The Angel of Mons

My look at Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” concludes with a review of a book detailing how Machen’s fiction became a modern myth.

Review: The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians, David Clarke, 2004.Angel of Mons

On September 29, 1914, Arthur Machen presented a bit of “indifferent piping” to the world, his story “The Bowmen”.

Twenty years later he found himself still talking about that piece of fiction, arguing that there was “not one word of truth in it”.

Machen’s story had become legend, one of the great legends of the twentieth century, claimed as true in history books and an official Belgium guidebook and from the pulpit. An army of angels saved the British Expeditionary Force from annihilation by the German Army at the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The Germans were slowed (though more by the retreating BEF than at the battle itself), the Schlieffen Plan stalled, and the French and British achieved one of the pivotal victories of world history at the First Battle of the Marne.

Clarke lays out a clear, well-written chronological account on how Machen’s fiction became a legend of hope and conciliation, a story that stayed in the minds of the British military until the early days of the Cold War.

Clarke starts by tracking the idea of divine intervention in battle, especially miraculous forms in the sky, in European culture: stories from the Old Testament, the Maccabee Rebellion, Republican Rome, the English Civil War, the Jacobite Rebellion of 1744, and right up to the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.

On Sunday, August 23, 1914, the British Army met the Germans at Mons. Outnumbered three to one, the BEF defended a salient. During that day, it lost about 1,500 men. The German Army suffered at least 5,000 casualties.

The British then started out on the Great Retreat, a long, hot, sleepless march while pursued by the German. It went from August 24th through the 25th.

On Sunday, August 30th, word of the battle finally reached the British public.

Arthur Machen woke up that day to see this headline in the Weekly Dispatch:

THE TRUTH FROM THE BRITISH ARMY – Tidal Wave of German Troops – Need for the Country to Grasp the Danger – British Wall of Steel Remains Unbroken – Infantry’s ‘Withering Fire’.

“The Bowmen” was not the first story Machen was inspired to write by the war. Initially, he started on “The Dazzling Light” but didn’t finish it until 1915. He did write “The Ceaseless Bugle Call”, regarded by some as a trial run for “The Bowmen”, and it was published on September 17, 1914. Clarke calls it a story. It’s not. I got a copy and read it. It’s a journalist essay though he’s right that it shares elements with “The Bowmen”: medieval figures and reference to St. George specifically.

He conceived of “The Soldier’s Rest” in August 1914 and much preferred it to “The Bowmen”. The literary model for the latter was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Lost Legion”.

Machen’s story is not of angels appearing in the sky to protect the BEF from the Germans. It is bowmen, evoked by a prayer to St. George, from the Battle of Agincourt that rain arrows down on the Germans.

Interested in the Middle Ages, it is understandable Machen would think of St. George. He was born in the Welsh town of Caerleon. Legends going back to the eight century AD said St. George visited there.

Mons also had a St. George connection. It was said to be the place where St. George slew the dragon. Perhaps, as the German army advanced that Sunday, the locals prayed to him.

And Welsh bowmen would have been on Machen’s mind because August 26th was the anniversary of the Battle of Crecy, a battle they provided crucial and non-spectral aid in.

Also the Machen whose byline appeared in the newspaper on September 29th was not thought of as a writer of significant weird fiction. Most of his greatest work was written in the 1890s, and the revival of his reputation was in the future. This Machen had been a journalist since 1910.

And “The Bowmen” was presented in a journalistic voice, the details explicitly omitted because of “the Censorship”. Nor was the story labelled as fiction though another story in the same newspaper was.

Britain was a land rife with rumors at the beginning of the war: German spy rings, phantom German fleets and zeppelins, underground German bases in England, and, my favorite, the rumor of trains packed with Russian troops, “snow still on their boots”, heading for the Western Front.

The last was specifically mocked on September 15th by Machen. Writing in a newspaper about it, he foreshadowed what he would later find with the proponents of the Angel of Mons:

You met a man who knew a man who had seen the Russians, and this should have aroused our suspicions. … You mustn’t tell us what the soldier said. It isn’t evidence.

Machen would take up the theme of a Britain haunted by rumors about the war in his later novel The Terror.

It didn’t take long for the evolution from fiction to “fact” to occur. People were already asking Machen in October 1914 whether his story was based on anything true. His reply was always the same. He’d made it up. And, as Machen would lay out in 1915 in his The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, there was not a shred of evidence for people claiming to see the Angel of Mons before his story was published.

