Book Review

Selectes Stories of Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick.
Pantheon, 2002.
ISBN 0375421513; 476 Pages, Hardcover $25.95

Review by Richard Ryan

When Philip K. Dick – a genre writer for who the terms “now-legendary” and “cult-favorite” seem to have been invented – suffered a fatal stroke in 1982, he came to the abrupt end of a career which from the inside must have seemed largely disappointing. Although his thirty plus novels had won him two of the major awards earmarked for science fiction authors (a Hugo and a Campbell), for a good deal of his troubled life he scraped by on minimal pay-checks from magazines like Planet Stories and Astounding. As with scores of gifted-but-marginal figures in American pop culture, Dick was a hero in France, but in this country he was unknown beyond the ranks of sci-fi fandom, and his books rarely stayed in print. He is reported to have spent long stretches eking out a desperate existence on little more than dog food and Benzedrine, one step away from the mental ward. He died after a series of strokes at age of 54, at least partly as a result of years of systematic drug abuse, leaving behind three children and five ex-wives.
Conditioned by our utterly-American love of comeback tales – even posthumous ones – we are now inclined to accept such hardluck life-lines as the expected prelude to a glittering apotheosis. And, indeed, Dick’s whole existence seems to have been a chain of disorienting inversions and epiphanies, a strange brew of commonplace facts and psychedelic myths. Dick led a “stranger-than-fiction” life, and his biographical data set is now thoroughly distorted by the subsequent filters of elegiac fame and spectral guruhood.
Within a few months of his death, Hollywood released Blade Runner, the first of what would become a series of filmed versions of Dick’s work that would eventually make him famous. It is almost too-easy an irony that, had he lived a year longer, Dick would have seen one of his best novels turned into one of the most influential science fiction films ever made (as it was, Dick saw a rough cut before he died). But Dick’s from-beyond-the-grave triumphs are hardly limited to Hollywood. His major works are all in print, and are given serious discussion in postmodern college seminars; one of his difficult late novels, VALIS, has been turned into a well–regarded opera by a noted composer; Dickian Web sites and devotional pages of widely-varying quality and commitment litter the Internet (among their number is the comprehensive and opinionated Dick section of The Modern Word’s Scriptorium). It is not too much to say that Dick’s current status is almost canonical: if one believes what one reads online – and Dick himself would have loved nothing better than to weave alternate-but-equally-valid realities out of the tangled fibers of the Web – then there are now New Age churches in which PKD is affectionately know as “Saint Phil.”
Philip K. Dick has, in fact, become an icon of our postmodern, simulated cyber-culture. So it should be of some real value to have a one volume gathering of the short stories of such a eminent literary figure. After all, it’s the story form in which many great writers concentrate and distill their essence. Equally to the point is the way in which a skillful editor can turn a well-chosen story collection into an exemplary display of a writer’s talents and idiosyncrasies. But that being said, the newly released Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick begs two serious questions: just how good a writer is Dick, and are these the stories that demonstrate his best qualities?

