The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 4

Evidently there is an appetite for more reviews of Philip K. Dick stories, so here’s another retro review.

This one is from January 29, 2004.

Review: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 4: The Minority Report, Philip K. Dick, 1988.PKD V5

It’s tempting to say that these stories from 1954, 1955, 1958, and 1963 represent great periods of prolific creativity for Dick and the working out of themes and ideas that later found their way into his more famous novels. But Dick was more often than not prolific and frequently recycled motifs and themes and even character names from stories into novels. What the Dick scholar will find here is a growing emphasis, at least in the short story format, on illusion and fakery, the seeds of some of Dick’s novels, and, for the first time, stories which convey the frequent despair and desperation of those novels.

But the Dick fan and scholar is going to read this collection as a matter of course. What does it offer for those just discovering Dick or his casual readers?

Of course, there is the famous title story. However, with it, Dick seems more interested in posing a logic puzzle based on the implications of precognition than making a serious political statement even though the story features much more political intrigue than the movie based on it. Indeed, with it and several Dick stories here, one gets the sense that the political struggles between various government agencies owe a lot to a study of the Soviet Union or, more probably, the Third Reich. There are other minor stories: “Stand-By” and a rare sequel, “What’ll We Do With Ragland Park?”. Their main attraction is Dick’s weird speculation on future media — prophecies which don’t seem far from the mark 40 years later. The “news clown” of these stories doesn’t seem, apart from his makeup, that different from our late night comedy hosts in America. But then the listings in TV Guide often remind me of Dick. They also show Dick’s fondness for theorizing odd mutations of American government. Here the President has been replaced by computer.

In “Novelty Act”, the nation is ruled by a permanent First Lady who inflicts her cultural tastes on America via public tv. She’s mistress, wife, and mother to the nation, many of whom long to audition their talents at the White House. Later incorporated into the novel The Simulacra, it is the first story of Dick’s that doesn’t just mention the despair and desperation of its hero but induces them in the reader as effectively as many of his novels do.

There’s also some political fakery afoot in the story and that theme is echoed in “The Mold of Yancy” (reworked for The Penultimate Truth), which features a culture built around a doggedly anodyne Eisenhowerish everyman, and “If There Were No Benny Cemoli”. The latter is one of the book’s highlights and, against a background of searching for war criminals on a devastated Earth, built around the proposition that reality is what the New York Times says it is. The spirit of a dead businessman haunts the mediasphere and a political convention in “What the Dead Men Say”. It reminded me of some of the loas in early William Gibson.

Fakery of a forensic sort is the idea of “The Unreconstructed M”. The idea of a robot built to leave clues designed to frame someone for murder was intriguing. However, because the story goes on too long and into unnecessary tangents, this is also minor Dick.

At this point in the short story part of his career, Dick seems to be less interested in mutants and berserk machines than before. Still, we get an automated command and control economy that needs reprogramming in “Autofac”, and “Recall Mechanism” explores the link between precognitive mutants and certain psychological tics.

The science fiction story device used most often here is time travel. “Service Call” has some engineers getting a disturbing glimpse at the future of conformity machinery. Or, as the ad says, “Why be half loyal?”. “Captive Market” has a miserly shopkeeper who only sees a profit where others see a horrifying future.

Time travel gets mixed with meta-science fiction in a couple of uncharacteristic Dick stories. In “Waterspider”, time travelers come back to snatch Dick’s friend Poul Anderson because, you see, all science fiction writers are unconscious precognitives, and they need his help on an experimental space project. This story drops plenty of famous names and even mentions Dick’s inspiration, A. E. van Vogt. “Orpheus with Clay Feet” works a witty variation on the idea of time travelers meeting famous artists of the past. Here uncreative people like our protagonist can take solace in inspiring great works of art if not creating them. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Here the artist is the greatest science fiction writer of all time, Jack Dowland.

“Explorers We”, somewhere in the middle range of quality, strikes one as a Twilight Zone episode about aliens’ failure to communicate. “Oh, To Be a Blobel!” is a story probably more famous then it deserves to be. Judging from Dick’s notes as to his intentions, it’s mostly a failure to illustrate the Nietzsche maxim about becoming a dragon when battling dragons. However, it works on other levels.

Along with “If There Were No Benny Cemoli”, the gem of the collection is “The Days of Perky Pat”. While children roam a landscape blighted by nuclear war and engage in useful pursuits like hunting and making knives, their parents are underground and expending their energy on making elaborate layouts for their Barbie-like Perky Pat dolls. Their infantile obsession with recreating the minutia of a vanished world is enabled by handy care packages dropped by benovelent Martians. Dick has some weirdly plausible things to say about play and the role of toys in our lives and mental health. This story also inspired Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

In some ways, the variety of themes here dilutes the power of Dick’s typical obsessions, especially the metaphor of machine as an anti-life force. There are also fewer really exceptional stories here than in the earlier volumes of this series. However, it is still as good an introduction to Dick as some of the collections he edited himself.

 

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

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