And the PKD series continues with a look at the second volume of his collected short stories.
Raw Feed (2000): The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, 1987.
“Introduction”, Norman Spinrad — A very useful introduction in which Spinrad points out how Dick’s short stories, right from the beginning (these stories are from 1952 through 1955), were different artistically and thematically from other sf writers. While author collections, as Spinrad rightly notes, often have a sameness of style, incident, theme, and character and Dick was no exception, his sameness was unique. Spinrad sees Dick’s overarching theme to be a concern with empathy, the quality that distinguishes man from the mechanical, sometimes thinking, “pseudo-life” (particularly weapon systems) that menace his heroes. And those heroes are usually ordinary people trying to survive worlds of time paradoxes and shifting realities or the menacing security state. Spinrad notes that Dick didn’t do “action-adventure formula” stories or space operas or mad scientists or “fully-developed alien civilizations” or stories with “real good guys versus bad guys”. Dick did not write stories in a consistent universe or future history or feature recurring characters. But the most interesting claim by Spinrad (and I tend to believe he’s studied the matter) is that he invented the multiple viewpoint technique in sf (a technique Spinrad is fond of, indeed he took it to its extreme in “The Big Flash”). Spinrad claims “few if any writers” used it before Dick and that all writers who used it afterwards owe a debt to Dick.
“The Cookie Lady” — Fantasy tale of vampirism by the title character who lures a boy with cookies and steals his life.
“Beyond the Door” — A man realizes that the cuckoo bird in his clock is sentient and malevolent. Of course, he comes to a violent end when the bird lures him to his death. Competent story, nothing special, but I did note the marital discord in the story, a prevalent theme in Dick’s fiction, and one he knew quite a bit about given his five marriages.
“Prominent Author” — I was amused to see that even in 1953 (evidently the year the story was written) people hated their long commutes to work and the traffic congestion. Here “monojets” are replaced by the “Jiffi-scuttler” which uses extra-dimensions to walk a few steps through another dimension and emerge hundreds of miles away. All this is a setup for hero Henry Ellis to encounter strange little people. Given the title and other clues, it isn’t long before we guess the gimmicky ending. The little people are us, and Ellis’ odd, brief appearances in our world lead him to create the Holy Bible and JudeoChristianity.
“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” The unnamed editor of this five volume collection sort of cheats by including this story in this volume. Generally, the stories are arranged chronologically by the date they were submitted to Dick’s agents (and, thus, closely corresponding to their creation date). This story, with its completion date of 1965, falls outside the 1952-1955 range of the rest of this collection. This is the first Dick I read, and, though I hadn’t read it in years, I was pleased how well this paranoid tale held up – and how much of the plot found its way into the movie Total Recall. The plot does have a problem in that Interplan is willing to risk security risks by going through Rekal, Inc to reimplant memories in Quail. The thought occurs to me that, in its own way, this story, with its implanted, repressed memory of alien contact and gifts, may stand close to the wellspring of the modern folklore about alien abduction.
“Jon’s World” — This story, as Norman Spinrad notes in the introduction to this volume, is vaguely related to Dick’s “Second Variety”. The “claws” in that story (the relationships are probably similar terminology and imagery; this is probably not a sequel) became sentient weapons and began to turn on their creators. Here, in a typical Dickian slagged out, post-nuclear war future, two time travelers go back to get the plans for the claws in order to build tame labor units to restore Earth’s surface. Of course, this being a time travel story, a paradox emerges. The time travelers destroy their home timeline (that held one of their sons). At first this seems a tragedy (the characters make a quick recovery though) but the change has ushered in a pastoral Earth where the primitive (but happy) peasants (no business or commerce) discuss “great things.”
“The Cosmic Poachers” — This story has a predictable twist ending with the eggs purloined (actually legally seized) from aliens taken back to Earth to infest the planet. The alien eggs are wrongly thought to be jewels.
