Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Second Variety and Other Stories By Philip K. Dick

Second Variety and Other Stories
By Philip K. Dick
Copyright 1989

Introduction by Norman Spinrad
Science fiction novelist and screenwriter Norman Spinrad discusses the early short story work of Philip K. Dick published in this volume. He points out that, when Dick began writing, science fiction authors had to go through an apprenticeship that consisted of writing short stories for the pulps. Success in the pulps did not always translate into novel success, but Dick’s best medium was the novel. He discusses Dick’s use of multiple point of view characters and how he perfected this type of storytelling.

The Cookie Lady
Bernard “Bubber” Surle, a young boy, has taken to visiting Mrs. Drew on a regular basis. Mrs. Drew is an elderly lady who bakes cookies for young Bubber. Every time Bubber leaves Mrs. Drew’s house, he’s really tired. His parents, seeing his physical distress, forbid him from returning. But Bubber heads back for one last visit.

It’s a riff on the old “witch lures the kiddies with cookies” motif. What is different is the lack of evil or malice in the witch character. She simply notices that sitting close to the boy makes her younger. Both characters are devoid of emotion, which makes this story rather sterile.

Beyond the Door
Larry Thomas buys his wife, Doris, a magical cuckoo clock that talks to her. She develops a special relationship with the little bird in side while the bird comes to dislike Larry. One day, Larry comes home and finds his neighbor, Bob, with his wife. He tosses them both out, but keeps the clock. Larry doesn’t like the clock and the clock doesn’t like him. Things come to a head.

The story probably worked well in the 1950s and is not without its charm. But the ending was entirely predictable and not terribly exciting. But, we are seeing an author who is still learning the craft.

Second Variety
In a post-apocalyptic world where robots are the instruments of terror, a UN soldier receives a message from the Soviets that they want to talk truce. He travels to the Soviet base to find out it’s been wiped out by robots. He meets three people who remain from the Soviet base. They tell him that they’ve identified the first variety of robots and third variety of robots. But the dangerous second variety has not yet been identified.

This was a fantastic, hard science fiction story about war and conflict. It’s an often used trope, found in stories such as Who Goes There and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s really nothing new here. But it is good writing and a good story.

Jon’s World
Ryan is preparing to accompany a businessman in a time traveling ship to go into the past to find the man who developed the robots that fought the war and destroyed the earth. Ryan’s son, Jon, has frequent seizures where he has visions. He tells his father that his visions are of people walking in fields, talking about the problems of the universe. Ryan and his partner travel back in time to find their scientist. They steal his papers, but accidentally kill him. They return to their time to find out they changed history for the better.

This story was a sequel to Second Variety and was just as good. Second Variety was quite action oriented. Jon’s World is much more contemplative in its examination of the butterfly effect.

The Cosmic Poachers
A Terran ship encounters an alien freighter in a restricted system. The Terrans observe the insectile race leaving their ship and extracting something from the soil. The Terrans surprise the insect race and board their ship. There, they find beautiful, seemingly priceless jewels. But the insects, they are something else entirely.

This one was written at a more elementary level than most Philip K. Dick stories. The Cosmic Poachers was first published in Imagination in July 1953.

A man and a woman give up their son at birth so that he might be trained by emotionally detached robots to achieve his full potential. Eighteen years later, the father goes to meet his son for the first time and find out if there is any part of him left in his son.

There’s a tiny bit of poignancy in this story, but I wasn’t sure what it was trying to be. If it was trying for hard sci-fi, there wasn’t much there. If it was going for poignancy, it fell short of that mark as well.

Some Kinds of Life
Earth is at war with various planets and moons in the galaxy for natural resources. The government continues to expand the war and open new fronts, creating the need for new recruits to seize the materials they need to continue their comfortable way of life.

The allegory here was not subtle. The war for natural resources that power the devices of convenience in society might not be worth the war when nobody is left to enjoy those conveniences.

Martians Come in Clouds

A father is badly frightened when a he encounters a Martian stuck in a tree on his way home from work. But his son learns the real reason why Martians make their always ill-fated journey to Earth.

This one had the flavor of 1950s sci-fi. It reminded very much of the move FIDO with the father who had all of the phobias and the son discovering the real nature of zombies. Of course, Dick had a much deeper emotion than did the comedy movie.

The Commuter
A man walks into a train station and asks for a ticket to a destination that does not exist. After demanding the ticket insisting that the town does exist, the man disappears into thin air. After the ticket seller sees the phenomenon a second time, he goes in search of this mysterious town.

