Short story review - The Mold of Yancy
Posted on March 2, 2023
Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite writers. He was incredibly prolific, penning dozens of novels (many of them, it must be said, are not so good), and over a hundred short stories (ditto). I am not prone to placing writers on pedestals, but I do not hesitate to call him one of the few true visionaries that speculative fiction has presented to the world.
He was also demonstrably psychotic at least some of the time, and appears to have believed that his psychosis corresponded to contact with some actual higher reality (he shares this with another mystical thinker I admire, Carl Gustav Jung, although some will dispute the characterisation when applied to Jung).
Lest I be misunderstood, I do not believe this was the case, except in a boring metaphorical sense that I do not think he ascribed to. His conviction to the contrary appears to have contributed to the numinosity which permeates much of his later writing. This sense of the mystical, and his ability to gesture towards the profundity that lies hidden beneath the mundane appearances of the everyday, left a deep impression on me when I discovered his writing as a young person. For an account of Dick’s experiences of the divine (what I would call his psychosis), I direct the curious reader to one of the most peculiar, electrifying, yet ultimately incoherent books I have ever read, VALIS. This essay also gives one a good sense of both his writing style and his particular madness.
The short story ‘The Mold of Yancy’ predates this period of his life by several decades - it was published in 1955.
It is quite short. As a piece of writing it leaves much to be desired, and is far from his best. The characterisation is shallow, although there is some minor development in the character of Leon Sipling. Many of the characters are only distinguishable by their names. Science and technology were never Dick’s strong points, and his vision of the future in this story (as in many others written in the 1950s) feels a bit like Mad Men in space, but with fancier computers. There is no sign of anything like the internet.
The story’s primary memetic function is an analysis of a certain type of totalitarianism that could, hypothetically, have been enabled by the mass media of the 1950s.
Near the start of the story we are introduced to some sort of solar police agency that, for some reason, is tasked with combatting totalitarianism (if the irony of using the police to fight totalitarianism was touched upon it was too subtle for me to notice).
This police agency is concerned by the analysis of their computers, which indicates an increase in the ‘totalitarian make-up’ of Callisto, a moon of Jupiter, that is apparently somehow inhabited by 80 million people. How exactly the computers achieve this analysis is swept under the rug - today we might imagine it is some sort of sentiment analysis bot running on social media networks.
The policemen cannot determine why this would be the case, since they notice none of what they (and by extension the reader) would expect to see in a totalitarian society; persecution of people for political reasons, death camps, people being constantly accused of treason and recanting their views (presumably under torture), etc.
Dick speaks to us through the character of the police director Kellman, who tells us what totalitarianism is:
A totalitarianism state reaches into every sphere of its citizens’ lives, forms their opinions on every subject.
The actual form of the government doesn’t matter - but for the system to be totalitarian it should be a totalising entity. So it should exclude the possibility of the individual having an interior, private life that is distinct from the exterior, mandated reality imposed by the totalitarian system.
The main takeaway of this review is that the modern social media landscape can usefully be construed as exactly such a totalising system (I do not claim this as a novel insight, but it is one worth repeating). This may remind the reader of 1984, and there are indeed strong parallels - one of the policeman notes that there are no ‘thoughtcontrol cops’, which seems to be a nod to the Thinkpol of 1984 (one assumes Dick had read 1984 by 1955 - it was published in 1949).
We soon learn both what constitutes totalitarianism on Callisto, and what purpose it serves. Its aim is, firstly, to manipulate public consciousness so that critical or divergent thought is no longer possible (another nod to Orwell, presumably). Secondly, and this is very much not in line with 1984, it is intended to help sell the various products that are produced by the same elites that control the Yancyian apparatus of control. This is of course delightfully paranoid, and although I do not believe that this is straightforwardly and literally the case in the world today, it is also obviously far from being completely false - after all, advertising and marketing, do, in fact, exist.
As it turns out, there is no Thinkpol on Callisto because they are not necessary. Rather, in the society imagined by Dick, people believe that they have opinions, but they do not. Rather, they have internalised the opinions of a fictitious media figure called John Edward Yancy (modelled on Dwight Eisenhower, apparently), and believe them to be their own. Recordings of his speeches (typically presented in a homely, unconfrontational setting to increase his popular appeal) are broadcast daily, and constitute the main media diet of the population. His habits and preferences dictate those of the masses - if Yancy eats a certain cereal or drives a certain car, so do you.
While Yancy delivers speeches/sermons on apparently everything under the sun, when it comes to important topics he offers up only empty platitudes, that upon examination negate each other, so that nothing is said:
Rapidly, Taverner scanned tapes on various major subjects. It was the same all down the line. With one sentence Yancy gave; with the next he took away. The total effect was a neat cancellation, a skilful negation. But the viewer was left with the illusion of having consumed a rich and varied intellectual feast [emphasis added]. It was amazing. And it was professional: the ends were tied up too slickly to be mere accident.
