in households with children below age seven have much higher absentee rates because — guess what — they take care of the kids when they’re sick, whereas the men continue working. Calculate what women are doing per day, their own-use production work — including caring for children, caring for the elderly — and their employment work if they have it. All of this counts. [...]


We soon embarked on a long and very interesting side discussion about water sanitation as a fundamental feminist issue, especially as it concerns menstruation. It was fascinating but pretty well outside the scope of this blog, and this transcription work is pretty rough because there’s all sorts of background noise in the recording. (I need to get a decent sound recorder.) So do what she suggested I do, and read Gloria Steinem’s “If Men Could Menstruate,” and also this and this, for starters.


ME: I’d like to know what you think about something. There’s … I don’t know that I would call it a movement, because I’m not sure it’s big enough, but there’s an idea I’ve seen being floated around in some of my reading, called “radical housewifery” or “radical homemaking.” It’s the idea that this sort of work, keeping house, can be done as a radical economic act, which goes against what a lot of women think, that you have to be working outside the home in order to be a “feminist.” When my mother had me, it was 1981. She’s a feminist and she always has been. She was a teacher and worked up until she was eight months pregnant or so, and then she went on maternity leave, intending to go back to work. She said that when she saw me she changed her mind. It was a hard decision, not one that was easy financially, but she still felt like for stability and emotions and whatnot that she would stay home for an undetermined amount of time. And her very, very good friend and co-conspirator in so much was horrified, and would constantly send her job announcements.

SOPHIA: That’s exactly this kind of thinking that status can only come from activities outside the home.

ME: Right. So related to that, this whole idea of “radical homemaking” goes against that idea, says that action can come from the home. But the thing is, I don’t know that it’s critical enough of itself. This decision to be a one-income family, or a half- or no-income family and then we’ll try to produce everything we need. My problem is that I don’t think it takes into consideration that a lot of times a person’s only political voice is in her workplace, and so if you remove yourself from the position of being a woman in a male-dominated workforce, I think you lose your agency in a sense.

SOPHIA: Well, I think it’s unfortunate — and I’ve seen this with a lot of well-intentioned people, myself included — that in proposing something new we still tend to accept as a fait accompli the dominant situation as being the right one. I read something, someone in politics, an American woman, who published this thing saying “Yes We Can,” or “No We Can’t,” or something like that — you know this Yes We Can business, and she said that no, actually, we can’t have it all, we can’t do the high-powered job and raise the kids and whatever else. [I'm was at first thinking that she was talking about Anne-Marie Slaughter but Slaughter addresses a lot of the systemic failures we were discussing, so I'm at a loss now... Will look into this.] It seems to me that she wasn’t thinking critically about how the system functions already, and she was kind of accepting still that women have the dominant role in taking care of the children, and that comes down to a relationship of co-responsibility. Until we’ve really internalized that, it’s true, no matter what you do you’re going to marginalize yourself, you’re going to become poorer, you’re going to lose your voice, and you’re going to undermine your own confidence because you’re not being given status because you’re not considered as because because because, right? So … radical housewifery. House husbandry, that means something different, doesn’t it? Again, this is the status that is given to words, and we need to find new words. So this is radical own-use production work.

It’s all a question of power. We give power to all these things, who has the money, ideas and words we have about status — but it has to become a co-responsibility. Whatever contribution to GDP is being produced has to be equally recognized.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 130 other followers