Clarke looks at three accounts of visions at Mons to see if there is any evidence of angels in the sky. One mentions a “large white light”, but it also goes on to say “it certainly was not angels”. Another talks of a “long line of white forms”. A third mentions

the figure of a woman in a queer poke bonnet and bright blue skirt, who repeatedly got in the line of fire.

None are contemporaneous to the event or lack the names of specific people and places.

Clarke traces how a fiction of divine intervention and bowmen in the sky became the “truth” of angels.

On the retreat from Mons, men did see angels. (Besides mistakenly characterizing “The Ceaseless Bugle Call” as a story, the other minor flaw in Clarke’s book is his summary of the battle. He doesn’t give a specific timeframe for the battle. Was it just August 23rd or is the two  day retreat also included? Other accounts of the battle I’ve read seem to consider it occurring only on the 23rd.) They saw a lot of things as they hallucinated from thirst, stress, and sleeplessness: bright lights, troops moving beside the road they marched down, imaginary arches over that road or sheets of water on either side of it, or phantom villages. Private Frank Richards, in his 1964 memoir Old Soldiers Never Die, noted

We retired all night with fixed bayonets, many sleeping as they marching along. If any angels were seen on the Retirement, as the newspaper accounts said they were, they were seen that night.

Visions of ministering angels and women in the sky and Machen’s story and the need for conciliation and the religiosity of the time morphed Machen’s story. His claim it was all fiction, that there was no evidence for angelic intervention – and he was a man who was ready to believe in miracles — was met with hostility.

Two major opponents to Machen’s skepticism emerged.

One was Phyllis Campbell, a nurse who claimed to have specific and contemporaneous evidence for the Angel. At best, she was a drama-seeking and self-deluded young woman of the type Vera Brittain mentions in her memoir Testament of Youth. At worst, she was a liar. She never did present the evidence she claimed.

The other was Harold Begbie who would write, in retort to Machen, On the Side of the Angels. But all the evidence he presented lacked the necessary contemporary documentation or specificity. Eventually, he ended up arguing that Machen only thought he had invented the story. He really had psychically received the truth from the Battle of Mons and used it in his story.

The story enjoyed life after the war. One man in 1930 claimed there had been a vision at Mons – and it was projected on the sky by German airplanes, a propaganda effort gone bad when the British mistook a figure intended to be a Madonna blessing the Germans to be St. George. (The French supposedly thought it was Joan of Arc.) The story was probably inspired by our old friend “Death Ray Matthews” projecting movies into the sky. In fact, on Christmas Day 1930, he projected angels above Hampstead Heath.

But there was always one straw the believers could cling to. There was one contemporaneous account of the Angels, dated and from a named source.

Brigadier-General John Charteris quoted, in his 1931 memoir At GHQ, an account of serving on General Haig’s staff as Chief Intelligence Officer, a letter of his:

 . . . the story of the ‘Angel of Mons’ going strong through the II Corps of how the angel of the Lord on the traditional white horse, and clad all in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade their further progress.  Men’s nerves and imagination play weird pranks these strenuous times.  All the same the angel at Mons interests me. I cannot find out how the legend arose.

Dated September 5, 1914, it met the requirements of existing before Machen’s story.

The trouble is Charteris admitted in the same book that he kept no formal diaries for that time, that his memoirs were revised based on his recollections. Though a fervent letter writer to his wife and others, no letters written and dated by him exist in his papers at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s University in London for the time between September 5, 1914 and February 11, 1915.

There is reason to believe that Charteris may have had a keen interest in Machen’s story as a propaganda tool. There is some evidence to believe that Charteris, in his intelligence role, helped spread morale boosting rumors like those Russians with the snow-covered boots and the Angel of Mons. Charteris did admit, after the war, to concocting the infamous Cadaver Factory rumor which had Germans recycling dead bodies for munitions and animal feed.

In a highly readable form with a fairly comprehensive index and with some photos, Clarke shows the importance of going back to the primary documents when researching tales of the strange and Fortean.

An indispensable book for those interested in the Angel of Mons legend and the strange mutation that overtook Machen’s story.

If you don’t want to read the whole book, you can check out Clarke’s writing about the Angel of Mons on his blog.

