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Review of The Skull

This is an interesting short story by Philip Dick, and my first exposure to Dick’s work. Its plot centers around a convict named Conger given a chance at freedom if he hunts down and kills a man from the past. But the only way he has to identify the man is by his skull, which he is given.

The man he hunts is called the Founder, wanted for starting a movement that caught on in the mid-twentieth century. The movement sought to stop war by eliminating the proliferation of science that led to more and more sophisticated and destructive weaponry. The man spoke only little, preaching a “doctrine of non-violence, non-resistance; no fighting, no paying taxes for guns, no research except for medicine.” He was put to death, but some of his disciples saw him alive afterwards, leading to a spreading rumor that convinced them he was divine.

When Conger travels to the past with the skull, he wonders “What action would not be futile, when a man could look upon his own aged, yellowed skull? …A man who could hold his own skull in his hands would believe in few causes, few movements.” Conger causes a stir in the small midwestern town he goes back to to hunt the Founder, and ends up with the police and townspeople after him for supposedly being a Communist. When the people approach, he looks at the skull and holds it next to his face, suddenly realizing it is actually his own skull.

He realizes what he has to say is exactly what the Founder would have said. He tells the people a paradox, that “Those who take lives will lose their own. Those who kill, will die. But he who gives his own life away will live again!” He allows himself to be killed, knowing that he will live again thanks to the operations of time travel. Ironically, his few words could be seen as exactly what the Founder would profess, talking of non-resistance and encouraging people not to fight, while actually being reborn later thanks to future technology. The revelation that the skull is really Conger’s own, and that his own words have become that of legend and inspiration to generations of churchgoers is a fascinating concept.

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