Fiction Reviews


Minority Report

Originally titled as The Days of Perky Pat

(1987 / 2017) Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, x + 380pp, ISBN 978-1-73-22339-4

 

 

This 1987collection of Philip K. Dick shorts has again (2017) been reprinted by Gollancz.  If you don't know Philip K. Dick his works have been brought to the big screen (albeit often in a very loose form) as films such as Blade Runner, Screamers (faithful to the story 'Second Variety') and Total Recall, among others, as well as the small screen with The Man in the High Castle.

The stories in this volume were all originally and sequentially published between 1955 and 1964 and are:-

'Autofac'.  The supply truck and its goods came whether they wanted them or not. The war had ended a while ago and, for the duration, the automated factories were left to control themselves, making all their own decisions, without human oversight.  And though the factories kept the humans with all that they needed, the factories were scouring the Earth for raw materials and these were beginning to run out.  The factories had to be stopped, but easier said than done…

 

'Service Call'.  Industrialist David Courtland receives a caller at his apartment. It was a service engineer calling to service a device Courtland did not have, yet it struck Courtland that – whatever the device was – it was something worth considering going into business manufacturing.&nsbp; Only he needed to know more…

 

'Captive Market'.  Edna Berthelson ran a store she inherited from her father in a small rural backwater.  The store does not make much money, but once a week she loads up a truck of supplies and takes it to a special customer away in the hills.  Meanwhile, some years later a group of survivors of a great war is assembling a spaceship to take them away from the ruined Earth to Venus…

 

'The Mold of Yancy'.  The colonists on the moon Callisto were set to go their own way, independent from Earth. Earth needs to know why this move is happening and is perplexed as to how come a fatherly, old man's amiable television broadcasts have captured the moon's populace? An investigator is sent to find out…

Now, personally speaking I found this story to be one of the least engaging in the volume, though it s still of a high standard and clearly recognises the power of television and pre-prepared character presentation as a propaganda tool.  This last may not seem remarkable to the modern reader but bear in mind that over half a century ago in 1955 (when this story was first published) political punditry on television was new.  Apparently this short story relates to Eisenhower's political rise to President of the US and I, as a Brit, am not familiar with the nuances.  What is known is that 'The Mold of Yancy' went on to form the seed out of which Dick's novel The Penultimate Truth (1964) sprang.

 

'The Minority Report'. John Anderton is in charge of PreCrime. Precognitive mutants predict the future and the committing of a crime enabling the PreCrime police arrest the future-perpetrator before  the crime was committed. Three precogs are used to ensure the correct prediction is chosen: the prediction reports given by two of the three precogs with the third prediction being the 'minority report'.  And then Anderton sees a read-out prediction that he will commit a murder of someone he has never even met.  Anderton thinks he is being framed and so leaves before his PreCrime team review the records…

'The Minority Report' employs a number of tropes Dick has used in numerous short stories and novels, including: that there has in earlier years, prior to the story's setting, been a major war;  that this war's radioactive fallout created mutants with telepathic or precognitive abilities;  and that there are ether parallel timelines or a number of potential future timelines.

'The Minority Report' was made into a film in 2002 starring Tom Cruise.  The film does convey the principal set-up features of the story though its concluding thrust is very different albeit that it employs a 'time' consideration that also features (but in another way) in the short story.

 

'Recall Mechanism'.  Paul Sharp is responsible for reclaiming radioactive contaminated land following a major war. However, his longstanding phobia of heights has been getting worse.  He goes to a psychiatrist who uses a machine – the recall mechanism – to dig down into Paul's mind to find the suppressed memory that triggers the phobia. The only problem is, is that the memory makes no sense as Paul had never been in those circumstances the machine recalled…

 

'The Unreconstructed M'.  A small, but larger than shoe-box-sized machine scuttles up a building, cuts through a window, enters depositing fabric, a flake of paint, ash and a drop of blood before killing a man… Detectives arrive and think they know who the killer is, but an independent investigator notices a small, out-of-place television set…

This is Dick in thriller mode while employing a range of SF tropes.  Strip the story down to its essentials today and it does not seem that remarkable: forensic analysis is now routinely commonplace today but back in 1957, gas-liquid chromatography was not used in police work, DNA analysis let along fingerprinting was unknown, and today private surveillance devices are not purely audio but conversely are mainly visual. Notwithstanding this – that the Dick story has a forensic prescient element we would now take for granted – the story does circle around the idea of identity and perception: a theme very common in Dick's work.  The story also features a pre-Star Trek use of transporter beaming to another world.  Finally, there is notably a failed prediction: in the story it is revealed that most people in this world of the future smoked!

