Sophisticated, thoughtful, meandering (4/5)
Without a doubt, my favorite novelette of all-time is Jack Vance's “Dodkin's Job” (1959). I read this story in 2008 where it was included in Jerry Pournelle's libertarian anthology Survival of Freedom (1981). It has a collection of essays and short stories, but the words in Vance's story were the only ones that stuck with me for a long time. Its portrayal of bureaucracy, absurdity, resistance to the “organization”, and blue collar tenacity left an indelible mark on the love for the SF genre.
In 2011, I took a course in M.Ed. program—Human Relations in Educational Administration. Our professor, bless and rest his soul, urged us to take a creative approach to our final individual project. I heard what my classmates were doing and I none of them sounded remotely interesting. To highlight managerial systems, I decided to reread and decode the systems found in “Dodkin's Job”. The unusual approach earned me an 4.0 in the class (...and helped me on my way to a perfect 4.0 GPA for my degree, ahem).
If you want to read a 76-word synopsis, just scroll down a little bit.
If you want to read 2,370-word spoiler-included analysis, scroll to the bottom!
The Kokod Warriors (1952, novelette) – 5/5 – Magnus Ridolph smokes his last fine cigar and sips his last fine liqueur because the last of his money has run out, thanks to two men from the Outer Empire Investment and Realty Society. Just his luck, a woman approaches and offers him a handsome salary to rid one planet of war while ceasing the immoral betting on the same planet's wars by none other than the unscrupulous See and Holders. Once on the planet, the two men are skeptical of his presence, but Magnus has a plan.
The New Prime (1951, novelette) – 3/5 – Arthur Caversham of the planet Earth experiences a unique sort of social intuition. Bearwald of the planet Belosti must prove his aggressiveness in the heat of battle. Ceistan of the planet Praesepe must press on with a request to show his undying loyalty. Dolmor Daksat at the Imagicon on Staff must outwit his competitors in a showing of unrestrained imagination. And Ergan of the planet Chankozar experiences relentless torture through perseverance.
The Men Return (1957, shortstory) – 4/5 – In retrospect, life on Earth used to be an orderly affair when they used to take causality for granted. However, since Earth has swept into a spacial vacuum of non-causality, chaos has reigned—sane men have gone mad and insane men rule in their own fashion. Referred to as Organisms, the man men's random actions match the random ways of non-causality; the thin clan of the Relicts fear the Organisms' chaos and can't adapt to the shifting states of matter.
Ullward's Retreat (1958, novelette) – 5/5 – On an Earth with a population in the tens of billions, there are a number of luxuries; among them: absolute privacy and genuine algae. Landmaster Bruham Ullward has nearly an acre of indoor space dedicated to replicating the privacy of nature with genuine shrubs he call oak trees—his guests are quite impress but he needs more. He leases half a continent on a new planet, invites the same guests, who have the same complaints.
Coup de Grace (1958, shortstory) – 3/5 – Lester Bofils Is a noted anthropologist on a luxury space station in the shape of Indra's Web, where the renowned Magnus Ridolph also temporarily resides. Upon Lester's death, Magnus leads an investigation to solve his murder. Could it be any of his shipmates, of whom are his reputed wife, an alien of inhuman regards, and a variety of other suspects. Or could Lester's own cavemen slaves have killed him, or the statuesque stoic bonze?
Dodkin's Job (1959, novelette) – 5/5 – Luke Grogatch works for the District 8892 Sewer Maintenance Department. In the all encompassing Organization in which everyone lives, Luke is a Flunky/Class D/Unskilled laborer, just one rank sky of rock bottom Junior Executive. A directive is passed down through his lonely department that mandates he must return his shovel—after a ninety minute walk—to a warehouse on his own time. Seeing the ludicrousness in the order, Luke traces the levels of bureaucracy to its very origin.
The Moon Moth (1961, novelette) – 4/5 – Edwer Thissell was a rookie statesman before being assigned as Consular Representative on the planet with only three other foreigners. Prior to his assignment, he was unprepared for the planet's culture of masks, music, and conversational singing. As if learning the social necessities wasn't enough, Edwer now has to capture an infamous assassin who has just landed on the same planet. Edwer must figure out how to identify and capture a masked man among masked men.
