“Prize Ship” was first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in Winter 1954. Cited page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel), 365–382.
Terra is preparing to capitulate to Ganymede’s terms after a two-month war. Ganymede was small but in a powerful position because it controlled the jump-point for interstellar travel. They broke free of Terra and demanded a 20% tax on ships coming through. Ganymede threatened to destroy “cradles” (these jump points) if Terra did not agree or if Terra tried to retake them. The colonies outside the Solar System (Proxima most of all) depended on the traffic flow. Although Terra was building new cradles on the moon, accepting Ganymede’s terms was a short term necessity. Before the Senate could vote on the capitulation terms, the military commander Carmichel read a report about a captured Ganymede ship. The Senate withdraws the vote until the ship can be studied.
The “prize ship,” shaped like a globe is prepared for a test flight. There is not enough time for a full study of the technology, which is entirely unlike anything that the Terrans saw before. Despite great risk a crew consisting of General Groves, Doctor Basset, and Commander Carmichel begin the test flight to Mars after a rudimentary translation of the controls.
After the test flight, the crew finds themselves in a place no one recognizes. They leave the globe after landing on the planet and begin exploring. Before long they are attacked by tiny people armed with bows and arrows. The weapons they are attacked with are so small they confused being stabbed with being stung. They come to a medieval-style town and are attacked by knights on small horses and other soldiers. Carmichel realizes that this experience may have been the origin of a fairy tale and orders the flight test crew back to the globe. Back at the globe is explains that he thinks they are in Lilliput and that there is another place they can go to confirm it called Brobdingnag.
After using the globe to travel again they leave the globe and find a world populated by giants. They quickly return to “neutral” their origin. The crew decides to keep their findings quiet and just state that the ship does not work, but they wonder how Jonathan Swift (never mentioned by name) had access to these experiences or if other fantasy worlds were based on similar experiences.
Later, the Senate agrees to end the war. Later a Ganymede official comes to retrieve the globe. He explains that it is a time ship. “Liliput” and “Brobdingnag” were not different worlds but the Earth at different times. Due to the expansion of the universe, the people in the past were smaller and the people in the future were larger.
“Prize Ship” is yet another example of Dick’s early efforts to tease out the potential of time travel stories. In this case, the idea is that the time travel device is ultimately useless because the material from the past and the material from the future are simply at radically different scales. As the universe expands, all matter in the universe expands at the same rate. I suppose this would mean that from a relative position the universe did not really expand. This seems to be quite far from our understanding of the expansion of the universe, which is an expansion of space-time but not matter. (Maybe someone can expand on this for me.) Of course, it is not a good idea to get worked up over Dick’s scientific and technological proficiency (or lack of it). The really interesting idea in “Prize Ship” is the undeveloped idea that time travel is the origin of some of our myths and fantasies. I must say that is more attractive than the ancient aliens nonsense, but Dick does not give us very much to work with in this story. It is never explained how Swift would have experienced both the past and the future. If the metaphysics of time travel, as explained in the story, are true then Swift could not have been a time traveler himself. All we really get is that giants in mythology may have been real encounters with time travelers.
One more question. If you took the test ship to the past for one day and returned to the same moment that you departed, would you be larger? It seems the prize ship in the story was returned to the immediate moment of department (“neutral”) so the crew should be larger, having experience some extra time in an expanding universe. I suppose this would be so small that it would not register.
I rather like folk lore as fiction. Whether it is religious creation narratives and the efforts by believers to prove folklore as history or the ancient alien theory or even the collective sub-conscious ideas of Jung, I feel we underestimate the creative power of human beings. Folk lore is more amazing if it is the product of creative and playful people imagining the world in new ways.
The geopolitics of “Prize Ship” is clever. He revisits the idea that expansion will create communities of humans with different identities, values, and even technologies than Terra, but here he adds how they can be more politically powerful than the home planet due to an imperial design flaw. Here we have a rather clever example of how a weak nation can easily defeat a much stronger one, if the stronger nation underestimates the strategic value of the weaker party. Ganymede was able to quickly push Terra into capitulation by closing off its only outlet to the outer colonies.
Wikipedia entry for “Prize Ship”