 

'Explorers We'.  The returning exploratory, manned mission from Mars enters Earth orbit, its crew anxious to return. It finally lands in a rural area of the US and the crew make off for the nearest town. But everyone they meet runs away in apparent terror…

This story is again one of Dick's that focuses on identity.

A comment of my own grammatical pedantic concern.  The publisher, Gollancz, is encouraged to note that here, in this volume, and specifically this story, both the term 'Earth' (proper noun meaning our own planet's name) and 'earth' (common known meaning soil, are used correctly.  Hooraayyy! A number of Gollancz SF novels of recent years have this proper noun relegated to that of its common noun counterpart even though the usage is to the contrary.

 

'War Game'.  There is a cold war between Earth and the Ganymedians s while there is trade, imports from Ganymede are viewed with suspicion: especially cultural imports and that includes children's toys. Leon Wiseman worked for the Terran Import Bureau of Stanfdards. He and his team were currently checking out toys for the upcoming Christmas market. The game they were currently looking at was a war game involving ambulating, miniature toy soldiers attacking a fort…

This is another story inspired by the Cold War of the 1950s – 1980s between the Soviet nations and the NATO countries. What if the confrontation extended into culture and children's toys? And if it did, would any official censor spot the propaganda before the game was released?  Why, even an innocent game of Monopoly could be subverted!

 

'If There Were No Benny Cemoli'.  The Human colonists from the now successful Centauri system had finally arrived after many years to help rebuild Earth following a nuclear war. Other humans had previously come to Earth's aid from Mars and Venus, but being less wealthy and advanced, they had not done as much as the Centaurians could do.

But the Centaurians also brought with them military investigators who were out to establish who was responsible for the nuclear war and to bring them to justice. Centaurian Peter Hood was in charge of the rebuilding but was worried that the military investigators might hound innocent locals in a witch hunt. It would be better if some scapegoat was found. And then news came of a right-wing, populist US politician, Benny Cemoli, who had risen prior to the nuclear conflict and apparently was still active and involved in demonstrations today. The only problem was that the Centaurians could not find him, nor was there any physical evidence of demonstrations purportedly taking place close by them…

This story was possibly in part inspired by the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s. But such is the genius of Dick that it is still relevant today: Cemoli, with his America first antagonism towards Central America and China, resonates with today's President Trump!

 

'Novelty Act'.  Ian Duncan struggles to pass his political test in order to retain the apartment flat he lives in (in what 2000AD 'Judge Dredd' terms would be a mega-city block of tenements). What he really needs would be to reunite with his brother as the jug-blowing duo of classical music to enter the White House competition for the First Lady of the US. If they made it to actually play for her, and her current husband the President, then his life would be made…

This is a comedy satire that employs a number of recurring Dick themes.  There is a robotic Martian telepathic animal, flying cars, an impoverished Earth with only the privileged having their own homes (the rest live in community dormitories), off world Martian colonies and a ruling class of hidden provenance. It also is a story that demonstrates Dick's ability to character build with Ian Duncan's neighbour at first willing to help Duncan pass his test, then becoming jealous for getting on in the competition to perform at the White House, so informing on him to the block authorities, and finally becoming ashamed of this last to tip Duncan the wink that a surprise test is due. All of which leads up to the question as to whether Duncan will escape the destiny this future society seems to have mapped out for him?