Green Magic (1963, shortstory) – 3/5 – His great-uncle was a dabbler in the relams of magic: black, white, and even purple. But Gerald McIntyre discovers in his uncle's journal a type of magic new to himself, who is also a dab hand at magic: green magic. He summons the sprites of the realm and asks to learn their trade, yet they issue him a warning to not partake in green magic. He shrugs off the suggestion and spends decades of subjective time in its tedious detail and boredom.
Alfred's Ark (1965, shortstory) – 4/5 – According to the farmer named Alfred Johnson, God has given him a biblical message of a coming flood, but not just any old flood—the Great Flood. The newspaper refuses to print the “story” so he just buys an advertisement from the them and proceeds to build an ark on his own land. Its modest size won't hold couples of all the animals, but just the one's he selects. When the day approaches and the rains falls, he doesn't seem like a such a buffoon after all.
Sulwen's Planet (1968, shortstory) – 4/5 – A thousand light-years from Earth, a small desolate planet was discovered, an on surface were a number of alien ships from two starfaring species. The finding was the single most important discovery in human history, so the Sulwen Planet Survey Commission was established with a host of top experts. Among these experts were the conflicting areas of focus and personalities of Gench and Kosmin, a philologist and comparative linguist, respectively.
Rumfuddle (1973, novella) – 3/5 – Alan Robertson was once a philanthropist and inventor. When he invented the invention to end all inventions, society was changed forever—the personal infinite-dimensional gateway. Everyone lives on their own parallel Earth after years of labor for the privilege, but one of his adoptees—now a grown man with his own family, Gilbert Duray—cannot access his Home planet. It may be his wife's doing or his meddling friend and his confounded party called a Rumfuddle.
“'Dodkin's Job': Ascending the Bureaucratic Slope”
October 8, 2011
“Dodkin’s Job” is a novelette by Jack Vance which was written in 1959 and first featured in the October issue of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. The story was reprinted in 1981 in the short story collection entitled The Survival of Freedom by Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr, which is my primary source of quotations for the paper.
“Dodkin’s Job” is a story about a non-conformist man, Luke Grogatch, who is unable to grasp the logic of a recent top-down directive. Consulting his gang foreman, Luke ascends the bureaucratic ladder in search of the source of the illogical directive, only to find himself climbing back down the chain-of-command in a surprising set of revelations.
Abridged Version of the Story
Being born of high social stock, the future for Luke Grogatch looked bright. His initial high status began to be demoted due to his “chronic truculence” (p. 358) and opposition to authority. Now he finds himself at forty years of age and classified as a Class D Flunky, a single echelon above the social gutter of Junior Executive. Content with his job working the night shift in Sewer Maintenance, Luke keeps his head down, his shovel to the gravel, and his opinions to himself, which is difficult for a pessimistic, sarcastic, and outspoken individual such as Luke. Although a self-proclaimed non-conformist, he is reluctant to admit it, announce it and become declassified to the pathetic social tier of Junior Executive. “All he had left was pride, his right to use the word ‘I’ in connection with himself” (p. 358).
With his psychological needs of shelter, sex and sustenance meted out by the Organization in which he is employed by, Luke ekes out a so-called living. After seven weeks on the job, a daily policy directive is brought to the attention of Luke’s line manager, Gang Foreman Fedor Miskitman. The directive reads:
At the beginning of each shift all hand-tools shall be checked out at District 8892 Sewer Maintenance Warehouse. At close of each shift all hand-tools shall be carefully cleaned and returned to District 8892 Sewer Maintenance Warehouse. (p. 338)
Luke states that the warehouse is four miles away and would require him to use three hours per day to abide by the memorandum. He pleads for the foreman to countermand the initiative but Fedor remains firm and says “Until policy is changed you must conform. That is the way we live.” (p. 342) Abiding by the norms of his social status, Luke tries to assimilate the new demand upon him and his co-workers. Being a left-brained thinker, he does not see the logic or rational for wasting three hours of his day to merely return a shovel which is better cast aside in the tunnel after each working day. Luke’s confrontational demeanor against this sort of “9,1 Managerial Style” with low emphasis on the worker gets the best of him. He cannot digest Fedor’s logic of “That is the way the job is done” (p. 336) sort of mentality.
