The Nature of Reality Precious Artifact

The author Philip K. Dick was best known for his work in the Science Fiction genre. One of his more prominent writings is the 1960s short story “Precious Artifact”, a futuristic tale about a man named Milt Biskle who is tasked with building a new civilization on the planet Mars after Earth (or “Terra”) is left in ruins post-war with an alien species referred to as “the Proxima”. He and a small group of former Earth-dwellers have been instructed to create an inhabitable colony on Mars for other Terrans to migrate to when the time is right.

However, Biskle suffers from depression and fears that whatever remains of Earth is little but rubble; after agreeing to spare his fellow engineers from a desolate speech that would only instill anxiety and terror among the other workers (once Dr. DeWinter talks him out of it by proposing a deal), he decides to visit Earth to review the state it is in. Once Biskle arrives, he feels that something is wrong with Terra.

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Gradually the main character realizes that an illusion of the Earth is being shown to him; the true magnitude of destruction is immense and Biskle is informed that the Proxima want him to rebuild a colony on Earth’s surface since the work on Mars is already finished. Biskle agrees to help with reconstruction if he is given a cat (or more specifically a kitten) that can stay with him on Mars; the negotiation is accepted, but during the middle of Biskle’s return he attempts suicide.

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Although Biskle stops himself at the last minute, he only does so because he wishes to continue living for the sake of the animal. A main idea in ‘Precious Artifact’ is control; the symbolism for control is the cat. It’s something from Earth that brings him comfort and keeps him motivated. ‘This artifact, accepted by the Terrans as an authentic organism from his familiar past, would provide a pivot by which the man would hang onto his psychic balance’ (Philip K. Dick).

This cat is being used to manipulate Biskle to do as the Proxima desire. Another main idea that is prevalent in “Precious Artifact” is the concept of the nature of reality. It is unclear throughout the course of the story what should be perceived to be real or artificial; since the Proxmen have no trouble fabricating life, what should be believed in Biskle’s world? Philip Kindred Dick was born on December 16, 1928, along with his twin sister in Chicago, Illinois. Tragically, his sister passed away in the span of a month and his works have since been influenced by her death. When he was five years old his parents decided to divorce and his mother won custody over him; once he moved to Washington, D.C., Mr. Dick eventually attended John Eaton Elementary School and later enrolled in Berkeley High School in California. After graduation, Mr. Dick briefly studied various subjects while at the University of California (Philosophy, Psychology, History, and Zoology).

During his time in university, Mr. Dick discovered his interest in Science Fiction and began writing short stories in the 1950s (his first work “Solar Lottery” was published in Planet Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and If). Mr. Dick would eventually publish “Precious Artifact” in 1964 and later die March 2, 1982 when he was disconnected from life support after suffering a deadly stroke February 25 of that same year. However, prior to his tragic death, Mr. Dick would see vivid hallucinations of a woman with a golden necklace and claimed that she imparted great wisdom whenever she would “visit” him. Mr. Dick’s short stories questioned the nature of reality and featured characters who would soon discover that the world as they thought they knew it had been altered; in a sense, it seems as though the author was illustrating his own ponderings through his literature. The proof of Biskle’s manipulation (as well as the future manipulation of Biskle’s fellow Earth-dwellers) lies within the ending portion of “Precious Artifact”.

Dr. DeWinter remarks, “Research into the past of each engineer would provide the clue, as it had in Biskle’s instance; the cat-simulacrum had been finished weeks before his abrupt, panic-stricken trip home to Terra” (Dick). This quote implies that the Proxmen know exactly what they’re doing to the Terrans; the Proxima know that each individual must have some emotional-mental attachment to a specific “precious artifact” and that by perfectly replicating the object they can control the Earth-dwellers to do their bidding. Another statement that further supports this notion is “Dr. DeWinter . . . thought, ‘As long as its [the kitten’s] batteries don’t run down’” (Philip K. Dick). Such a quote implies that the Proxima fabricated the “kitten” because they knew Biskle would want to have it with him to keep his sanity. They calculated that Biskle would need some type of physical tether to the world of the living or else he may actually commit suicide.

The evidence of the Proxmen’s deception is revealed when Biskle finally realizes he is being shown an illusion of the Earth. After coming to the conclusion that he is being lied to, the main character states, “’I want to know the truth.’ . . . / ‘I am right,’ he said . . . / It [Terra] was, of course, as she [Mary] had said, ruins. The city had been decapitated, leveled three feet above ground-level; the buildings had become hollow squares, without contents, like some infinite arrangements of useless, ancient courtyards” (Dick). This bit of text completely encompasses Biskle’s morbid situation. He was lied to by the Proxima, made to believe that Earth was thriving after the war; but his suspicions were confirmed when he threatened to kill his escort Mary Ableseth and she told him the bitter truth.

The harsh reality of Earth’s condition and the knowledge that the Proxmen lied to Biskle is frightening; the alien species can and will deceive him and his fellow engineers into doing as they command because if the Terrans understood the full extent of damage, they would all be as suicidal as Biskle. Further proof that the Proxmen will do anything to achieve their goals through any means possible is evident when the author writes, “He [Dr. DeWinter] appreciated the intricate workmanship, by engineers stationed on the third planet, which had gone into the simulacrum [“kitten”] resting in the box on Milt Biskle’s lap. The technical achievement was impressive, even to him, and he saw clearly — as Milt Biskle of course did not” (Philip K. Dick). This statement illustrates how thoroughly the Proxima species have planned out their deceit towards the Earth-dwellers. It becomes quite obvious that the Proxmen artificially created Biskle’s kitten and do have the intention to fabricate other “precious artifacts” for his fellow engineers should they find the need to.

The Proxima know much more than they let on and wish to have their human workers do the tasks they’re given mindlessly; the Proxmen lie and create false realities so Biskle and the other Terrans will listen to their commands without any dramatics. Another quote that showcases the extensive falsehoods of the Proxmen is when Dr. DeWinter thinks, “A shame we could not have shown him the real situation of Terra. Actually, it’s quite interesting that he accepted what he saw, because on some level he must realize that nothing survives a war of the kind we conducted” (Dick). This bit of internal dialogue provides us with the omnipresent knowledge that the Proxima didn’t actually show Biskle the truth of Earth’s condition. What was shown to the engineer was still artificial because the Proxmen did not believe showing Biskle the full extent of damage caused during the war would prevent him from ending his own life. In summation, it is quite obvious that Mr. Philip Kindred Dick wrote “Precious Artifact” as a testament to how the nature of reality is elusive.

The author himself questioned how we could differentiate between fiction and reality when the mind could so easily trick us with clever, complex manipulations. Many people wonder what we should believe in; do we have faith in our senses? Or is the human mind too deceptive? What is real and what is fabricated by our own psyches? Such inquiries leave much to the unknown; what is our place in the vast universe? What is to be believed when so many things that “exist” were artificially manufactured by man? So little in this world is natural or earthly; how can we trust that which has been “made” physical by our own machinations? What if what we perceive to be “real” is just fiction created by our imaginations? These inquiries are brought about during the course of any Philip K. Dick short story, and “Precious Artifact” is one of the best examples of the universally asked question: What is the nature of reality; what should we believe in?

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The Nature of Reality Precious Artifact. (2021, Dec 26). Retrieved from

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