Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Short Happy Life of a Brown Oxford: The Collected Works of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 1

The Short Happy Life of a Brown Oxford
The Collected Works of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 1

By Philip K. Dick
Copyright 1987

Excerpt from a letter to John Bettancourt
In a letter to up and coming science fiction writer, John Betancourt, Philip K. Dick describes what science fiction is and what it isn’t. A story that contains nothing but action in a futuristic or alien setting is not sci-fi, according to Dick. The story must contain a new idea, a new zeitgeist, or new circumstances that impact the story. This is how Dick defines science fiction.

Foreword by Steven Owen Godersky
Godersky notes that Philip K. Dick is viewed as the most serious of the sci-fi writers and there is a growing amount of scholarly criticism of Dick’s work – evidence that Dick and sci-fi is gaining traction in the intellectual world.

Godersky goes on to identify three major themes in ever Dick novel or short story. He writes about small people in large events and lets big ideas play out in small settings. He asks, “What Divides humanity from the intricacies of its creations?” The final theme is a fear and hatred of war. All of Dick’s heroes “share their humanity in their rejection of warfare and aggression.

Introduction by Roger Zelazny
Roger Zelazny collaborated with Philip K. Dick on the book, Deus Irae and came to know him. Zelazny find him to be a charming man with a dry wit that was evidenced in his work. Zelazny was confused by Dick’s late life obsession with mysticism because it was so difficult to tell if Dick was entirely serious or not.

In a dystopian future where social stability is the predominant zeitgeist, Robert Benton is summoned to a patent office to learn that an invention he submitted had been rejected because of its potential to destabilize society. The problem for Benton is, he has no recollection of having invented anything – let alone submitting it for a patent. But Benton learns that time is a tricky thing and there are tricky things in time.

I’m relatively new to Philip K. Dick. I hope I find most of his stories this delightful to read. Simple prose, a well paced, intricate plot and well developed characters can be found in this short story. Seldom does one read such a short story that achieves all this. Stability was written in 1947, but was not published until 1987 with this compilation of Dick works.

A dog observes as carnivorous space aliens rob from his family’s garbage on a nightly basis. He tries to warn his family, exclaiming “ROOG!” over and over again. The family is unable to understand him or understand his sudden anxiety at night.

This was Philip K. Dick’s first sold story. Remarkable since it wasn’t very good. Never did I feel that anybody was at risk or that there was something larger happening. Dick says in an interview that he was trying to write from how an unintelligent dog might view the regular arrival of garbage men. It was just a story about rodent aliens. Roog was first published in the Magazine of Science Fiction in November, 1953.

The Little Movement

Toy soldiers plot to take over the world. They use mental domination to overpower the minds of humans to aid in their plot. But other toys have their own ideas and raise a resistance.

This story would serve as a wonderful little “horror” tale for children. The plot is simple, yet interesting and the language is simple as well. It’s fun, but not too terribly engrossing for the adult mind. It was first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1952.

Beyond Lies the Wub
A freighter captain finds himself in possession of a pig as he leaves Mars with a load of freight. Only this isn’t an average pig. This is a wub. The captain has visions of a feast of ham, porkchops, and bacon for him and his crew. The wub would like to discuss the arts and literature. The crew tries to discourage the captain from dining on an intelligent, but bacon has such a strong allure. . .

Again, good sci-fi for the kiddies, but it was an exceptionally light read for adults. Beyond Lies the Wub was first published in Planet Stories, July 1952.

The Gun
A space ship flies by a remote planet and is attacked from the planet surface. The attack damages the ship and forces them to land. While repairs are effected, the crew explores the area and finds a city which contains the gun that shot them down. Under that gun, they find a vault that holds pictures and documents from the lost people of this planet. They disable the gun so that a return expedition can come back and conduct a full study without fear of being attacked. However, as soon as they leave, an automated system kicks in and repairs the gun, arming it with even more powerful weapons.

This was a straightforward story with little, if any subtext. The language and plot are simple that one again gets the impression that Dick is writing for a young audience. The Gun was originally published in Planet Stories, September 1952.

The Skull
Many hundreds of years in the future, the earth is a peaceful place, thanks to the teachings of a twentieth century seer who led a world peace movement that eliminated war. Certain interests in the future want war restored, so they hire a convict to go back in time to kill the man before he can start his movement. They give him the skull of the seer, preserved in the church dedicated to his teachings. The convict goes back in time and find the man who will lead this peace movement. As he prepares to speak, the convict is shocked to find out who the leader of world peace really is.

Despite a little vagueness in the climax, this was a solid sci-fi story for a more intellectually developed audience than the earlier works in this book. The Skull was first published in If magazine in 1952.