 

More reviews of World War One related titles are indexed at the World War One page.

Advertisements

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Bowmen”

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Bowmen”, Arthur Machen, 1914.

The war was not yet two months old Arthur Machen when published his story. As the story alludes to, trenches were already being dug though, of course, they were not the extensive trenchworks that later in 1914 extended from Switzerland to the English Channel.

However other, later realities of the war, the ones that became iconic and symbolic shorthand in later stories of the fantastic, do not show up: muddy trenches, assaults into a leaden storm of machine gun bullets or the steel storm of an artillery barrage, or fields clotted with barbed wire. Continue reading

“The Lost Legion”

The series on Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” continues with a look at its literary model.

Review: “The Lost Legion”, Rudyard Kipling, 1891.Rudyard Kiplings Tales of Horror

When researching Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen”, I discovered that this story was his model.

The similarities are very basic. In both, a military encounter is decided by specters from the past.

However, perhaps because Machen used a journalistic voice and his story became overly familiar because it transmuted into the legend of the Angel of Mons – a process I’ll be looking at in a future post, this tale excited me more.

Kipling, as you would expect of a man of his poetic talents, frequently has a nice turn of phrase. Kipling’s story benefits from its details of the British expedition with its English and Goorkha troops and native cavalry.

The story starts out by recounting how a mutinous Sepoy detachment in the Great Sepoy Rebellion went to Afghanistan to incite the locals to join it in sacking Delhi. Continue reading

The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War

The Philip K. Dick series will resume in the future.

For now, though, I’m actually putting out something new for the first time in over three months.

This is the first of four posts centering around Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen”. They’re already written, and I’ll put out one a day.

This may seem familiar to long time readers of the blog. The original entry had some factual errors in it, so I’m making corrections based on my recent research.

This collection came as part of the giant (in terms of megabytes) ebook The Works of Arthur Machen from Delphi Classics.

I came to it as part of a research for an article on fantastic fiction dealing with World War One and written by authors who were adults during the war. (The article  was published at Innsmouth Free Press.)

Eventually, I’ll take a closer look at the other stories besides “The Bowmen” in this collection.

Review: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, Arthur Machen, 1915.The Angels of Mons

When you talk about fantastic fiction and the First World War, Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” is the ur-story.

It may be the most known work of primary fiction to come out of that war. The only other contender I can think of is, mostly because of its title and the movie adaptations, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. But how many know Machen’s story or have read it?

You may never have read a word of Machen and know this story: retreating British soldiers in the early days of World War One are protected from pursuing Germans by an angelic army appearing in the sky.

I think I first came across the story as a grade schooler reading a Twilight Zone comic book digest. (And, if that isn’t true, it will be a “fact” in the future thanks to the wonders of search engines.)

Except that’s not Machen’s story. That’s the folklore it created.

In his introduction, a bemused and mostly annoyed Machen talks about how his story became a legend.

In his story, British soldiers, the “Eighty Thousand”, occupy a key salient under attack by the Germans. They expect to die. One, musing on a picture of St. George he saw in a London restaurant, thinks of St. George’s motto “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Geogius — May St. George be a present help to the English”.

Next think you know, the din of battle lessens and bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt appear in the sky and kill the advancing Germans.

Note, bowmen — not angels. (Machen, a Welshman notes that, to be historically accurate, the bowmen of that battle should have spoken Welsh and not French.) In modified versions of the legend, arrows are found in the bodies of the dead Germans. Machen says he considered that for his story — and rejected it as too over the top.

Machen spends a lot of the introduction — written, based on internal evidence, about June 1915 — debunking the Angel of Mons stories and how none of them can be documented to have existed before his story was published on September 29, 1914. It’s not, says Machen, that he’s a disbeliever in the supernatural. He just sees no evidence for the truth of the Angel stories.

It is this introduction that Forbes Phillips was responding to in War and the Weird, Phillips, of course, being a believer in the Angel of Mons.

The other three stories in the collection are nothing special as Machen works or supernatural fiction in general. They do have the merit of being short and not stretching their premises into tedium.

German beastliness in Belgium and the consolation of a heavenly reward for self-sacrifice on the battlefield are the themes of “The Soldiers’ Rest“, a story conceived in August 1914 and preferred by Machen over “The Bowmen”.