Unknown to the majority of the population of Callisto, Yancy is not a an actual person - instead it is implied that he is an ‘android’. The term denotes something other than what we might understand in 2023, and instead seems closer in meaning to ‘animatronic doll’ than ‘humanoid robot’ or ‘semi-synthetic person’. So he is neither an independent entity acting on orders, nor a robotnik acting out his instructions, but a doll carefully manipulated by teams of experts (called ‘yance-men’) to give the illusion of life. We can imagine someone today doing something similiar using generative adversarial networks to generate deepfakes (in fact it would be lovely if someone recreated Yancy as an art/political performance in this way).
The character of Yancy appears to be an early prototype of William Mercer, and the eponymous religion of Mercerism, from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Yancy and Mercer serve similiar social functions, although Mercerism is arguably more benign than Yancyism, but no less cynical, in that it serves as a soporific for the populace of a planet driven to despair and ecological ruin by a nuclear war.
The story ends on a hopeful note - the police(!) subvert the Yancian system of totalitarianism with the assistance of a yance-man whose conscience, and a desire for a better world for his son (who can no longer think for himself), does not allow him to continue in the deception.
On a metaphorical level, any modern personage who has the backing of sufficient money and a team that supports them in projecting a certain world view (e.g. news anchors for large news companies) may qualify as a Yancy - but so may a number of successful streamers who amassed a cult-like following online. The novelty of the story is suggesting that there could be a singular such entity that could guide the thoughts of literally an entire planet. Given the actual direction the internet and social media has taken (i.e. many different agents all shouting at you to believe them and buy their products/worldview) this has arguably turned out to be laughably short sighted - but the story is best read, like much speculative fiction, as a creative thought experiment, so I do not think this can be counted against it.
Unlike the yance-men of the story, who are well aware that they are perpetuating a fraud aimed at the satisfaction of the profit motive of their bosses (the off-screen ‘higher-ups’ we know only through reference, and via their intermediary bully/senior manager Babson), a casual perusal of social media influencers suggests that many of them do not see themselves in the same light - i.e. as enriching the shareholders and/or owners of the platforms they use to draw attention to themselves. A better analogical role for the yance-men is played by the software engineers who design, build, and maintain these systems. They are typically well-paid, which must surely be the main motivation for some large percentage of the people doing these jobs.
And of course, some fraction of ‘influencers’ also make a tidy income - ironically much of this seems to work like a classic pyramid scheme, in that they make money by selling their ‘method’ (i.e. their con) to other desperate, naive, and/or unscrupulous people.
(I do not mean to imply that all ‘content creators’ are like this - there are many people active on e.g. substack whose writing I enjoy, who I definitely believe are not running pyramid schemes, and produce works that enrich, rather than impoverish, the world. But some biggish part of the larger social media networks demonstrably are not like this).
As visionary as Dick was, he failed to literally predict the internet. Nonetheless, his presentation of a totalitarian system constructed for the profit of an offscreen business class is worth comparing to the current situation on Instagram, Twitter, and the rest of the panoply of social media networks driven by corporate, rather than humane, logic.
Furthermore, I believe that the omnipresence of social media can fruitfully be viewed as a type of totalitarianism of the mind. By constantly scrolling from one titillating post to the next, or engaging with outrage loops, we unconsciously imbibe attitudes that we prime ourselves with, and may consequently act out in our lives.
Perhaps some of these attitudes and opinions are innocuous - but the medium itself drives us away from the type of constructive and critical engagement necessary to live an examined life, and we should therefore be vigilant that the opinions and beliefs are hold are considered, and that we are not merely reflexively repeating vacuous statements, like the population of Callisto in the story. This has always been true in some manner or another - but the problem today is more acute, and I believe it hampers our ability to live good lives in a manner that may not be immediately apparent.
In addition to potentially being totalising entities by themselves, social media platforms exist on a network that excels at transmitting these totalising entities into our minds - the internet is perhaps the ultimate conveyor of totalising systems, and interests external to it (e.g. corporate and political interests) drive the dynamic to favor the proliferation of systems that are not aligned with the welfare of people as a whole.
The logic of totalising systems would have it that anyone that queries its internal logic is suspect, perhaps even pathological. In such a world, the most subversive act you can perform is to log off, and check in with your self. Perhaps go for a walk or read a book.
Link to a pdf version of ‘The Mold of Yancy’: https://www.defectiveyeti.com/moy.pdf
Another review of the ‘The Mold of Yancy’, by someone who is not me: https://philipkdickreview.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/the-mold-of-yancy/
An essay by Thomas Disch on the short story that provides some interesting context: https://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/9780472068968-26.pdf
A lovely essay by PKD himself that will give some insight into his world view: https://urbigenous.net/library/how_to_build.html