“Impostor”

“Impostor” by Philip K. Dick
from The Metal Smile, ed. Damon Knight
Belmont Science Fiction, 1968
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, June 1953
Price I paid: none

“DO NOT FOLD, BEND, OR MUTILATE”

marked the beginning of our cybernetic society. How will it end?

The varied answers to that question have proved to be fertile ground for some of the greatest science fiction imaginations. But perhaps we shouldn’t look too closely into the future of cybernetics. It may be that the survival capacity of the thinking machine is greater than that of its maker…


I’ve invented a new dance called the Philip K. Dick, and it goes a little something like this:

  • You find somebody whom you find interesting
  • Hands on your hips, do a little waltz step
  • Hands in the air/just don’t care
  • Wiggle wiggle wiggle
    • Butts gotta touch here. Gotta.
  • Mashed potato
  • Finish, curtsy/bow
  • Sit down and wonder for the rest of your life whether the dance actually happened or was a figment of your imagination
    • possibly implanted by a malign agent or oh god what if it’s a benign agent either way does it even matter
      • like are you even you anymore
    • what can you trust
      • not your own brain that’s for damn sure
  • drugs

So I’m finishing out 2018 with a Phil Dick short story. I just…feel like it’s appropriate? To be fair, it’s probably an appropriate way to finish out any year, but this is the year that I thought of it, so there.

Oh god, did I think of it or did somebody put the thought in my mind and also the memory of coming up with the thought

We’re living in an age where the line between truth and belief is becoming increasingly blurry. Or are we? I’m in the camp that says we’ve always been like this and we’re just becoming more aware of it due to circumstances, but the end result is the same and it’s a good opportunity for us all to do better.

A gateway to understanding that blurry line is Philip K. Dick.

I take that back. Dick isn’t a gateway to understanding that line, but rather a gateway to becoming more aware of it. He never—to the best of my knowledge—offered up any answers.

Or if he did they’ve been wiped from my memory ohhhhhhh jesus

I guess for the sake of context I ought to tell you what this story is about. It’s a pretty archetypal Phil Dick one:

There’s this fellow named Olham. He works for the government and he’s thinking about taking a vacation because he’s so burned out. He seems to have a pretty decent life, despite the fact that there’s a war on.

The war is with some aliens called Outspacers. They’re from Alpha Centauri. We never see or hear or learn very much about them except that their ships are better than ours. The war is currently at a stalemate. Despite the Outspacers’ naval superiority, Earth has constructed a planetary shield (a protec-bubble, by Westinghouse) that is invulnerable. Earth just needs a way to wipe out the Outspacers once and for all and they can claim victory. Of course, it works the other way ’round, too.

Olham finishes his breakfast one morning and heads off to work. He’s met by a friend of his, Nelson, and a stranger, military guy named Major Peters.

After some pleasant conversation, Peters announces that he’s here to arrest Olham for being an enemy agent. A robot spy that killed and replaced the real Olham. Moreover, the robot thinks it’s the real Olham. Has all his memories and everything.

The robot also has a bomb in it, and it’s set to explode. No one knows what will trigger the bomb, although speculation is that it’s a spoken phrase.

From, like, the title I knew what I was getting into with this story. Like I said, it’s archetypal. I don’t say that as criticism, just as fact. Dick was concerned with a lot of things repeatedly in his writing, and one of those things was personal identity. It also happens to be the thing that attracts me most to his writing, and in turn causes me a lot of anxiety while I’m lying in bed at night trying to sleep.

Or I’m asleep and dreaming that I’m lying in bed trying to sleep

A long time ago I read James H. Schmitz’s The Universe Against Her and found myself very angry—perhaps irrationally so—at the psychic protagonist’s use of her powers to modify people’s memories and personalities to suit her whims and convenience. I stand by that anger and believe that stories like this one are the reason why.

It’s possible that that book, the memory of reading it, and the review are all figments of my imagination. Sure, I can check that the review is there, and I’m pretty sure it is, but can I even trust memories of five seconds ago?