More German barbarism is at the center of “The Monstrance“, specifically, in its explicit use of Christian symbols, the notion that Germans are a menace to not only civilization but that religion as well.

Next to “The Bowmen”, “The Dazzling Light” is the most interesting. It hearkens back to the medieval tradition of dream stories as in Langland’s Piers the Plowman. Lieutenant Smith falls asleep on holiday on the coast of Wales on August 16, 1914. His peculiar vision is

of men in various types of armour, carrying maces and metal balls about their waists and with crossbows

on the battlefields in France.

It is, of course, not a real prediction by Machen via Smith but a retrodiction of the peculiar medieval aspect trench warfare took on through troops’ clubs, knives, grenades (those metal balls), grenade throwers (those crossbows) and even, in some cases, metal armor.

The collection ends with a wistful, short essay: “The Bowmen and Other Noble Ghosts”. It’s attributed to “The Londoner”. That would seem to be Oswald “Londoner” Barron, a medievalist and friend of Machen. Both men wrote for the (London) Evening News. Barron laments that stories of the war are all that is written now and how he no longer writes about Greece.

Actually, the book doesn’t entirely end there. In a postscript, responding to Miss Phyllis Campbell’s article “The Angelic Leaders” in the magazine The Occult Review, Machen takes one more swipe at believers in the Angel of Mons legend.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Clans of the Alphane Moon

And the PKD still continues.

Raw Feed (1990): Clans of the Alphane Moon, Philip K. Dick, 1964.Clans of the Alphane Moon

This was an enjoyable Dick read.

It’s bizarre story of a vicious marriage was enjoyable, skewed, and, at times, horrific. This broken relationship, desperate writer, scheming plot (perhaps too much), insane character novel is typical Dick.

True, Dick doesn’t do enough with the very interesting idea of a moon of insane people, intrigues too much with Bunny Hentmann and the CIA in the middle part of the novel, but the slime mold, the obsessive ideas of murder and sadism, and a working society of madmen make a delightful read.

We Can Remember You For Wholesale:  An Afterword to Dick’s Clans of the Alphane Moon“, Barry N. Malzberg — This is the first Malzberg criticism I’ve read. Though he was Dick’s friend (so I gather), I disagree with some, but not all, of his contentions.

I disagree with Malzberg’s statement that the novel makes no sense. Nor do I agree that Dick’s stories aren’t serious explorations of painful, disturbing emotions and relationships or that his novels are somehow intended to “self-destruct”. Dick was never a terribly popular writer with the majority of sf readers. Dick did not emotionally cater to his readers. Continue reading

The Simulacra

Raw Feed (1989): The Simulacra, Philip K. Dick, 1964.Simulacra 

The worst Philip K. Dick novel I’ve read to date.

It was obvious what Dick was trying to do. His main inspiration, I’ll wager, was William Manchester’s The Arms of Krupp (or, if not that specific book, the same historical topic).  The book is paralleled on the Nazi political structure, its various battling factions, and its industrialist underpinnings. Dick also speculated on the nature of media and psychology in American politics.

Dick produces a wandering plot with a real conflict introduced only about half way through the story and one of Dick’s notoriously ambivalent endings; this one is very reminiscent of Dick’s The Penultimate Truth.

Surprisingly enough, Dick doesn’t even produce any memorable characters and few memorable scenes. Continue reading

Martian Time-Slip

The PKD series continues with a look at one of his best.

Raw Feed (1989): Martian Time-Slip, Philip K. Dick, 1964.Martian

I’ve had a reluctance to read this novel since it didn’t sound very interesting, but it turned out to be one of Dick’s best.

The scenes of the world through schizophrenic eyes were the best; they were powerful, eerie, frightening, and creepy. Manfred Steiner’s entropic view of life was scary, compelling and a very original view of madness. Jack Bohlen was also a well-drawn character, damaged, being sucked back into the world of schizophrenia.

The death of Norbert Steiner was quite unexpected, and his suicide bleak and poignant.

Even the women in this book, in addition to being real characters as always in Dick’s work, were not grubbing, unsympathetic, or man-devouring. Doreen Anderton gives Jack Bohlen some much needed understanding though they part at story’s end. Sylvia Bohlen, though she is driven to an adulterous liaison out of loneliness and boredom, stays married to Jack at novel’s end, and their marriage is stronger. The union is reaffirmed, a denial of Jack’s alienating psychosis.

