At a couple of points in this Philip K. Dick novel the main character experiences physical objects disappearing to be replaced by slips of paper. He maintains a collection of these slips.

I cannot recall any explanation for this phenomenon and while I recognize that Dick did not place much emphasis on logical or rational explanations it seemed like such a bizarre concept that really added to the unreal nature of his environment.

Can anyone provide me with some in-story justification for this that I simply overlooked?

5 Answers 5


Here's an excerpt of Time Out Joint from the blog called The Truth About Lies which contains a good review of the book as a launching point for an essay about Dick:

Central problem in philosophy. Relation of word to object . . . what is a word? Arbitrary sign. But we live in words. Our reality, among words not things. No such thing as a thing anyhow; a gestalt in the mind. Thingness . . . sense of substance. An illusion. Word is more real than the object it represents.

It seems that once again Dick is asking us to question the nature of reality - all reality, not just the Truman Burbanks' Sea Haven-like little town Raggle lives in. Nor the wider world with its own particular problems

And later in the story Raggle in conspiracy with his brother-in-law...

shows his slips to him: "What's this?" Vic said. "Reality," Ragle said. "I give you the real." Vic took one of the slips of paper out and read it. "This says 'drinking fountain,'" he said. "What's it mean?" "Under everything else," Ragle said. "The word. Maybe it's the word of God. The logos. 'In the beginning was the Word.' I can't figure it out. All I know is what I see and what happens to me

And maybe the point is that that is all we can ever really know.

  • This certainly fits with Dick's inclination toward "acosmic pantheism". On the other hand, I think it should be emphasized that these slips of paper are not explained in any definite way, and they are apparently meant to be mysterious. As you quote Ragle saying, "I can't figure it out."
    – flies
    Apr 18, 2012 at 19:32

Your question gave me an excuse to reread the book - not that I needed much of an excuse as I love (most of) Philip K. Dick's books.

Anyhow, I can't see the logic behind the paper slips. They don't seem to fit the story at all. I wonder if Dick originally intended the town to be partly a hallucination imposed on Gumm, and then changed his mind halfway through the book. As far as I can tell, the town is completely real.

  • 1
    Thanks for your thoughts -- that was what I was wondering. It felt like the town wasn't real, and that's what happened with the paper - so I had the same thought as you. I don't know if this was originally serialized in a magazine or not, but it felt like the original plan was for it to be a virtual reality and that he realized he needed to change it, so he dropped that idea.
    – Tango
    Jan 14, 2012 at 0:31
  • One last thought: Sammy (Vic's son) finds five paper slips in the ruins, in the same place where he found the telephone directory and magazines. It's suggested that the Lunatics were responsible for seeding the ruins with the telephone directory, so maybe Dick was originally thinking that the slips and collapse of a virtual reality were the actions of the lunatics as part of a plan to rescue Gumm. Jan 14, 2012 at 6:52

PKD's strong suit is the surreal collapse of ordinary life. He wrote an essay about it called "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later". He gets into this a deeper in the Exegesis and there isn't a singular "right" answer.

In one way he is lampooning the mid-century obsession with neat little labels for everything, especially when the real world is becoming more and more disjointed and complex.

In another way it visualizes the defensive mechanism that protects Gumm from total collapse. As long as he has familiar labels, his world is understandable and he is safe.

Elsehwere, he mentions a drug that causes people who read certain words to hallucinate that the objects they describe really exist. This comes up in several of his novels (divine invasion, 3 stigmata, maze of death). He is always ambivalent about whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing.

and the town isn't real. It was specifically created to keep Gumm sane so he could protect humanity

  • Thanks for the mention of the essay. I found it online and provided a link. Jan 15, 2012 at 1:33
  • 1
    In relation to that essay perhaps you should say PKD's strong suit is the surreal collapse of his own life. Jan 15, 2012 at 5:49

The words/phrases on slips of paper could be interpreted as either -

1) Commenting on the relationship between the word and the physical object (or perhaps between Platonic ideal forms and physical represenations of the forms), and so the uncertainty regarding any physical reality.


2) As evidence that the 2nd layer of reality in the novel (the 'real world' rather than 1950's construct) is also unreal. Is the world in which the earth is at war with the moon another construct to avoid facing a worse reality?

Personally I prefer the idea of the 2nd interpretation, but suspect that PKD with his interest in religious themes (eg reality as the manifestation of a divine word) might have intended the first.

I'm sure there are other interpretations valid on the basis of the available evidence, and PKD may have intended there to be more than one.

Best wishes, Malcolm


I agree with Malcolm above. These paper slips are related to two things, which I'd say are:

1/ "Ding an sich" (mentioned in the book) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ding_an_sich

2/ the fake town, as with the bus passengers who are actually puppets.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.