Some kind of selected anthology of Dick’s shorter work was, in fact, necessary. Starting in 1990 and continuing for another two years, the genre press Citadel Twilight issued a five volume paperback series, subtitled “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick,” that included 118 stories in all, a number of them previously unpublished (as new works have been discovered after his death, the total number of stories attrbitue to Dick has crept higher). Although some of these volumes are still available on the Web, they are seldom seen in bookstores, and because Dick was a both a prolific and an uneven writer, a short-story reader picking up a random book in the Citadel series might be presented with material of less quality than what Dick produced when he was functioning at his peak. Indeed, a chance sampling of Dick’s shorter fiction is not likely to discover much work that Dick would have been proud of: according to various bibliographical sources, PKD published an astonishing 70 stories between 1952 and 1955. Thus, well over half of his known shorter fiction was produced in a brief, early phase of his development as a writer. This was at a point when Dick was pounding out reams of magazine fiction and potboilers to get himself established, and well before he published his Hugo-award winning The Man in the High Castle in 1962, the novel which separates his early, journeyman efforts from his more mature and representative work.
So a “Best of…” collection of Philip K. Dick stories – a genuinely selective volume that plucked the gems from the mud – would be welcome. But the twenty-one stories collected in the Pantheon edition here under review do not form that book. A good half of the stories in this volume date from prior to 1960, and as such they are of more interest to Dick scholars that to anyone hoping to understand Dick’s peculiar donné. Not until late in the selection do we encounter the great, weird, and visionary Phil Dick, the writer who, along with Samuel R. Delaney, Harlan Ellison, and the other sci-fi “wild men” of 60s and 70s, changed the status of the genre.
What Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick offers, instead, is a wide-ranging and intermittently-enjoyable collection which could have been better. It is no mean feat to produce a dull book from the oeuvre of a genre author known for his readability, but there are times when the editors seem to have managed just that. For the first 300 of its 476 pages the volume drags, and even where the plot devices of the early stories are charming, the prose sinks under the load of two-dimensional characters and wooden dialog. In story after story, bland protagonists are surrounded by hackneyed science fiction props – sinister aliens, evil robots, and claustrophobic rocketships – that give the book the feel of an airless 50s movie theater. Though some of these pieces offer interesting twists that suggest where Dick’s paranoid imagination would ultimately take him, most go nowhere we haven’t been before, and in better company (the stories of Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke are obvious – and superior – influences).
Because many of these early stories are generic, the best of them are the least typical. “Roog,” one of the earliest, is a genuinely eerie, Kafkaesque parable in which a barking dog is the only earthly creature who recognizes that the neighborhood garbage men are actually the leading edge of an alien invasion. The odd, touching “King of the Elves” tells the story of an aging gas station attendant who finds himself the leader of a dying generation of little people under assault by trolls. “Upon the Dull Earth” is especially astonishing, a bizarre fusion of William Blake and Neil Gaiman. In it a young women “channels” the heavenly host, extra-dimensional visitors who have the ability to destroy any human who draws too close to their celestial energy. When the suicidal heroine allows the soul-hungry angels to suck her into their world, the protagonist plots to resurrect her. His amateurish attempts at love-sick necromancy go disastrously wrong, in a apocalyptic denouement that would give H.P. Lovecraft the creeps.
But the bulk of these stories simply aren’t that good. As an inventor of plots – a hookmeister, in pop music terms -- the ingenious Dick has been surpassed by very few writers; moreover, he repeatedly demonstrated a remarkable sense of the social significance of technology. Blessed with an astonishingly responsive imagination, Dick tuned in to the global implications of automation, computerization, and the creation of synthetic reality long before they became postmodern catch-phrases. What he could never do consistently, at least not until late in his career, was take an interesting idea and resolve it in a human or compelling way, or put memorable dialog in the mouths of engaging personae.
His female characters are especially ridiculous – wives and girlfriend with glossy black hair and tight sweaters, straight from the covers of the pulp novels and marquees of pinball machines. They either henpeck their menfolk or cower behind them, and Dick’s standard depiction of male/female relations verges on reactionary. Consider “Adjustment Team,” in some ways one of the best of the earlier stories. In this tale, Ed Fletcher, a real estate salesman, accidentally discovers that our world is, in effect, an enormous sound-stage; a constantly-changing construct lorded over by mysterious guardians. When one of the supernal overseers confronts him, he assures the god-like being that the secret will remain safe:

“Gosh,” Ed muttered. “Well, I won’t tell anybody.” Cold sweat poured off him. “You can count on that. I’m as good as changed.”
“You have already told someone,” the Old Man said coldly.
“Me?” Ed blinked. “Who?”
“Your wife”
Ed trembled. The color drained from his face, leaving it sickly white.
“That’s right. I did.”
“Your wife knows.” The Old Man’s face twisted angrily. “A woman. Of all the thing to tell—”

