Story Background “Colony” was first published in Galaxy in June 1953. Cited page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel), 347–363, 404.
Plot Summary Major Lawrence Hall and Lieutenant Friendly of a planetary survey team discuss their amazement at a planet—Planet Blue—with no harmful or hostile life forms. Such an “unsullied” planet contradicts all their experience in space exploration. Friendly leaves Hall to his scientific work. His microscope uses its eyepieces to strangle Hall. Hall breaks free of the attack and disintegrates the microscope with his blast pistol.
During a briefing by Commander Stella Morrison, Hall barges in and instructs Friendly to follow him to his room. He tells how the microscope attacked him and how he disintegrated it, but Friendly finds the microscope intact in its regular place. Hall reports himself for psychiatric screening.
The robot psyche diagnoses Hall with a high instability ratio. Hall returns to his quarters to take a shower where he is attacked by his towel. After the shower, as Hall watches the towels he is attacked by his chair, which he shoots with his pistol. He goes to see Commander Morrison who worries that Hall is going insane and will be needed to be taken off of duty. They go to Captain Taylor to place Hall in custody and they see that Taylor being strangled by a rug. Morrison orders that the crews arms itself.
They realize that the items attacking them are not the originals, which are always found after the attack and disintegration of the assaulting object.
Meanwhile attacks take place around the base. Lieutenant Dodd is shot by a pair of gloves with pistol. Lieutenant Fulton has his feet dissolved by a mat. Captain Unger is digested in a car. Gail Thomas is killed by a tree in the woods.
The crew determine that the attacks are being done by organic life that can be killed. By posing as everyday objects, the alien life is slowly killing off the crew one by one. In thirty encounters with this alien life form ten people have been killed. Hall completes some experiments that show the base—which houses 100 people—is saturated with the alien life form. The loss of the entire unit may be inevitable because returning to Earth will be simply too dangerous. It may be impossible to return without bringing the alien with them. They are infinitely divisible and cannot be easily eradicated.
Morrison concludes that since they apparently cannot imitate organic life, but only inorganic objects, they will return home without anything—including clothing. They contact a nearby cruiser and inform its captain that the unit on Planet Blue will board their ship naked. After some awkwardness about leaving everything behind, they being to board the ship ten minutes before schedule.
On schedule, the cruiser arrives and waits for the unit from Planet Blue to come.
Dick saw “Colony” as a reflection on paranoia. At least he did in 1976 when he wrote: “Objects sometimes seem to possess a will of their own anyhow, to the normal mind; they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, they get in the way, they show an unnatural resistance to change.” (404) I think there are good reasons not to fully trust Dick’s interpretation of his own works written in the last decade of his life, after he took that unfortunate religious turn. His metaphysics and politics became a bit fuzzy. This is more of an example of solid science fiction, which has many parallels to Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”
One subtext in “Colony” is the madness that is driving human exploration. I think that Dick was largely optimistic about interplanetary exploration in much of his early work. He believed it was the key to reviving a decadent culture. (See my posts on “The Variable Man.”) Here, we see exploration run amok. The scientist Hall comments that Earth loses 100-man crews every day in their mission to explore other planets. Such losses are routine. One consequence of this rush is the disaster that hit the team on Planet Blue who were completely unprepared for the alien life form.
My initial reading of this story is that it was commenting on consumption, but this now seems like a stretch to me. While Dick certainly believed that consumer goods had a certain power of humans and that much of that danger rested in the banality and redundancy of consumer goods. What keeps this interpretation at least within the realm of possibility is Dick’s emphasis on the relationship between people and the material objects in their life. We think we have a close relationship with our microscope (I mean we work with it everyday), or our towel, or our rug, but how well do we really know these things. How easily can we be fooled, especially when so many of these items look the same? How can we sustain a close relationship with a material object when thousands of copies of that exist? We find it creepy enough to ponder the potential that each of us has a doppelganger, but in fact we are surrounded by crude copies. The mimicry of the alien life on Planet Blue suggests the mastery of consumer replaceables. “Their mimicry is perfect. Of inorganic objects, at least. I looked through one of them, Stella, when it was imitating my microscope. It enlarged, adjusted, reflected, just like a regular microscope.” (358) One interesting aspect of 3-D printing is that it may actually make personalization of consumer goods more likely and actually give consumerism the individuality that it promises.
Dick will later use the concepts worked out in this story to actually apply them to consumer capitalism. In more than one novel, single-cell organisms that can copy material goods are used in production by freezing them in a specific form. So, although the consumerism angel is not very strong here Dick will develop it into one of his most compelling visions of consumer banality.
Wikipedia page for “Colony.”
Interesting radio broadcast based on the story.