"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, all useless adjectives everywhere. Being a slice of PKD’s consciousness, however, it’s also completely insane. Case in point: the story revolves around a group of 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”), the G-men tap into 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.
This satirical vision of weapons created for immediate decomission–built to be melted down and repurposed like Napoleonic cannons–is prescient in a weirdly skewed way. In our modern world, we're beginning to use the same technology to manufacture weapons as we do to manufacture toys, in an increasingly free-form market of 3D-printable objects. Instead of "plowsharing" weapons into plastic commercial goods, we're building weapons out of plastic commercial materials, fueled by a hive-mind of shared design that isn't quite psychic–but definitely creepy. If we buy into the utopian vision of 3D printing, the idea that anything representable in AutoCAD can be democratically altered, shared, and built on a budget, then which objects are beyond our purview–copyrighted designs? Guns? Dick was right about one thing: as we move into a conceptual future, the line between weapons and more benign everyday objects will only become wigglier.
Before the action even unfurls, the essential premise of "The Zap Gun" 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, free of 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, suffers. He knows his work is useless, and pines for his puff existence—his appearance of vitality—to be made real.
Suddenly, ravenous pulp aliens start hovering over the Earth, their intentions inscrutable; the more ships appear, the more obvious it becomes that generations of fake warmongering have left the planet totally unprepared for conflict, and due for certain extraterrestrial enslavement. We wonder: is the war machine as we know it actually necessary? Does it keep us hungry and vigilant? Is it the engine that drives both technological innovation and artistically-productive dissent?
Our hero becomes even more 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 real weapon of mass destruction is compassion. The enemy is not so different, and so we can destroy him as we would destroy ourselves."
The toy is an 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. It works, and the aliens retreat with their proverbial tails between their horrific, chitinous legs.
A couple of observations here. One: empathy is a fairly common genre trope; 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 seen as sadistic, autistic, and generally incomprehensible—not unlike aliens.
"Zap Gun," Peter Andrew Jones, 1974
In fact, a lack of empathy 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 real weapon of mass destruction is compassion. It's 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 as much as the alien represents a profound otherness, the alien is also us. Etymologically, alien is alienus, Latin for "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, or at least contains it–so we can all sleep at night.