In Philip K Dick’s (1928-1982) Beyond Lies the Wub, we have a particular paradigm of lying, of deception. The Wub is described as “a huge pig. It must weigh four hundred pounds”. And, it was dirty and “flies buzzed about its flank”. Nonetheless, its physical appearance distracted from its intelligent ploy which was to replicate itself by being eaten by the crew of the spacecraft. It was a disgusting looking specimen, it fed on anything, on grain, potatoes, mash, scraps from the table, and milk.
The Wub was an alien animal that spoke English, without being conscious of speaking anything in particular! It managed this feat by studying the contents of the mind of humans, especially “the semantic warehouse”. So, telepathy was its mode of communication because
“We are a very old race,” the wub said. “Very old and very ponderous. It is difficult for us to move around. You can appreciate that anything so slow and heavy would be at the mercy of more agile forms of life. There was no use in our relying on physical defences. How could we win? Too heavy to run, too soft to fight, too good-natured to hunt for game—“
So here we have the perfect reason for deception, for dissembling. An animal that has no other choice but to exploit our primary weakness, the desire to eat, the basic instinct that greed and gluttony are built upon. And, that is precisely what the Wub, does. It showed its moral superiority to man when he said
“It is very warm,” the wub said. “I understand that we are close to the jets. Atomic power. You have done many wonderful things with it—technically. Apparently, your scientific hierarchy is not equipped to solve moral, ethical“
So, the Wub was killed, cooked and eaten and the “taste was excellent”. Except, that the ship’s captain had turned into the Wub.
I am not sure whether Philip K Dick regarded this story as a study of how deception works, of the mechanism of lying, Whether, he did or not, it is a wonderful account of the nature and methods of deception. It was not the way of chameleons, nor of any other living organism that simply merges with its environment, so as to avoid being seen by its predator. All that is required by the chameleon are surface stratagems, mere tricks of perception, playing on the limits of perception and the role of illusion in the sensory systems of predators.
But, the Wub, understood what all Nigerian politicians have always understood, and that is termed, in that playful Nigerian humour, “stomach infrastructure”. Another way of saying the route to a man’s heart is through his stomach. So, some lies trade on instinctual needs, exploit greed and gluttony, and masquerading as solutions to hunger, primal hunger, not symbolic but complex hunger for abstractions. So, we have politicians bribing the electorate by supplying sacks of rice just before an election, or promising to reduce taxes, or more recently paying towards a meal in participating restaurants à la Sunak.
This idea that lies and deception can piggy-back on instinctual drives also reminds us of how successful any malevolent germ that is parasitic on sexual drives is- hence the evolutionary success of syphilis, gonorrhoea and HIV.
We turn to another great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) for an exploration of a different kind of deception, another mechanism that lying uses, often productively and successfully. In The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury wrote in chapter ‘September 2005- The Martians’ about the power of nostalgia to make people susceptible to deceit. Nostalgia is a complex emotion that entails the desire to return, at least in the mind, to a former time, or a former life, perhaps a home or homeland. In its current usage, this includes the longing for empire, or a time in the past associated with glory. Such slogans as MAGA and put the great back in Great Britain spring from emotions of this kind.
The scene is now set for the sudden appearance of their dead son, Tom. He arrives in the middle of the night. The elderly couple cannot believe it. In the morning, LaFarge goes out for a walk and
LaFarge was speaking to his wife
“’There’s only one thing,’ said LaFarge, looking at his hands.
‘What’s that?’ asked his wife.
‘I wish we could have brought Tom with us.’
‘Oh, now, Lafe!’
‘I won’t start again; I’m sorry.’
‘We came here to enjoy our old age in peace, not to think of Tom. He’s been dead so long now, we should try to forget him and everything on Earth.’
“At the front door he almost knocked young Tom down carrying in a bucket already filled to the brim. ‘Good Morning, Father!’
‘Morning Tom.’ The old man fell aside […]
The old man moved forward. ‘Tom, how did you get here? You’re alive?’
‘Shouldn’t I be?’ The boy glanced up.” […]
‘Who are you, really? You can’t be Tom, but you are someone. Who?’ […]
‘You can tell me,’ said the old man. ‘I’ll understand. You’re a Martian, aren’t you? I’ve heard tales of the Martians; nothing definite. Stories about how rare Martians are and when they come among us they come as Earth Men. There’s something about you – you’re Tom and yet you’re not.’ […]
Who is this, he thought, in need of love as much as we? Who is he and what is he, that, out of loneliness, he comes into the alien camp and assumes the voice and face of memory and stands among us, accepted and happy at last? From what mountain, what cave, what small last race of people remaining on this world when the rockets came from Earth? The old man shook his head. There was no way to know. This, to all purposes, was Tom.
The deception, the lie was built on exploiting loss, unassuaged grief, nostalgia for the past that was left behind on Earth, by these colonialists of Mars. Even though the lie is comforting, it is still a lie. And it does not end well, as lies never do. A lie that exploits longing, that demands that the past, whatever its true provenance, be recreated, that myth stand in for the real and the present, almost certainly always fails. And, it does fail in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicle.