Perhaps a commentary on urban sprawl. If so, it missed its mark. Not a particularly interesting story.

The World She Wanted
A woman approaches a man at a bar and tells him he is for her in this world that is made just for her. The man starts to become convinced of her take on reality as more and more of what she commands from the cosmos comes to her.

I looked hard for some social commentary here, but did not find it. It was an intriguing and interesting story with a not unexpected ending. Stories like this served as inspiration for Twilight Zone episodes.

A Surface Raid
An advanced race has retreated underground to live in caverns under mountains while humans – or “saps” – have stayed on the surface following two world wars. The advanced creatures from below the earth come to the surface to take saps for their factories below.

This story is reminiscent – but not derivative – of The Time Machine. The post-humanism that would later be featured in stories like Planet of the Apes is on display here in magnificent splendor. This story is Dick at his finest.

Project: Earth
A young boy discovers that a man in a nearby apartment is raising tiny, humanoid beings that will eventually replace man on earth. The kid steals them and keeps them as playthings.

I loved this story and it is a great example of the kinds of soft sci-fi that one could find in the pulps of the 1950s.

Project: Earth
first appeared in Imagination Magazine in 1953

The Trouble with Bubbles
In a time distant in the future, man has found no other life forms in the galaxy. To meet the longing of humans to connect with other life forms, a company creates Worldcraft – a do it yourself world creation kit. While attending the judging of a Worldcraft contest, a lawmaker decides to write laws to ban the practice, fearing that man has become cruel in his new found god-like powers over the worlds they create. On his way home, he encounters the work of the God that controls catastrophes in our world.

Dick demonstrates again that pulp writer’s ability to craft well-honed plots that keep the reader guessing and the narrative moving at a satisfying pace. There was everything to like about this story.

The Trouble with Bubbles first appeared in IF Magazine in 1953.

Breakfast at Twilight

A family wakes up in the morning to find that they and their home have been transported forward in time to 1980 when the Earth is in ashes and troops scour the land in search of food, supplies, and humans to feed the war machine.

Obviously, this story reveals Dick’s hatred and fear of war. The most ominous and indicative line: “The war didn’t start. It grew.” It has, however, an optimistic ending which is not characteristic of a Philip K. Dick story.

A Present for Pat
Eric Blake brings home a god from Ganymede for his wife for a present. When the god starts employing his powers to smite those who annoy him, trouble ensues for Eric with his employer and with the law.

This one has the writing stylings of 1950s comedy. The wife is shrill and hysterical. Her husband meek, mild, but well meaning. His boss is a tyrant. His best friend is obnoxious. Dick makes it work to some degree. But an awful lot of clich├ęs are working here.

The Hood Maker
In a dystopian New York City, a man is beset by a mob because he is wearing a hood – a concealed device that screens his thoughts from scanning by telepaths known as “teeps” who make sure all of its citizens are loyal and without impure thought. Franklin escapes the mob with a young woman who asks him to use his influence with a Senator to stop a bill that would halt free thought and codify the legality of the teeps’ actions. The government pursues them to stop them.

This one had a great premise, but it was not well executed. The twist was not well written and did not have much surprise value. The end was more than a bit limp, leaving the reader to wonder, so what?

Of Withered Apples
A single apple tree leaf blows in the window of a young wife’s home and the withering tree beckons to her. She heads out into the night to find the abandoned farm where the dying tree stands to meet her destiny.

This tale succeeds at being atmospheric. This is something many pulp writers never strived for, preferring to keep their readers riveted with action. Dick shows he’s got the chops of a horror writer similar to Hawthorne and Poe here. A beautiful tale.

Human Is
A woman endures a loveless marriage to a driven, determined scientist who is cruel and uncaring. He travels to the ruins on Rexor IV and comes back a different man – caring, considerate and wanting to spend time with her in lieu of work. When the government finds out that his body has been taken over by a resident of Rexor IV, they need her testimony to exterminate him.

This story is nothing special except it has more feeling than the average Dick story. What is interesting about reading Philip K. Dick short stories versus his novels is that he conveys much more human emotion in his short stories than he does in his plot driven novels.

Human Is was originally published in Startling Stories, Winter 1955.