Utilizing the chain-of-command, Luke then contacts Fedor’s boss, the Manager of the District Office of Procurement, Lavester Limon. Luke, again, pleads his case that the directive is utterly illogical to the workmen who must lug a shovel to and from the warehouse three hours per day. Lavester simply shrugs and points out that he received a directive stating:
Your monthly quota of supplies for disbursement Type A, B, D, F, H is hereby reduced 2.2%. It is suggested that you advise affected personnel of this reduction, and take steps to insure most stringent economies. It has been noticed that department use of supplies Type D (hand-tools) in particular is in excess of calculated norm. (p. 350)
Having received, complied and passed on the directive, Lavester says “That’s the way the Organization works.” (p. 350) Luke’s institutionalized conflict results from the Organization’s attempt to steal his personal time versus that of his work schedule with those three hours per day being mandatory, unpaid work during his private hours. His valence rests on the resolution of the matter though the proper channels and the unveiling of the ill-logic behind the directive. Lavester suggests that Luke pay a visit to the next link in the chain-of-command: Director of Sewage Disposal Section, Judiath Ripp.
The affective component of Luke’s struggle lies in his emotional attachment to the non-conformist attitude. He internalizes the injustice which is casually handed down on a slip of yellow paper: the Organization objectified. With this slip of paper in hand along with the directive Lavester was given, Luke marches up to the office of Judiath Ripp. Luke’s behavioral component of his struggle now has him acting confrontationally and using his wit and logic against that of fact and blatancy. Approaching the secretary of Director of Sewage Disposal Section, Luke notes to the secretary of an irregularity in a recent directive, which startles the secretary and spurs her to contact Director Judiath. Her misconception of Luke’s social status is transferred to Judiath who takes Luke to be an investigator, possibly of high status. Without ever lying throughout the conversation, Luke is granted the knowledge of an additional piece of data: Judiath, too, had received a directive from the chain-of-command which reads:
All department heads are instructed to initiate, effect, and enforce rigid economies in the employment of supplies and equipment, especially those items comprised of or manufactured from alloy metals or requiring the functional consumption of same, in those areas in which official authority is exercised. A decrement of 2% will be considered minimal. Status augmentation will in some measure be affected by economies achieved. (p. 335)
Seeing that this mandate allotted a 2% decrement while the previous allotted a 2.2% decrement, it seems obvious that middle-management had decided upon itself to increase this decrement by 10%, further expounding the inhumane treatment of the “9,1 Managerial Style” which Luke detests. When Judiath learns of Luke’s true lowly status, a small level of human understanding is raised and Luke is thereby directed to the office of the Commissioner of Public Utilities, Parris deVicker.
On his way to see the Commissioner of Public Utilities, Luke spots the office for the Secretary of Public Affairs, which is one rung higher than the Commissioner’s post so he decides to bypass the Commissioner and go straight for the Secretary of Public Affairs, Sewell Sepp. However, Luke meets at the front desk an entire bank of undersecretaries at work. He demands to see the Secretary but when it is discovered he does not have an appointment, he then demands to see Parris deVicker, the Commissioner. The undersecretary says that both men are very busy and coldly adds, “Everyone must have an appointment.” (p. 360) But finally, bureaucracy crushes Luke’s attempt when he finds he must make an appointment with the appointment secretary to make an appointment with Swell Sepps. Bewildered at the length of the red-tape, Luke rhetorically asks, “Do I need an appointment to make an appointment for an appointment?” (p. 361) His terminal value of amending or canceling the directive not yet met, Luke decides that his attempt at properly following the chain-of-command is at its end and then decides that a bit of subterfuge may be best. After masquerading as a secretary himself and fooling one of the sixty people in the waiting room of the Secretary of Public Affairs, Luke finally gains access to the important man.
In his interview with Sewell Sepps, Luke discovers that the Secretary was only following orders from the man at the very top: the nameless Chairman of the Board of Directors. Instantly connected via video-conference, the two speak with the Chairman. Reflecting the “9,1 Managerial Style”, the Chairman says to Luke, who is still performing as an official acting on important matters, “So long as you’re not carrying the shovel yourself, why the excitement?” (p. 366) Now seeing the single strand form of communication, information and directives trickling down through the chain-of-command, Luke views the Director as a simple node of communication when the Director says he was just following recommendations from the Policy Evaluation Board. After ascending the steep slope of the Organization’s bureaucracy, Luke now realizes that he must now slide back down the opposite slope to find the source of the ridiculous policy.
