Story: The Little Black Box
Source: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (Volume 5, ‘The Collected Short Stories of Philip K Dick’)
Pages: 1 to 21
First Published: Worlds of Tomorrow, August 1964
The story’s main characters are Joan Hiashi, an Asian-American scholar applying for a job in Cuba, and Ray Meritan, a jazz harpist at a television station. The pairing may seem odd, though their link is established early on. Also noted is the ‘religion’ they share, known as Mercerism.
Mercerism, named after its inspiration Wilbur Mercer, allows people to share the pain of their ‘god’. The character is forced to wander a desolate wasteland towards a suspect destination, noted as Pueblo, Colorado. The religion is noted to have twenty million followers worldwide, all who use an ’empathy box’ attached to a television set, which links them to Wilbur and his suffering.
Joan and Ray begin the story in the USA. In a show of the time that the story was written, the US and Cuba are not friends. The work that Joan is heading over to perform is in the service of the Cuban Communist Party, teaching its Chinese citizens on the topic of Zen Buddhism.
The crux of the story is that Mercerism is considered a threat by both the US government and the CCP, and they both want to find out where Wilbur is. Some say in the US, others believe he is not even on Earth, while others still believe he is not even real. Is religion considered an enemy of the state, both by capitalists and by communists? One would believe so when both our main characters are pursued for being discovered as followers.
The story does not end in a conclusive fashion. We discover that there is a underground movement allowing the religion to survive an incoming increase in persecution, while our main characters are pursued by the police.
The character of Wilbur Mercer played a significant role in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel that would inspire the cult classic movie Blade Runner. While no mention is made of robots in this short story, Mercer and his ’empathy box’ are used in the classic novel to define the difference between a human and a robot. Quite surprisingly, the religion is not mentioned in the movie. The way of differentiating a human and a ‘replicant’ in Blade Runner is their level of empathy, which is assessed via an eye scan coupled with questions to test the subject’s response.
The short story is proof that the seed of an idea, hiding in a throw-away short story, can come back later to play a pivotal role in bigger and better works. So, for all aspiring writers, be sure to keep your old stories and ideas handy, as you never know when the ideas may be used for another story. And, if you’re lucky, the idea will become part of science fiction canon.
– Su –