Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick

Title: The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corp. (1987)
Note: This short story was originally published in Fantastic Universe, Jan 1956

I think it's been about ten years since I first read The Minority Report and I was happy to re-visit it this week. Why the re-visit you ask? Well, I was hanging out over at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer and saw that the fantabulously generous Michael, sometimes known as leOpard13, was going to watch the movie. I very politely asked begged, with little regard to my personal dignity, that he be so kind as to post his thoughts because I love his review style, and so that we could discuss the awesomeness of the movie. He took my request to the next level suggesting a joint review with me doing the story. I was happy to comply as I'm a big fan of the movie and the short even if they are vastly different. I'll start with a review of the short story and then a few thoughts as compared to the movie. However, I'll probably save most of my movie thoughts for lp13's movie review post.

Click here for Minority Report Film/Disc Review at Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer.

Feel free to comment there or here or both regarding movie and short story thoughts.

Please note that both posts contain spoilers.

John Anderton is the Commissioner of Police and the creator of Precrime, a 30 year old division of the police force that can predict crimes using precogs and detain the predicted perpetrators before they commit crimes. Anderton is showing the facility to his new assistant and eventual successor, Witwer - to whom he has taken an immediate dislike - when the mutant precogs predict that Anderton will kill a man he doesn't know in less than a week. It's a system he's created and used for 30 years to put predicted criminals away but he's convinced there's a mistake; he suspects a conspiracy within the police force. Witwer and Anderton's wife, a high ranking Precrime executive and police officer, are his immediate suspects. He's got about 24hrs before the Army will notice the prediction (they get all the precog data in a checks and balances type of deal) and he plans to run, as far as an off-world colony if that's what it takes.

So, where to begin? How 'bout with the precogs? They are referred to as "mutant precogs," or babbling idiots, but it's not clear whether the mutation is the result of experimentation or nature. Regardless, the mutants are cultivated for their predictive abilities. They are extremely deformed (large heads, under-developed bodies) and not at all aware of the present. They work in a team of three, each one constantly "gibbering" predictions which are fed into machines that then analyze and integrate the predictions. The predictions, referring to about 1-2 weeks into the future, are then printed on cards and analyzed by Precrime.

Anderton's a hard nut to crack. It's pretty obvious why he would be immediately suspicious of Witwer, Witwer is ambitious and wants Anderton's job, but, holy fuck! This guy turned on his wife so fast I had to read the section over again to make sure I didn't misunderstand. As near as I can tell this is because Witwer admires the wife (in classic scifi style she's attractive and Anderton is obviously much less attractive than his movie counterpart even if you don't think Tom Cruise is all that attractive) and the wife congenially speaks with Witwer and invites her husband's new assistant to have dinner with them. My gosh, woman! The nerve! You are clearly a traitor! What actually is interesting about Anderton and his wife is that they have a serious philosophical disagreement and yet they still remain together at the end. After the way they treated each other at the crisis moment I would never have guessed they would remain together but their disagreement is so divisive that I would think it alone would prevent their staying together. However, their disagreement is what I find most intriguing about the story.

When Anderton still believes there is a conspiracy he wants to check the individual reports of the precogs. Almost every predicted crime has a minority report. Two of the three reports need to match in order to create a card with crime details. The minority report usually differs in time or location so this is ignored in lieu of the synched reports. If Anderton can get to the individual reports he can prove a conspiratorial plant. In checking these it becomes clear that he is not going to commit the crime. He wants to publicize this information as it must mean that innocent people have been detained and thus the system is flawed. His wife believes a few mistakes are worth the greater good of Precrime. Let's just say that the insults and violence traded here are enough to strain the best of relationships but they clearly didn't have that good of a relationship and they disagree on a vital philosophy - how can these two remain together? I'd love to hear some theories on this but for now that's not what I want to focus on. Instead... 

Are a few mistakes worth the value of Precrime? 

Let's keep in mind that, in this case, "mistake" means the life detainment of innocents. Also, there's not only the lives of innocents to consider in this set-up but the precogs themselves. They are human, after all, but their deformities have rendered them so inhuman to those in the story that they are completely disregarded as having any rights as humans. Let's also keep in mind that there hasn't been a murder in 5 years (and that was due to human error) because of Precrime. Not to mention all the other types of crimes that have been prevented. For me, this is the most interesting thing about the story: is it acceptable to sacrifice a few for the many? If you're thinking that the story might give some sort of answer then I should warn you that it does not. The truth about the reports neatly sidesteps the issue. 

