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the trouble with bubbles

Miniature worlds are a recurring theme in the stories of Philip K. Dick. In 'Second Variety', volume two of his collected stories (all early work from the period 1952-55), three stories explore this theme, including a fantasy tale ('Small Town') about a classic example: obsession with a model train world.

A related but more disturbing vision is offered in 'The Trouble with Bubbles', where miniature worlds are available as a commodity in a society severely suffering from ennui. These Worldcraft bubbles, as they're called, are today most easily described as physical god games - something like 'Spore' in a glass sphere - with real, living inhabitants on a microscopic scale.

Sub-atomic worlds, in controlled containers. We start life going on a sub-atomic world, feed it problems to make it evolve, try to raise it higher and higher. In theory there's nothing wrong with the idea. It's certainly a creative pastime. Not a merely passive viewing like television. In fact, world-building is the ultimate art form.

Stanisław Lem would later discuss the ethical dilemmas of playing god over miniature civilizations in 'The Seventh Sally', but Dick characteristically adds a further dramatic twist. The story revolves around a party where people enter their bubbles in a contest. For days they work themselves into a drugged frenzy, and then, led by the winner, a woman who has made 'worldcrafting' her life's work - they destroy them.

She raised her bubble up over her head, her doughy chest swelling convulsively. Suddenly her face jerked, features twisting wildly. Her thick body swayed grotesquely - and from her hands the Worldcraft bubble flew, crashing to the stand in front of her.

The bubble smashed, bursting into a thousand pieces. Metal and glass, plastic parts, gears, struts, tubes, the vital machinery of the bubble, splattered in all directions.

Pandemonium broke loose. All around the room other owners were smashing their worlds, breaking them and crushing them, stamping on them, grinding the delicate control mechanisms underfoot. Men and women in a frenzy of abandon, released by Lora Becker's signal, quivering in a orgy of Dionysian lust. Crushing and breaking their carefully constructed worlds, one after another.

The contestants' destructive behavior, which has the appearance of children bored with their toys throwing a tantrum, leads to a discussion about man's creative and destructive tendencies. Ostensibly, the story links the bubbles' popularity to mankind's failed exploration of other planets, as they allow people to build and rule over their own little world. More fundamental, however, seems to be the problem of leisure, which creates pent-up energy that mere toys won't channel, except destructively.

All of us have energy, the desire to move, act, do. But we're bottled up here, sealed off, on one planet. So we buy Worldcraft bubbles and make little worlds of our own. but microscopic worlds aren't enough. They're as satisfactory as a toy sailboat is to a man who wants to go sailing.

Meanwhile, the story's irony (which Dick leaves largely implicit) is that while these people long to explore new worlds and direct their energy more constructively, they have already proven themselves completely unfit to deal with other civilizations, large or small, in any sort of ethical manner.

Recommended:

a scanner darkly

Faithfully adaptated from Philip K. Dick 's novel, Richard Linklater 's animated 'A Scanner Darkly ' is a grim tale of drug-fueled paranoia. As with most P.K. Dick novels, the story is cloaked as science fiction to extrapolate trends i… Read the full post »

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