'The Commuter': Exploring Alternate Realities and Existence
'The Commuter' is an early short story written by Philip K. Dick in 1953 and originally published in the science-fiction magazine Amazing. This tale can be categorized and analyzed as an alternative history story, blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy.
Summary: A Journey to the Elusive Macon Heights
The story revolves around Macon Heights, a mysterious place that catches the attention of a little man attempting to purchase a train ticket to this non-existent destination. Jacobson, the ticket officer, is puzzled by the request since he knows there is no station called Macon Heights. The man becomes defensive and abruptly vanishes before Jacobson's eyes.
Jacobson shares the strange incident with his manager, Bob Paine, who advises him to send the little man into the office if he returns to buy a ticket to Macon Heights. True to Paine's instructions, the man reappears, and Jacobson directs him to Paine. The man introduces himself as Ernest Critchet, but when Paine shows him the map and explains that Macon Heights doesn't exist, Critchet promptly disappears once again.
Intrigued by the events, Paine enlists the help of his girlfriend, Laura, to research Macon Heights at the library. Meanwhile, Paine embarks on the same train journey described by Critchet. Despite the train driver's denial of its existence, Paine witnesses a commuter disembarking at the station matching Critchet's description before fading into the surrounding haze.
Returning home, Paine learns from Laura that Macon Heights was one of three proposed towns that went to a county board vote seven years ago. While the other two developments were approved, Macon Heights lost by a single vote, preventing its creation. Paine realizes that the nearly established town's ambiguous status causes a simultaneous existence and non-existence. The name Macon Heights seems familiar to him, but he cannot place it.
Intrigued, Paine visits Macon Heights to explore its tangible existence. He observes a large supermarket and enters a drugstore, where he orders a coffee and engages in conversation with the waitress. On his journey home, Paine notices changes in his city, with new shops seemingly appearing overnight, though he cannot be certain. It appears as if the past is being altered, and the crucial vote from seven years ago results in the construction of Macon Heights after all, bringing the suburb into existence.
Upon arriving home, Paine discovers that he and Laura now have a baby named Jimmy, another addition to their lives that previously did not exist.
An Exploration of Alternate Realities
'The Commuter' delves into the exploration of alternate realities and the fragility of existence. Philip K. Dick presents a world where the perception of reality can shift and where places and individuals can simultaneously exist and not exist depending on specific circumstances.
The narrative highlights the idea that the choices made in the past can alter the present and create new realities. The near existence of Macon Heights and the subsequent realization of its creation bring about changes not only in the physical landscape but also in personal lives, as demonstrated by the arrival of Paine and Laura's baby.
Through the story's mysterious occurrences, Dick prompts readers to question the nature of reality and the potential consequences of decisions made in alternate timelines. 'The Commuter' serves as a thought-provoking exploration of the delicate balance between existence and non-existence, leaving readers to ponder the complexities of alternate realities and their profound implications.
'The Commuter': Exploring Alternate Realities and Commuting Symbolism
Philip K. Dick's 'The Commuter' serves as an early example of his exploration of alternate realities and histories, which are prevalent throughout his body of work. This short story foreshadows his more renowned works, such as The Man in the High Castle and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, where characters find themselves thrust into strange alternative worlds.
While it's important not to overinterpret the story, 'The Commuter' can be seen as an exploration of the peculiar experience of commuting, wherein individuals travel from suburban homes to bustling cities for work, only to return to their suburban lives in the evening. Commuters often grapple with a sense of dislocation, straddling two distinct realities on a daily basis.
Fascinatingly, as Macon Heights gradually comes into existence, the city itself undergoes subtle changes. Paine's cab ride through the city streets at night reveals new shop names that he doesn't recall. He also notices the insurance company Critchet mentioned, which he had never before noticed. This suggests a transformation in the cityscape, mirroring the shifting realities experienced by the characters.
Symbolically, Critchet's employment at an insurance company, specifically Bradshaw Insurance, evokes a sense of contingency and uncertainty. Insurance is based on the possibilities of events that may or may not occur, reflecting the unstable nature of the story's alternate realities.
The story ends with Paine readily accepting the new reality of having a baby with Laura, who evolves from his girlfriend to his wife within the emerging alternate reality. This acceptance mirrors the transition many individuals experience in their personal lives, as casual relationships evolve into more committed partnerships and the decision to have children solidifies.
Furthermore, Paine's uncertainty about the unfamiliar signs he encounters on his way home emphasizes the malleability of our subjective experiences. Reality itself may be a tangible concept, but our individual perception and interpretation of the world are inherently fluid and susceptible to change. 'The Commuter' captures this unstable and protean nature of subjective reality, highlighting the dichotomy between material fact and personal experience.
In essence, 'The Commuter' delves into the intricacies of alternate realities, the symbolic implications of commuting, and the fluctuating nature of our individual perceptions, offering readers a thought-provoking exploration of the human experience.