“Project: Earth” was first published in Imagination in December 1953. Cited pages numbers come from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2 (New York: Citadel), 171–189.
Three children (Tommy, Dave Grant, and Joan) are spying on and old neighbor Edward Billings through a crack in the wall. Billings is working in a room filled with documents, working at a typewriter. It is revealed that he is working on a massive report based on the countless documents in his room.
Joan suggests that Billings is a communist agent or a criminal, but the other children reject that idea based on their stereotypes of both groups of nefarious figures. Dave mentions that he must work for a company because he is always working on a report. Billings completes his work for the day. Tommy manages to catch a glimpse at the massive report, which is entitled “PROJECT B: EARTH.”
Tommy, overwhelmed by curiosity enters Billings apartment from the front door (which was unlocked). He quickly goes to take a look at the report, which contains detailed facts and figures on different nations on Earth. It is a giant compendium of facts. Tommy also finds a small garden on Billings’ porch which has some small hairless animals the size of insects. Before he can look closer he is approached by Billings who asks for his help in carrying water. Billings is very open with Tommy and shows him the small creatures, explaining to him that they are a trial population. He also explains that he is writing the report about Earth for his superiors. Project A were creatures with wings with a high level of individuality. It failed. Project B, Earth, is under review, but Billings confesses his report will suggest a failure. Lacking the strong individualism, Project B still splintered into competing groups. Billings’ superiors, who seem to be creators, have no power over the development of the projects once they are begun. Project C, the small people Tommy identified, will be the next effort.
Tommy ran home but quickly double-backed to Billings’ place. After a short conversation, Billings returned to work on his report and Tommy snuck to the porch. He steals the nine creatures from the garden, placing them in a cigar box. Back at home, Tommy places the nine creatures into a small cage.
The next day, Tommy shows off the small people to his friends. Dave wants to buy them. Another wants to see them in clothing, which Joan volunteers to do. Tommy demonstrates a game of hide and seek with the little people.
Joan brings clothing for the little people. Edward Billings approaches Tommy while the kids are playing a lot. He demands that Tommy return the people to him. Tommy refuses but eventually agrees to a game of marbles for the people. Sometime later, Tommy and Billings compete in a game of marbles for the people. At the end of his first round, Tommy is only two marbles from victory. On Billings turn, he knocks all the remaining marbles out of the circle on this first toss, using some power.
With the Project C types back in his control, Billings explores the damage done by their captivity by Tommy. When Billings opens the cigar box, the little people immediately scatter around, unplugging the lamp and escaping in the darkness. Billings realized that rebellion and independence has already infected Project C. He realizes that every experiment will fail because the discontent and disobedience is carried from the previous project. The first sign of the failure of Project C was that they were wearing clothing.
The narrative of the biblical Fall runs through “Project: Earth”. It seems that the creators of life that Billings works for want to create a perfect society of obedience and order. The first experiment failed because of the intense individualism (apparently made possible by their capacity to fly). The second project, humans on Earth, was more docile to groups but no less antagonistic to universal authority than the first project. Project C are given antennae, but their emotions and innate drives are suppressed. They hope hyper-rationality will ensure they are more controlled. Things go well for the third group until they are introduced to the rebelliousness of Project B by game so hide and seek and wearing clothing. The transition from amodest nudity to wearing clothing is similar to the narrative given in the Bible for Adam and Eve after the fall. The role of playing hide and seek is more subtle. The game takes as its central tenant the evasion of the eyes of an authoritarian figure. Victory in that game requires escaping the eyes of the master. Of course, that is what they do at the end when they escape the hitherto unquestioned authority of Billings. I have never before thought of hide and seek as an example of anti-authoritarian training, but that is certainly what is seems to be.
The relationship between children and adults is critical to understanding “Project: Earth.” There are actually two levels of this. One level is the relationship between the various projects and the creators. Billings is interested in what Project B has been up to, but realizes with frustration that he has little power over what Project B actually does. Billings says: “Since your Project has moved out of jurisdiction to such a degree that for all intents and purposes you are no longer functional.” (179) While I have never quite heard an empty nester put it this way, he is essentially describing the maturation of people to individual autonomy, liberated from the influence and power of their parents. From the bureaucrats’ point of view, this autonomy is evidence of failure, not success. It is, of course, the same in the Old Testament, where humanity’s drive to autonomy from God is described as a Fall, instead of a normal maturation. For whatever reason, authoritarian figures cannot handle the autonomy of those under their power. At least Billings is honest about this.
Another level of this is the interactions between the various children and the adults, including Billings. Tommy’s parents only appear occasionally to shout orders that are not followed. Tommy comes and goes as he desires. Billings is able to trump Tommy’s mastery of marbles using some special powers, but we suspect few adults would be able to best Tommy or his friends in marbles. Importantly, while Billings sees Project C as his subjects, Tommy and his friends use them as playthings. Perhaps they are not equals in the true sense, but we know that the children will not write a massive tomb on their activities and then judge them a success or failure. They have internalized anti-authoritarian values. For Project C to be infected with anti-authoritarianism, it had be by children.
Background on “Project: Earth.”
Debunking of the ancient aliens ideas.