“Explorers We” was originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction in January 1959. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 147–155.
A space ship crew is returning to Earth after experiencing some mechanical difficulties on their return trip to Mars. They are happy to see their home planet, having expected to die in space. They talk about the places they will see and the people they will be reunited with.
They land their ship—which is still in bad shape—near San Francisco. Delighted, they go out and see a group of kids, who flee when they see the crew. It is understandable, says one of the crew members, since they look so filthy. The kids probably think they are tramps.
Entering the city, the crew finds that people flee when they approach, running from their cars or hiding behind the shades in their homes. They go into a cafe to see if they get served. The captain waits in the empty building and no server arrives. Moments later, a black sedan arrives and men come out. They ask to see the captain. The men, who are FBI, point guns at the crew. They try to explain to the FBI men that they are members of the Earth-Mars expedition returning to Earth. Before shooting them dead, the FBI men explain that the expedition failed and the entire crew died.
This was the twenty-second time that a replica of the Earth-Mars expedition returned to Earth. The aliens that are trying to infiltrate Earth must have based all their knowledge of Earth on the six members of the crew, assuming that everyone on Earth is identical to those six who died when their ship crashed on Mars. They debate the morality of killing these creatures, since they seem to think they are human. Maybe they can become human. But the decided that they must assume that they are permanently inhuman.
Another replica of the Earth-Mars expedition returns to Earth and the crew is delighted to be home.
“Explorers We” takes the basic device of “Impostor” and plays with it to ask some interesting questions. There are some good reasons to question the morality of continually killing the crew, even if they are faked replicas. Most importantly, they are given human memories. This is something that is not necessarily known by the FBI men who kill them, but the reader knows all about their desires to see their family or enjoy they places they dearly missed. Their near death experience on Mars is also a part of their memory. Although the real people died, these replica crews are given the memories that they barely survived the expedition. This trauma affected them and must be considered as part of their claim to humanity. Furthermore, it is not clear if the aliens are malevolent. Maybe they are just trying to return the crew members home.
From the human’s point of view, the entire bizarre situation is just evidence that the aliens are incapable of understanding humans. One FBI man says: “Maybe they’re so different no contact’s possible. Do they think we’re all named Leon and Merriweather and Parkhurst and Stone? That’s the part that personally gets me down . . . Or maybe that’s our chance, the fact that the don’t understand we’re individuals.” 153) We see that one got away and was killed later. Getting a closer look at it we find that they are indeed quite flawed replicas, which helps explain why they were so easily identified by the humans. They do not understand really how shoes work or how to button their clothes. For the humans, this just confirms that they are outwardly and must be eradicated.
The fact that it is their disheveled and rather creepy appearance that points them out as alien impostor suggests that there is a subtle class dimension to the hostility they face. One of the aliens seems to understand this, pointing out that the children fear them because they look like dirty tramps. The way people avoid them on the streets, refuse to serve them in a cafe, and lock their doors as they walk into town suggests how too many of us respond to the presence of some of the most neglected members of our society.