“Not By Its Cover” was originally published in Famous Science Fiction in Summer 1968. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 175–182.
Barney Masters, president of Obelisk Books, has gotten word of errors in the new edition of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. He was surprised anyone on Mars noticed the error, but it would cause big problems for the company. The book has already been published and printed on expensive wub-fur, the most valuable material for book printing. A man from the Watchmen Over Distortions And Forged Artifacts Generally (WODAFAG) named Brandice, challenged Masters over the errors. He argued that on the colonies it is more important than ever to have accurate versions of cultural texts from Earth in order to preserve that cultural heritage. The change is substantial. Instead of “From sense of grief and pain we shall be free; We shall not feel, because we shall not be. Thought earth in seas, and seas in heaven were lost, We should not move, we only should be toss’d” the text reads “From sense of grief and pain we shall free; Which earth-bound man can neither qualify nor see. Once dead, we fathom seas cast up from this: Our stint on earth doth herald an unstopping bliss.” These are opposing messages, not a simple typo. Masters confirms that the changes were not in the final galleys.
Masters and his copy-editor Jack Snead meet with Luther Saperstein, who procured the wub-fur for the books. Saperstein reveals that wub fur never really dies, living on particles in the air. The wub fur itself seems to be changing the messages, but integrating perfecting into the style of the text, although changing its message. The major change is that the revised texts argue that death is an illusion. Snead points out other changes made by the wub fur in other editions of texts. Snead performed an experiment where he wrote one sentence on wub fur: “The wub, unlike every other living creature, is immortal.” It was changed to “the wub, like every other living creature, is immortal.” Masters agrees that books will not longer be printed on wub fur, but it may have applications in other areas of life, such as helmet-liners or car upholstery. Anything that can save human lives. Other examples of wub transformed texts included Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason, which was left blank. It added articles on the survival of death to the Britannica.
Masters experiments by wrapping a dish in wub fur. He finds that it cannot be broken. He changed his will, requiring his coffin to be lined with wub fur.
“Not By Its Cover” is a loose sequel to one of Dick’s first stories, “Beyond Lies the Wub.” Both stories deal with the survival of death and immortality. The plot of the story is very simple. A publisher is disturbed by changes to the books they publish, when they are bound with wub fur, an expensive material. The changes always lead toward an interpretation that death is not the end. While this makes is useless for the preservation of texts (actually this is a bit of a contradiction since the immortality of the text is not guaranteed by the wub fur). Indeed, instead of offering protection from the text they impose on them a rather childish, subjective opinion. Perhaps some of this is involved in all literary investigation (this blog for instance), but the wub fur is rather uncreative. It can only challenge fatalism about death. Some of its changes are rather silly, such as disregarding all of Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason (for my money one of the best statements of Enlightenment anti-clericalism). This puts me of two minds about this story. I never much liked the religious aspect of Dick’s thought and it is so heavy-handed here that it is rather hard to swallow.
The attitude of the cultural leaders of Mars is rather interesting. They are so devoted to the preservation of human culture that they create an organization devoted to textual purity. They scour all publications on Mars for purity. They believe that since they are on the frontier, the authenticity of human culture is at risk. No corruption can be allowed it. Is this not how the frontier seems to work. Englishmen crossed the Atlantic and settled in the New World. Yes, they brought with them Christianity and English-language and a literary tradition, but was it not also changed by coming to America? English culture was mutated. The Martian patriarchs are working hard to stop that from happening in Mars. Yet, the application of a local commodity, wub fur, makes that corruption inevitable. The transformative nature of the frontier remains alive despite the best efforts of the cultural purists.
What is the proper response when our world is so liquid that even texts no longer can hold their form? We like to think that although much in the world shift under our feet, that our cultural legacy remains intact. Is this true? Even if we are not at risk of losing the sanctity of texts (but who knows what the future will hold with the digitalization of everything), texts are reinterpreted so much that their meaning may become opaque over time. Actually, we are a bit like the wub fur, rewriting our culture for each new epoch.
Wikipedia page for “Not By Its Cover.”