Book 24: The Minority Report
Hello, dear readers!
This book review/report should be about Double Star by Robert Heinlein. However, I have yet to read that one as it’s not widely available in our library system. I’m currently on the wait list for an audiobook version of it through the OverDrive app, which the Toronto Public Library uses for ebook and audiobook rentals. According to the app, I have about a six-week wait ahead of me, so I decided to move on to the next story on My List so that I could keep reading and blogging at a steady pace.
Which brings us to Minority Report, a short story by Philip K. Dick. I’ve read Minority Report before, when I first read a collection of Dick’s short stories, but definitely wanted to read it again for this blog project.
A few of my favourite sci-fi shorts are by Philip K. Dick, such as Minority Report and Paycheck. He’s a classic, must-read sci-fi author. So let’s get into it.
The Minority Report is a short story that focuses on John Anderton, the chief of the precrime division of the police. Many moons ago, Anderton himself established this division, based on the theory of precrime. Using a trio of mutants with the ability to see the future, Anderton’s division prevents crimes from happening by tracking down and arresting people before they’ve committed their crime, then sending them to a detention camp. The mutants themselves are practically comatose, strapped to their chairs and machines all day every day as all they do is prophesize about the future. Anderton’s precrime division has cut down felonies by 99.8%. As he says:
“We seldom get actual murder or treason. After all, the culprit knows we’ll confine him in the detention camp a week before he gets a chance to commit the crime.”
But as I’m sure you can guess, the precogs prophesy that Anderton himself will commit a crime, causing Anderton to go on the run and try to understand why the mutants foresaw his crime. It puts him in a difficult position. If he is innocent and would never kill a man, then the system and division that he himself built is fallible, and if it’s not, well then he will commit a crime. It’s a lose-lose situation. Or so he thinks.
I really like this story because the idea of precrime is extremely interesting philosophically and makes you wonder if it could actually work and how just/fair such a system is.
Early in the story Anderton explains:
“The commission of the crime itself is absolute metaphysics. We claim they’re culpable. They, on the other hand, eternally claim they’re innocent. And, in a sense, they are.”
So could a precrime division of the police actually work, and would it actually be fair and just? As Anderton himself admits, in a sense, all the culprits are innocent when they are arrested for their future crime. After all, they haven’t committed it yet. Our judicial system is based on the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. The precrime system is based on the idea that a person is guilty even before they’ve committed a crime. The advantage is that crimes are at an all time low and nobody becomes victimized. The disadvantage is that you’re basically imprisoning innocent people for something that they may or may not do in the future, though there is a high likelihood that they will.
My personal opinion is that this is unjust. Unfortunately, this means that crimes do get committed and I wish we could avoid that. I really do. But precrime or no precrime, it’s not right to imprison someone for something they haven’t done. It’s a system and idea that reeks of authoritarianism.
Furthermore, in Dick’s version of timeline theory and how the precog mutants work, it’s not actually a guarantee that the person will commit the crime, making it even more dubious to jail them. The system relies on three mutants with the ability to see a couple of weeks into the future. If two of the mutants agree that a crime will take place but the third one disagrees, it produces a majority report and a minority report, which is where the title of the story comes from. Therefore, if two mutants agree something will happen but the third one disagrees, the person will still be detained for their future crime.
In addition, the story rests on the theory that the future can be affected and changed and that the timeline isn’t set, which I’ll talk about in the next section.
Another reason I think Dick’s precrime system is unjust, and perhaps he thought so as well, is because Anderton’s story revolves around the idea that the future can be changed. Indeed, when the potential criminals are detained for their future crime, that crime then does not happen, therefore changing what the precogs foreshadowed. One of the precogs actually foresees a future in which Anderton does not commit his crime because he becomes aware that the precogs foresee this. Armed with this knowledge, he is able to consciously choose not to commit a crime and be more mindful of what could happen to lead him down that path.
It stands to reason then that many people, when presented with a prophesy that they would commit a crime, would deliberately take pains to avoid that coming true. The knowledge of the potential future renders that potential future moot.
This theory of time grants people agency over their lives and actions, as opposed to a more determined timeline.
If the future can change, which is what the precrime system is premised on, then it stands to reason that some people need not be imprisoned for their potential future crime because they will not commit it after all. In order for the precrime system to be just, this leeway would have to taken into account.
Strengths & Weaknesses
The Minority Report is probably one of my favourite sci-fi stories because it lays out an interesting premise, offers an interesting twist, and gets you thinking about both the precrime system and our current policing system. I’m personally biased towards anything to do with time, time travel, changing the past or the future, etc., so Minority Report just speaks right to my heart. These types of stories are a perfect example of sci-fi serving as both a lens and a mirror to ourselves.
In addition, the writing itself is a clear, concise style common to some 1950s-era science fiction. It’s an effective style because it gets straight to the point.
I’m not sure what weaknesses Minority Report has in terms of story or storytelling. The aforementioned writing style may be seen as a weakness if that’s not your thing. But when traversing the annals of science fiction, one has no choice but to encounter it. It’s not a style we typically write in today, and that’s okay. But it’s an interesting look into the mentality of storytelling from the ’50s.
This is a pretty short post because the story itself is quite short, but needless to say I do recommend The Minority Report as a must-read for anyone looking to educate themselves in the classics of science fiction. It keeps you hooked all the way through because you want to find out what happens to Anderton and his precrime system, and gets you thinking about the merits of precrime.
Definitely check it out, if you’re looking for a short, fun, interesting read.
Dick, Philip K. Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. Kindle Edition.