The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 5: The Eye of the Sibyl

For the concluding volume in the this series on PKD short stories, you get a retro review from 2004.

Retro Review: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 5: The Eye of the Sibyl, 1987.PKD 5

Like the rest of this series, this fifth and last volume has most of the material arranged chronologically. If you didn’t know that, though, you’d think this was a book of ephemera, some literary odds and ends from a has-been author, some products that fell between the cracks during a distinguished career, a book only for Dick completists.

That’s a valid and a wrong impression. These stories from 1963 to 1981 come from a time when Dick was still producing great novels or, at the very least, interestingly quirky novels. Yet many of the stories here seem departures in theme and form and skill from Dick’s earlier works and even most of his novels from those 18 years. Many have never been published before; many were published in atypical venues, and many don’t have a lot of interest for those who don’t know about Dick’s life.

That’s not to say there aren’t strong stories here.  “The Little Black Box” introduces some of the ideas, with its religion of Mercerism — technologically mediated empathy and communion without salvation, that show up in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Those who see Dick as sort of a modern gnostic will find “Faith of Our Fathers” evidence of their belief. Its protagonist meets up with what seems an evil Demiurge who is masquerading as the ruler of world ascendant communism. “Not By Its Cover” is a humorous story about sentient wub pelts that insist on altering the texts of books they bind. And “Holy Quarrel” sees Dick at the top of his paranoid form as a computer repairman seeks why a military computer wants to launch a nuclear strike on Northern California. The answer may involve the sinister conspiracy of a gumball salesman.

There is a second tier of stories that don’t successfully maintain their logic or tone but are still interesting to read. Paranoia again rears its head in “Return Match“. A pinball machine alters itself, through evolutionary design, to kill its player. “The Electric Ant” is a man who has discovered he’s a robot and begins to alter the computer punch tape providing his stimuli. Not surprisingly, with the pitfalls of working with the idea of a world where time runs in reverse, Dick slips in his logic with “Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday“, later incorporated into Counter-Clock World , though the failing is from a detail involving whiskers and not the main plot.

Then there are the stories which are enjoyable but nothing special — at least not from Dick. “The War with the Fnools” shows the effect of liquor, sex, and tobacco on invading aliens and is another fairly rare example of Dick setting out to write a conciously humorous story. “Precious Artifact” extends Dick’s characteristic simulacra to pets. “A Game of Unchance” reminds one of Dick’s friend Ray Bradbury in that in combines carnivals and Mars. “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” is the hope of a space voyager who is unexpectedly conscious during his intended suspended animation. A computer, in the interest of perserving the traveler’s sanity, feeds him recreations of his memories — recreations his neurotic personality insists on corrupting. “Rautavaara’s Case” highlights the increasing use of Christian themes and images — or their gnostic variations — in Dick’s later writings. Here aliens conduct some experimental theology on a woman they have resurrected and introduce her to their strange reversal of the Christian communion.

That use of Christian themes is most pronounced in Dick’s VALIS works. He produced three novels inspired by a strange experience he had in 1974 as well as two of the stories here. “Chains of Air, Web of Aether” shows the realistic resentment and fear of a man caring for a dying neighbor. It was later included in the VALIS novel The Divine Invasion. “The Eye of the Sibyl” opens very unlike any other Dick story — as an historical fantasy, specifically one set in the Roman Republic — and then changes into the life of Phil the science fiction writer trapped in the Iron Prison World of 1974.

The sense that we are reading very personal stories, the working out of autobiographical problems and anger, is strong in this collection.  Like “The Eye of the Sibyl”, “Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked” was unpublished before now. This fantasy seems to say a lot about Dick, a man married five times, and his need for and suspicion of women. “The Pre-Persons” was published in Dick’s lifetime and to great controversy. But, on multiple readings, this story, even if you agree with Dick’s strong anti-abortion position, seems just as much an indictment of all women as “castrating females” as about the ethics of abortion. “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” is a strong story not for projecting ennui about the space program onto a government time travel project but for its utterly convincing portrayal of a man so depressed that he wants to condemn himself and his fellow time travelers to one eternal moment — observing their own funerals. Dick says the story came from his own experience of “futility about futility”. “The Day Mr. Computer Fell Out of Its Tree” is not autobiographical but self-referential as the central computer, which controls the machinery of a future world, may be going berserk because its been consuming “old Phil Dick science fiction stories”. “Strange Memories of Death” seems to be more of an essay than a story, fantastical or otherwise, as its narrator contemplates what, besides money, sets him apart from the eccentric Lysol Lady who is about to be evicted from his apartment building. I suspect it was inspired by Dick finally, towards the end of his life, coming into some money.

Dick engages in some uncharacteristic experiments of form here.  “A Terran Odyssey” is an unpublished condensation, minus the Walt Dangerfield parts, of Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney. “The Story to End All Stories for Harlan Ellison’s Anthology Dangerous Visions” is a one paragraph short short story.

The odd places two stories first appeared is probably because of the their slight quality. Published in something called Rolling Stones College Papers, “The Exit Door Leads In” belongs to that group of science fiction stories featuring schools that aren’t teaching what they say they are. “The Alien Mind“, from the Yuba City High Times, seems to involve aliens punishing a man for not exhibiting sufficient empathy towards his cat.

The best stories here can be found elsewhere.  It is mainly Dick scholars and collectors who are served by this collection and not casual readers looking for consistently good and interesting work.

 

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

 

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