 

'Waterspider'.  It is the 21st century and there is a problem in developing the light-speed spacecraft to take humanity to the stars: they can get to light speed but cannot slow down. In this future there had been a political movement, which the people had overcome so relegating that movement to a small band of terrorists.  There also had been pre-cognitives (Pre-Cogs) who could see into the future but these had been feared and the last of the 20th century Pre-Cogs had long been wiped out.  However, a trawl of old Pre-Cog publications revealed that a solution to the space travel problem would be solved but the Pre-Cog document only stated that there would be a solution without specifying exactly what it was. So it was decided to send two agents back in time to the 20th century and bring a Pre-Cog back to the future (the story's present)…

'Waterspider' is Philip K. Dick being postmodern (assuming that you consider 'postmodernism' a meaningful term) and for the serious and knowledgeable SF aficionado there is much in this to unpack.  The bottom line is that Philip Dick is having fun with the notion that science fiction writers are in fact Pre-Cogs. The Pre-Cog publications If and Amazing are cited; of course these are the pulp SF N. American magazines of the mid-20th century. Indeed, the 21st century folk consider Jonathan Swift as one of the first Pre-Cogs (not H. G. Wells) as Swift foresaw in 1726 the discovery of Mars' two moons (in reality scientifically discovered 151 years later in 1877 [but see Swift's Gulliver's Travels] with an orbital diameter and period not entirely unrealistic: presuming Swift was making a fantastical stab in the dark and not demonstrating true precognitive ability, in which case it was hopelessly off).

The 'Waterspider' story's principal protagonists go back in time to a Pre-Cog meeting held at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in September 1954. Now, hardened trufans on the international stage will be aware that this was both the time and venue of the 12th World Science Fiction Convention, SFCon, in San Francisco.  The Pre-Cog publication If's August 1955 edition is cited, but in the real world that edition of the SF magazine actually contains the Dick short story 'The Mold of Yancy' (see earlier above). (SF author) Poul Anderson is the Pre-Cog the time travellers seek and along the way we either bump into or get name checked Anderson's wife Karen, and daughter Astrid, along with A. E. Van Vogt, Ray Bradbury, Jack Wlliamson plus a host of others which I will leave you the fun to find out. As said, there is much to unpack in this story and, for the 20th century SF cognoscenti, this tale is an absolute delight.

 

'What the Dead Men Say'.  The immensely wealthy tycoon Louis Sarapis is dead, or nearly so. Once his doctors had realised that his last hours had come, his body was put into cryonic suspension and could be warmed up slightly, enough for his brain activity to be read. This way Louis Sarapis still had several warm hours left and these could be spread out over many days or even months or longer. In this way Louis Sarapis could still control the industries he had built up on Earth and Mars. With a political election in the offing, Louis Sarapis staff needed to know what to do…

I am going to come clean and annoy some die-hard Phil Dick fans: I really did not like this story. Having said that, it did have some interesting tropes: the voice of Louis Sarapis coming as a radio broadcast from beyond the Solar System. However, with six stories Dick submitted to his agent in April 1963, including this one, one can forgive one being a tad sub par (especially given that that month also gave us the previous 'Waterspider').

 

'Orpheus With Clay Feet'.  This story is divided into two parts: the first couple of pages and then the remainder that forms its bulk. The first couple of pages sees Dick make a political point with the story's protagonist Jesse Slade being stuck in a boring worthless job. The boring job transpires to be a lawyer types who specialises a fee in getting people off the military draft. One can easily suspect that at the time of writing this some big businessmen and political figures somehow dodging the draft for the Vietnam war and that this rankled Dick. However, the bulk of the story concerns what Slade does to bring some value into his life. What this is transpires to be going to a time travel firm and pay to be sent back in time to give someone – an artist, a composer, a writer – the muse for their yet-to-be-created masterpiece. Needless to say it goes wrong.

