“The Unreconstructed M” was originally published in Science Fiction Stories in January 1957. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 117–146.
1 – The small machine sneaks into an apartment and leaves behind a single follicle of human hair, two small grains of tobacco, and other small pieces of evidence. It then destroys a video recorder. A man enters the apartment and the machine shoots him in the head with an explosive pellet. The machine drops a few more items and hides by turning into a portable TV set as some people came in responding to the shot. They wonder where the murderer has gone. He came in through the window, it is clear, but how did he escape?
Edward Ackers is talking with Harvey Garth’s voice. Garth is on the street near a sign that read “BANISH IT!” He is distributing flyers, which most people discard immediately. Ackers challenges Garth that they need a system to deal with criminals. Garth thinks that education and psychotherapy will do a better job than banishment (which causes certain death and problems to the societies in the “backwater” regions of the universe where they are sent). Once exiled, the criminals can make their way back, but that usually takes most of their remaining life. Ackers counters that banishment is better than the old system of execution for pickpockets and other petty crimes. Ackers starts to meditate on Heimie Rosenburg’s murder. When a hospital truck passes him, Ackers gets on to inspect the body.
Leroy Beam is in charge of collecting evidence at Rosenburg’s apartment. Beam thinks the case is suspicious because no one could have escaped so quickly from the crime scene. Normally it would take nine “specifications” to identify a culprit. The system works by assuming that everyone is a suspect in the crime, and eliminating people using each specification (such as blood type, smoker or nonsmoker, shoe size, or sex determined from an audio tape).
In the research lab, Beam’s technician draws his attention to a portable TV pack, which is clearly not a television since it has a massive power supply. Its role is the murder (if any) is impossible to determine. Beam insists that it is too unique not to have a role in the murder. Its construction would have required special access to resources. Paul Tirol, Rosenburg’s boss, arrived to discuss the murder with Beam. Tirol goes toward the lab and the TV pack runs up into his arms and Tirol walks away with it, astonishing the technician and Beam.
2 – Ackers is working on analyzing the specifications from the Rosenburg murder, while Harvey Garth is still working on spreading his propaganda asking for an end to the banishment system. To pass the time, Ackers works on an indictment for Garth, which for now is just entertainment. An attendant for the case tells Ackers that nine specifications narrowed down the suspects to 40. A bit later, a tenth specification came in, leaving just 7 suspects. When Ackers looked at the seven suspects, only one seemed likely to be the murdered (the rest were infirm of lived far away): David Lantano.
Beam is bothered that the ersatz television belonged to Paul Tirol. Assuming that machine had something to do with the murder, Beam believes that Tirol killed his own employee. But a machine like this was too elaborate for a simple murder and framejob. What was its real function?
Ackers goes to arrest David Lantano, who is an extremely wealthy and powerful person. Lantano knew Rosenburg and rather liked him. He asks for the chance to prove his innocence. Ackers reminds him that he can challenge each of the ten specifications before the court.
Beam talks about the case with Garth. Garth informs him that Lantano has been already picked up for the murder and Beam immediately knows that Lantano is being framed. Garth was actually a spy for independent researchers who use him to collect information from the Interior Department. His activism is merely for show. Beam knows that Tirol would want Lantano gone to take over his operation, but without the device he could not prove it. Worse, Tirol could use the device to frame him for a murder. Garth reveals that Tirol’s driver is Ellen Ackers, Edward Ackers ex-wife. Beam thinks that if he knows she is associating with Tirol, he might be more willing to consider the possibility that Lantano was framed.
Beam goes to Ellen Ackers’ apartment. She shoots at the door, but misses his head because he was crouched down to pick the lock. After gaining access to the apartment, Beam learns from Ellen that Paul Tirol is seriously injured in the bathroom. Ellen attacked him earlier. Beam confirms that he will live and Ellen explains that she wanted to use the device to blackmail her husband, but Paul had other plans for it.
3 – Ellen realizes that Lantano will be banished regardless of her actions. Beam agrees. There is no way that Ackers will confess a failure in the system. Ellen and Beam go to where the machine was programmed to try to figure out how to open the device (which Ellen calls an M). Ellen explains that the device was programmed against killing anyone by Rosenburg. To everyone else, it took the television form. Having figured out the truth behind the murder, Beam convinced Ackers to see Tirol banished instead. Tirol is sent out to the distant colonies with the standard 1,000 dollars.
