“Impostor” was first published in Astounding in June 1953. Cited page numbers come from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2 (New York: Citadel), 289–297, 381.
Spence Olham talks about taking a vacation after ten years of working on the Project with his wife Mary. The war with the Outspacers has not slowed down, but the development of the protec-bubble provides some basic protection to Earth cities. While the weapon that will push the war in a positive direction is still undeveloped, Olham is sure the Earth is in no immediate danger. A colleague Nelson comes with an older man who turns out to be Major Peters. Peters is from the government’s security agency and tells Olham that he will be arrested for being an Outspacer spy. Peters reports on the arrest to his superiors as they depart for a base on the moon. Peters takes some time to explain to Olham that he will be quickly destroyed by a team of specialists. Olham is confused and desperately wants to inform his wife of what has happened. Peters explains that they got a report that the protec-bubble was infiltrated by a robot with a U-Bomb, that would be set off by the utterance of a certain phrase. The robot killed Spence Olham, taking over his identity. Olham insists that he is not a robot. He tells Nelson and Peters that the robot must have never reached him. But Peters clarifies that the robot would not know that he had taken over role of Olham. He would become Olham in “body and mind.” (309) Olham asks for a doctor to prove that he is not a robot, but they refuse. Olham bluffs Nelson and Peters about setting off the trigger. They flee the ship and Olham takes the ship back to Earth.
On Earth, Olham contacts his wife, instructing her to contact a Dr. Chamberlain or any other doctor to go to his house, with the equipment that will prove that he is a human. Chamberlain was the doctor attached to Olham’s project. When he goes into his home and sees his wife, Olham knows that the secret police have already intercepted her. He fears that they will assume she is a robot as well. He flees to a nearby forest. Peters arrives and insists that Olham is delusional to think he is a human, telling him that he will be destroyed on site once he is discovered. The entire county is being scoured. Olham had six hours to escape. If he could find the Outspace ship with the robot that was supposed to replace him, he could prove he was human. He assumes that the ship would be in an out of the way place, near his home. He guesses it must be near Sutton Wood.
Just as Olham locates the Outspace ship, Peters and Nelson intercept him. Nelson is about to first at Olham, but Peters decides to give him a moment to prove he is telling the truth. Olham points out a body on the ground, that looked humanoid but on closer inspection looked like a broken machine. Peters begins talking to Olham about his much needed vacation, when Nelson notices that the broken robot was actually killed with an Outspace knife driven into its chest. Just as Olham realizes that the body is the remains of the real Olham, the bomb goes off, triggered by some of the robot’s last words.
On “Impostor,: Dick wrote: “Here was my first story on the topic of: Am I a human? Or am I just programmed to believe I am a human? When you consider that I wrote this back in 1953, it was, if I may say so, a pretty damn good new idea in sf. Of course, by now I’ve done it to death. But the theme still preoccupies me. It’s an important theme because it forces us to ask: What is a human? And—what isn’t.” (381)
Dick is right that it introduces the theme well, but I do not see how the story really gets to the question of how you could test if robot-Olham had human characteristics. If we read this through Dick’s later stories we have the tools to test his claim that he is human. What is troubling in “Impostor” is the realization that Olham is both capable of massive destruction, yet could be morally human. He acts with many of the characteristics of humanity: a desire for self-preservation, concern for his wife, concern for his community through working on a project, an ability to adapt to the situation. He is such a convincing avatar that the agent of the secret police is fooled at the end. It seems that the transplanting of the memories into a robot sustains our humanity. This is a central premise of transhumanism and runs deep in cyberpunk literature.
In this early story, Dick displays his technophobia. As far as I can tell he never quite grows out of this, although he does mature the argument. The potential to translate a human consciousness onto a mechanical body is perhaps the ultimate in using technology to liberate humanity from its confines. There is even a movement that makes this one of its key concepts, called “anarcho-transhumanism” or “libertarian transhumanism.” In “Impostor” Dick misses this and instead focuses on the inherent danger. In this case the danger is that the morally human robot may still be preprogrammed as a destructive force.
But these fears come from a very real place and are entirely consistent with the world that Philip K. Dick lived in. The reason war was such a common theme in Dick’s early stories is not only merely because the genre of magazine science fiction liked to explore war. War was very much the daily experience of people in Dick’s generation. He few up in the context of the Second World War. His earliest writings were published during the Korean War. In the 1950s there were good reasons to think that war with the Soviets was imminent. It is not surprising that Dick dreamed up geopolitical backgrounds that were bipolar and based on conflict and war. Olham’s job is to participate in the arms race. Interestingly, although the United States was historically one step ahead of Russia throughout much of the arms race, there were brief periods, especially in the 1950s, that suggested that the Soviets would outpace the U.S. The Sputnik moment articulated this fear. (This was four years after the story was published, but fears of Soviet technological progress was a constant theme in Cold War-era paranoia.) This may be why, Dick often put Terra is a catch-up position. In “Imposter” humans had just figured out how to protect their cities from attacks from the outside (this protection is immediately trumped by the use of these robotic agents).
This is the context of Dick’s technophobia. At the time, who looked at Sputnik and thought about cellphones and instant data transfers? It was much more common to look at Sputnik and think of it as a potential weapon of war. Dick thought of technology in the worst possible light, because it was being used in some of the most destructive ways.
Wikipedia entry for “Impostor.”