‘Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick’ – A Strolling Commentary

Philip K. Dick’s short stories have a wider range in quality than they do subject matter. But for the most part they’re very good and definitely worth reading.

Having been gifted a collection of Dick’s short stories, I went with the recommended ‘Roog’ first.

(Since I tend to think and analyse at a snail’s pace, this is more a strolling commentary than a running one, hence the title. Ha ha ha.)

Nothing else in the book quite matches Roog. The idea of the underlying world, or the second world on another layer but close to our own, or the ‘parallel world’ or whatever name one might give it – it’s never quite so seamless as it is in Roog. Not that there aren’t other stories in the book that accomplish the difference with more subtlety, or in a more restrained way (‘Adjustment Team’ comes to mind) – but Roog also combines the parallel aspect with the kind of middle-American nuclear harmony I tend to associate with science fiction. You know, dusty hotel rooms in the South with homey women named ‘Mary’ or ‘Mary-Lou’ who contrast the strange and awful things that happen to the protagonist, and gruff police chiefs, glasses-and-coat clad scientists with no social skills, green, many-armed Martians, and Zeerust technology with an abundance of shining LED lights and unnecessary lasers.

Without further ado:

Beyond Lies the Wub: Humanitarian aspects. A slightly interesting, if unfulfilling, inspection of extraterrestrial life, covering one of Dick’s most prevalent themes, the nature of the conscious self.

Paycheck: Slightly generic setup. Plot more suited to a thriller novel of the kind everyone’s father reads than a science-fiction story, ignoring the time-travel element. Another Dick/scifi in general theme: the conflict between private business, government, and the individual in a future where technology creates new problems for all three.

Second Variety: Fun story. Yet another post-apocalyptic romp. He seems to rely on this setting often, probably just so that the reader intuitively understands the setting and the story can move faster. Actually, that reminds me of what I said about Bernard-jou two weeks ago. I guessed the twist in this story before it happened, which was both excellent and damning. There’s an implication that machines are humanity’s ‘children’ in a sense, and despite their youth, are already warring against one another relentlessly. Running theme about the inevitability of conflict.

Impostor: Another post-apocalyptic, robots-are-taking-over-the-universe setup. Guessed the twist. A classic science fiction story. Again raises questions about the nature of consciousness – is the impostor Olham, in the sense that he retains everything about Olham except his body?

King of the Elves: Bizarre, small-town dreck. I get the feeling we’re meant to question whether Shadrach’s version of events is truth or madness; but it’s really possible to raise these questions not only in any story, but in real life as well (think Cartesian demon and the brain-in-a-jar problem) making King of the Elves nothing more to me than a sequence of events with no substance. Tries to do Dick’s world-behind-the world shtick but ultimately fails since there’s no deep connection between the normal and hidden world: the new world is merely the old one zoomed in, and thus not very interesting.

Adjustment Team: Fun story. First in the book that comes close to tackling theology. Another man-behind-the-curtain, world-behind-the-world, etc etc. story, but this time, done well and in an interesting way. The Mandela Effect explained. Ever heard of the Berenstain Bears?

Foster, You’re Dead! Satire of nuclear-age propaganda and 50s capitalism. You’ve just gotta have the best shelter on the block, man. Shell up. The small-town veneer of this story is prominent. Reminds me of the Fallout franchise of video games; it would surprise me if that hadn’t been influenced by this story.

Upon the Dull Earth: More spiritualism, and multi-world stuff. Interesting story, fun read. Creepy ending.

Autofac: More technocratic fear. Don’t try to argue with machines. Be wary of automated production going out of control. Similar to Second Variety, in that the machines supersede humanity in their role as the intelligent race and the explorers of the universe.

Minority Report: Wonderful. Twisty, thriller-ish plot. About the importance of the minority, and how every interested party, although they can be generalised and categorised as identical, may actually be very different. This is still an important lesson in our times, especially for American liberals. Just as in the story, every report is a minority report. Even the straight while males. It’s also about the danger of knowing fate.

The Days of Perky Pat: Small-town Americanism, post-apocalypse, delusional adults yearning for different pasts (between the youthful energy and romanticism of Perky Pat and the responsibility and skill of Connie Companion – although all players involved in either game are delusional and overly attached to the past in the end.) People give up their families for a chance to relive the past. Just like Foster, reminds me of Fallout thanks to the general aesthetic. A creepy yet fun story.

