The chapter begins in a huge, decayed building, in which there’s a single TV, turned on. Before WWT, the building had been upscale and full of people. Now, the owners have left Earth to live on a “colony world.” WWT was costly and dangerous, despite the predictions of the Rand Corporation—which, like the building tenants, has left the world altogether.
The Rand Corporation was a real corporation that conducted a large amount of research on military science during the 50s and 60s. Some intellectuals criticized the Rand Corporation for enabling the U.S. to conduct a nuclear war with the U.S.S.R—In Dick’s future, they were right.
We learn a little more about WWT. Nobody knows who started the war, or how it ended. But the results of the war are still apparent: the sun no longer shines on Earth because of the dust and toxins in the air. Also as a result of the war, there was much more attention paid to off-world colonization. Scientists invented organic androids that could work as engineers and servants to humans on other planets. The governments of Earth encouraged their people to leave the planet as soon as possible. By staying behind on Earth, humans made it almost impossible for themselves to leave the planet later—staying behind, it was believed, meant poisoning their bodies and endangering the fertility of the species. Now, a small group of people remain on Earth, and they are virtually forbidden to leave.
More expository information: thanks to the support of organizations like the Rand Corporation, it’s heavily implied that the U.S. conducted a full-scale war with the U.S.S.R. using nuclear missiles (presumably the only things that could cause that amount of devastation). Dick’s futuristic society is rigorously stratified—it’s a mark of social status to live on Mars, or “off-world.” But as we’ve seen, even the people who live back on Earth make a great show of their social rank—they do so by buying animals, proving that they’re still connected to the natural world of the Earth.
John Isidore sits in the abandoned building, shaving his face and watching the TV. He’s lived in this building for years—ever since the beginning of WWT. Now, John is late for work. On TV, a reporter interviews a woman who now lives in New York, Mars, and has a fancy android servant. John thinks ruefully about his own life—he’s classified as “special,” meaning that he has distorted genes. He’s also failed an IQ test, ensuring that he’ll never be allowed to leave the Earth. The slang term for people like John is “chickenhead.” John works as a delivery man for the Van Ness Pet Hospital, under his boss, Hannibal Sloat.
One of the key ingredients of life in Dick’s version of the future is TV. TV trumpets the importance of leaving Earth, encouraging talented people to leave the planet altogether. More generally, though, TV ensures that everybody in the world wants the same things and agrees on the same version of “reality.” TV, we come to see, is just another version of the mood organ—a device that designed to trigger the same emotional stimuli in different kinds of people, and thus keep everyone conforming.
Before he leaves for work, John touches his “empathy box.” He grips the handles of this machine and feels an electric current. John senses a “merging” with other people—people speaking different languages and thinking different thoughts. He has the powerful sense that he’s united with these other people by a desire to be better—to “climb.” John imagines himself climbing up the side of a hill with, and as, a man named Wilbur Mercer. Suddenly, John feels a pain in his left arm—a rock has hit Mercer’s arm, and now everyone gripping the handles feels it.
It’s important to understand what’s going on here. John thinks that he’s communicating telepathically with millions of other followers of Wilbur Mercer, seemingly the guru of a new religion (whether or not John is actually able do so is up for debate). Mercer encourages his followers to “climb”—we could interpret this to mean that Mercer wants his followers to be unsatisfied with their current status in life, and want to be better. In other words, Mercer is just another TV spokesman. Even if he comes dressed in religious language (even being “stoned” like a Christian saint), Mercer’s presence serves the same purpose as the mood organ—encouraging people to “want together.” The importance of empathy in the future, we sense, is enormous—precisely because it’s so rare, as everyone seems so alienated from each other and from their own emotions.
Still gripping the handles of the empathy box, John, taking on Mercer’s personality, remembers “his” foster parents: they took care of him after they found him floating in a raft. John can barely remember the details. His childhood was happy, and he played with real animals all the time. As a child, “John” discovered that he could bring animals back from the dead. When he was 16, he discovered that bringing the dead back to life was illegal, according to “local law.” In secret, John continued to practice his power, until law enforcement officers—whom he calls “Killers”— arrested him and implanted a radioactive chemical in his brain, which made it much more difficult for John to exercise his power.
This section is almost impossible to understand clearly, further adding to the hallucinatory quality of the novel, and the sense that the line between reality and perception is very blurred. John is supposed to be experiencing empathy, but this is something totally different: he has somehow become Mercer, and can experience Mercer’s memories. This is important not only because we see how Mercer is presented as a Christ-figure (able to bring the dead back to life, unjustly punished by the authorities) but also how unreliable memory is in this novel. If memory is what makes a person have a continuous self and defined personhood, then what happens when memories are falsely implanted? All this further complicates the novel’s main theme of “what makes a human?” In this scene Dick also gives us the sense that a shadowy authority is ruling over everything that happens—an authority that’s all the more intimidating because we don’t know what it is.
John releases the handles of the empathy box and finds himself back in his room. He sees that his arm is bleeding, and he dries the blood with Kleenex. Afterwards, he leaves the building.
John’s experiences with the empathy box are vivid and cinematic, while his life is dull and dreary. It’s important to note here that what happens in the hallucinations of the empathy box are somehow “real” as well—John can be struck by a rock when he “becomes” Mercer, but when he lets go of the box and becomes John again, the wound is still physically there. This is yet another example of Dick blurring the line between perception and reality.