In fact, though the novel’s ends unhappily for Arnie Kott — he’s murdered — the general end tone is positive. Continue reading

We Can Build You

And the PKD series continues.

You’ll just have to take my word that new stuff in the pipeline.

Raw Feed (1989): We Can Build You, Philip K. Dick, 1972.We Can Build You

A depressing Dick novel of a doomed, one-sided love affair that also had the usual Dick humor, realistic dialogue, and superb characterization.

The character of Pris Frauenzimmer, a selfish, withdrawn, calculating, mercurial woman, was very well done. She was not the usual devouring woman of Dick’s fiction but an object of doomed, illogical love on Louis Rosen’s part.

As the Jungian influenced psychobabble of Dr. Nisea says, Pris is the projection of contradictory abstract archetypes: cold, selfish, sterile in love yet the creator of the superbly realized, thoughtful, gentle, kind Abe Lincoln simulacra. (The simulacrums of Stanton and Lincoln were wonderful characters, and the source of much humor and philosophical speculation.) However, Pris, contrary to Nisea’s theory, is not the projection of these archetypes but an actual embodiment, and she exerts a powerful influence on Rosen, and her acid comments lend some to the book’s humor though her personality ultimately dooms the would-be romance on Rosen’s part.

Rosen’s fatigue and anxiety were splendidly drawn and very recognizable. (If you read enough of Dick and his neurotic and/or psychotic characters and their recognizable, realistic foibles, you begin to question your own sanity.) [The older Marzaat is quite confident of his own sanity. Of others … ]   Continue reading

Solar Lottery

The PKD series continues with a look at his first published novel.

Raw Feed (1989): Solar Lottery, Philip K. Dick, 1955.Solar Lottery

Given all of Dick’s own statements and complaints about the supposed bad quality of this novel, I was expecting a bad read.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Dick creates an intriguing  society ruled by lottery, social Darwinism, and the economics of conspicuous consumption. (Frederick Pohl also addressed the absurdity of conspicuous consumption in The Midas Plague.) Dick postulates economic depression eroding people’s faith in natural law and a political system based entirely on chance emerging. People also become absurdly superstitious. The omens at the novel’s beginning are very Roman like as is the social feature of patronage mentioned in passing.

The application of von Neumann’s game theory to society was interesting. I know little about his mathematical theories, but I have seen other references to them in sf stories of the early fifties. I’d like to know about their application in the Korean War. [Specifically, Ralph Williams’ “Pax Galactica” involves game theory and alludes to its use in the Korean War.]

Dick’s political order is randomness and survival of the fittest incarnate. Continue reading

Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities

The PKD series continues with a rather expensive academic book that I loaned out and never saw again.

Don’t loan your books out, kids.

Raw Feed (1989): Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, eds. Patricia S. Warwick and Martin H. Greenberg, 1984.Robots Androids

Introduction“, Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg — Despite the glib and (at least as far as I can tell from my reading of Dick’s work so far) silly assertion that Dick’s war robots are similar to machines planned by the military and the retreading of the now familiar analysis of Dick’s theme (the nature of reality and humanity), this introduction did have two valid observations. [The older Marzaat certainly thinks we have lurched a lot closer to Dick’s killer machines.] The first is that Dick believed that to preserve your humanness you had to forswear allegiance to any ideology, be unpredictable (unlike the machine which is programmed for predictability), unconstrained by predictability. This explains the characterization of Dick’s protagonists whom we are supposed to empathize with. The second is the point that Dick has a definite propensity to confuse the line between human and machine (a crucial element of his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) with machines being quite human and humans being cold and unempathetic.

The Little Movement” — More of a fantasy than sf story . We never find out exactly where the toy soldiers come from, their larger purpose, or if they are part of a larger plot. This story is not particularly moving, but it does show some Dick characteristics: the dangerous toy whose harmless appearance is deceiving; mysterious, battling forces present in the universe with humans in the middle; and the hint of Dick’s concern with individual perceptions of the world with the in passing reference to the different worlds of adults and children. And, of course, there is a oh-so Dick baroque plot twist at the end.

