Updated: Mar 2
“Beware The Terran Monkey Men”
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 0, Chapter 1)
A tribute to Philip K. Dick's "Shell Game" (1954).
I want you to imagine yourself in a remote place. A very remote place. In fact, you’re in the middle of a jungle. Or should we call it a swamp--this black bog of mists and obese foliage, ferns and pulpy onions, sunk in the half-liquid ooze that makes up the entirety of this foggy, overgrown world that you now call your home? It doesn’t really matter, does it, whether you call it a jungle or forest or swamp, except to know that you’re a long way from any form of human civilization. A very, very long way—and yet, maybe not far enough…
How far, you ask? About as far as humans can get riding a spaceship that’s been hurtling through space for many years, maybe decades—a voyage so long it required you and the hundred or so other survivors who found their way here to spend it in cryogenic sleep, oblivious to the years that passed as you sailed into the stars, far away from that horrible planet you once inhabited, the one that gave you no place or merit; a planet whose residents rejected you, said you and your friends were oddballs, crazy, dangerous, and evil… And so, as you and your colleagues can best remember, you set off on this ship, leaving that world behind, seeking a brave new one to occupy.
The past is still a bit fuzzy. Your former life is a patchwork of discolored flashbacks and painful memories. All you remember clearly is that your name is Tate, and that you often looked to the night sky as the place where you might find true hope. So when the opportunity came you took it, along with some others who thought just like you. Only, you never did get to that place you were seeking. Because you woke up prematurely, wrenched out of your dreamless torpor to discover your spaceship got hit by a meteor (or was it a powerful laser blast shot from the Earth?), which threw it spinning off course until it crashed on this swampy, wild, humid, remote, desolate, and overgrown world—a planet people on Earth called Betelgeuse 2, a lonely speck circling a red giant star, drifting away in a corner of space.
At first, it was a struggle for you to survive. You hunted and gathered, built shelters in trees, dug tunnels to hide from the bugs and the rain. And yet you mastered it after a time, because you are gifted--all of you--intellectually advanced specimens of that race of humans from which you evolved. And especially you, Tate, along with a short list of natural leaders, former scientists and engineers, scholars, doctors, and men of letters; people with names like Lanoir, O’Keefe, Horstokowski, Silberman, Portbane, Fisher, Daniels and Domgraff-Schwach, armed with an arsenal of college degrees, research awards, and visionary projects that never received their due praise. Bravely you overcame your deepest mistrust for each other, pooled your collective expertise and experience, and built yourselves a thriving community. Like a hundred Robinson Crusoes, you carved a city in exile, a sort of New Rome, and all that in less than five years compared to the millions it took for your ancestors to do the same.
It would have been a quaint life, maybe even pleasurable, living this way for the rest of your days, surrounded by virgin forests filled with food and resources, even with all of the vermin and insects and torrential rain that drove you to build underground ever deeper. Yes, it might have been nice, except of course for the attacks. Those incessant assaults that occurred in the dark when your senses were most vulnerable. Attacks that recurred every night of the past several years, years spent defending your home and building up your defenses, trying to hold back the enemy just a little bit longer. This is why you and your friends must, despite your natural rivalries, remain united and vigilant—hypervigilant, even—because, well, your very lives depend on it.
Every night, at different times and from different directions, the attacks come in every possible manner against your besieged enclave: Odorless poisonous gases, Clandestine saboteurs, Invisible lasers, Radioactive isotopes, Metallic salts in the granary, filterable viruses in the water supply, Bacteria-impregnated pinecones, and so on. They tried every trick to get you to die, fall ill, or lose heart and surrender. They were unrelenting and obsessive. But you and your colleagues were better, because you were smarter than them. Armed to the teeth with every weapon you could create or assemble, you resisted them hours on end, sometimes on next to no sleep, until the surrounding bog and vegetation was ragged from days upon days of ceaseless projectile fire.
