Fiction Reviews

Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader

Philip K. Dick (2007) Gollancz, 7.99, pbk, 438 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-8034-8


This is a new collection of Philip Dick short stories which has been brought together by Gollancz on the 25th anniversary of the great man's death and is billed as a Philip K. Dick reader. Though (obviously) all the stories are old, this collection is not a reprint of a previous assemblage. This, therefore, is a fresh cross-section of Dick's extensive body of short stories. To my shame, prior to this book, I only had three other collections of his shorts on my shelves, though of course his short stories appear in other SF anthologies so all in all I have read a few score of his stories. If you are in the same boat as myself, then you will probably find a few stories you have not come across before and only die-hard Dick collectors will find this new collection redundant. Having said this, despite past familiarity of around half of these, I decided to read each and every one as some of the stories I last enjoyed literally decades ago. This was a rewarding exercise.

As for the collection itself, it is a worthy one. First, the stories are presented in chronological order of their original publication albeit that there is a decided weighting to Dick's earlier writing. Yet the chronological order helps establish the collection as an anniversary look at the man's output of shorts across his career. Second, aside from 'The Variable Man' (66 pages) and 'Second Variety' (44 pages) all the stories were under 35 pages. It is a personal thing I know, but I like my short SF stories short and having only just a couple longer for variety was just fine by me. ('Couple', 'variety', 'Second Variety'.... Oh, suit yourselves...) My one, very minor, quibble was that while the (mystery) compiler could have chosen a number of different stories without any loss of worth, 'The Golden Man' was not included. I mention this because the film Next, that is only just out, is based on this short. So Gollancz seem to have missed a trick. Having said that, its editors are very knowledgeable people so I am sure there must be a good reason for this. (Probably copyright, length, another forthcoming collection or something.)

Now the stories:-

'Beyond Lies the Wub' (1952). Mankind's spacecraft explore the Galaxy very much like 18th century Europeans roam the World's oceans. On one world the natives sell an animal called a wub to a spaceship crew who are after fresh meat. However the wub may have some thoughts on the matter...   This story, for me, is a classic and one that I associate (probably wrongly in the strictest sense) with the Golden Age of SF.

'The Defenders' (1953). Deep in a bunker sheltering from the radiological aftermath of war, its occupants wonder whether something is wrong with the robots scavenging the surface and continuing the war by proxy...   Elements of this concept were further developed into Dick's 1964 novel The Penultimate Truth.

'Roog' (1953). Dustbin men are not perhaps what they seem. (I have to say I'm not sure I got this story's thrust and it may have cultural references specific to the US?)

'Second Variety' (1953). The Earth has been desolated by war and most of the population has either died or gone of to the Moon, but still the battle continues aided by ever more ingenious mechanical devices. Who though is fighting whom..?   This is the story on which the film Screamers was (reasonably faithfully) based.

'Impostor' (1953). Spence Oldham is unfairly suspected of being a robot created by the warring Alpha Centaurians but how can he prove he is who he is..?   Again a reasonably faithful (but a little dull) film was based on this story.

'The Preserving Machine' (1953). Music creates powerful emotions but could a machine be built that physically encapsulates music's essence?

''The Variable Man' (1953). It is the Proxima Canetaurians causing trouble this time in a finely balanced conflict. However computers predict that a window of opportunity is coming with matters going humanity's way. The trouble is that accidentally bringing someone forward to the present from the 20th century throws an unforeseen variable into the equations...

'Paycheck' (1953). Having undertaken an expensive and confidential industrial contract a worker completes his job and has his memory wiped. This would not be a problem as this is not an unusual procedure where secrecy is required. However instead of the big pay cheque he expected, he gets an assortment of odds and ends. Each of these bits and pieces, it transpires, help him. But how come...?   Again this was turned into a film with the same title.

'Adjustment Team' (1954). Arriving at work, a man finds that things are not as they seem and that reality is being manipulated. Can he escape the adjustment team?

'The Father Thing' (1954). A boy sees his father talking to himself in the garage, then later at tea (dinner) something like his father, but not his father, comes to the table...   Now it has to be said that this story seems to strongly resonate with the film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) whose inspiration is sometimes ascribed to Heinlein's novel The Puppet Masters (1951). Yet the elements of 'The Father Thing' are so similar to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers that one really has to wonder.

'Foster, You're Dead' (1955). In the midst of the cold war everyone expects nuclear annihilation. Fortunately everyone has the very latest nuclear shelter... That is everyone if they can afford it and next season's upgrade or new model.

'Human Is' (1955). Jill Herrick's husband is an unthinking and uncaring person and her marriage loveless. That is until he returns having been on a trip to Rexor IV...