“Progeny” — This is a creepy story that displays some of Dick’s characteristic themes and, in some ways, turned out to be prescient and more relevant today, perhaps, than when it was written in 1952. The story takes place in the centrally planned (at least for social engineering if not all economic activity) future of so many Dick stories, an oppressive regime where children are taken away at birth, raised by experts to be properly educated in the area best suited to their talents and away from neuroses induced by subjective parents. (Dick’s nightmare futures are often run by progressive-style experts. I suppose it’s a vision of the corporate, expertly managed vision of the future that was present in the 1950s.) Besides being a scary depiction of the modern (and old) “school to work” idea and a tyranny of psychologists and social workers (similar to the drug rehab villains of Dick’s A Scanner Darkly), it’s a parody of a public gullible to the suggestions of social “scientists”. The story also deals with social future shock since protagonist Ed Doyle spends a lot of time in the backwaters of human space where things are as they were in 1952 Earth, and he’s unprepared for new ideas on modern Earth. The psychologists talk a good talk about sparing children psychological problems and maximizing their potential, but they have a secret, dark agenda hinted at at story’s end. Doyle meets his son, groomed to be a great “bio-chemist”. The son, who has spent almost all his life with robots, finds his father too emotional and literally smelly like his lab rats. Actually, the psychologists are all sophisticated robots, another example of the mechanical equaling unpleasant things in a Dick story. His robot mentor sinisterly says, at story’s end, that he knows exactly why humans remind Peter Doyle of “experimental animals”. Peter Doyle will, it’s strongly hinted, become, de facto, one of those thantos (death force) carrying robots.
“Some Kinds of Life” — A sf fable, partly a social satire, partly a political satire. Basically, the story follows one family – first the father, then the son, then, in a last ditch mobilization, the mother – as they’re drafted into the military and killed. The wars they fight are to keep the flow of alien hides and the fanciful, imaginary minerals sf likes to invoke for plot convenience. The flow of these goods are threatened by alien and labor unrest (a satirical allusion to the problems faced by the British Empire in the year 1952, the year of this story’s composition?). The goods themselves go into devices used for rather trivial purposes, the sorts of unnecessary devices modern life is full of that. After they’re introduced, we convince ourselves of their indispensability. I suspect Dick was not writing a cautionary warning about modern American life depending on strategic minerals whose supply was endangered by the Cold War. I suspect the story is more of commentary on American consumerism. Presumably, the title is a fragment of the phrase “Some kinds of life are not worth living”. Indeed, at story’s end, humanity is dead.
“Martians Come in Clouds” — Dick, influenced by the twisting plot machinations of A. E. van Vogt, loved twists and turns in his stories, and he also liked to play around with readers’ sympathies and moral perceptions. This story combines both of these characteristics. The balloon-like Martians (Mars always, in Dick’s works, is a symbol of death and decay) blow to Earth, withered harbingers (and creepy, too, given their telepathy) of an alien invasion. However, near story’s end, our sympathies go to the Martians though when we learn of their history and intention to settle on a small portion of Earth’s oceans. This doesn’t make the child protagonist – or any other human – stop hunting them down, though, when they land on Earth.
“The Commuter” — A sf story involving alternate histories though here Dick approaches the story in a general philosophical way rather than relying on a turning point hinging on a famous historical event. An official of a rail line begins to investigate why people ask for tickets to a non-existent place. He finds that the suburb project was defeated by a single council vote (even in 1952, downtown merchants knew suburbs cost downtown business). Hero Bob Paine (who has an usually understanding girlfriend who does his investigative legwork) develops a theory that “certain parts of the past were unstable”, haven’t stabilized, can be changed. The past is mutable and a wave of historical consequence rolls toward Paine, the consequence of suburb Macon Heights reasserting its existence, and his city apartment where he ends up married to his girlfriend, and they have a son. Dick does a couple of things with the alternate history subgenre. First, he uses a made up event rather than one from the historical record. Second, he introduces a mutable past. Alternate histories generally assume a fixed past in their universes.