Apart from the issues of continuity of memory and personality and perhaps even the existence of a soul, this story tackles at least one other issue, and it’s not one I was expecting. “Impostor” is also concerned with the issue of enemy infiltration and due process.

The Red Scare was in full swing when Dick wrote this story in 1953.

Olham is never put on trial, never questioned, never examined. He is simply captured and then taken around to the back of the Moon to be shot. And that’s bad.

But we also know that the government people think that there’s a good chance that robot-Olham is extremely dangerous. It’s never revealed where they got their information, but they know—or at least think they know—that wasting even a single moment in disposing of this robo-spy might cost lives. So are they justified?

The ending leaves that question up in the air. See, Olham escapes the clutches of the government agents and goes to find proof that he’s the real thing. Early in the story there was a breakfast-table mention of some woods that caught fire some time previously. Olham realizes that this is probably where the robot crashed, and goes to that place to prove his innocence.

The crashed space ship is there. The government agents find him there, and he explains how this was all such a big mistake. Not only is the spaceship here, he explains, but look there at that body! It’s the alien robot thing!

And look at that piece of metal in its chest! Clearly that’s the bomb!

While one of the government guys is busy apologizing to Olham for the whole mixup, another one goes over to the body and examines it. The piece of metal in the chest turns out not to be the bomb, but instead is a knife. The body is the real Olham.

What I didn’t expect from this story was the ending. I’m gonna just quote it.

“But if that’s Olham, then I must be—”

He did not complete the sentence, only the first phrase. The blast was visible all the way to Alpha Centauri.

THE THING THAT TRIGGERED THE BOMB WAS THE REALIZATION THAT HE WAS THE ROBOT ALL ALONG

O

M

G

I love it so much.

If the government guys had followed the law and given Olham/”Olham” due process, would that ending have happened at all? Or would it have happened earlier? Obviously there’s no real answer, but it’s fun to speculate.

I’ve read other Phil Dick before, as you probably guessed, but this story was a new one to me. It’s one of his earlier ones, so it might be the first one where he suggested a copy of a person with all that person’s memories and all that jazz. A lot of my Dick reading is his later stuff.

To be honest, I think I like this story more than some of his novels. Maybe I like his stories better than his novels all around. I’m not throwing any shade, but I like how compact this little tale was. It got its job done rapidly and let me get on with stressing about what it all means.

This is purely subjective, but as much as I love his novels, I can get bogged down by them. Like, four or five simultaneous narratives going on at once, one of which is written in I-Ching, sure, I get it. I appreciate it. It’s just that I have trouble keeping it all straight after a bit. That’s my failing.

Although I guess it’s pretty on-brand for me and Philip K. Dick to spend an evening reading VALIS until I doze off on the recliner and then wake up to find that all along I was reading Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said without realizing it.

You know what else is pretty on-brand Dick? The title of this story is “Impostor” everywhere but here:

It’s “Impostor” on the table of contents, and it’s “Impostor” on every reference on every website, but on the title page of the short story in this comp, it’s spelled wrong.

Because I’m an anxious and highly-suggestible person—probably the Phil Dick target audience in a nutshell—this caused me an irrational amount of trouble.

In the end, if you’ve read some other Philip K. Dick but not this one, you aren’t missing out on much. It’s a fantastic punchline but I already spoiled that for you.

On the flip side, if you’re looking to get some Dick but don’t know where to start, you could do worse than to get a collection of short stories with this one in it.

I see that there was a 2002 film based on this story, and while it has a great cast (Gary Sinise and Vincent D’Onofrio? Be still my heart), it looks like nobody liked it. I’m still going to look it up. I will take this one for the team.


Wrapping up my fifth year of book blogging, all I can say is jeeeeeeeeeezus.

Thank you all so much for reading. I’m looking to stay the course for 2019, and I’ve also got plans to add some new and interesting stuff along the way. Nothing too drastic, and I think you’ll like it. Or you won’t and I’ll never mention it again. Either way, we all win.

Have a wonderful New Year, everybody. Take care of yourselves.

oh no what if 2019 already happened and our memories of it were erased and we’re convinced that it’s only now about to start oh no

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