The 1952 short story, “The Skull” by Philip K. Dick, opens with some of the best lines in fiction,
Conger agreed to kill a stranger he had never seen. But he would make no mistakes because he had the stranger’s skull under his arm.
If that doesn’t draw you in, what will? “The Skull” is set a couple of centuries in the future (where we also live on Mars, of course) and a violent criminal named Conger is recruited to go back in time to dispose of the nameless man officials have concluded is the Founder of all of their problems. In this future world, the ominously lone religious institution called The Church holds the skeleton of the Founder and is ready to give over the skull to Conger so he can make a positive identification of the man who they have very little information about. All they have to go on was that he spoke a few sentences in a small town in Colorado in December 1960, which ignited The Movement, a thorn in the side of the authority. The Movement preaches that the greater technology applied to war will be the downfall of man and that with each new war breeds another more cataclysmic war. The authority needs the elusive Founder taken out before he is even able to speak those mysterious words in 1960 Colorado.
To enjoy anything to do with time travel, I think one must forget about dwelling on the fundamentals and paradoxes. Dick even makes a comment in the story that “[t]here’s some philosophical doubt as to whether one can alter the past.” So don’t even bother with it and enjoy the story.
Of course, it couldn’t be as simple as the authority is making it out to be for Conger. The moment he arrives in the small town outside of Denver, the people know he’s an outsider (he is sporting a beard in a place where all men are clean-shaven) and because Dick is known for his paranoia, the Red scare is on many of the minds in the town (he was writing this in the 1950s). Conger tries to blend in while also trying to find this man whose name and appearance he knows nothing of.
Like he is known to do, Dick is commenting on a few things with this story: the Communist scare, religion, and war, just to name a few. The story is entirely compelling from beginning to end and when Conger is given a strange stare by a resident of the Colorado town, the reader is never sure what is going on in his or her mind. Will he be ratted out as a Red (he does have one of those big beards like that fella Marx–noted by one man) or is something even stranger afoot with locating the unnamed Founder?
**I stumbled across this article from 2011 on i09.com featuring “10 Great Philip K. Dick Stories That Hollywood Hasn’t Filmed Yet” — which confirmed my long-held perplexity over the lack of film adaptation of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.