The Defenders” — I’d heard about this story and read Dick’s The Penultimate Truth so the main plot feature of this story — that robots were faking a war to keep humans underground — was not a surprise. What was a surprise is, unlike in The Penultimate Truth, the robots are not doing this at the behest of manipulative, selfish masters but for altruistic reasons. Ironically, Dick, the anti-authoritarian, sees the initiation of the One World state as good and his characters pragmatically unite to rebuild the destruction and wildly exalt in the possibilities of the future. Unlike the vicious robots of The Penultimate Truth, these robots are kind but firm and view man as needing one final temper tantrum before uniting into one culture. (I don’t buy Dick’s argument that cultures who lose moral goals opt to civil war.) [I’d say it’s when cultures differ on moral goals.]

The Preserving Machine” — A light hearted story (with a black statement) showing Dick’s love of music. I fully agree with music being a wonderful, terribly fragile product of culture. [No, I’m not sure what younger self meant by “terribly fragile” — subject to the availability of technology? musicians?] I liked the fantastic notion of a machine turning music into animals (with oddly appropriate results including the final scene of the Beethoven beetle building a mud hut). Yet the story has a odd, rather depressing theme if I’m interpreting it right: the beautiful products of man’s cultures — the art, ethics, philosophy — are all fragile and, like living forms, respond to evolutionary pressures of the environment and mutate into unrecognizable forms. Dick’s depressing conclusion seems to be that art is doomed. He ties this into a curious religious point: that God must have felt humiliation and sadness at seeing his creation in the Garden of Eden respond to evolutionary pressure. A strange conclusion I’m not sure I agree with. But I do agree culture is fragile.

Second Variety” — If you read enough Philip K. Dick, you begin to become familiar with some of the turnings of his mind, anticipate his plot twists. That was partially the case here. I did immediately suspect the first David (with the disturbingly lethal Teddy bear) of being a crab. Towards the end I suspected Tasso. However, Dick still managed to catch me by surprise with Klaus being a crab, and I thought Dick was going to be sneaky and simply have no second variety crab — have the implication of the second variety’s existence be a plot to demoralize both sides and create general paranoia. Speaking of paranoia, this had some fine, powerful moments of such on a par with John Carpenter’s The Thing. The plot of robotic soldiers slaughtering humans while disguised as such reminding me of another movie: The Terminator (at least as much resemblance as Harlan Ellison’s “Soldier”). [Harlan Ellison famously sued director James Cameron which is why later prints of the movie acknowledge the works of Harlan Ellison.] Dick did a very effective job of describing the bleak, post-nuclear landscape and the violence, confusion, and rush of combat. Clearly the crabs are a stark example of Dick’s theme of thanatos: they are animal-like creatures utterly dedicated to destroying life, the ultimate realization of the Frankenstein theme, a weapon turned against both sides. They may, has Major Hendricks implies, have unrealized potentialities they will realize after the war, but we don’t see them. Indeed, the fact, like all other life forms, they’ve taken to killing each other seems a good thing at story’s end. However, that introduces an ambiguous note: are the crabs just another life form (they certainly are creepy) albeit made of metal? Has man introduced them only in his folly? Or has he served as a creator, passing man’s torch on (probably not a valid reading given Dick’s stated use of the robot/android metaphor)? Tasso does say we always did nice work. Irony or gratitude from created to creator? Ah, that Dick ambiguity. I do not, incidentally, see Tasso — as the story notes state — as a prototype for Dick’s consuming female. The characterization isn’t very similar.

Imposter” — A line from Blade Runner (though not scripted by Dick it accurately conveys his sensibilities) kept coming to mind when reading this: “How can it not know what it is?” Despite the rather telegraphing title, knowledge of Dick’s plotting proclivities, and a vague knowledge of this story from reading past criticisms, this story still caught me by surprise at the end. I thought, all through the story, that Spence Olham was a robot but, at story’s end when the real Olham’s body is first thought to be the robot’s, I thought he was human. Dick gets you whatever your original preconception was — a typical feature of his stories. I thought the portrayal of a self-deceived machine feeling unjustly persecuted was poignant. I also found it ironical that self-knowledge was what finally triggered the U-Bomb. A notion occurred to me that the robot could be a metaphor for all those evil people who really, truly don’t feel they’re evil, a threat, and are being persecuted.

