Human Is

Story Background
“Human Is” was published in Startling Stories in Winter 1955 (not sure if that means the start of the year of the end). It can be found in We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. Volume 2 on pp. 257–267.


Plot Summary
Jill Herrick and her husband Lester are in the middle of an argument. Lester deflects his wife’s claim that he is “hideous” with cold indifference. He tells her that he will not allow their child in the house and will have him removed to government custody because he is interfering with his research. Before the distraught Jill can pass this onto their son Gus, Lester gets news that he will be taking a trip to Rexor IV. Despite Jill’s desire to go there and see the planet, Lester insists that he will go alone.

Later Jill tells her brother Frank and she is going to leave Lester. She explains how happy she has been with Lester gone and how he seems to be getting worse every year of their marriage. More cold and more “ruthless,” not to mention the incessant working.

Lester comes home a very different man. He praises Jill’s cooking and expresses disgust with his work on Rexor IV studying toxins. He says he prefers Terra and being home with his wife.

Jill reports these changes to Frank, while Lester is playing in the room with Gus. Frank has Lester brought to a lab for more studies under the guidance of the Federal Clearance agency. Before long they realize that Lester has had his body taken over by a Rexorian. They want to kill him immediately, but Frank tells them that military law cannot apply on Terra. He is still in a human body so human laws will apply to him.

Frank reports this to Jill, explaining that Rexor is a dying planet and the survivors are trying to escape to other places by taking over people’s bodies. There is a chance that Lester can be restored. His mind is likely frozen in Rexor and can be returned once the Rexorian is killed. When Frank takes Jill to the Federal Clearance agency, Jill immediately denies that there was any change in Lester.

Jill and Rexorian-Lester are enjoying a spring stroll. Jill knows that it is not the real Lester but asks for permission to continue calling him Lester.

“Human Is” is a relatively straight forward tale exploring the nature of humanity. The thesis of the story is simple. No matter your physical nature (alien, human, or robot) if you are kind, empathetic, caring person you are more human than someone who is cruel and indifferent. Of this story, Dick wrote: “It’s not what you look like, or what planet you were born on. It’s how kind you are. They quality of kindness, to me, distinguishes us from rocks and sticks and metal, and will forever, whatever shape we take, wherever we go, whatever we become.” (380) The final phrase there, “whatever we become,” suggests strongly his position on posthumanism. Throughout all the stories about atomic mutants and psychics, Dick reminds us that the fundamental problem with becoming posthuman is not biological, but moral. They may very well be sociopaths, or indifferent to human life. Giving such people power over us (or letting them take that power) will be catastrophic.

One more subtle part of “Human Is” is how the aliens from Rexor learned how to become so kind when they took over human bodies. They did learn this by watching humans in action. As Jill’s brother Frank explains, the Rexorians learned how to replicate human action by reading romance novels. It is striking that it is a consumer good presenting an idealized model of human behavior that became the most human form of family life. This is not a banal point. For too many of us our model of the perfect relationship comes from movies, television, and novels. It is not just that these forms of media create unrealistic and unreachable romantic goals, setting many of us for disappointment in later life, they also reinforce the ideological underpinnings of romantic love—monogamy, fidelity, need for hard work.

We can categorize this story as yet another example of the emotionally abused wife pursuing an affair with a non-human entity. We can put this story next to “Beyond the Door,” “In the Garden,” and “Of Withered Apples.” Since Jill is conscious of the change in her husband and soon becomes aware that his body has been seized. So, for all intents and purposes, she is having an affair (her husband is still out there somewhere). It is the most convenient sort of affair because everyone else is oblivious to the change. Her infidelity will forever be her secret. It is actually a quite wonderful twist on Dick’s standard motif of the adulterous wife.

Useless Wikipedia posts on the story.

Philip K. Dick Fan Site on “Human Is.”


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Alien Invasion, Alien Life, Family, Humanism, Philip K. Dick, Philosophy, Work and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Human Is

  1. I am a fan of this story and plan to make the movie one day, after another adaptation with “of withered apples”. I found out Gus is the nephew of Jill. Let say by Franck this to his sister during his first visit : “You think a lot of children. Gus loves to visit you. But he does’nt like Lester. Les needles him.” This is verified when Lester return from Rexor in a wonderful shape and tell Gus he can live with them. The kid respond to Jill : “Can I, can I aunt Jill”. So Franck must reveal his antagonism and revenge to Lester just after by driving him to the Federal Clearence Agency. What a rebound to go hanging until the end.

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  6. Andrew Phoenix says:

    Thanks for the review – insightful.

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