Philip K Dick discussion

The Pre-Persons - May 2008

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message 1: by Hertzan (last edited Apr 25, 2008 01:33AM) (new)

Hertzan Chimera (hertzanchimera) | 225 comments new member david suggested this new feature ONE STORY, ONE MONTH. I choose the first one:

"The Pre Persons" - a shocking story that I truly love because of its arbitrary definition of 'having a soul' namely the ability to do algebra. Classic.

Here's something about "The Pre Persons" lifted directly from wikipedia (the bastard of truth):

"The Pre-persons" is a science fiction short story by Philip K. Dick. It was first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, October 1974.

It was an anti-abortion response to Roe vs Wade. Dick imagines a future where the United States Congress has decided that abortion is legal until the soul enters the body, which is specified as the ability to do simple algebra. The main protester — a former Stanford mathematics major — demands to be taken to the abortion center, since he claims to have forgotten all his algebra.

Dick said of the story in 1980:

In this ... I incurred the absolute hate of Joanna Russ who wrote me the nastiest letter I've ever received; at one point she said she usually offered to beat up people (she didn't use the word 'people') who expressed opinions such as this. I admit that this story amounts to special pleading, and I'm sorry to offend those who disagree with me about abortion on demand. I also got some unsigned hate mail, some of it not from individuals but from organizations promoting abortion on demand. Well, I have always managed to offend people by what I write. Drugs, communism, and now an anti-abortion stand; I really know how to get myself in hot water. Sorry, people. But for the pre-persons' sake I am not sorry. I stand where I stand: "Hier steh Ich; Ich kann nicht anders," ["Here I stand, I can do no other"] as Martin Luther is supposed to have said.

and because it's only a short story, if you haven't read it yet, please do try to find it, read it and report your opinion.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I'd love to discuss "The Pre-Persons." Give me a few days to read it over.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I forgot completely to post my thoughts about the story.

“The Pre-Persons” is essentially a reductio ad absurdum argument in fictional guise. Not that it bad form for science fiction, a lot can be gleamed drawing opinions or hypotheses to extreme conclusions, but I think in this case Dick misses the basic question. What is a person? Why do we, why should we, value a person.

If a driver of a car accidentally runs over a box turtle on the road, conventional ethics would dictate he view it as an unfortunate circumstance but not much else. If he runs over a dog, he should probably stop to get it veterinary care or locate the owner. If he runs over a boy, he is required to stop and await a police investigation. The first is just an animal, the second is an animal and mostly likely a pet, and the third is a person.

But what makes the boy a person? Dick gives the cheeky answer that it is the ability to do higher math. But he doesn’t really think that and nether should the reader, if read as the author intended. Yet Dick doesn’t give a non cheeky answer; the real definition of a person is unanswered, but the implication is the law (e.g., Roe v. Wade, legal abortion) can’t make that decision.

However, if a driver could hit and run a box turtle or a dog without major legal penalty because they are just animal, but could be sent to jail for killing a boy because the boy is a person, then what makes the boy a person should be clearly defined.

What that definition is is not found in “The Pre-Person” though the assumption of at conception could be inferred. Or maybe that it is just beyond the law.

Going beyond Dick’s story, there is an essay on medical ethics available on the internet called "When Is a Person" by James Park that philosophically attempts to define person for purposes of when to give or not give medical care. In short, the essay says, a person has four qualities:


While not everybody will be satisfied with the author’s criterion for pre-person, person, and former person it is an attempt to fill in the gaps where “The Pre-Persons” was lacking.

As a work of fiction, “The Pre-Person” failed due it’s polemics. An abortion truck picking up unwanted little boys like stray dogs is not going to win converts to his beliefs, he will just piss off those who disagree with him.

message 4: by Kersplebedeb (new)

Kersplebedeb | 1 comments Well, Dick was a great writer with a pleasantly twisted mind. Doesn't mean he wasn't also a misogynist, or that he didn't have a warped relationship to reality, including his own reality as an absentee father.

One of his daughters is quoted as saying that "He takes this stand against abortion when he didn’t raise his own children." (Divine Invasions: The Life of Philip K. Dick, p. 108). & there ya go...

The Pre-Persons i found fairly lousy as a story, like many of his shorter work. But the bitterness was impressive.

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