The Crystal Crypt

Story Background
“The Crystal Crypt” was first published in Planet Stories in January 1954. Page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 231–247.


Plot Summary
Some Terra citizens are preparing to leave Mars on the last ship before a war will likely break out. Not long after taking off, the ship was ordered to land. This was the final group of Terrans to leave the planet. After returning to the surface, a Martian official—called Leiter—begins to question the crew about a massive terrorist attack. Three Terrans, two men and one woman, destroyed a Martian city only two hours earlier. The Leiter determines that the crew must be on the ship in hopes of escaping before war breaks out. Each passenger is questioned about the destruction of the Martian city but all deny it and a lie detector confirmed their responses.

On its way home the passengers on the ship begin to discuss their individual histories and the strange events prior to their launch. In the course of these conversations, it is determined that Mara, Jan, and Erick, must have been the ones the Leiter was looking for. They ask for the details of the destruction of the Martian city.

In flashback, Erick, Mara, and Jan avoid Leiters on their way to the City, the greatest of all Maritain cities. They encounter some local farmers, but their most serious risk was a close encounter with some soldiers. Despite these dangers, all three of the saboteurs placed a device in three specific locations around the City. The activation of the device shrunk the City down to the size of s small globe. As they depart they are again questioned by a Lieter who places them under arrest for questioning. The three escape the police in a car and flee toward Marsport.

The reason they were not identified by the lie detector test was that the city was never destroyed so they told to truth when they denied having knowledge of the City’s destruction. The passenger who urged the trio to tell their story, Thatcher, reveals his identity as a Martian spy. He realized that the city was not destroyed due to the lack of debris and the loss of mass in the region, but he did not know the full details until revealed by the saboteurs. Thatcher suggests that Mars will steal the technology and use it against Terra in the coming conflict.

This story has a nice spy versus spy device that is likely influenced by various cultural motifs on Cold War espionage. One important element is that the saboteurs seem to not be fully malevolent. Their goal is to use the Martian city trapped in a crystal crypt to either win the war or avoid war. Rather than destroying the city, they chose to preserve it. In an era when the predominant vision of war involved the destruction of entire cities with nuclear bombs, this turn is welcome. Unfortunately, like all technologies the power to reduce cities to a small size can be used by either side in a conflict. The final suggestion by Thatcher, the Martian agent, is that Earth cities will be reduced as well, sparking an inevitable and endless cycle of retaliation that will be every bit as devastating as the a more conventional war.

It should also be noted that this technology to reduce cities could have many positive applications. They are not dreamed up in the story, of course. As both sides prepare for armed conflict, the application of technologies are invariably violent. This is the central thesis of the novella “The Variable Man,” where faster-than-light travel is planned to be used as a weapon to destroy an entire star system.

We have yet another example of a conflict between Terra and human colonials in the other planets and bodies of the solar system. In his early stories, this was Dick’s favorite geopolitical scenario, seconded only by the ever-ominous Proxima Centarui. The difference between the people who stay on Earth and those who venture out onto the cosmic frontier fascinated Dick. In this case, Mars is presented as a technology and military backwater, but it remains a potential threat to Terra. The strong police presence that the passengers on the ship and the saboteur encounter suggest that Mars was not a frontier paradise. It was more of a police state. The cause of the conflict is that Mars seems to be controlling the trade and constricting the Terra economy. Does Dick imagine a situation where Earth needs to expand to survive? This is the conclusion we draw in “The Variable Man.” Here it is presented with a more crass economic formulation. The differences are not yet so great that commerce, travel, and tourism between the two planets is discouraged.

Wikipedia entry for “The Crystal Crypt.”

Movie in the works.

Not quite a shrinking device, but technology is getting smaller.


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Cold War, Philip K. Dick, Politics, Technology, war and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Crystal Crypt

  1. Pingback: Return Match | Philip K. Dick Review

  2. Ths isn’t one of his best short stories.The seriousness of the underlying themes is opaque and it’s depth isn’t apparent.It’s just an intricate piece of space opera.The themes of the frontier and colonialism you’re careful to illumnate though,are of particular interest.Dick was recreating and repeating the history of the USA,from successful colonialism to spiritual decay.In “Martian Time-Slip”,the settling of the frontier has turned into sterile emptiness,while in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,many would rather on a stay on a bleak homeworld than emigrate to Mars.What would be the best alternative?It isn’t surprising the androids prefer to escape to Earth.

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