Craft-wise the story isn't exactly superior. I've always been more attracted to PKD's ideas than his style. The dialogue is challenging to wade through and there are moments I'm actually offended by some of the stuff he writes. Also, he isn't exactly one of those scifi writers that tries to adhere to believability in his science. I won't even attempt to analyze it because I don't think he ever did. Sometimes logic goes completely out the window, as well. There's a section in The Minority Report that makes a really interesting point as to why precogs can work at all but that really interesting point completely negates the resolution of the story. I wonder if Anderton ever noticed the contradiction in his own system?

So how well did this translate to a movie? Excellently, if I do say so myself (and I do!). Other than using a few of the same names I would say the only way in which the movie is similar is that it also presents the question: Are a few mistakes worth the value of Precrime? And unlike the short, the movie definitely has an answer for this. The religious tones cleverly identified by Michael are a product of the movie makers and have no equivalent in the short story. The short story is really more about one man trying to survive one of the biggest challenges he's ever experienced at his job.

What both do equally well is world building. I believe that each of the worlds exists and that I might live there (well, except for the computer punch cards in the short story:). That is one of my absolute requirements in scifi. I have to believe the human element can exist within the world before I can get on board with the rest of it.

Let me leave you with my favorite quotes:
Short story -
The existence of a majority logically implies a corresponding minority.

Movie -
Everybody runs.

Actually, I think you'll have to run but that's the idea.

Your thoughts?

And be sure to check out the film review - here's the relevant link again.

(Michael, many thanks for suggesting this. Children of Men next? I hope, I hope:)


  1. A great pair of reviews!

    Thematically, "Minority Report" reminds me of the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas". One of the great conundrums that faces any society is to what extent the majority should prosper at the expense of a minority. Indeed, our current justice system sometimes punishes innocent people by mistake, which is tragic. Yet the only justice system in which this couldn't happen is one where nobody was ever held accountable for their crimes, which would not make for a workable society. I guess we all have to decide what extent of "unfairness" we're willing to accept around us, and hope against hope that we aren't the ones unfairly singled out...

  2. Great review, Rachel. It was very interesting to note the differences between the source material and the film. It's also intriguing that the short's philosophical Precime argument occurs between Anderton and his wife. Are a few mistakes worth the value of Precrime? I find myself going back and forth about that in the years since the film's release. Would I use it to prevent the loss of any of my children? Without hesitation. But, it's like Witmer says in the film:

    "But there's a flaw, it's human. It always is. "

    I think this turned out great, Rachel. Let's shoot for June for Children of Men as it gives me time to re-watch that film (I've only seen it once and felt affected by it) among other things. Many thanks, my friend.

    p.s., ever see A Scanner Darkly?

  3. Love the tag-team reviews! I've never read PKD, but I did see the film.

    You wondered why the couple stayed together. Do you think it's just a case of when the story was published and society's views of divorce at that time?

    Thanks for this, SGW!

  4. Jeff - Great comparison, I had the very same thought! What you say about all systems being flawed leads me to an interesting thought: what is better (supposing we have the precog choice, of course)? Our current system which has unpredictable flaws or the Precrime system that has predictable flaws?

    lp13 - Very true; it's just a shame that it didn't get more than a few paragraph's worth of inspection. Ah well, more for the readers to wonder about.

    I also think it turned out well and am totally on board for Children of Men in June. And I haven't seen A Scanner Darkly or read the novel. I noticed I can do an instant view on netflix so I'll probably watch it soon. Shall we try for that one in July? I can definitely have the book read by then.

    Christine - Glad you enjoyed the tag-team! (I did, too:)

    Good point about the couple. It's really been almost ten years since I did a lot of PKD reading so I don't remember if that was one of the "current society" views he adhered to in his fiction. I'd have to look it over again or maybe someone more versed in his work could comment.

  5. I'm fine with Children of Men for June, and a A Scanner Darkly for July. Thanks very much, Rachel.