True to your gifts and determination, you remained one step ahead every time, inspired by the hundreds of torchlights that lit up your camp, forcing those surreptitious Monkey Men to retreat into their bog at dawn where they hunkered inside their lairs to plan their next nightly onslaught. And just as they did every time, they carried away their fallen comrades, except for the ones that disappeared into the bog. Cunning little creatures, weren’t they, giving you little chance to dissect them and find their weakness?
But recently something’s not right. The frequency and severity of the attacks have been stepped up. The aliens are getting closer. Every night, it seems, they are growing stronger, as if they are spawning with heightened resolve, or drawing-in new recruits from somewhere up there. Or perhaps they are getting some help from inside. A traitor among you? It’s certainly possible. No one is fully trustworthy in this little anthill colony, not with those Monkey Men creeping around, polluting the air with their mind-bending chemicals. Though primitive and grotesque, those beasts do look almost human, enough to fool at least a few of you. One of them might even get in and no one would take any notice until he sank his teeth in your throat. Indeed, one could have sneaked into your colony years ago when you first crash-landed into this swampy hell.
And so things have come to a head. Today at the leader’s daily patterning meeting, you all gathered determined to raise the stakes in this interstellar race war. Every man in the room was protected in some fashion. Each choosing whatever apparatus conformed to his individual fears and experience. Some were armed to the hilt. Others wore protective gear. Some breathed filtered air through strange contraptions, or sipped distilled water out of a sealed plastic can. One even came in in full astronaut gear, protected from multiple murder attempts--should they occur all at once. But you, Tate, you’re above all that nonsense, aren’t you? Of course you are. That’s why they call you “the cool one” and cast sidelong glances at you. Still, there’s comfort in standing alone in the corner, your back to the wall, your hand on your pistol, always keeping an eye on the exits.
Domgraf-Schwach took the lead: “The time has come,” he said, “to build ourselves the ultimate weapon; to raise our broken starship out of the muck and turn it into a sword even the Monkey Men cannot withstand, maybe even to build a new ship and take the war back to Terra. We share the knowledge and determination to make it happen. All it takes is the will and our combined intellects to turn that ship into the finger of God. One that will finally bring order and peace, and restore our well-deserved place as humanity’s rightful commanders.”
This is when things take an unexpected turn. Later that day, while you are exploring the ship’s forward cabin alone—a dripping corroded ruin overrun by a tangle of seaweed and muck—you discover it never was built for a pilot, but had been programmed to fly on its own from the Earth to a hospital camp based on Fomalhaut 4. An engineer by training, you curiously tear away a broken panel to discover a mishmash of fused and buckled machinery. One of the few objects still in working condition is a small vidscreen projection device stored in a container labelled with the name of a neuropsychiatrist who is still waiting for it back on Fomalhaut 4 along with the ship’s precious cargo: the people aboard it and you. You listen to the message again and again, its contents a two megaton hydrogen bomb. Your heart sinks deeper and deeper into despondency.
“We were prisoners,” you soon inform the others, still wondering whether it might not have been better to destroy the recording and pretend it never existed. Only the fear of being branded a traitor and your sudden overwhelming self-doubts forced you to speak up about this discovery: “It says we were delusional hospital patients, a danger to ourselves and others. Too smart for our own good, and too paranoid to trust our caretakers, we were sedated and freighted to Fomalhaut 4 where we were to be treated if possible—and chemically lobotomized if necessary.”
“Impossible!” answers Lanoir, “We planned the escape ourselves, didn’t we? This is just disinformation. They want us to believe that we’re crazy. That’s been their plan all along: to have us let them control us!”
“Wait!” exclaims Daniels, “Who wants to control us?”
“Who else?” answers Fisher, “The Terran Monkey Men of course! Isn’t it obvious? They tried for five years to destroy us. But they can’t. So now they’re trying to break our minds, have us doubt our own sanity, and let them brainwash us.”
“But the Terrans don’t even know that we’re here!” cries Silberman. “Those creatures in the jungle, they’re just apes. Smart ones, yes. But not on this level. …Not unless they’re being controlled remotely.”