With his intrinsic reward of unearthing the logic of the decree and making a change for the greater good at heart, Luke visits the Policy Evaluation Board who receives statistics and data from the Bureau of Abstracts. Acting as a journalist, he gains access to the Bureau and learns that the data pertinent to the hand-tool directive was issued by the Chief File Clerk, Sidd Boatridge. Sidd dismisses Luke’s persistence and paws him off to a lowly file clerk. Luke inquires about the data retrieval and dissemination of directives, to which the file clerk responds, “We file it and code it. Whoever wants information puts a program into the works and the information goes out to him. We never see it, unless we went and looked in the old monitoring machine.” (p. 369)
This old monitoring machine is also called the staging chamber, which is operated by an old custodian of Junior Executive social status named Dodkin, who merely funnels output from the “data tanks” for the Under-File Secretary to review. Of late age and wanting for a replacement, Dodkin tends to do as he pleases with personal observations and includes them in his reports to the file clerks. When Luke refers to the hand-tool directive of “… economy in the use of metals and metal tools” (p. 371), Dodkin instantly recalls his personal observation which led to its filing:
I saw a workman … toss several tools into a crevice on his way off-shift. I thought, now there’s a slovenly act – disgraceful! Suppose the man forgot where he had hidden his tools? They’d be lost! Our reserves of raw metallic ore are very low … We should cherish our natural resources. (p. 372)
I returned here and added a memorandum to that effect into the material which goes up to the Assistant File Clerk … In any event, there’s the tale of my interpolation. Naturally I attempted to give it weight by citing the inevitable diminution of our natural resources. (p. 372)
Luke, seeing the seemingly benign power Dodkin wields and that Dodkin wishes for a replacement, returns to work in the underground sewer and belligerently confronts his foreman, Fedor. When Luke does not produce his shovel for his duty, Fedor yells at him and threatens declassification to Junior Executive. With the declassification eventually handed down because of his insubordination, Luke assumes the role of the custodial job Dodkin once held and begins to insert his own interpolations into the Organization.
The levels of bureaucracy scaled by Luke all the way up to the Chairman highlights the single stand network of communication headed by the node of communication himself, the Chairman. It is the Chairman who decodes the information received from the Policy Evaluation board and delivers the directives downwards. The directive is then again decoded by the next office down and so forth. When the directive reaches its final level, it no longer becomes only a directive mandating economical use of metallic tools, but it manifests itself in the hardship of the manual laborers.
Ascending the chain-of-command from Dodkin, the encoding of the data rises through file clerks to the Bureau of Abstracts then to the Policy Evaluation Board who continues to encode the data with relevancies. Once it is received by the Chairman, only then does it become decoded to subordinates. The lack of dialectic enquiry to the pertinent data and its effect upon the working masses was never undertaken, leading to hardship and misery for Luke. What Luke witnesses in the Organization is a combination of a System 1 (linear dictators) and System 3 (democratic advocates) management. While on different sides of the managerial spectrum, both styles can seen in “Dodkin’s Job”:
System 3: The Chairman accepts data unquestioningly from the Policy Evaluation Board, who encode data received by the Bureau of Abstracts, who subsume information gathered by the Chief File Clerk and his Assistant File Clerks, who all hone in on data from the “data tanks,” which is funneled by Dodkin.
System 1: The Chairman creates a directive for the Secretary of Public Affairs who passes it onto the Commissioner of Public Utilities, who further decodes the directive and issues a memorandum to the Director of Sewage Disposal Section, who interrupts for the data for his own benefit (tweeting the 2% to a further 2.2% for the sake of “status augmentation” [p. 335]) and passes down a command to the Manager of the District Office for Procurement where it is again decoded further and given as a daily directive to the Gang Foreman above Luke Grogatch.
System 3 Solutions:
Data received up through the ranks from Dodkin ought to scrutinized more closely rather than be filed off for report to a higher and higher echelon. Every tier from Dodkin to the Chairman ought to have a feedback channel, where the upper level has the choice to question the data which has been handed up. The source of each directive issued by the Policy Evaluation Board ought to be scrutinized for relevance and compared to the current situation. This would crest over the Chairman and fall back down the ranks towards the District level where the workers of such a directive would be affected. This is where System 1 changes can be made.
System 1 Solutions:
Rather than assume the role of a linear top-down information despot of System 1 styling, the Organization’s management should shift to a System 4 managerial style which praises democratic participation. With a System 4 in place, the issued directive could then be discussed on all levels of participation ranging from the Secretary of Public Affairs all the way down to shovel-lugging sewage workers. This two-way communication would have raised flags as to the absurdity of the directive. This industrial democracy would empower the workers and have them feel as if they have a choice in the direction of their job, their division and their organization.