 

'The Days of Perky Pat'.  I remember first reading this story decades ago as a teenager. This story begins using two common Dick tropes. The first is that the setting is in the aftermath of a nuclear war with human survivors who outrode the nuclear exchange in bunkers and for whom living in a desolate, post-apocalyptic world is the norm. The second is that these survivors get supplies dropped them by those from Mars: though, unlike other Dick stories, those giving aid are not humans who had colonised Mars but the Martians themselves. Yet the humans are awash with supplies. Instead, the adults in their bunkers play with mannequins that act out life as it was before the bomb. One of the most popular of these mannequin games is 'Perky Pat'. But it is always possible to take a game too far for some…

 

'Stand-By'.  In the future, humanity is benignly governed by the Unicephalon 40-D computer from the White House. There is a human, stand-by President in the wings in case of problems, but so far there never has been. Then the Unicephalon detects an alien fleet heading to Earth from beyond the edge of the Solar System. But this was all something to be taken in media news-anchor Jim Briskin's stride.

But then the stand-by President, old Gus Schatz, dies. This is not a problem as Unicephalon has never failed and so there is only a token, union-approved but unsuspecting, next-in-line stand-by President: Maximilian Fischer.

Then the unthinkable happens and Unicephalon develops a fault. Is an untrained, union man the right person to assume the Presidency? Jim Briskin thinks not and so an election race begins: TV personality versus a literal, career politician…

Back in 1963, nobody thought that a minor Hollywood celebrity could become President. Yet a couple of decades later the US got Ronald Reagan and now there is Donald Trump. Dick's Briskin may or may not be Reagan or Trump (possibly nor when it comes to the crunch did Dick), but the Presidential situation in the late 2010s does resonate with Phil Dick's works among a number of SF writers and here notably Kurt Vonnegut's President in the film Harrison Bergeron. Dick's fears, or is it laughter(?), echoes across the years.

 

'What'll We Do With Ragland Park?'.  Submitted to his agent a little over a week after ' Stand-By', 'What'll We Do With Ragland Park?' is a direct follow-on from ' Stand-By'.

The alien invasion has stayed on the outer parts of the Solar System. Maximilian Fischer is now President following the Unicephalon 40-D computer (once more) going off-line. Fischer has incarcerated his political rival, TV pundit Jim Briskin. Business tycoon Sebastian Hada wants Briskin to front his (what is effectively) TV channel that promotes the idea of Earth real estate – abandoned parts of cities etc -- to lure people back from the colonies on Mars and gas giant moons. Sebastian Hada also hires the folk singer Ragland Park whom, it transpires, has certain psychic abilities…

 

'Oh, to be a Blobel'.  The alien invasion (possibly the same one referred to in ' Stand-By' and ' What'll We Do With Ragland Park?') had become a war. Both humans and the invading Blobels covet Mars, but the humans want to terraform the atmosphere which would make the planet less amicable to the Blobels. It had been fiercely fought and was now over…

The Blobels were giant, single-celled, protozoa-like (protoctista-like) creatures. George Munster was a human veteran of the Blobel war and had been a spy. But to be successful scientists had turned him into a Blobel. The problem was that now, after the war, they could not turn him back to being a human, at least not all the way; he still had to spend a few hours a day as a Blobel…

Dick notes in this volume's appendix that 'Oh, to be a Blobel' was an anti-war story written at the time of much US public disenchantment with the Vietnam War. However it was based on Dick remembering Adolph Hitler prophecy that he would win the war (WWII) once the US had become like the authoritarian, dictatorial Nazi regime, and that now (in the early 1960s) the US was employing violence against student protesters and using the police to put pressure on dissenters.

This story once again is a testimony to the timeless nature of Dick's stories' relevance. I am of that age when I remember the simpler world of the late 20th century; how, when I travelled to the 2001 European SF Convention I simply went to the airport and checked in: no arriving over an hour earlier for security clearance, no toothpaste in a clear plastic bag, no biometric scanning. Back then we had not so completely succumbed to being filed, indexed, briefed, de-briefed: we were more free folk, not so much numbers.  And then we had the events of 11th September 2001. Since then we have become less individuals and increasingly digitised with the irony that the previously unheard of crime of identity theft is now a real concern we daily take precautions to prevent. There is no disguising it; we have become less free individuals and more soulless numbers. The only difference is that in the real future (as opposed to the one Dick imagines) it is not just state identity monitoring but also that by what is currently euphemised FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google).

