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Beyond Lies the Wub
Second Variety
The Father Thing

Vols 1 -3 of the collected stories of Philip K.Dick


These three reprint volumes—with another two to follow—contain 75 stories, the bulk of them written between 1952 and 1954. They range widely in quality and mood, from the sub-Bradburyesque fantasies of ‘The Cookie Lady’ and ‘Project: Earth’ to the more recognisably Dickian stories such as ‘Impostor’ and ‘The Hanging Stranger.’ What most have in common is Dick’s idiosyncratic world view and his concern with what it means to be human in an increasingly mechanised, unstable and xenophobic world. In ‘The Hanging Stranger’, Dick offers a chilling exploration of paranoia in a dehumanised society that not only prefigures  the concerns of 1950s science fiction movies such as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) (the theme of bodily usurpation is alluded to more explicitly in the title story of The Father Thing), but which has powerful echoes of the racist inspired lynchings in pre-civil rights America. A more extreme take on the theme is offered in the delirious ‘Shell Game’, in which a group of besieged planetary colonists preparing for an invasion, are revealed to be paranoid schizophrenics, shipwrecked many years previously on the planet’s surface. ‘Misadjustment’ is an early attempt at the working through of two Dick’s particular obsessions, mutants and mental illness, focusing on the exploration of a society whose stability is under threat from the power of parakineticists to physically manifest their delusions.

While ‘Roog’ displays a superficially lighthearted, even comic tone—a loyal dog vainly attempts to warn his human owners of the threat posed by the strange and vaguely menacing Roogs, who are in fact, simply garbage collectors come to empty the bins—one can also see the story as an early variant on the theme of the ‘everyman’ struggling to warn those he cares for of some unfathomable peril. Such ordinary mortals, struggling and, more often than not, failing to come to terms with obscure threats—in stark contrast  to the ‘competent men’ of Robert Heinlein’s fiction, nearly always portrayed as being in control of their own destinies—feature again and again in these stories, and indeed, throughout the corpus of Dick’s work. Think, for example, of the identity slippage that afflicts Jason Taverner in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, or Barney Mayerson’s ultimately futile struggles against the corporate machine, that, ironically, he himself is part of, in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. The notion of displaced identity common to both these novels is evident in many of the stories that feature in these three volumes, particularly in ‘Human Is’, which neatly subverts the conventional scenario of a heroic astronaut returning home only for his wife to realise that he isn’t who he appears to be—the same theme exploited to tedious effect in the Johnny Depp film The Astronaut’s Wife. Dick’s superior treatment raises the question, what if the alien husband is an improvement on the original?

Although Dick was never a great prose stylist—many of these stories are clumsily constructed and his multi-viewpoint narratives, even in very short pieces, can be disconcerting—what makes his fictions worthwhile are the wildness of his imagination and his antipathy to the conventions of mainstream, particularly more formulaic types of 1950s science fiction. Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics, formulated in the previous decade, are not so much ignored by Dick, as deliberately turned upside down, or even exploded, most subversively in stories such as ‘The Defenders’, in which the robots—the ‘leadys’—collude with Earth’s leaders in lying about the true state of things on the Earth’s surface following a nuclear war; ‘Sales Pitch’—a blackly comic tale which takes the sales demonstration to its ultimate conclusion—and in the astonishing ‘Second Variety’, a novella in which the author’s preoccupations with ‘intelligent’ weapons systems, minefields and genocide, seem extraordinarily prescient.

Dick’s protagonists are not heroes in the conventional sense of the term; instead they are little men—and they are, on the whole, male—confused, frightened, struggling to come to terms with worlds in which little can be taken at face value. In the introduction to the second volume, Norman Spinrad righty points out that while Dick eschewed the notion of consistency inherent in Heinlein’s ‘future history’ stories, or the universe of Asimov’s Foundation series, his work in fact displays a much greater thematic unity in that certain ideas recur and are reimagined in varying ways throughout the stories. The bleak and apocalyptic world view posited in ‘Second Variety’ is given a different slant in ‘James P Crow’ and ‘Foster, You’re Dead’; the notion of human agency is undermined and threatened in ‘Some Kinds of Life,’ ‘War Veteran’, and ‘The Trouble with Bubbles’, while the relationship between humans and robots is further investigated in ‘To Serve the Master’, ‘Nanny,’ and ‘The Last of the Masters.’ In addition, alienation, psychotropics as both a medium for escape and an agent of control, xenophobia, mental illness, fragmenting identity, and the nuclear threat are recurring themes that would be expanded, intensified and made more complex in his later work.

Make no bones about it, what the stories contained in these three volumes, and the later two—Minority Report and We Can remember it for You Wholesale—have to offer is the chance to witness, in embryonic form, the paradigm shift in science fiction, represented by Dick’s subsequent works such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep, Martian Time-Slip, A Maze of Death, A Scanner Darkly, and at least a dozen other innovative and superbly realised novels.

This review originally appeared in The 3rd Alternative #23, back in 2000.

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