“Breakfast at Twilight” was published in Amazing in July 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 207–220.
Earl McLean is getting ready for school and asks his father, Tim, for a ride. Tim tells him to walk to school, despite the heavy fog outside of the house. Mary McLean tries to get a weather report from the radio, but it seems to be broken. A few moments after Earl leaves for school he returns having been stopped by soldiers. Soon after three soldiers come to the door in gray-green uniforms, masks, and long needle guns apparently powered by coils. The soldiers are shocked to see a house in tact in this area and are horrified to find Tim living with his wife in children in such a place. After securing the family members, the soldiers find the family’s pantry and area amazed to find coffee, butter, and meat. The captain begins to ask Tim what he is doing there and for his their yellow slip, suspecting that they are Soviet agents. They load up all the food form the house. During this process, Tim sneaks a look outside. Not only is it evening, the sky is dark with ash. The entire community is replaced with rubbles and ruins. A man, identifying himself as Political Commissioner Douglas, asks Tim to return inside the house. From Douglas, the McLeans learns that it is seven years into the future and two years into a war with the Soviet Union. Douglass deduces that they are time travelers with a bad sense of timing, but Tim explains that the time travelling was inadvertent. Earl, meanwhile, is mostly interested in who is winning the war. The war they are currently fighting was simply an extension of a series of conflicts with the Soviets beginning with the Korean War. Douglass takes some books from the house as well, pointing out that some of the literature in the house is politically dangerous (Steinbeck, Dos Passos). He asks if Tim has had any military or scientific training that will help with the war effort. Mary will be sent to a factory-labor camp. Children go to relocation camps in Canada. Tim expresses a desire to return to his own time. Douglass hypothesizes that the attack that devastated the areas—the attack making the McLeans’ existence unlikely—must have opened up a time fault. Since there will be another attack tonight, the McLeans could stay in the house. If they survive, they may be pushed back through the fault.
A debate between Mary and Tim commences. Mary argues that they should stay. Even if separated and in a horrible situation, they are alive and have a chance for a future The children will have a meaningful life contributing to the war effort. Staying in the house during another attack will guarantee death. Even if they do go back, they will be in the war in a few years anyway. Tim refuses to live in a valueless world with book burning and censorship. Mary reveals that she was just playing Devil’s Advocate. The McLeans prepare for the attack. As the bombs begin to strike, the children are playing Monopoly. As the attack gets worse, they retreat to the basement.
After the attack, the house is completely destroyed, but from outside they hear cars driving past. Policemen come to investigated the destruction of the house. A neighbor suggests the destruction of the house was caused by a defective hot water heater. Tim knows the true cause of the devastation was a war that will soon be coming to every house.
The most powerful thing about the story “Breakfast at Twilight” is that it places the war so near in the future yet creates a completely terrifying future. It is easy enough—and not particularly brave—to imagine a future that is horrible and place it so far in the future that readers will not be particularly terrified by it. When Tim McLean goes in the future seven years as the result of a massive military attack in the future creating a tear in space-time, he enters a world that is no longer recognizable. The choice to go back or not is no longer easy. While it is not articulated in quite these terms in the story, we easily notice this at the heart of Tim’s anxiety. Staying in a world of censorship, war, death, divided families, and slavery for all (through service to the state) is a horrible prospect for Tim. Is going back much better? All that means is that he and his family will need to experience the slow descent of their civilization into this state. One family cannot prevent the slow slide to total war, even if they are familiar with what will happen. Tim’s final meditation reflects on this: “It’s for your house, too. Your house and my house and all the houses. Here and in the next block, in the next town, the next state and country and continent. The whole world, like this. Shambles and ruins. Fog and dank weeds growing in the rusting slag. War for all of us.” (220) This is not in the deep future but almost literally the world they already live in (the Korean War was raging when this story was penned), just not expiring acutely yet. Staying in the future may have been the rational thing to do, but it would also have been to surrender to despair. The only hope in the story comes in the last sentence, when Tim tells his neighbor he should have seen to the water heater earlier, suggesting he might actually try to do something about the inexorable trend toward barbarism.
Philip K. Dick comes right out and states the incompatibility of war and humanism. This runs through his early stories, but is never so directly. We get only a glimpse of the government running the war effort against the Soviets. We know they have censored most literature, especially anything Russian or with the slightest Leftist taint (Steinbeck). The old classics of Western Europe are okay, however. Most copies of such works are destroyed and there is no room in the war economy for investment in sustaining the arts. More horrifying, war has destroyed the family. Men are all drafted into the military or technical infrastructure. Women are moved to factories. Children are sent to special camps to prepare for the war effort. This origins of this breakdown of humanism exist in the McLean household already. While Tim McLean is worried about the state of the world since the war began, his son Earl is mostly interested in who will win the war. He also seemed undisturbed by the idea of staying and helping with the war effort. The shift toward despotism from war is subtle indeed.