Form vs. Content in P.K. Dick’s “The Father-Thing”

by Frank C. Bertrand

From a wide perspective “The Father-Thing” (F&SF, December 1954) presents, in short story form, Dick’s two essential themes, ones that are repeated in one manner or another in most of his other short stories and novels. The stronger and more pervasive one, in this story, is: what IS a “human” being, as opposed to any other kind of being? And the second theme, one that is prevalent in all of his fiction: WHAT is “reality”? In a sense these two are combined in this story, to the extent that we might ask: what is the reality of a “human” being? That is, how do I REALLY know that (how do I tell, how do I identify, how do I discriminate) this person sitting across from me IS a “human” being? What is REAL about being a “human”? As opposed to, let’s say, an android.

A superbly made android should theoretically be, from the OUTSIDE, the same as a human. In an earlier P.K. Dick story, “Impostor” (Astounding, June, 1953), there is a “humanoid robot” who “would become Olham in mind as well as body….He would look like him, have his memories, his thoughts and interests, perform his job.” It would be difficult for an average observer to tell the two apart, as it is in Dick’ novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) or the 1975 film The Stepford Wives.

Or would it? In part V of his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason (1637), Descartes writes that:

“…if there were machines which bore a resemblance to our body and imitated

our actions as far as it was morally possible to do so, we should always

have two very certain tests by which to recognise that, for all that, they

were nor real men. The first is, that they could never use speech or other

signs as we do when placing our thoughts on record for the benefit of others….

And the second difference is, that although machines can perform certain

things as well as or perhaps better than any of us can do, they infallibly fall

short in others, by the which means we may discover that they did not act

from knowledge, but only from the disposition of their organs.”

I emphasize the term OUTSIDE because Dick suggests a couple of things that, in this story, would help to discern a difference, differences that are not unlike those posited by Descartes. On page 234 (The Best of Philip K. Dick, 1977) of “The Father-Thing”, six lines from the bottom, we find: “The insides were gone. The important part.” The second thing is the references, with respect to the father-thing, of: “alien and dark” (p. 232); “eyes were hard and dark” (p. 233); “emotionless voice” (pp. 240-41); “utterly without emotion” (p. 241). The implicit, if not explicit, suggestion here is that it is what is inside, along with emotion, that make one a HUMAN being. As Jane Eyre asks Rochester (Jane Eyre, 1847), “Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings?”

But, what does Dick mean here by inside? Strictly the physical indies, bone, organs, tissues, or something more? It would have to be something more because when the father-thing “eats” the father’s “insides,” leaving the skin, it then “becomes” the father; it assumes its personality, its memories, etc. A similar process happens, in reverse, in Dick’s first published story, “Beyond Lies the Wub” (Planet Stories, July, 1952). A telepathic alien, the Wub, who looks a lot like a “huge dirty pig” and would rather discuss questions of philosophy and the Arts, is eaten by earthmen whose food stores have spoiled. But upon doing so the leader of the group, Captain Franco, is taken over by the Wub who refers to its former self, “the think slab of tender, warm meat,” as “only organic matter, now….The life essence is gone.”

Now, what makes this even more intriguing is that the father-thing itself is under the control of something else, the thin, red-brown, foot-long “bug” with a jointed metallic body, endless crooked legs, and a wicked looking tail. Its mind-force animates the father-thing, brings it to life, almost like a puppeteer controls a puppet. So, we have this life-form, this “bug”; it is not clearly implied if this bug is truly alien, from some other world, that lays small pulpy white larvae which grow and mature into a cocoon containing human replicas. (This is something like what happens in a popular 1956 film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) But the “bug” has to maintain control of the replicas for them to function properly at all.

Let us now change our perspective from wide to NARROW and focus in on some explicit and implicit notions suggested by “The Father-Thing.” One notion implied by the “inside-outside” dichotomy is the form/content problem in Art and Philosophy. In Art form is the pattern or structure or organization which is employed to give expression to the content. In Philosophy form is usually equated with essence, or that which is the substantial essence of the whole thing, the structure constituting a substance or species of substance; the intrinsic, determining principle of existence of any determinate essence. Then there is Plato’s theory of forms and the important role the concept of form has in Medieval Scholastic Philosophy. And Aristotle has noted that men such as Callias or Socrates consist of “such and such a form in this flesh and in these bones,” yet “they are different in virtue of their matter (for that is different) but the same in form.” I would maintain that it is the notion of “form” in Philosophy that lurks beneath the surface story of “The Father-Thing.” The father-thing is a metaphor for form (essence) vs. content (substance), and the quandary of which makes a “human” being REAL, or more real.

The resolution suggested by the story is that we can be fooled, deceived, by the FORM of a thing, its “outside.” And that what is most important is a thing’s “inside” or content (substance). This is reflected in another P.K. Dick story, “Human Is” (Startling Stories, Winter 1955), where Rexorians take over several humans. “The original psychic contents are removed and stored — in some sort of suspension. The injection of the substitute contents is instantaneous.” It’s also important to remember that the title of the story is “The Father-Thing.” And a “thing” is a material object without life or consciousness, an inanimate object. A comparative version of this can be found in Brian W. Aldiss’s story “Outside” (New Worlds, January, 1955), wherein “Nititians possessed the alarming ability of being able to assume the identical appearance of their enemies.” They ultimately fail, however, because “Like Earth’s insects which imitate vegetables, your cleverness cripples you. You can only be carbon copies….The inhumanity inside will always give you away….However human you are outside.”

More significant than any of this, though, is the fact that it is not Philosophy that exposes and defeats the “inhumanity inside” the father-thing. Nor is it Big Government, Science or Technology. The problem which “would have confounded Hillel,” a Palestinian rabbi (c. 60 BC – 9 AD) who was the first to formulate definite hermeneutic principles, is solved by three children, ages 8, 9, and 14! It is the empathy of a child for its father that vanquishes the “inhumanity” of the father-thing. As P.K. Dick states it in his superb essay “Man, Android and Machine” (1976)m “We must not posit a difference or essence, but a difference of behavior….A human being without the proper empathy or feeling is the same as an android built so as to lack it, either by design or mistake.”

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