You don’t question Providence. If you can’t have the reality, a dream is just as good. Perhaps I’m not their dead one back, but I’m something almost better to them; an ideal shaped by their minds.” […]
The swift figure meaning everything to them, all identities, all persons, all names. How many different names had been uttered in the last five minutes? How many different faces shaped over Tom’s face, all wrong? All down the way the pursued and the pursuing the dream and the dreamers, the quarry and the hounds. All down the way the sudden revealment, the flash of familiar eyes, the cry of an old, old name, the remembrances of other times, the crowd multiplying. Everyone leaping forward as, like an image reflected from ten thousand mirrors, the running dream came and went, a different face to those ahead, those behind, those yet to be met, those unseen.
So far, I have examined the lie that is built on our instinctual drives, the lie that is parasitic on our deep need for sustenance, on the ever-present pursuit of greed and gluttony. And, then the lie that is the ruse of tyranny, a promise of a return to a glorious and idealised past, arcadia of the mind, something to prop up faltering self-esteem, the mantra of a master conjurer of deception, Trumpian in magnitude, Johnsonian in ease of effort, and delirious in its induction of confusion. Twenty thousand lies and still counting after a mere 4 years in power!
I want now to turn Stanislaw Lem’s (1921-2006) Solaris. The most intimate of lies, the most persuasive and captivating, enchanting even, because they are closer in their mechanism to sorcery, witchcraft and magic than mere mendacity, are the lies that are cultural and religious in scope and grandeur. Lem’s Solaris, a mysterious planet is a living system, that has Will and goals. Its capacity for deception is limitless and is based on the personal history of an individual. It renders concrete and real the contents of the mind and thereby imprisoning the individual subject of experience in the physical enactment of their desires. For Kelvin, our protagonist, it is the hallucinatory but real re-incarnation of his deceased wife that is exploited to entrap him.
But, first to talk about culture as an extensive form of deception. The deception only becomes apparent when confronted by a civilisation ordered on a different premise. In other words, it seems absolutely reasonable to assume that the only correct way to drive a car, is on the left as we do in the UK. And, it is self-evident that the Bible was dictated directly in English by God, notwithstanding the historical facts! Our own language is so much more, intimately correct and all other languages are deviations from the correct and proper way to construct meaning in words. Actually, all other peoples are merely grunting beasts rather than humans speaking. Our etiquettes, our social conventions, whether we fart to demonstrate pleasure after a meal or burp, whether we eschew brightly coloured shirts, or wear loin cloth or have our females expose the pertness of their breasts to admiration or cover up only their heels or everything but their heels, these myriad enactments of etiquette can be the root cause of war and of hatred.
Solaris explores this phenomenon by a discourse on the nature of the Solarian Ocean
“This […] convinced the scientists that they were confronted with a monstrous entity endowed with reason, a protoplasmic ocean-brain enveloping the entire planet and idling its time away in extravagant theoretical cogitation about the nature of the universe […] The decision to categorise the ocean as a metamorph was not an arbitrary one. Its undulating surface was capable of generating extremely diverse formations which resembled nothing seen on Earth, and the function of these sudden eruptions of plasmic ‘creativity’, whether adaptive, explorative or what, remained an enigma. Lifting the heavy volume with both hands, I replaced it on the shelf, and thought to myself that our scholarship, all the information accumulated in the libraries, amounted to a useless jumble of words, a sludge of statements and suppositions, and that we had not progressed an inch in the seventy-eight years since researches had begun”.
Culture and perspective taking are like rigid instruments determining what it is possible to see or to say. The suspect logic and conclusions are invisible except to the most assiduous of explorers. And the hierarchy of perspectives, the privileging of opinion, the valorisation of one person over another, are only apparent in the critique of the canons of the academy. This kind of deception, this kind of lying, hides in plain sight.
And, its propensity to describe only by analogy to what is already known and in language that is familiar is what points at the limitations of this kind of deception- a population-wide false narrative that is not easily open to inquiry. Here is a description of the Solarian Ocean, one that relies on our Terran Ocean for comprehension
[…] this is the second phase, which goes under the clumsy name of the ‘floral calyx phase’ and lasts only a few seconds. The membraneous arches soaring into the sky now fold inwards and merge to produce a thickset trunk enclosing a teeming activity […] Meanwhile, the entire truck is surrounded by a belt of snowy foam, seething with great bubbles of gas, the whole process is accompanied by a perpetual dull roar of sound.”
This kind of deception has the most power to cause harm precisely because it wages war against other contenders: religious wars, culture wars, geopolitical wars all derive from these deceptions. And, these deceptions prop up power structures and corral the victims of the dominant narratives like wild horses in a pen.
Finally, Cervantes (1547-1616) that master at revealing the nature of illusion. What is “alternative facts”, that brazen and monumental lie told and memorialised forever by Kellyanne Conway, if not a revelation of the nature of illusion? That was the Don Quixote moment of the Trump era. Is the windmill a race of giants or not? And, Doña Dulcinea del Toboso, a peerless and beauteous lady not a maid? “Alternative facts” was an attempt to imply that interpretation is all that counts. That we can have a windmill within our purview but be persuaded that it is actually a race of giants. And that in matters of aesthetics, a maid is demonstrably peerless and consequential.
That is the territory of absurdity. We are invited to subscribe and endorse falsehood and claim it as true. This kind of subterfuge requires passive receipt of untruth as true or better still an active participation, by relinquishing judgement, in order to become docile and mentally dead. And many have already succumbed to this project
Photos by Jan Oyebode