Tirol is attempting to get back to “Center,” the term for the Sol system by hitchhiking and trying to purchase tickets to various locations. He is frustrated to learn that his company has been replaced by Lantano’s. He knows he will never make it home.
The story ends with Lantano enjoying his success, although he is not as rich as he pretends to be.
“The Unreconstructed M” is a bit long for a simple story about a frame job, but packs in so much contextual material that there is a lot to work with. Had Dick had more space (like in a novel) he could have developed some of these ideas.
Readers will right away notice the comparison between this story and “The Minority Report” written not long before. While we do not have the operation of Precrime in “The Unreconstructed M” we do have a criminal justice system that had done away with the need for the detective. A computer has taken over the job of solving crime. All the investigators need to do is put in enough data to eliminate all but one person from the list of suspects. Importantly, every time a crime is committed, we are all suspects. We are required to prove our innocence. The aggregated of circumstantial evidence is enough to convict. Also like “The Minority Report” we have a police officer forced into a dilemma of either exposing a fault in system that he relies on for his entire identity. Thanks to Beam’s old fashioned investigative abilities, Ackers learns that his system failed and that David Lantano was framed. In a twist, the ending seems to suggest that Lantano may have framed himself and his competitor Paul Tirol at the same time. He framed himself for the murder and framed Tirol for the frame job. This ensures his dominance over the industry. In the end, this matters less than what Dick is trying to tell us about the criminal justice system. As with “The Minority Report” we learn that no matter how perfect the system seems to be, there are flaws that can be exploited.
The criminal justice system involves exiling people to the undeveloped frontier worlds. Once out there, people are free to return, but very few do. The outlying worlds are isolated, poor, and the transportation networks are undeveloped. As Tirol learns at the end, getting back is not very easy, even for someone of his reputation and means. To the system’s defends, it is preferable to confinement in prison or archaic executions. Yet enemies of the system still are out there. Garth represents this view, although his real job is to spy on the police. The movement to “Banish the Banishment System” argues that the best way to deal with crime is with education and therapy.
The technology behind the “Unreconstructed M” is a device that can commit murder and leave enough evidence to frame someone. In this sense, the robot worked as directed. It is a bit oddly stated in the text. Ellen discusses the machine with Beam saying “M stands for machine. [Tirol] means it can’t be educated, morally corrected.” (136) If he means that it cannot be programed, he is clearly wrong. And since when was it considered notable that a machine would lack moral accountability? I honestly do not know what Dick is trying to say about this. Unless, the idea is that all machines are morally unaccountable and is in a sense stating the obvious. One interesting element to the technology of the device is that it is capable of being something else to everyone but the intended target. Not only does it fake evidence, it fakes its own role. At the end of the story, the machine goes freelance, it seems, breaking its programming, but this seems to have been for mechanical reasons (“the breakdown was one of relays and rubes, not of a living brain”).
A notable thing about this story is that it was the last short story Dick would deliver to his agents for a number of years (in June 1955). In the mid-fifties he wrote a handful of science fiction novels (Solar Lottery, The Cosmic Puppets, and The Man Who Japed) and started working on his mainstream fiction. This would occupy much of his time until he returned in force to science fiction. He would submit only two more short stories in the 1950s (“Explorers We” and “War Game,” both in 1958). Not until 1963 would he begin to work on short science fiction again, writing in one year a dozen of his most memorial tales. So with “The Unreconstructed M” we can put an end to a period of Dick’s career and begin to look back. I propose that a study be done on just the short fiction Dick wrote in the 1950s. I see a couple reason why this may be fruitful. First, in around three years, Dick wrote 83 (if I counted right) stories. They would be published over a slightly longer period of time. They were mostly written before he had started writing novels. Second, they are thematically united around a number of questions that are not necessarily taken up in his later work (and are certainly made opaque by the later unfortunate religious turn in his thinking). Some of these themes include the problems of posthumanism, technology, post-scarcity, and war.
Wikipedia entry with not much more than the title: “The Unreconstructed M”.
NOTE: Maybe someone wants to improve it. This great story deserves it.