Service Call” — This is one of those stories about a visitor from the future who can’t even really be questioned because human culture has changed so much. I liked this story a great deal. The idea of eliminating war (an extreme manifestation of disagreement) by imposing ideological (of whatever flavor) conformity is ironic given Dick’s values. He hated war, but he also hated conformity. This story has some of the moral ambiguity of Dick’s “The Last of the Masters“: good achieved at perhaps too high a cost. The idea of having a machine, willingly buying it, to insure your ideological conformity is both scary and funny (“Why be half loyal?”) and great entertainment. The end, with the swibble consortium securing their past, was unexpected.

Autofac” — Another very good story in which Dick invests his machines with animal-like qualities. Here the autofacs (I was reminded of the delightfully crazed autofac — the only part of the novel I really remember — in Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny’s Dies Irae.) plan, war (like the crabs in “Second Variety” waging war on each other seems a major step in becoming another lifeform), and reproduce. This is another story of Dick’s where people try to thrust off oppression, succeed, and don’t get the expected results. Rebellion, good, evil are not clear cut things in Dick’s life. There is also an intriguing element of satire: the factories of production protecting themselves, reproducing, serving humans second, an economic system perpetuating itself. Given Dick’s view and economic separation) from the conspicuous consumption of the fifties, this is an outsider’s disapproving look at that cultural phenomenon (this story was written in 1956). I also thought Dick’s description of the bleak, blasted landscape and the many trappings of the autofacs was quite effective.

To Serve the Masters” — This is another one of Dick’s many stories with an ambiguous ending. The robots may have been irrationally destroyed by man because of religious fanaticism or they may have truly been a threat to man. There is a hint, as the story’s introduction says, that the former is true with the brutality of the humans. There is little more to this story than Dick’s well-crafted (the injured robot was rather poignant) ambiguity and plot twists.

War Game” — This is another of Dick’s lethal (well, here only subversive) toy stories.  The idea of a Monopoly-like game that manipulates people psychologically to facilitate economic conquest via surrender was interesting, but Dick didn’t sufficiently work out the details of how the game could do so. Maybe Dick’s point was the power of games to shape world views.

The Electric Ant” — I disagree with Warrick’s and Greenberg’s contention that this is the most important and powerful short story in Dick’s corpus. I can think of better stories in this anthology alone. It certainly is, as they say, quintessential Dick, but this story has several problems which make it a prime example of Dick’s thematic obsessions imperfectly realized in a story. Dick entirely ignores the question of pre-destination which logically arises from the plot. If all of Garson Poole’s stimuli are punched on tape then all of his stimuli is predetermined. Also Dick, in the act of expressing his theme, ignores the idea of blocked perception not being the same as the unperceived object not existing. Dick, I believe following the path of Hume (but I couldn’t say for sure being woefully ignorant of philosophy) equates unperceived with non-existence. Also, someone had to construct Poole so there is an objective reality somewhere. This story exhibits too much ambition on Dick’s part. He tries to incorporate too much of his philosophical concerns at the expense of the story which is interesting but ultimately a failure.

The Exit Door Leads In” — A strange, at times funny, story by Dick of a college of the future where the moral and psychological education of an individual is even more important than vocational knowledge. (The idea of an institution conducting secret moral and psychological tests is hardly a new one in sf.) You kind of feel sorry and depressed at Bob Bibleman’s (an obvious bit of symbolism, the Bible being the ultimate manifestation of institutionally encoded morality) fate. Dick makes us empathize with him and then assigns him back to the dump mercilessly. In most sf stories of this type, the protagonist passes the secret test. Bibleman disappoints Mary Lorne and gets the cold approval of a robot at story’s end. When the test was revealed, I thought Dick was going to go for a typical — for him — ending and make you wonder if the Panther Engine was real and Bibleman’s expelling a retaliation or if the stated facts were true.

Frozen Journey” — A fitting end for the anthology. This story of a man wracked by guilt and plagued by an increasingly inaccurate perception of reality seems a spiritual autobiography of Dick in his last years. [Let me repeat that Tim Powers, who knew Dick in his last years, said he was definitely not crazy.] Victor Kemming’s life of fear and anxiety, of spiritual visitations, of agony over his complicity in the death of a bird (a pointed reminder of how Dick valued life), seems Dick incarnate. The story is quite sad in its depiction of psychological deterioration and severed relationships. Like Dick’s life, it is poignant and blackly funny.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.