“Prominent Author” was published in If in May 1954. I read it in We Can Remember It For Your Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2. It can be found there on pages 21–34.
Mary Ellis is talking about her husband to Dorothy Lawrence. His commute is so short now that he will not be late for work despite leaving only seconds before he is due in the office. The recent revolution in transportation had made it possible for Henry Ellis, her husband, to travel 160 miles in mere moments. Henry walks into a round circular hoop and disappears. Mary tells Dorothy that he is in New York already.
Henry Ellis is in a tunnel. The commute is actually not instantenous. He has to walk through this tunnel for five steps. The device—the Juffi-scuttler—uses travel through the fourth dimension. The Juffi-scuttler was developed to solve the growing problem of the commute. As more people moved to suburbs, the commutes became longer and more odious. The fourth dimension allowed an infinite number of Jiffi-scuttlers. Any family that could afford the 1000 credits could have one. The only downside was that it was fixed. Each end of the Jiffi-scuttler was stuck. Not surprisingly most people used their Jiffi-scuttler to travel from home to work. While taking his time walking through the tunnel, Henry saw three tiny people, each the size of insects. They looked up at Henry with shock. They wore sandals and brown robes and looked to him entirely alien. Henry did not want to be late for work, so he quickly exited the tunnel and arrived in New York.
At the end of the day, Henry talks to Patrick Miller from the research office of Terran Development. He was the one who arranged for Henry to try out the Jiffi-scuttler to test for any problems before the machines would be put on the mass market. He asks for details about what goes on in the tunnel and how the transportation is actually effected. Unable to articulate his questions and concerns, he prepares to go home. Going back into the Jiffi-scuttler, Henry sees another group of people, wearing different clothing and slightly taller (six inches). They look up in amazement at Henry.
The next morning, Henry goes back to work and sees the small people again. This time they were prepared for his arrival. They are also writing down something on a very small piece of paper. He takes the paper. That day, he asks a colleague in the Research Labs if he can borrow a photo microscope. Using it, he takes a closer look at the paper and confirms that the small people were writing something on it. He uses a translation machine to decode the writing, which turns out to be a series of questions. He spends the day answering them and running them back through the translator. He gives them the answers on the way home.
The next day there is another set of questions on a small piece of paper. He again translate and responds, claiming to be corresponding to a friend from Centaurus VI. Translating and answering questions was quickly becoming his full-time job. At home, Mary notices that Henry is much happier and enthusiastic about life. Henry just tells her that he has a new and exciting assignment at work.
Henry ponders the civilization of the people he is corresponding with. They seem to be on a different time scale because he never sees the same people twice and they moved strangely. They seem to begin offering him sacrifices. They both feared and revered him. By the fifth time he was there they had built a temple to him. He was witnessing the origins of a religion developing over the generations, informed every few generations with his answers to their questions. Mary is worried about the time he is investing in his work project. Henry insists that he does not need a vacation because it is rejuvenating him.
One day Henry is brought before the research team of Terran Development. They discovered that he was hiding something about the Jiffi-scuttler. Henry has been hiding that the machine does not work properly. They learned something was up from his daily trips to the Linguistic Machine. The language he was translating questions from and his answers into was Hebrew. The people he interacted with were the ancient Hebrews coming in through a mile-wide tear in the fourth dimension. They were so small due to the expanding universe. The record from the Linguistic Machine showed that the answers to his questions match the text of another book and they had passed it down through the generations. They fire Henry ordering him to take a jet home. The Jiffi-scuttler will be torn down.
Dorothy Lawrence visits and Henry gives her a copy of the book. It is the Holy Bible and Henry claims that he wrote it, but that he is working on a new project.
“Prominent Author” is a clever story that shares a basic idea with “Prize Ship.” The expanding universe expands atoms. If we go back in time, everything will be smaller. In this case, the ancient Hebrews moved through a break in space-time made possible by the Jiffi-scuttler. This explains the nature of their revelation, which came at various times over thousands of years rather than all at once. Each of Henry’s days was generations for the ancient Hebrews. The story ends with a hint that Henry will continue his work in revelation, but with the Jiffi-scuttler dismantled, it is not clear how he would pass on his next revelation. One subtle aspect to “Prominent Author” that seems to make the story work is that Christianity seems to be dead or relatively unknown. Henry is oblivious to the fact that he is writing the Bible and it takes his superiors some time and historical research to realize that is matches an earlier text. But if you are interested in preternatural explanations for religious phenomenon, “Prominent Author” is a clever attempt to explain revelation, especially the particular type of revelation in the Jewish tradition.
The context of the story is rich in commentary on our relationship to work. We are sad to learn that most people will use the Jiffi-scuttler to connect their home with work. The explanation for this is clear. The commute has become so horrible over time, escaping it is an obsession for millions. Mary Ellis says: “According to someone down at the office, the whole history of civilization can be explained in terms of transportation techniques.” (21) Whether this is true or not, the question of how to get someplace on time is one of the central worries of suburban life. How much money, fuel, time, and worry is squandered to move people from the suburbs to the city every day. Entire industries are sustained by this need: fast food restaurants, car rental agencies, fueling stations, parking lots, road construction crews, and highway patrols. Yes, it is sad that Henry did not choose to connect his Jiffi-scuttler to a beach somewhere nice, but it is understandable that he chose work.
Although he was never late for work over a twenty-five year career with Terran Development, he seems to not like the job very much or have very much to do. Furthermore, everyone else seems to have more interesting, more relevant, or more empowering jobs. I am not even sure what Henry’s task is in the workplace. Starting a religion (inadvertently at first) becomes a means for Henry Ellis to avoid the banality of the workplace. Even Mary reminds Henry of his early words when he starts to show a liking for his new project. She says: “I thought you always said you were nothing but a cog in a great impersonal machine. Just a sort of cipher.” (29) It is good to know that at the end, Henry found his true calling as a writer (although not a very good one judging by the quality of the prose in the Bible).