The Defenders
World War is underway on the surface of earth. While robots fight the war against the Soviets, people have fled underground where they live and construct war materiel to be shipped to the surface. One day, some curious scientists and military men venture to the surface to have a look for themselves as to what is going on. They find out that there hasn’t been a war and the robots have been protecting them from themselves.

Most anti-war propaganda is thinly veiled or veiled not at all. While Dick made no bones about his opposition to war, he did find a quite clever way to demonstrate it in the writing of this story. Governments make war. People left to their own devices will usually unite. This story was adapted for the radio show X Minus One and was first published in Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1953.

Mr. Spaceship
The people of earth are at war with a race from another star system called the Yuk. The Yuk use biological organisms rather than mechanical to fight their war. To counter this, the people of earth develop a ship to be piloted by a human brain. The leader of the project chooses an old professor to donate his brain to the cause. The project’s leader and his wife are on the shakedown run for the ship with the professor’s brain installed. When it goes out of control as the professor imposes its will on it, the couple and the entire crew are forced to abandon ship and it is lost. However, it returns many years later to kidnap the man and his wife so they can be transported away to a new planet to seed a new human race that will be free of war.

It’s clear that anti-war stances are prevalent in Dick’s writing as Mr. Godersky told us in his introduction. This was a perfectly paced short story with plenty of action to keep the reader engaged and excellent character development. Mr. Spaceship was originally published in Imagination magazine in 1953.

Piper in the Woods
A psychologist examines a patient who has just returned from a very important earth outpost on an asteroid. The patient believes he is now a plant. His spends his days inside, asleep and his days outside basking in the sun. Soon, others on the asteroid are afflicted. Those afflicted say they were led to their new life by a people called The Pipers. The psychologist explores the woods near the military base and finds the asteroid’s indigenous people – and a new way of life.

The end was predictable enough and the characters were not developed well. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable story with a solid, working plot that was well paced and not overly long. Piper in the Woods was first published in Imagination magazine in 1953.

The Infinites
A small scouting ship encounters an asteroid with an atmosphere and other conditions exactly matching earth, but upon which there is no life. They release hamsters onto the asteroid to test it. They are then hit with a blast of radiation that knocks them unconscious for two days. At first, the crew shows no ill effects. Then, they start changing dramatically with the loss of fingernails, the loss of hair, enlargement of the head. They soon discover that they are evolving into a new, superior race of human. One crewman is eager to return to earth so they can lead it. The captain is not so eager to impose the will of their newfound intellectual superiority on the people of earth. The two struggle for power and for the destiny of man on earth.

This story was rather dull. Not much action or movement. Lots of contemplation and the plot is entirely dialogue driven. More character development might have helped drive the conflict between the captain and his first mate, but there was little, if any, character development. The Infinites was first published in Planet Stories, May of 1953.

The Preserving Machine

A scientist, fearing that all the world’s beautiful music would be lost to the ages in the event of mankind’s demise, works with a university to transform various composers’ bodies of work into living creatures. The machine turns each composer’s work into a different animal which the scientist releases into the woods behind his home. He and a friend venture into the woods one day and find that he has created a new ecosystem where there are predators and prey and where animals evolve in a less than beautiful way in order to survive.

I know that Dick was going for something different when he wrote the story, but I look at it as a story about what happens when music evolves. It seems to get uglier and uglier and the newer preys on the old. The Preserving Machine was first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1953

A man overhears to insects discussing how they are going to kill him, so he kills them first. Later, he hears birds discussing how to kill insects. Finally, he’s visited by some spiders who explain to him how evolution has worked through the ages and that man is a non-indigenous species that must be dealt with.

This story was a drab fairy tale. Its brevity left the character and the plot woefully underdeveloped. Expendable was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in July 1953.

The Variable Man
In the 22nd century, Earth’s solar system is at war with a distant solar system it calls Centaur. The war has been a cold stalemate for many years as each side builds new weapons and the other side builds counter defenses. A computer calculates the odds of each attack and the odds have not been favorable for some time to launch a new attack. But a new weapon has been developed to destroy the Centaurian system in one fell swoop. It is nearly complete except for some highly delicate wiring scientists are having difficulty with. Meanwhile, a group of scientists exploring Earth’s early 20th century accidently bring back a man from 1914. His arrival introduces a variable to the war equation that can’t be calculated. The man, Cole, is a handyman who prides himself in being able to fix anything. Upon his arrival, he recognizes his danger and flees. He shows up in a small town where he fixes a child’s toy. Earth’s security forces as well as those working on the new weapon learn about his ability. Security wants to destroy him so they can again calculate odds of success. The weapons manufacturers want him because they think he can finish the delicate work. He ends up in the weapons factory and completes the weapon. When it is launched, it is a magnificent success – but not in the way its makers intended.