'The Mold of Yancy' (1955). People on the moon Callisto take their stance from the homely and paternal-natured Yancy whose broadcasts help shape life. Investigators sent to Callisto are a little ruffled immediately on their arrival by the immigration officer seeing through their cover, but they continue with their mission. Life seems good on Callisto, but is Yancy really the best thing for the people?

'If There Were No Benny Cemoli' (1963). While mankind has gone to the stars folk back on Earth have had a war and are now re-building. Yet the rest of humanity out in the stars wants to find out who was responsible. However the team from Proxima Centauri soon finds out that this task is difficult as the re-building population just wants to get on with life. Nonetheless it does appear that someone called Benny Cemoli may have triggered the disaster. But does Benny exist?

'The Days of Perky Pat' (1963). Life in the bunkers is dull following the nuclear war. The basic food aid from the colonised Mars is also dull but plentiful. The big problem is finding things to do and so fantasizing about life before the bomb dropped preoccupies many of the adults. Such memories are encapsulated by the game 'Perky Pat'.   Then, one day it is discovered that a few bunkers away the folk play a different game. Is the Perky Pat team up for the challenge?

'Oh, To Be A Blobel' (1964). Following the war with the Blobels, veteran George Munster (name typo paragraph 5 edition collectors note) finds life difficult. This is because during the war he went undercover as a Blobel having been biologically altered. However he could not come back to being fully human and has to spend half a day in amorphous, jelly-like Blobel form. Fortunately a (robot/mechanoid) psychiatrist has the answer. Well, maybe... This is one of Dick's occasional farce comedies.

'We Can remember It For You Wholesale' (1966). Douglas Quail hankers to go to Mars. Not being able to afford it he does the next best thing and goes to Rekall for a set of false memories of him being a secret agent on a mission on Mars: it is a kind of fantasy virtual holiday. Yet it in the course of having the false memories implanted it becomes apparent that someone has already altered Quail's memories. Suddenly he is pursued and he has to find out what is going on...   Now this is the story on which the 1990 film Total Recall was loosely based. The short story itself does not have enough to sustain a feature length film and so understandably the film is very different. Yet credit to the filmmakers, they did enter into the spirit of at least elements of the story: the taxi driver, alien involvement (albeit very differently) and of course recall and the Mars secret agent cover. The film also had the Rekall receptionist electronically colour her nails: the story has a different part of her anatomy chromatically enhanced. (Well, Dick had style.)

'The Electric Ant' (1969). Following an accident to his hand, Garson Poole finds out he is an electric ant: an android. So, if he is not really a real person, is reality really real?

'A Little Something For Us Tempunauts' (1973). Time travel is just beginning but when a team is sent far into the future they only go a few days, just in time to see their own deaths in an explosion as their mission returns from the far future... (OK, have you got that?) The big question is whether they are stuck in some sort of a loop and, if they actually are, can they break out of it?

'The Pre-Persons' (1973). In an over-populated world those without souls (under 12 years of age), who have no parents or who are not wanted, are caught and put in a pound. If after a month they are not claimed or adopted then they are killed. One man cannot afford the license for his son who is taken and so he himself claims to have the mind of someone under 12, without a soul and so is a pre-person. This way he can be taken with, and not separated from, his son...   This is a chilling tale with obvious links to abortion concerns.

The afore stories do successfully capture some of the key themes running through Dick's work. These include: war (especially its aftermath), identity, robotics (and artificial sentience) as well as freedom and the state. In this sense this collection really serves its purported function of being a Philip Dick reader.

So having had our sampler of Dick -- I am tempted to say 'Dickensian' worlds -- what, if any, conclusions can one draw? Well, my overriding impression is that, despite it being over half a century since many of these stories were written, they are all still hugely entertaining today, and indeed relevant to today's concerns such as: war (especially its aftermath), identity, computing (and artificial sentience) as well as freedom and the state. Of course there are many aspects of these works that badly date them. This is hardly surprising given that since the last of these was written we launched probes to orbit and land on Mars, fly by Callisto and so forth. Quantum physics is still more than a little unsettling with unnerving implications as to the nature of reality. Could such have an impact on life? Well, only this spring it was found that a quantum phenomenon is at the heart of photosynthesis, the energy-processing system that drives life. Another thing that dates these stories is that often Dick presents us with a picture and then implies that something else is going on before adding a twist. Such plot devices are all too common in SF today. Yet we need to remember that this was not so with SF of the mid-twentieth century and earlier. So it is not so much that Dick's work is a little dated, rather that so much of modern SF draws on Dick: if you will, modern SF has caught up. The thing is you really need to read these stories so as to check this out for yourself. After all I am not really telling you this, as this is just an echo you are getting from electrons dancing around that box in front of you... Pay attention now.

Jonathan Cowie

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