One final thing of note, the above three stories– ' Stand-By', 'What'll We Do With Ragland Park?' andOh, to be a Blobel – seem each to have been written within about a week, and each immediately in succession of each other with all three completed within four weeks. So not entirely surprising that one segues into the next.

 

For completists and scholars of Philip Dick, let alone more pedestrian fans collecting his works, it really is worth having a look at this collection's provenance: it is quite a complicated story and, if you buy second-hand books, you could end up with books of different title yet containing the same collection of Dick stories!

To begin at the beginning, this is the fourth collection of Philip K. Dick shorts that was published back in 1987 in N. America as part of a five-volume series by the specialist SF/F small press, Underwood-Miller, but originally titled as The Days of Perky Pat.  This five-volume series of Dick's shorts Underwood-Miller edition was neatly bound in hardback and this is the series of Dick's volumes that the absolutely most dedicated of Philip K. Dick fans/collectors will want on their shelves.  However, copies of these – let alone the complete five-volume set – are now exceedingly rare so that only the most avid of SF book collectors and Dick's readers with deep pockets will be able to get them.  So we mere mortals must be very thankful that other publishers have stepped into the breach.

Over here in Britain, this book was published as The Days of Perky Pat by Gollancz in 1990 in hardback and then quite separately the following year, 1991, in paperback by Grafton.  Yet Gollancz in Britain used US punctuation marks while the 1991 Grafton paperback was re-typeset using English punctuation marks. This new (2017) Gollancz edition still uses US punctuation.

Millennium (a former imprint of Gollancz within the Orion publishing group) then produced an edition in 1990 apparently based on the Grafton edition but changing the name of this book's title from The Days of Perky Pat to the present title Minority Report (hence the US punctuation).  I have to confess I am not entirely sure why the name changed from the original title of the collection.  My first fleeting thought was it was because the story 'Minority Report' had been made famous by the film Minority Report, but that actually came out years later (in 2002) even if it was a Hugo Award nominated film that went on to be short-listed for that award. (In case you are interested, it did not go on to win the Hugo award in the 'Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) category in 2003: that prize went to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but I digress…)  What is known is that others in the original five-volume Underwood-Miller series of Dick collections were also re-titled, one of which – not this book – ended up with the same title of a subsequent Dick collection that confusingly has within it a different set of stories.

(If anyone knows why all these name changes took place then do drop SF² Concatenation a line.)

Again I stress, this, Minority Report book's alternate title of The Days of Perky Pat is important to note if you are a collector or a Dick fan and are seeking out the author's other collections of shorts: you could otherwise unwittingly easily pick up what you think is a different collection only to find out that you already have it!

The 2017 Gollancz edition also used the same cover artwork as the 1991 Grafton edition (The Days of Perky Pat) but the image is slightly darker and of lower contrast: clearly a copy of a copy.

As a volume, Minority Report features some of Dick's key short stories arguably from the peak period in the man's career. These stories feature a number of tropes and concepts Philip Dick commonly re-visited and, indeed, he often re-visits some of these more than once within this very volume. These include: the effect of a devastating nuclear war and especially contrasting this with either life before the said war or with life off-planet; time travel; computerisation/robotics; precognition/mind reading; and (as often through the stories' protagonists' eyes, human mundanity. It is perhaps this last that enables non-SF literary readers recognise Dick's talent.

The collection Minority Report (formerly The Days of Perky Pat) contains an afterward of notes written by Philip Dick on nearly all of each story. The afterward also notes each story's date and place of first publication and many also have the date the story was received by Dick's agent. This is most useful for those studying Dick's work as opposed to just reading it, but even for readers these help put some of the stories into context of the author's overall oeuvre.

So if you like Phil Dick's other shorts then you will not be disappointed in this collection.  If you are new to Philip Dick, and can take in your stride that he is speaking to us from over half a century ago, then you will be reading one of the stalwarts of mid-20th century, American SF.  It is therefore good to see that, over half a century on, we can still get new reprints of the Philip Dick's books.  Well done Gollancz.

Jonathan Cowie

 


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