“Rautavaara’s Case” was originally published in Omni in October 1980. It can now be found in The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 375–383.
Beings from Proxima report on the malfunction that caused the deaths of three technicians in a science globe monitoring magnetic fields. They sent a robot and learned that one of the three “Earth persons” could be saved. Agnetta Rautavaara’s life was saved by using her body as nutrients to keep her brain alive. Their took this action in accordance with interplanetary agreements. When the Earth persons were informed of what was done, they were furious and blamed the “Approximations” (called that due to their non-corporeal existence and their home system) for over-stepping by keeping Rautavaara alive.
Rautavaara sees the bodies of the other two technicians, Travis and Elms. Since she is going back in time, she soon sees them alive. They see a figure who they identify as Jesus Christ on the ship. Rautavaara explains to the other two that they are dead. Elms, who is Christian, starts to explain his faithfulness to him. Elms tries to go with Christ.
The beings from Proxima observe with members of the Earth Board of Inquiry Rautavaara’s brain. The “Approximations” want to observe her as a window into the afterlife and the Earth person’s experience of a personal savior. They talk the Earth Board of Inquiry representatives into implanting into Rautavaara’s brain, the Proxima conception of an afterlife.
Elms is still trying to talk the Figure into taking him and the others with him. Rautavaara discusses this with Travis. Suddenly the form of the Figure changes and horrified Elms and Rautavaara observe the Christ Figure eat Travis.
The Earth Board is horrified, but the Proxima beings suggest this is just the opposite of the religion of the Earth persons. They are actually horrified by a religion that allows the worshiper to consumer a God. As plasma beings, the Proxima beings see their afterlife being consumed by their material God. The experiment is ended and both sides learn they cannot hope to understand the other.
With “Rautavaara’s Case” we see Dick again in his late career religious mode. In this case, we have an interesting speculation about the nature of religious belief and how that may contribute to fundamental differences between species. The “Approximations” are plasma beings, so they see nothing odd or immoral about keeping Rautavaara’s brain alive. They see no use for a body. That is straight forward enough. The theological consequences of this are more profound. The “Approximations,” as energy beings invert the relationship between worshiper and God. In Christianity, God become flesh and worshipers consumer him in a communion. The result of this is an afterlife where the soul exists in a non-corporeal state. In the Proxima religion, God does the consuming with the Approximation afterlife apparently corporeal (unlike their life). The afterlife is simply a projection of they do not have in life. “In terms of the basic relationship to God, the Earth race held a diametrically opposite view from us. This of course must be attributed to the fact that they are a somatic race and we are a plasma. They drink the blood of their God; they eat his flesh; that way they become immortal. To then, there is no scandal in this.” (382) As this makes clear, the goal of the Proxima religion is the end of the immortality of life. This story is better on the ramifications of cross-cultural communication than on any real theology. (As always, despite what too many fans say, Dick is a better sociologist than a philosopher/theologian.) Ultimately we see the absolute limitations of a relationship between humans and aliens.
This story has ramifications for bio-medical ethics. While I doubt the issue of the morality of a plasma being will come into conflict with our own anytime soon, we do often face divergent morality between the patient and the doctor in more mundane issues. As the occasional high-profile case shows, even the question of the after-life informs how patients and doctors make decisions about treatment and end of life care. To the end, the “Approximations” believed that they were right in experimenting on Rautavaara’s brain. They see themselves as unfairly punished for making the right choice. By showing the horror of the experience for Rautavaara, Dick seems to suggest the errors of arrogance in medical experimentation.
For all the weight given to ideas that Dick was a religious philosopher, he was almost embarrassingly narrow-minded. Christianity is usually presented homogeneously. Islam is almost never mentioned in his work. Eastern religions are given some introduction, but not always taken seriously. Here we read with a bit of disbelief when the beings from Proxima point out that all Earth beings are Christian. Why would this be? Why is Christianity almost always the gold standard for religious speculation in his works? The VALIS trilogy is awash in speculative Christian theology. It is too bad that we cannot see more about the diversity of religious experiences in his work. When we do (as in this story) it is to make a clever point about Christianity.
Wikipedia page for the story.