“The World She Wanted” — An interesting fantasy of a subjective, solipsistic nature that you would expect from Dick. Larry Brester meets a woman who insists that Larry inhabits a universe where everything magically arranges itself for the greatest happiness of her, Allison Holmes. Allison has worked up an elaborate argument for this view and why Larry will marry her immediately and, thus, satisfy her marital desires. Allison explains that everyone inhabits an universe arranged for their benefit though versions of themselves exist in other universes arranged for other people’s benefits. Ultimately, badgered by Allison’s arranging of his life, he makes Allison go away and considers the possibility that he inhabits the universe arranged for his benefit.
“A Surface Raid” — This story uses a variation of an idea in Dick’s The Penultimate Truth: in the wake of a nuclear war, man’s civilization has fragmented into two groups – one above ground and one below ground. Whereas in the novel mankind huddled in underground warrens while the duplicitous descendents of his robots kept the surface area for themselves, here the technical class necessary to conduct a war is spared its ravages in underground bases. They evolve into a superior group and snatch regular homo sapiens from the surface (it seems for slave labor). The awful physical form of the underground dwellers is revealed at story’s end. The whole business of technically sophisticated underground dwellers preying on a normal surface humanity is, of course, also reminiscent of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
“Project: Earth” — An interesting fantasy with Christian overtones. A mysterious old man is discovered by a bunch of kids. He’s preparing a report on the second creation project, Earth (the first was the angels) and recommending its cancellation and replacement by another race. The boys subvert, by corrupting the obedience of the new race, the man’s plan.
“The Trouble with Bubbles” — Philip K. Dick must have been contemplating the rather gnostic theme of a malevolent god playing with the world he created since this story and the similarly themed “Project: Earth” deal with that notion and were submitted to his agent a week apart. This story involves the creation of miniature universe simulacra and, at the end of this hobby craze, the destruction of these “bubbles” and their sentient inhabitants. (Malevolent creator gods show up in other Dick works including his A Maze of Death.) At story’s end, Dick can’t resist putting forth the implication that the story has taken place in the bubble universe of another creator. This story is a good example of how sf recycles various themes (I believe this story fits in the “Microcosmic God” subgenre named after a Theodore Sturgeon tale) and retools them with new rationalizing instrumentality. You could do this story today, but replace the bubbles with talk of computer simulation and artificial life. There are all kinds of crude simulation games called “god games”.
“Breakfast at Twilight” — Sobering political tale of a family thrown into a nasty, repressive, post-nuclear war future of seven years hence. The story ends on a grim note that the future is inevitable because of people fear to contemplate it. Dick was probably issuing a heartfelt warning.
“A Present for Pat” — Humorous story with the very predictable end that the powerful industrial Brashaw is the alien pursued by the Ganymedian god Tinokuknoi Arevulopapo. However, the story is worth it for the comic line, “The toad? Where is he?”
“The Hood Maker” — A. E. van Vogt was an inspiration to Dick, and this is a very van Vogtian tale. There is a persecuted minority, a group of people wearing “hoods” that screen them from the prying examination of a cadre of telepaths, and the secret group conspiring to distribute those hoods. There’s even a twist ending – obligatory for a van Vogt-style story – where the telepaths’ conspiracy to take over the government is defeated. The mechanics of how the telepaths are defeated are an interesting case of how the story could use the mechanics of computers and information science instead of its telepathy. The telepaths view things through each others eyes rather like the nanonics of Peter F. Hamilton’s Nights Dawn trilogy, and the uncomfortable revelation of telepath sterility propagates rather like a computer virus to dishearten them from making any long term plans. More interesting as an example of a van Vogt type story than for the plausibility of its plot.
“Of Withered Apples” — There is a whiff of H. P. Lovecraft in this moody horror tale of a woman molested by a malevolent apple tree with sexual designs on her.
