June 12, 2012

Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick

I have written previously about how much I like the work of Philip K. Dick.  I just finished a collection of his short stories, Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick.  It is almost 500 pages of excellent storytelling, with only a few stories, for me, not living up to the rest.  This collection also contains several tales which were made into movies.  Often these adaptations fall flat (the main exception being Blade Runner), and I have to wonder if it is because they deviate so much from the originals, which are all quite good.  Many of these stories revisit common ideas in Dick's writing- war, Mars, reality, time travel.  Some of the stories are utterly bleak.  I'll highlight some of the stories I liked best from this compilation. 

"Beyond Lies the Wub" and "Roog"
If there is a talking animal or an intelligent dog, it is probably a story I will like.  The Wub is a Martian pig-like creature who tries to convince people not to eat it.  Boris the dog tries to save his oblivious owners from the Roogs.  These two stories were both very short but entertaining.

The next three stories were my favorites.  They were so good that the rest of the collection seemed to go downhill from here.  "Paycheck" and "Second Variety" were two of the longest stories in the book, giving Dick more room to develop the characters and plot.  They were 40-50 pages, whereas the rest averaged around twenty.  "Impostor" was the one I liked most.  

A man agrees to work for a company for two years for an extraordinary sum, but at the end of his contract, the memory of these two years will be erased from his mind.  The story starts as he goes to collect his compensation.  He finds that instead of the money, he has elected to take an envelope containing a few seemingly worthless items as pay.  He soon learns that these trinkets are vital to his survival and that he must find out what he has been up to for the past two years.  Philip K. Dick's portrayal of the power of corporations in this story is incredibly prescient.  I enjoyed this story immensely.  I've never seen the movie, but after reading what happens in it, I don't want to.  The movie guts the heart out of the story and takes away its deeper meaning.  It changes the characters and ideas which are at its very foundation.  It becomes the exact opposite of the story upon which it is based. 

"Second Variety"
Like many of Dick's stories, this one takes place on a future Earth which has been decimated by war- this time between the U.N. and the Russians.  Earth is a wasteland, and only small groups of troops remain, continuing the war.  The Americans have started a new colony on the Moon and direct things from there.  The tide has turned in their direction because they have developed a new weapon.  It is a flying sphere with blades, it attacks anything alive, and it is made in automated robotic factories underground.  They call them claws.  The U.N. forces have wrist transmitters that keep them safe, but anything else is killed by the claws.  A Russian soldier brings a message to the local U.N. base, getting killed by the claws in the process.  There must be a meeting between the two sides immediately.  It's urgent.  The highest ranking officer traverses the wasteland to the closest Russian base and makes contact with the only three people there left alive.  What they say startles him.  The claws have started to make new varieties of themselves, and these new varieties are like people.  The don't just look like people, they are indistinguishable from people.  The remainder of the story involves the American and the Russians trying to get back to where the American came from to warn them about the new varieties of claws.  I thought this story was great, even though the reader can see the twist ending coming from a mile away.

This story revisits a recurring theme in Dick's work, the nature of reality.  Spencer is on his way to work in the morning with his best friend.  They both work on a special project for the war against Alpha Centauri.  His friend has brought someone new along with him today.  All of a sudden, his friend and the stranger are arresting Spencer, telling him that he isn't Spencer.  They tell him that he is a robot from Alpha Centauri who killed Spencer and is now impersonating him.  They tell him that he has a bomb inside of him and that he will be killed.  Spencer knows this isn't true and must do everything he can to escape.  He knows that there was a forest fire in the woods near his house, and he thinks the robot's ship must have crashed.  If only he can get to the woods and prove that the robot was destroyed in the crash, then he could save his life.  This story was outstanding.  The reader doesn't know if this is really Spencer or a robot who thinks he is Spencer, and yet you feel sympathy for this character even though it could be an assassin with a bomb.  This is truly Dick's writing at its best.  The last sentence gave me chills. 

"Adjustment Team" and "The Minority Report"
"Adjustment Team" poses the question of what is reality.  A man is late to work and stumbles upon a team of people changing the details of reality.  If he had been on time, he wouldn't have noticed.  He would have been changed, too.  "The Minority Report" is about the head of the Precrime unit.  There is no murder anymore, because three precogs can predict who will commit a murder and who the victim will be.  The murderer is then arrested and put in a camp before the murder can take place.  But the head of Precrime's name comes up for killing a man he doesn't even know.  Is the system flawed?  Is he being set up?  If three different reports of the future are turned out by the precogs, which is true?  These stories were both good and both much shorter than I thought they would be, considering they were made into movies. The movies were not very much like the stories.  They took the main premise of an adjustment team and precogs predicting that someone in Precrime would commit a murder and veered dramatically from there.  I really didn't like either of these movies.  I thought they both started off well and got worse and worse until they were outright terrible by the end. 

"Precious Artifact"
This story is about a man who is helping to terraform Mars after a war between Earth (Terra) and Proxima Centauri.  He's called a reconstruct engineer.  He is finished with his section of Mars, but he suspects something is wrong.  He suspects that Terra actually lost the war and that the Proxmen are posing as humans to get the reconstruct engineers to work for them to make Mars habitable.  He sees a psychiatrist about his worries, who suggests a trip to Terra to ease his mind after the strain he has been under while he has been on Mars.  The story follows his trip home and what he confronts there.  I liked this story a lot, but it had another gut-wrenching ending, as so many of Philip K. Dick's stories do. 

"We Can Remember It for You Wholesale"
I mention this mainly because it's the basis of the movie Total Recall.  A man goes to Rekal, Inc. to have fake memories implanted of being a spy and having an adventure on Mars.  At Rekal he finds out that his life is actually all a fake memory and that he IS a spy who went to Mars.  I don't remember the movie too well, so I can't comment on similarities or differences.  This story was good, but it wasn't one of the better ones in the collection.

"A Little Something for Us Tempunauts"
This is the story of America's first time travelers, or tempunauts.  They run into a little problem, though.  Instead of going one hundred years into the future, they only go about a week.  They turn up after they have all been killed on reentry to the current time.  The government wants them to go to their own memorial service, while one of them is convinced that they are stuck in a time loop and have repeated this same journey countless times.  This whole story has a melancholy air because the entire time the three tempunauts have the spectre of their own deaths hanging over them.  Although, you could say that many of Dick's stories are depressing in that often the characters are in hopeless situations and things don't turn out well in the end. 

The above are only half of the short stories in the book.  It is filled with compelling tales, plot twists, and original ideas, everything you'd expect from the writing of Philip K. Dick.

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