This novella is everything that is right about the science fiction of the 1950s! All of the elements of uncertainty that plagued man in the early days of the Cold War are there. The characters are rich and deep. There are great subplots and well developed characters here. All this makes the reader overlook the implausibility of a man of 1914 knowing how to work on 22nd century technology. The Variable Man was first published in Space Science Fiction Magazine in July 1953.

The Indefatigable Frog
Two professors on the opposite side of a debate over the theoretical applications of Zeno’s Paradox decide to put Zeno to the test by constructing an experiment and using a frog as a test subject. When one of the scientists challenges the results, his colleague decides to put him to the test by placing him in the experiment with interesting results.

This story was a real yawner. I suppose philosophy students might find it as a humorous source for debate. But as quality science fiction, I find it wanting. The characters, the plot, and the narrative were all lacking. The Indefatigable Frog was first published in Fantastic Story Magazine in July 1953

The Crystal Crypt
The last Terran ship is leaving Mars as the two planets inch toward war. Before the ship leaves, however, two Martians board the ship and interrogate each passenger about the destruction of a Martian city, confident the terrorists are aboard. The Martians’ truth detector does not detect a terrorist and the ship is allowed to leave. As they cruise toward Earth, a salesman sits with three other passengers and hear their tale of how the Martian city wasn’t destroyed, but taken captive.

The twist was easily spotted about one third of the way through the story and the action was lackluster. Not bad, but definitely not his best. The Crystal Crypt was originally published in Planet Stories, January 1954.

The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford
A college professor has discovered the secret to bringing inanimate material to life: irritate it! He develops a machine that does just this, but gets discouraged and gives it to a friend. The friend uses it to bring to life one of his shoes. The man’s shoe feels it need company and brings to life a female shoe. Scientists rush to the man’s house to behold the miracle of life from lifelessness.

There’s an element of tongue in cheek here, but the story wasn’t terribly interesting. I will say that Dick, much like Richard Matheson, makes every word count in telling a story and tells a lot of story with just a few words. The Short Happy Life of a Brown Oxford was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in January 1954.

The Builder
A man is building a boat in his back yard. He has become obsessed with it and takes leave from work so he can work on it. His wife is angry because he’s become withdrawn and detached. His neighbors are bewildered at why he’s building this large craft in his yard – a boat so big that it won’t be able to be moved. One day, after a fight with his wife, the man starts to question himself as to why he’s doing it. Furthermore, he realizes that he’s put no sail or propulsion system in it. As he’s pondering this, it begins to rain and he realizes why he’s doing it.

This wasn’t science fiction. A short discussion of atomic war and the advancement of weapons development at the beginning of the story give it a sense of foreboding. The man is a veteran of World War II, but dislikes talking about the war. He has all of the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, even though it was not called that in the 1950s when Dick wrote this story. The Builder was first published in Amazing Stories, December 1953/January 1954.

A scientist is summoned to a laboratory where he learns that a group of government agents has been making illegal forays into the future, doing illegal research. The exploration has apparently caused humans to become extinct. The scientist is ordered into the future to do research. He is attacked by giant butterflies, wielding tools and using corrosive saliva. He returns to the present to report his findings. As he’s reporting, a technician notices something attached to the ship.

This is an old formula for science fiction – even in Dick’s day. It really doesn’t add any new riff to the formula. The Meddler was first published in Future Science Fiction, October 1954.

An engineer awakens on a rocket bound for New York City, returning from a job for a major corporation. The job is so secret that his memory of the last two years has been erased. He comes to find out that, during that time, he signed a contract that allotted him certain trinkets in lieu of $50,000 pay. The trinkets seem worthless – a broken poker chip, a bus token, a piece of wire, etc. But those tokens were part of a scheme he hatched while working on the project and lead him to potentially great fortune.

This was a brilliant story that keeps the reader riveted! It is well paced and the main character is well developed. Paycheck contains a great deal of socio-economic commentary that is possibly more relevant today than it was 60 years ago. It has all the hallmarks of a great action movie and was made into a movie by the same name in 2003. One of Dick’s finest early stories. Paycheck was first published in the June 1953 edition of Imagine Magazine and was made into a movie in 2003.

The Great C
In a post-nuclear world, a young man is dispatched from a primitive village to locate a computer so that he can ask it three important questions. His goal: to confound the omniscient machine.

This short story contains a great deal of social commentary on the increasing role of machines and artificial intelligence decades before it really emerged. Dick was not only a great writer, he was incredibly prescient. The Great C was first published in Fantastic Stories in 1953.

