Study Questions for "The Little Black Box" by Philip K. Dick

"The Little Black Box" was initially published in Worlds of Tomorrow [August 1964], four years before Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep [DADOES]. Through its introduction of Wilbur Mercer and the concept of an empathy box, the story lays the foundation for the prophet and religion central to DADOES. As you read the story, be attentive to the descriptions of Mercer and the relation of Mercerites to Mercer through the empathy box experience. Here, Dick is furthering an address to private vs. community experience developed in his earlier work and developing concepts that preview his later fascination with the Greek terms, idios kosmos and koinos kosmos, which he viewed as private vision and collective or community experience. Note while reading the story that the designation, "non-T," means "non-terrestrial," or from outside the galaxy. Here are a few issues to consider while reading the story:

  1. Why does Dick open the story with Bogart Crofts' reference to caritas as "The esteem of good people for one another"? (19). How does this concept prepare us for the ideas behind the fusion with Mercer?
  2. It seems unusual that, in 1964, Dick has The U.S. State Department and the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party collaborating in a conspiracy against Mercerism. Why do you think he creates this collaboration?
  3. How is Mercer defined in the story? That is, what do the officials suspect is his origin?
  4. What are the relations of Zen Buddhism, suffering, and blame to the appeal of Mercerism to some of the characters in the story?
  5. Finally, how do you interpret the end of the story? That is, who is the peddler and what is his significance?