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Worlds of Tomorrow August 1964

"The Little Black Box" is a short story by Philip K. Dick, originally published in the August 1964 issue of Worlds of Tomorrow.

The story features Mercerism, Wilbur Mercer, and the eponymous empathy boxes. These would be expanded upon in Dick's 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.


Asian scholar and Zen Buddhism specialist Joan Hiashi is assigned by the State Department to provide religious teachings to the Chinese population in Cuba. She goes to her lover, jazz harpist Ray Meritan, who switches his television to Wilbur Mercer, the leader of a new religion, Mercerism, that has rapidly spread throughout California. He demonstrates for her an empathy box, a device that allows Mercer's followers to experience his slow walk toward his death.

State Department official Bogart Crofts and Secretary of State Douglas Herrick discuss their concerns of Mercer, suspecting that he is not from Earth. Knowing that Meritan is sympathetic toward Mercerism, they employ a telepath, John Lee, to figure out what Hiashi knows about Mercerism. They decline to have him read Meritan's mind, as he is a telepath as well.

In Havana, Joan and Lee go to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. After Lee expresses his confusion over a Zen parable, Joan begins to suspect that he is a telepath, which he denies. As their food comes, they see an elderly man crying out in pain while using an empathy box.

At the KKHF television studio, Ray prepares for a broadcast with jazz commentator Glen Goldstream. Glen has taken note of Ray's head pain and suspects it had to do with Mercer, as he had seen Mercerites with the same ailment earlier in the day. During a commercial break, Ray accepts from Glen a dose of Paracodein, a highly illegal and addictive painkiller. Glen presses him further about Mercer, but Ray denies being a follower. While Ray plays his harp on live television, Glen displays a card to him, indicating that the government wants to know if Mercer is of non-terrestrial origin. While scanning the thoughts of studio employees, Ray learns that Mercer had been injured and that empathy boxes had just been outlawed. He ceases playing and announces to the television audience that Mercer is injured and that he himself is a Mercerite and requests prayer for Mercer. He then resumes playing.

Mr. Lee places Joan under arrest, due to her association with Ray and her supposed attraction to Mercerism. She grabs the handles of the elderly man's empathy box. She sees Mercer, who says he cannot save her, as he cannot save himself. However, he assures her that she is not alone and he would be with her. As she lets go of the Box, Lee telepathically knows what she saw and regards the belief in a helpless figure as nonsense.

Lee reports to Crofts and Herrick, discussing Joan's arrest and supposed conversion to Mercerism that he witnessed in Havana. Crofts volunteers to use an empathy box, feeling that it would have no significant effect on him.

Knowing that he will be arrested if he returns to his apartment, Ray wanders the streets, wondering where Mercer was and how one could get to him. He set out to find an empathy box, stopping at a bar. Although the bartender denies having one, he does provide Ray with an address to an old building downtown. There, a woman leads him to an empathy box. He grips the handles and instead of connecting with Mercer, he connects with Crofts, learning that Joan was hired so that the State Department could get to him. Leaning that Joan was now in New York, he releases the handles and sets out to help her.

Crofts, having gotten Ray's thoughts, confirms that he is not Mercer. Nevertheless, Herrick and Lee are still determined to take Ray in, planning to release Joan and have her followed in order to catch their target. Knowing Ray to be innocent, Crofts begs Herrick to not go through with it, threatening his resignation. Herrick is unmoved, urging him to resign. Determining that Crofts has become a Mercerite, Lee is determined to destroy all of the empathy boxes, thus eliminating the Mercerism movement.

Ray finds Joan in New York as she buys a ticket to Los Angeles. The couple plan to find a hideaway and an empathy box and leave the airport upon an FBI agent's arrival. As they try to decide on where to go next, a peddler approaches them with free samples of Merry Meal breakfast cereal and says there is a coupon inside. Ray notices that there was nothing he could read from the man's mind. Taking the cereal, Ray and Joan get into a cab, which is soon followed by another. As Joan points out that the peddler reminded her of Mercer, Ray opens one of the cereal boxes and pulls out the coupon, which gives instructions on how to build an empathy box with common household objects. They hide the coupons in their clothes and decide if these were found, they would somehow be given the instructions again. The cab following theirs, occupied by FBI agents, order the cab to pull over. The driver asks Ray if they should, to which he says, "Sure."