Not By Its Cover

Story Background
“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.

Plot Summary
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.”

Review at Philip K. Dick Fan Site.

Radio station that takes its name from this story: Wub-Fur.

A paper on the dangers of digitizing archives.

More on the risk of lost knowledge.


About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Alien Life, Animals, Art, Humanism, Knowledge, Philip K. Dick, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Not By Its Cover

  1. It’s difficult to know what to say about this one.I try to follow your line of reasoning as closely as I can.Dick though,as I’ve often said and we both know very well,liked to probe beneath the surface of ordinary reality within the confines of his own peculiar fiction,to reveal the existence of God and possibly the afterlife.This however can lead to uncomfortable truths,with his poor characters wishing to find their way back to the comfort of the illusion that protected them,with the “hero” of “Faith of Our Fathers” being typical,with no success.Sometimes though,the experience will be transformative,such as Seth Morley’s rescue in “A Maze of Death”,and the manifesting of Wilbur Mercer in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,that brings salvation to Rick Decard.

    It seems,that here,the existence of otherworldly life beyond death,is open for all to see,with no spiritual change necessary.The truth appears plainly and factually obvious,although it’s also still organic matter,that seems suspended somewhere in between rather than a purely spiritual exchange.Dick’s own thoughts on the matter,reveals a not surprising methodology:”Here I presented what used to be a wish on my part:that the bible was true.Obviously I was at a halfway point between doubt and faith.Many years later I’m still in that position;I’d like the bible to be true,but-well,maybe if it isn’t we can make it so.But alas,it’s going to take plenty of work to make it.” I have to say,that here,his motives appear to be far removed from political or social concerns.I think I can say though,that it’s shows his know distrust for governments and religions.He was trying I think to look beneath the surface of institutional babble,to find more sanguine truths.This makes a lot more sense.

    As another variation on the frontier theme though,I can agree with you all the way.The natives,such as the Bleekmen of “Martian Time-Slip”,are treated with contempt by the off-world colonists.We have to remember that it wasn’t only our own culture that was changed,but that of the Indians,who even had to change their religious beliefs to suit the settlers.The parallel here between them and the Wubs is too obvious.They are the aborigines who wish to preserve their culture from change.There is integration here rather than a destroying of culture.I am reminded here of the Japanese absorbing cultural mores in “The Man in the High Castle”.

    I have to say,that NBIC is a quaint,quixotic parable,despite not disagreeing with your comments.As I’ve said,Dick’s interests were wide.He through it all in.He didn’t mean to take his writing literally,and abstracted his thoughts for the sake of what he wanted to wanted to write about at the time.

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