Adjustment Team
An “adjustment team” that keeps the cosmos in line for human existence to continue, misses an important deadline regarding a real estate salesman. The salesman goes to work, not knowing that he’s stumbling into reality put on hold for adjustment. He soon learns the nature of the adjustment team and their reason for adjustment.

I found this story unremarkable. Perhaps the premise was new in the 1950s, but by today’s standards, it was lackluster. The stated purpose of adjustment was pie in the sky, utopian nonsense.

The Adjustment Team first appeared in Orbit Science Fiction, Fall 1954. In 2011, it was made into a movie titled The Adjustment Bureau that starred Matt Damon.

The Impossible Planet
An ancient woman asks a ship’s captain for one final request before she dies, having ended her life extension treatments. She wants to see earth. The captain insists that the planet earth is nothing but a myth and does not exist. The lady’s robot servant locates earth and the captain takes her there to see the wellspring of humanity and learn its ultimate fate.

This story is full of fatalism that was outside the norm of 1950s sci-fi and more typical of late 1960s. Creepy and eerie, Dick makes this atmospheric tale work with just enough plot to keep it moving.

Impossible Planet was first published in Imagination in October 1953.

A man working as a weapons researcher is arrested as an outworld spy. Agents claim that a robot was sent by outworlders to kill him and take his place. Inside this robot was a bomb, triggered by a secret word or phrase. Desperate to prove his innocence, the man escapes and returns home to convince his friends and family he is who he says he is.

This might be the best story in the collection. Seldom has Dick composed prose that move a story at such a fast pace. When you’re reading Philip K. Dick, you know a twist is coming. I knew the twist was coming – there always is in stories involving replicants. I even had a suspicion as to what it was. But Dick’s writing made me want to get there fast.

James P. Crow
Many years after man wiped out his own society, he is a second class citizen to robots. Robots design their society to keep humans in their place. But one man has a plan to change all that and he is the stuff of legend among his own kind and a credit to his race.

The metaphor was entirely too in your face in this story, although perhaps it was more biting in the 1950s. But the story’s sci-fi angle does work and overcomes Dick’s ham-handed social activism.

Planet for Transients
Three hundred and fifty years ago, the Earth was ravaged by atomic war. Now, men live underground in mines. Trent, an explorer searching New York for other human settlements encounters the new sentient creatures that inhabit the surface, now covered in lush vegetation. He learns of a human settlement to the north. When he gets there, he learns a lesson about the nature of the cosmos.

There was no subtext or underlying message here. This story was just fun with a little bit of philosophy tacked on the end.

Planet for Transients first appeared in Fall issue of Fantastic Universe.

Small Town
An oppressed clerical worker becomes obsessed with his model train and the model town he has built up around it in his basement. He quits his job and begins to take out his wrath on those who spited him by remodeling his little town. Meanwhile, his doctor and his wife – who are having an affair – are horrified.

The trope here is so old it must have been worn out in 1953. The resolution was ambiguous and the characters lacked development. One of the weaker elements in this collection.

The legendary Williamson’s Planet is located. Founded by the first interstellar space traveler, terraformer, and pioneer, the planet was thought by many to be a myth. Upon arriving, Astronaut Rogers is disappointed to find a primitive, agrarian culture with a warlike disposition, communistic economy, and tribal government. He tries to convince them to join the interstellar government that promotes homogeneous cultural, social, and technological development.

This story was rather dull. The social commentary – such as it was – didn’t say much. The plot was boring and the characters drab.

Survey Team
Earth is a planet caught in the decay following atomic war. A survey team is dispatched to Mars to ascertain whether or not it is habitable. The survey team arrives to find a planet of crumbling cities and soil stripped of all that is valuable. The Martians’ records indicate that they found another planet they could inhabit – a virgin planet untouched by pollution or depletion. The earthmen decide to learn its location and head there and take it from the Martians if they have to.

This is the kind of sci-fi is the reason I read sci-fi. As I read this story, I could hear it as a Dimension X or X Minus 1 radio show. It had the drama and the properly timed plot twist that these shows incorporated.

Prominent Author
A bureaucrat at a research and development plant is given a prototype transporter that transports him between his home and work which is 160 miles away in New York City in just a matter of seconds. One day, while in the transporter, he encounters a group of tiny people who hold him in awe. They have questions and they want answers. He is only more than happy to oblige them. He is surprised when he finds out his tiny worshippers have published a book with his answers.

This wasn’t as clever as it sounds. It could have been. But Dick fumbled the climax and resolution.

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