Time Keeps on Slipping
No matter what people might do to it, the past is immutable, unchanging. Time marches on, a linear path forward to our eventual destination. Much like a river, a stone thrown into the stream of time can force it to swarm around even the smallest change. But a boulder thrown into the stream will create waves and possibly change the flow of the stream. Time travel stories, much like “The Skull,” approach the possibilities of these disruptions. This exploratory story style also offers the reader an opportunity to examine portions of history in a new light. “The Skull” gives the reader a different perspective on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
The premise of the story itself is fairly straightforward. A man known only as the Speaker tasks Omar Conger to find a man and kill him. The problem is that this man is in the past and the only thing has to give to go on is the man’s bones. The bones are housed in a church, the reader’s first clue to the eventual climax of the story. As it turns out the target is believed to be the person that started the religion.
This religion is based on peace and love. The Speaker wants the man killed before he can be martyred for the religious cause. His actions created a movement that brought down the military complex and ended most wars. Jesus too had been martyred and subsequently created Christianity.
“Conger looked around the room. He saw books and papers, holy signs and images. A strange low shiver went through him.
‘Does my job involve anyone of the Church?’
The speaker turned, astounded. ‘Can it be that you believe in the Founder? Is it possible, a hunter, a killer – (Dick 5-6)?”
Unlike Jesus, Conger was a hunter before his arrest. He earned money by selling skins at various locations within the universe that the future population controlled. His occupation does not lend itself to his future position as the Founder. This is a big point of similarity between the two. Jesus followed the profession of his earthly father and he grew up as a carpenter. During his time he too was a far cry from a person who would one day become a leader of a religious movement.
The bones of the Founder were housed in a sacred place within the Church. As religious symbols they had a form of power with believers and were meant to be protected. This did not stop the Speaker from stealing them, the link to the most important parts of the coming future.
“It is my hope … That you will demonstrate your loyalty to us now” (Dick 8). This statement from the Speaker sets in place the future dilemma that Conger will face. At this moment the choice is loyalty and restitution. The choice is easy and seems at this moment to be pain free. Our choices are always easy until they are put to the test. When the time comes that Conger is tested the reader will learn his convictions.
Moments like this in the story’s present are given to exposition. During this time the reader learns not only the background of the religion but also is set up for the environment of the main portion of the story. “The movement began during one of the periodic wars. The movement developed rapidly, feeding on the general sense of futility, the realization that each war was breeding greater war, with no end in sight” (Dick 9). Communism is the hidden enemy of the people in the past time line. The past that Conger travels back to is still the present for the people who live within that portion of time. It is a time of constant vigilance to protect the nation’s way of life free of the enemies influence, much like any other time in history. Conger finds himself in the United States in 1960. The 1960s were a time of turmoil and change. Nationalism and progressive desires fought with each other within the US. These differing view points were fueled by fears of a great war that could erupt at any time. After the bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki views of eminent destruction ran rampant. These fears manifested in other changes within the country itself.
This brings along an interesting note that Communism eschewed the belief in religion. Instead of God, the state became the one to provide for the people. Unfamiliar people and situations were not to be trusted. This was the environment that Conger traveled back in time to find. His strange clothes, speech, and mannerisms were cause for concern and distrust.
It is during the background information that an interesting comparison is made. “The wars? Well, there were no more wars. It must be acknowledged that the elimination of war was the direct result of non-violence practiced on a general scale” (Dick 11). In a comparison to religion today, many of the wars the world faces now come from the battles of different religions. We spend more time working to eradicate one another in the name of the god of our choice instead of embracing the teachings of love and acceptance. In the light of the story, this view of non-violence eliminates an essential need for war. It is spoken that war is there to remove the undesirables, the uneducated, and the lesser classes.
Throughout the story there are several references t the skull of the Founder. The Speaker states that it must be brought back once the deed is done, and Conger takes the future skull back with him to help him identify the Founder when he makes the kill. “There are visible characteristics of the front teeth, especially the left incisor—“ (Dick 13). It is stated that Conger doesn’t listen with intent when speaking about the skull. He doesn’t even examine it at this time. He ignored important information and failed to examine an important clue of his own future. This is a symbol of the cold war. Man’s assured destruction could happen at any time but instead focus is shifted. There is no point in worrying about something out of man’s control.
During his first stop in his trip back in time Conger received his first clue in his search for the Founder, a small article in the local paper about a prisoner that hung himself. The article itself provided little information but the death is significant. In a comparison to the death of Jesus Asphyxiation is a huge connection. It is said that death on a Roman cross was a slow death by asphyxiation aided by the nails driven through the hands and feet of the victim. Death by hanging can result in death by a broken neck but a self-induced hanging would bring a slow death by suffocation as well. It is also important to note the power of choice. At the time of his death Conger had realized he was the Founder. He was the impetus to stop war. Much like Jesus who chose to die for the sins of his people, Conger also made that same choice.
It is also during this first stop that the reader is introduced with a problem of time travel. The time traveler’s past is different than the person living in that same past. It is a matter of perspective. Conger encounters people that chase him. This is still his present, but they are reacting to a past event he has not yet experienced. He questioned their attempt to chase him down but attributed it to something other than the future he would learn. For the others it was a moment of divine truth. The Founder had proven his divinity by walking amongst them again.
In his last jump he is in the time and place of his final objective. Conger spends more time among the people. He interacts with them for good and for bad. His otherness has differing effects on the people around him. His appearance plays a key role in setting them apart. A key feature, his beard, is compared to Stalin. This is an interesting comparison to Jesus, depicted as a bearded man.
Before the reader reaches the resolution of the story there is a tense moment where Conger’s strangeness comes to a head. In a conversation between Conger, Lora Hunt, and Bill Willet, Conger is forced to protect himself with the safety of his own strange clothing. The he later plays it off as a fluke, the moment appears as magic or possibly even a miracle in the eyes of those in the diner. This marks another comparison to the story of Jesus. Many of the biblical stories around Jesus’ life take place during moments of breaking bread and shared meals. But even more striking is the Last Supper; the final time Jesus broke bread with his disciples. It was after this last meal that Judas betrayed Jesus. After the miraculous incident of the electrical charge, Bill Willet helps to set the militia in motion.
This moment more than any other is the incident that brings the story into focus; it takes the reader to the end. The world around him is set into motion to stop him outside of his mission to find the Founder. Conger arrives at the hill where the Founder is to be apprehended and finds it empty. He is alone, at least until a friend arrives to warn him of the militia that approaches to apprehend him.
The introspection during this time focuses Conger’s mind. His questions about the skull and the coming capture or death of the Founder direct his thoughts to the eventual outcome. Lora approaches him to warn him of the militia coming to capture him. He faces a tough choice, the choice of his convictions. Does he run and break the cycle or does he stay and become the martyr that is the Founder. In that decision he realized it was him all along. His skeleton is the one protected in the Church two centuries from this moment.
This story is an example of a bootstrap paradox. The question of the story is whether or not Conger will fulfill the ultimate action that his bones in the Church predict. Will he take the action that they perceive or will he somehow break the cycle and run from his destiny. Taken in the same light, the story of Christ and his resurrection finds a different perspective. The visions Christ’s disciples had of him after his crucifixion could be visions of him traveling further into the past.
“Cold War Timeline.” Cold War Timeline. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.
Dick, Philip K. The Skull. Auckland: Floating, 2011. 1-49. Ebook.
“Temporal Paradox.” – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.
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