“The Impossible Planet” was first published in Imagination in October 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.
Captain Andrews and Norton are dealing with a 350-year-old deaf woman (Mrs. Gordon) who insists on purchasing a ticket to Earth, having traveled from Riga to Formalhaut IX. The old woman is accompanied by a robot. Andrews writes on a piece of paper that he cannot take the old woman to Earth because there is no such place, it is only a myth and likely never existed. The robant (a robotic servant) explains that she wants to see Earth before she dies, which will be soon because they stopped her life extending sustentation treatments. The robant points out that she will pay the any money required to fulfil her final wish.
Andrews begins researching for possible planets that fit legends of Earth. Norton points out that deceiving the old woman is illegal. Through his research, Andrews learns that Earth was most likely the third planet in a nine planet system, with a single moon. That narrows down the search to a few possible places. Nearby is Emphor III, which fits the description. The planet has been devastated and it is not just a degenerate trading colony. When they arrive there, they tell Mrs. Gordon that it is Earth and prepare to land.
Mrs. Gordon reacts violently to the news. The planet looks nothing like Earth as she pictured from the legends. Andrews explains to her simply that “commercial operations exhausted surface.” Andrews has Norton show her around the surface. The robant explains that Mrs. Gordon heard of Earth from her grandfather who was born there.
Norton and Andrews are talking on the short after that tour of “Earth.” Norton reports that Mrs. Gordon and the robant sand down into the mud and filth of the surface. Norton could do nothing to stop them. Andrews explains that they died because they left the ship. The radioactive toxins were too much for them. Norton, disgusted by the deception, gives Andrews his share of the fee Mrs. Gordon paid and explains that he would like a new posting. Andrews takes comfort in knowing that Mrs. Gordon was senile and old. Andrews finds a small coin in the debris. He returns to the ship and later takes a closer look at the coin, which bears some strange markings “E Pluribus Unum.”
With Planet of the Apes commanding such a strong place in American culture, I doubt many readers are surprised by the twist at the end of “The Impossible Planet.” I wonder if anyone at the time was very surprised. Maybe people were less used to the tool kit of twists one learns about by watching a few seasons of The Outer Limits. “The Impossible Planet” is set far into the future. If we believe that around 300 years is the life expectancy of humanity and Mrs. Gordon’s grandfather did live on Earth, it has been around 600 years since Earth was known as a clear homeland for humanity. We can also guess that people have been moving out for years and for most of humanity, Earth had become a distant homeland (like Europe for many Americans) for most. Gradually it was just forgotten. More than forgotten, however, Earth was made uninhabitable, transformed into a massive wasteland by industrialization and war. The Centauran-Riga war that destroyed Earth was so devastating that it turned the entire region into a backwater for centuries. The only memory of Earth that remains from the war is interpersonal relationships. The theme of this story seems to be the power of war to obliterate the memory of places. There is some historical truth for that. Wars lift some locations into permanent historical memory, but entire societies, cultures, ways of living, and subcultures can be eradicated. One reason ethnic cleansings and genocides take place commonly during wars is that times of war are times when we are used to destruction. The eradication of a people can be seen as the unfortunate backdrop to the violence. This was Adolf Hitler’s point when he suggested that his crimes against the Jews would be forgotten. The Turkish ethnic cleansing of the Armenians was forgotten.
Mrs. Gordon may be the last evidence that Earth exists as anything more than memory. The death of her robant confirms this interpretation that the reader witnessed the final transformation of Earth from history to mythology. Neither Norton or Andrew are convinced that they bumped into Earth. In their view, Earth is just a myth and the old woman is just an opportunity to make money. It is interesting that Norton asserts his disgust with his commander, but this is only over his abuse of an old woman for profit.
Background on “The Impossible Planet.”