Precious Artifact: I never remember this one, when I think about these stories. It’s very short and not too distinct from some of his other work. Exploits the hidden-world aspect and the post-apocalyptic setting, this time the fault of overpopulation on Earth and Mars. Earth’s culture is entirely gone, save for Biskle and a few unnamed engineers, but he doesn’t know that.

A Game of Unchance: Boring beginning, but picks up at the end. Post-apocalypse. Carnival racket exploits surviving settlements on Mars, countered by a psychic who can win the rigged games. But the settlements are victims of a gambit where they are allowed to win, to accept prizes of small, lethal robots, which are destroyed by the prizes from another traveling carnival…and the exploitation continues. This is another parody of 50s nuclear fear and commercialism, like Foster. Crafty buildup.

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale: Starts out interesting, and only gets more so. Reminded me of Kafka in its hilarious absurdity. Kafka, of all things. I thought if that man had been born a few decades later, he’d have been writing science fiction. Anyway. It’s about the validity of memories and features the effects of childish dreams on the unconscious, but it’s kind of shallow. Much like my analysis.

Faith of our Fathers: The communists win the war. Another second-world story, with the supreme leader actually being a godlike alien, featuring the test of loyalty to the Party, the monitoring of the TV and the room a la 1984…with all our pastiches combined, we are Captain Philip K. Dick. At least in this instance. Reminiscent of Camus, dealing with the futility of hope and meaning in a universe with a malevolent God.

The Electric Ant: The nature of consciousness, as explained through the eyes of a cyborg. He comes to the solipsistic conclusion that his subjective consciousness is the only one which sustains reality, and shorts out his circuits when he consumes all the data in the universe and experiences everything at once. But when he ends his own consciousness by breaking his own components, the external world starts to disappear as well…

A Little Something For Us Tempunauts: Eternal life for the universe through a time-loop which only three ‘tempunauts’ have the possibility of ending. They fail. Reminds me of a pessimistic version of the ‘Endless Eight’ something I shall have to discuss at a later date. I didn’t really understand the story when I read it and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend I did, so I’m going to paste a little of Dick’s own thought on it here instead:

“The essence of the time-travel story is a confrontation of some sort, best of all by the person with himself…. [Doug] gains no insight from this event, neither of himself nor of that other Addison Doug who can no longer reason or problem-solve, but can only lie there inert and in darkness. This irony is just one of the enormous number of ironies possible in time-travel stories; naively, one would think that to travel into the future and return would lead to an increase in knowledge rather than to a loss of it…It is as if the increase in information brought about by such a technological achievement — information as to exactly what is going to happen — decreases true understanding. Perhaps Addison Doug knows too much.”

That comment reminds me of Minority Report, where his knowledge of the future changes his actions and in effect causes a self-contained sequence.

The Exit Door Leads In: Contradictory college: the only way to pass is to disobey authority, and it turns out it’s possible to do the same thing outside that college too. I see that the blindly-obedient protagonist’s name is ‘Bibleman’. Don’t think I didn’t notice that.

Rautavaara’s Case: Deals with the different theologies created by different species, the nature of consciousness, the afterlife, and the ethics of scientific testing and life support. Probably deceptively simple. I should read it again.

I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon: The long-reaching effects of childhood trauma. This was the second story that I described as ‘Kafkaesque’ despite my pledge to never use that word. Darkly funny exploration of the plight faced by a sentient ship traveling through space, with all bar one passenger cryogenically frozen. (Similar to a movie from last year the name of which I cannot recall). The one conscious passenger has to be stimulated mentally for ten years, or he’ll go mad. Themes include the nature of reality and the effects of guilt. Kind of deals with Dick’s layered world thing, in that when he arrives on the new planet he believes it to be another construction of the ship.

The stories were viciously entertaining, and although they retreaded familiar ground many times, I found myself engrossed by the simplicity of the prose and the plots on display. Not being familiar in any great degree with science fiction, beyond Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series and a few isolated examples by Tevis and Wolfe, Philip K. Dick was the first ‘major’ sci-fi writer I can recall reading. I was not disappointed.

Oh…a ‘New Year’ post?

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