“The Skull” was first published in If in 1952. Pages numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 47–65.
Two-hundred years in the future a prisoner named Omar Conger is brought before some authorities on the Council, including the Speaker. He is being told of an opportunity to use his hunting and trapping skills to serve the state. He immediately knows that it will be an assassination. The Speaker brings Conger to the First Church. The First Church preaches a doctrine of non-violence and resignation to death. This theology is not appealing to a man with a violent past like Conger. They locate in the First Church the remains of the Founder of the First Church, a skull and a skeleton. A soldier arrives to take the remains.
The Speaker and Conger discuss the history of the First Church, which began in the twentieth century. The Movement that the Founder began, which would later become the First Church, preached that violence was futile and simply led to more conflict. They also embraced a form of Luddhism, rejecting the mechanization of life, as well as some Christian-like esthetic values such as giving to the poor, modesty, and rejection of public life. The Speaker’s opinion is that these values have undermined progress. War, he thinks, had a pruning effect and without it humanity is becoming degraded. Conger is charged with going back in time and killing the Founder before he speaks and sparks the movement. The only way to identity him is through the skull, although they know the general time and place where he made his first public appearance. He is given a time travel cage and a Slem-Gun to complete this task. Conger immediately sets out for the past after learning how to use the gun and the cage. He arrives in the mid-twentieth century on April 5, 1961. Conger goes to a library to try to locate clues about where the Founder might be. In old newspapers he finds what he thinks is evidence of the Founder’s original speech. The article reports that a man was arrested for unlawfully speaking in December of the previous year at Cooper Creek. As he leaves several people express shock at seeing him. He uses the device and goes back in time again.
That night Conger is brought into the home of some friendly people, despite government warnings about “Reds” and the dangers of helping suspicious strangers. Later, walking through a store some customers talk about him and how strange he looks since he wears a beard, making him look a bit like Karl Marx.
Conger seeking a ride to Cooper Creek is picked up by a man named Bill, accompanied by a woman named Lora that Conger suspects is his mistress. They discuss where Conger is from and his strange accent. The next day Conger is still accompanied by Lora and Bill. Bill gets suspicious of Conger and to avoid a confrontation uses his gun to escape the jealous Bill.
Escaping Bill, Conger is questioned by the sheriff over the strange blast of light that accompanied the use of his gun. He also learns that it is December 1, 1960, only twelve hours from when the Founder will be arrested for an illegal demonstration. He prepares himself for the assassination by going to the location where the Founder will speak. While he waits, he thinks about how the Founder would feel about seeing his own skull. His thoughts are interrupted by Lora who warns him that the police have arrived due to rumors that he is a communist agent. The rumors apparently began when he was in the supermarket. Lora, with the help of her father’s friend Joe French, plan Conger’s escape. Conger decides to stay to complete his task.
Taking a closer look at the skull, Conger realizes that the teeth match his own. He realizes that he is the Founder. He goes out to meet the police. He confesses that he has a gun but does not plan to use it. Before being killed by the police Conger understands why the people at the library were so shocked to see him. He offers up a cryptic statement before being shot by the police. “Those who take lives will lose their own. Those who kill, will die. But he who gives his own life away will live again!” This statement is about his own circumstances, but it will be applied to the founding of the First Church.
“The Skull” is a thought experiment attempting to give a naturalistic explanation for the resurrection of Christ based on the application of time travel. One common theme in Dick’s early writings is the origins of religious traditions. As a science-fiction writer he is curious about the origins of faiths. Resurrection can be explained simply by the repeated use of a time travel device. At the same time, Dick is pointing out that the original intention of spiritual founders is less important than what later followers put onto them. Conger shares none of the values of the Founder, who is purely a construction by the people who interpreted his brief message and were moved by his posthumous appearance in the library. The First Church is Dick’s first well-developed theological vision.
In “The Skull” Dick presents humanity with a choice between peace and war. Between Social Darwinian violence and self-sacrificial solidarity. The First Church represents the survival of the ideas of non-violence and solidarity despite the intensive efforts by the state to promote a culture of war and conflict. Despite the efforts of the authoritarian state, the ideas of “the Founder” survive. Its mere existence poses a threat to the power structure. Dick does seem to think that religion poses a unique and effective challenge to governments.