“Human Is” — In the notes to this story, Dick cites this as one of his touchstone stories since it deals with a major Dick theme: What is human? A woman’s husband is replaced or, at least, his “psychic contents” are, by an alien while he’s on a business trip. She spots the discrepancies right away and reports it to her brother and the government he works for, but, though pressured by a government preaching about alien menaces, she won’t testify against the alien so his “psychic contents” can be purged from the body. The alien is kind and much preferable to the abusive, selfish jerk she was married to.
“Adjustment Team” — This fantasy, again one with Christian overtones, takes up a notion that Dick mentioned in an interview (and that Theodore Sturgeon based a story on): the world we see is an elaborate stage dressing. Here the manipulators seek world peace, a process that starts with a real estate deal.
“The Impossible Planet” — A rather bland story about the search for the legendary lost Earth and not so surprising revelation that the trashed out planet palmed off on an old woman by a disreputable starship captain is Earth.
“Imposter” — This plot manipulates the reader’s sympathies in ways similar to Dick’s “The Golden Man“. At first our sympathies are with the pursued and persecuted Olham who is suspected of being a robot with a bomb in his chest. Our sympathies seem justified when, at story’s end, his pursuers think they were mistaken. Then, in a final twist, we see Olham really is a robot – unknown to him, with a bomb.
“James P. Crow” — This story, with its title a play on the phrase “Jim Crow”, is a sf parable on racism. Humans are a persecuted group, allegedly allotted jobs via tests in a centrally planned technocracy of the sort that frequently shows up in Dick’s stories, but they never rise – with the exception of Crow who cheats – above menial jobs. They are further burdened by a mythology that the dominant race of robots created humans as weapons in the “total war of the 11th Millibar”. Crow works his all the way up the government and, using a time viewing gadget, overturns the political order and forces the robots off planet. Dick, however, can’t resist a van Vogtian twist and, at story’s end, implies Crow will become a dictator. I suspect Dick just wanted a twist ending and wasn’t implying anything about the suitability of black political leaders
“Planet for Transients” — The story notes say this story was reworked into Dick and Roger Zelazny’s Deus Irae. I enjoyed this story of humans from underground dwellings emerging onto the surface of an Earth ravaged by nuclear war and inhabited by interesting mutants. I liked the story’s main idea that man created this Earth and its mutants and now doesn’t have the right to repossess their land. However, even in the context of its 1953 composition date, I found the ease with which the humans build a fleet of starships to leave Earth unconvincing.
“Small Town” — I liked this fantasy of an embittered man in a dead end job and with an adulterous wife (not that he notices). He retreats into his meticulously crafted model train setup and his manipulations of the layout, a perfect representation of his small town, become reflected in the actual world (thus a manifestation of the gnostic Dick theme of an evil creator god – in his notes, Dick refers to the man, Vernon Haskel, as a put upon, small, defeated person who becomes a force of death). The story uses the very Dick theme – especially seen in his Eye in the Sky and, to a lesser extent, A Maze of Death – of a person retreating from a “common reality” into one construced by themselves.
“Souvenir” — Another centrally managed Dick technocracy, the “uniform Galactic culture” mediated by the “Relay” so information is distributed and keeps culture homogenous. It’s tempting to see this as a very wrong-headed speculation on the effects of Internet-like technology. However, in vague terms, we are told the information is studied and selected and co-ordinated at a central location, the conclusions sent everywhere to maintain peace and coherence. [It doesn’t seem so wrong headed now with Google and Facebook co-ordinating with governments on “acceptable discourse”.] The legendary lost planet of Williamson’s World is found. But its destruction is necessary when it refuses to adopt Relay culture and its presence would prove destabilizing. However, a titular souvenir at story’s end may be enough to doom this technocratic nightmare.
“Survey Team”, Philip K. Dick — Sort of a shaggy god story. A group of humans leave a trashed out Earth to find a trashed out Mars (Mars, in Dick’s work, is almost always a symbol of decay and death). It turns out that the Martians abandoned their planet long ago and some went to Earth – to become us.