Out in the Garden
A man goes to work every day and supports his family. He enjoys indoor activities. His wife enjoys sitting in her garden with her pet duck, meditating. One day, the husband’s friend comes to visit and remarks upon how, in Greek mythology, a god once snuck into a garden disguised as a duck and made love to a goddess, impregnating her. At that point, the wife announces she is pregnant. The baby boy is born and the duck is sent away. The boy grows up spending time in the garden, enjoying the same things the duck did.

This was a vanilla offering. There was no twist, nothing horrific, and no action. Out In the Garden was first published in Fantasy Fiction in 1953.

The King of the Elves
An elderly gas station owner, Stradach Jones is sitting in his remote station one evening in the town of Derryville, Colorado when he is approached by several small people who claim they are elves. They are wet, cold, and hungry and their king has been injured in a battle with trolls. When the king dies, the elves elect the man their new king and ask his help battling the trolls who live in the nearby mountains. The elves tell him they must meet under a huge tree on his neighbor’s property. The old man goes to meet them, but first stops by to visit his neighbor Phineas. When he gets there, he discovers that his neighbor that he’s known for many decades, is king of the trolls. A battle ensues and king Phineas and many trolls are killed. Stradach wants to return to his life as a gas station attendant. But after observing the run down condition of his shop and his home, he decides to move into the mountains with the elves.

There are story elements here similar to The Hobbit. An unlikely hero leading a band of fantastical creatures against their dire enemy. It’s a fun story that is well paced and has lots of action. No rationale for any of the unlikely events is provided, making this little fantasy even more fun. The King of the Elves was first published in Beyond Fantasy Fiction in September 1953.

Scientists sent to scout a remote planet find it idyllic. Everything about it is perfect for human habitation, except one of its indigenous life forms can imitate human technology – and it has a taste for human flesh. After many deaths among the scientific team, they decide that they can board the scout ship with nothing but their birthday suits. The ship arrives and the naked scientists board. . .

This story is a masterpiece and perhaps the finest in the book! Nary a wasted word and the premise is original. Add in a well concealed twist and haunting epilogue and you have the perfect story!

Prize Ship
The solar system is colonized and all nine planets inhabited along with several moons. The people of Ganymede are at war with the rest of the solar system, demanding higher payments for use of their moon’s docking stations to reach the rest of the solar system. The senate is just about to vote to surrender to Ganymede’s demands when the military captures a Ganymede ship. Four astronauts set off in the ship, hoping to learn how it works. Instead, they find themselves reliving the life of Gulliver from the famous children’s story.

This story was cute and fun. It wasn’t action packed. It had no social message. The characters were paper thin. But, it was a well told story with an interesting resolution. Prize Ship was first published in Galaxy Magazine June 1953.

In the future, every family has a robot nanny. The robots take care of all domestic chores related to raising the children in the household. One night, a family’s nanny goes outside and confronts another larger nanny lurking the yard. They fight and the nanny comes away from the fight badly damaged by the larger, more modern nanny equipped with jaws. When the father takes it to the shop for repairs, the owner recommends the father buy a new, more modern nanny. He refuses and insists the older one be repaired. However, just a few days later, their nanny is bested in another fight. This time, he goes to the shop and buys a new nanny with all of the latest features and best defense equipment.

The multiple themes and subtexts of this short story make it interesting. There was a subtext of the “Keeping Up with the Joneses” consumer culture of the 1950s. There was a hint of the burgeoning arms race with weapons becoming obsolete as nations developed more sophisticated systems. There were hints at the notion of planned obsolescence which dominated the American automotive industry through the 1970s and seems to dominate the PC culture today. Dick squeezed a lot of subtext into a story that also had a pretty decent plot. Nanny was first published in Startling Stories in 1955.

Dick comments on several of the stories included in this volume. He expresses his eternal gratitude to the late editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Anthony Boucher who published Dick’s first story and mentored him in the craft of writing.

Dick also expresses the lament of most who write science fiction or genre fiction full time. People didn’t take him seriously. Shortly after publishing a story in Planet Stories, he was at work at the record shop he managed where he had several copies of the magazine on the counter. A customer saw them and said, “Philip, you don’t read that stuff, do you?” Dick was embarrassed to say that, not only did he read it, he wrote it.

This first volume of Philip K. Dick’s short fiction introduces the themes that dominate his writing throughout his storied career. His abhorrence of war. Fear of atomic destruction. The folly of over reliance on technology. Dick is able to introduce these themes, make the reader consider his subtext, all while telling superb, plot driven fiction.


  1. Excellent overview! This guy has been on my short list for awhile, but I've yet to dive in. I've got the Library of Congress boxed set and am eager to do so.

  2. I know what you mean. There are a dozen authors whose work I want to sample, but have not yet made the time. Dan Simmons, Terry Pratchett, F.Paul Wilson, are just a few. Almost done reading all the King, then I can branch out a little.