“Don’t kid yourself!” answers Portbane, “It’s an act! They pretend they’re just beasts but they’re shapeshifting Terrans. With a whole fleet of them parked up on one of those moons!”
“But what if it’s true?” you ask exasperated, “What if we’re all paranoid? How would we know?” The room becomes silent. All eyes fall on you. “How would we know what’s real and what’s not if each one of us is a mess? Just like the man in the vidscreen explained, ‘a bunch of lunatic narcissists, out of touch with reality’, too dangerous for one planet and shipped away in crates to be tinkered with on another.”
“They would have fried us instead,” offered Daniels. “They would have tortured us, erased our memories, and used us as mindless assassins. Either that or they would have turned us to mulch.”
“What if…” you venture, shaking, “What if they wanted to help us?”
“Oh, come on!” exclaims Horstokowski. “Don’t tell me you’re that naïve!” The room is turning against you. Prospects of a peaceful solution are fleeting. “We’ve been fighting against them for years! Is that not proof enough for you?”
You don’t know what to think anymore. Yet the doctor in the vidscreen seemed genuine, almost paternal. Couldn’t he know what reality was? “For all I know,” you pursue tearfully, “even the beasts in the jungle aren’t real!” Your listeners are aghast. You press on, further trampling the relic of their self-assurance: “Maybe… maybe we’ve just been shooting at nothing for years! Maybe we just preferred to do that than admit to ourselves that we’re sick and need help!”
The air in the bunker grows cold. The men look at you with stern eyes. It is clear they now think that you’re not one of them, that you’ve clearly decided to swallow the Terran Monkey Men’s poison. And if you’re not to be trusted, then Daniels probably isn’t either, because everyone knows that the two of you are like brothers. And if someone like Daniels cannot be trusted, then maybe no one else can. Knuckles grow white grappling all types of weapons. The men who have managed to stay united for five long years, united against the enemy lurking outside, are now coming to grips with the fact that the enemy has pulled a fast one, and that he is standing amongst them.
Cold sweat drips down your back. Because you know that when the shooting begins, you’ll need to run faster than you ever have…
* * *
I’d rather not tell you how this story ends, I’d rather leave it to your imagination, except to say that it doesn’t end well for anybody concerned, including us passive observers—the evil Terran Monkey Men—who in fact are still living on Earth, oblivious to the danger now brewing on Betelgeuse 2. But maybe it’s best if we don’t know. This way we can enjoy what’s left of our lives before the crazies return to set the whole planet on fire.
If this story seemed familiar to you, it may be because like so many of Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories, it has found its way into our collective unconscious through literature, comic books, and Hollywood movies. Indeed, more than a dozen Hollywood films and TV shows were inspired, directly or indirectly, by the visionary stories of Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, The Man in the High Castle, and half of every B-rated movie starring Nicolas Cage. Unfortunately, the one that inspired the story I just described—a 1954 short-story titled “Shell Game”, was never made into a film, at least not yet (but I’d like a cut if it ever does).
Philip K. Dick was a fantastic author who imagined strange worlds filled with humanoid robots, time travel, space travel, invisible aliens, and false memories. But he was also a strange man. A man whose tormented life included a series of broken relationships, several undiagnosed mental ailments, sending the FBI letters by tossing them into the garbage, a hell of a lot of drugs, and a series of mystical experiences (some might describe them as religious) that left him believing in doppelgängers, higher states of existence, and parallel universes--and difficulty feeling at home in any of them.
It is evident from reading any good biography of the man—and I personally recommend Anthony Peake’s A Life of Philip K. Dick: The Man Who Remembered The Future—that he was deeply tormented by paranoia. And yet he was able to see it for what it was, to teach us about it, and even to laugh about it—a skill many of us paranoids lack.
Michel J. Gagné, 2020.
1. Philip K. Dick: “Shell Game,” Galaxy, September 1954. (The Philip K. Dick Reader, Citadel, 2016.)
2. Anthony Peake: A Life of Philip K. Dick, Arcturus, 2013.
3. Joseph Uscinski, ed.: Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe them, Oxford University Press, 2018.