The Zap Gun is one of Philip K. Dick’s lesser “pot-boiler” novels.
It was originally serialized, so it’s shitty in the way that novels always are when it’s clear a writer is being paid by the word, useless adjectives everywhere. The story chugs along at a variable pace, committing the unforgivable sin of being (*gasp*) boring more than once.
Being a slice of PKD’s consciousness, however, it’s also completely insane. The story is about para-psychic government weapons “fashions” designers who receive schematics for world-destroying bombs while in drug-induced fugues. To fuel what is essentially a Cold public relations War between East and West (here given the adorable monikers “Peep-East” and “Wes-Bloc”), they tap into what they believe is a higher plane and awake with sketched designs for things like lobotomy gas, the “Evolution Gun” and “weapon BBA-81D.” These weapons are designed and constructed in underground laboratories, then tested and disseminated in propaganda films, but never actually used on the enemy. Instead, each element of the weapon is immediately “plowshared” into useful commercial products. Before the action even unfurls, the essential premise is already an illusion: the weapons designing, the psychic trances, and the entire industry of war are just a front to keep the economies of the East and West mutually afloat. It’s purely formal technological development without purpose, a war of design espionage, without bloodshed. The greater public knows nothing of this elaborate pact between East and West. They believe they are at war.
Which…this was written in 1967, but obviously the joke is still funny.
The Zap Gun introduces a daisy chain of science-fictional future banalities: automated kitchen appliances, vidphones, autonomous robotic journalists, a talking house oracle called “Ol’ Orville,” all products of weapons plowsharing. The main character, a top US weapons psychic, respected and feared the world over (his pick of mistresses!) suffers. He knows his work is useless, and pines for his puff existence—his appearance of vitality—to be made real. As it later turns out, he’s even more useless than he imagined: instead of tapping into a higher level of consciousness, touching God, he is actually just in psychic contact with an African comic-book artist. As he discovers that his ideas are nothing more than stolen design fictions, he plunges into a reckless anomie. Suddenly, ravenous pulp aliens start hovering over the Earth, their intentions inscrutable; the more ships appear, the more obvious it is that generations of fake-warmongering have left the planet unprepared for conflict, and due for certain extraterrestrial enslavement. We wonder: is the war machine necessary? Does it keep us hungry, keep us vigilant? Is it the engine that drives both technological innovation and artistically productive dissent?
Our hero becomes despondent. He is incapable of dreaming up a weapon that could possibly touch the new enemy. There’s simply no time, no resources to produce a smash-em-all nuke to obliterate the Slavers from Sirius. The solution—and I’m going to spoil the ending, because it’s interesting and odds are you’ll never read The Zap Gun—isn’t a weapon. It’s a toy. And this is where it gets really good, where the feverish rays of the true Dick Id start peeking out from behind the pulp-novel door. The toy is a kind of empathy feedback machine, a handheld maze in which a tiny, adorable creature is trapped. The maze is designed to be inescapable; as the creature reaches its end, the walls seamlessly re-arrange themselves. The user (gamer?) can control the difficulty of the maze, the harshness of the illusion, then rapid disappearance, of an exit. The catch is that the creature has a parapsychic ability to connect with the gamer. The gamer, essentially, feels a profound sense of empathy with the creature, and as they punish it with the shifting labyrinth, so they punish themselves. In the absence of a weapon of mass destruction, humanity instead sends an amplified version of this game to the alien overlords, banking on the evolutionary consistency of empathy. This works, and the aliens retreat with their proverbial tails in between their horrific, chitinous legs.
A couple of observations here. One, empathy is a fairly common science fiction tool; we often see empathy as a paranormal or psychic ability to sense others’ emotions—in this case, the word “empath” is used. The science, or speculative-fictional, empath often suffers from their gift, feeling the pain and confusion of others all around them. But empathy is also one of the fundamental elements of human morality. Our capacity to not only recognize the bodily and emotional feelings of others, but to port those experiences over to our own system, essentially neurologically replicating them, is an essential function of the human mind, undoubtedly key to our development as a social species. Those who do not have this ability are sadistic, autistic, and generally incomprehensible—not unlike aliens.
In fact, a lack of empathy, or, alternately, a lack of relatability, is one of the scariest things about aliens as they’re represented in popular culture; their inscrutable faces, their unclear—but obviously sinister—motives, their willingness to experiment upon us without any concern for our fragile psyches. Aliens are terrifying because they have no compassion, because their moral or ethical system, if they have one, has no bearing on our reality. They are not, in short, “human.”
For Dick to turn this entire construction on its head is brilliant. In a serialized 60s sci-fi novel, we expect the baddies to be slimy monsters from the great beyond, roundly destroyed by mankind’s martial ingenuity. Instead, in The Zap Gun, humanity employs the cornerstone of its neurological and spiritual makeup against the enemy—and the enemy is defeated by virtue of sharing that quality. The weapon of mass destruction is compassion. The conclusion is a philosophical grey area: the enemy is not so different, and so we can destroy him as we would destroy ourselves.
And, in a sense, we are destroying ourselves, because—ta-dah!—the alien is really us. Etymologically, alien is alienus, Latin, meaning other. But our perception of “other” is defined by the boundaries we place on the self; the more extreme the otherness (“Slavers from Sirius!”) the deeper it relates to some core quality of the self. The alien in science fiction is often the cold heart of man, the creature powered solely by evolutionary imperative, a horrific iteration of our animal origins. An empathy trap exorcises this demon, and we can all sleep at night.