This passage, with its laughable dialogue and unthinking misogyny, is regrettably typical.
It's just this psychological obtuseness that compels us to look for the deeper sources of what we might as well call Dick’s genius. One interesting exercise, which this volume will permit, is the comparison of two of PKD’s most famous stories to the later movies that were based on them. Cinema-goers who have seen Minority Report and Total Recall may be surprised by how little the films resemble the stories that inspired them, although both of these movies are thought to have captured some essential “Dickian” quality. If – as I would argue – the original “Minority Report” is less successful than Spielberg’s movie, and if “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” is in almost every way superior to the Paul Verhoeven-Arnold Schwarznegger vehicle Total Recall, then understanding the difference in quality between the stories and the movies may help us also understand what made Dick’s best fiction so compelling.
In Dick’s “Minority Report,” a “pre-crime” detective using mutants with psychic abilities discovers that he himself may be about to commit a murder. Dick’s destiny-haunted cop, however, is not the dashing-but-troubled figure Tom Cruise cuts in the movie, but rather an aging paper-pusher whose wife appears to be conspiring with a young rival to frame him. The short story has the clever, policeman-chasing-himself framework that Dick would revert to repeatedly (and most effectively in his paranoid classic, A Scanner Darkly), but it lacks the narrative punch and witty panache of Spielberg’s film. Indeed, while Spielberg shares Dick’s imaginative gift for story-telling, his visual techniques far exceed Dick’s more meager verbal ones – think of how Spielberg uses swarms of electronic spiders fanning out in search of criminals as a creepy visual metaphor for the police state, or of his shrewd leveraging of 50s sci-fi placeholders like jet packs and man-eating plants to create a future-world which blends comedy and menace. The original story is flat by comparison.
In “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” on the other hand (a story that appeared ten years after “Minority Report,” which was published 1956), Dick had already begun to undergo the transformation that would mark his late, great work. He’d loosened up, basically, and begun letting his most inventive and even psychotic impulses carry his writing wherever they might. “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” takes a Walter Mitty-ish suburbanite and sends him to a store specializing in virtual wish fulfillment and synthetic fantasy vacations. Douglas Quail, the hero of the story, opts for a “memory” implant in which he “becomes” an interplanetary secret agent who’s been to colonial Mars – the twist being that the implant process reveals to Quail that he really is a secret agent. Up to this point the story and the film are largely parallel, but where the Schwarznegger movie diverges into a totally predictable extra-terrestrial action thriller, the short story cranks up the hallucinatory strangeness of Quail’s predicament another level, when his suppressed memory of being a secret agent triggers an even more deeply suppressed (and much more cosmic) memory.
It’s accepted among PKD’s critics that his work almost invariably revolves around the question “What is real?,” and that he had a genius for spinning out strange scenarios in which the issue was pushed to its limits. It’s also accepted that, as the writer Jonthan Lethem says in his perceptive but overly-reverential introduction to Selected Stories, PKD’s working materials when he started his career were “Twilight Zone-ish social satires” and a “pulp-adventure chase-scene mode that was already weary before Dick picked it up…” Lethem excuses the callow conventions of much of Dick’s early work by asserting that the author became

a kitchen-sink surrealist, gaining energy and invention from a mad piling of pulp SF tropes – and clichés – into his fiction: time travel, extrasensory powers, tentacled aliens, ray guns, androids and robots. He loves fakes and simulacra as much as he fears them: illusory worlds, bogus religions, placebo drugs, impersonated police, cyborgs. Tyrannical world governments and ruined dystopian cities are default settings here.

It may well be that it was not until this catalogue of dreads and obsessions pushed Dick over the edge that he became the visionary writer he was meant to be. There were many odd episodes in Dick’s life, but perhaps the most famous were the events that he and his devotees came to refer to as “ 2-3-74” (referring to the months of February and March, 1974.) It was in that period of time that Dick came to believe that he was receiving messages from higher forces – whether his communicants were gods or aliens was never very clear. One significant effect of these revelations was to accelerate Dick’s shift in focus – already underway by the late 60s – from social or political themes to religious and metaphysical ones. It was in this ground that Dick’s psychedelic talents finally blossomed.
In Selected Stories all the late work is exceptional, and the final two stories are especially dazzling. In “Rautavaara’s Case,” a young astronaut is caught between life and death after a meteor bombardment lethally damages her spacecraft. The young woman is partially revived by extragalactic visitors. Taking rather sadistic advantage of her “between-two-worlds” state, her alien attendants begin seeding her brain with images of the afterlife, both human and non-human, to gauge the results. (The moment when Our Lord and Savior transmutes into a “messiah from another planet” is both terrifying and hilarious.) In the wistful and moving “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” a space-traveler in faulty suspended-animation is force-fed his own memories by a ship-board computer, in a desperate attempt to stave off the madness of years of sensory deprivation. As suggested by the repeated scenario, in which receptive minds confront an entirely projected reality, the late Dick is the most philosophical of speculative writers, at once Gnostic and Cartesian in his attitudes and insights. He is also the most humane of authors: the sadness and the empathy with which he unfolds his last characters’ solipsistic tragedies is incredibly moving.
It is a real pity that, in the apparent pursuit of chronological completeness, the editors of Selected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick chose so much of the early work, rather than including more of the (admittedly meager) results of Dick’s last dozen years of story writing. Beyond the questionable selection, Selected Stories also suffers from a general editorial breeziness that, fairly or not, gives the work a mercenary and opportunistic air. A useful critical edition would have included careful documentation of the original publication dates and venues of these stories, and perhaps some background on the circumstances under which each was written (interested reader will find some of this information on the web). But that would be have been a different volume, and an entirely more valuable one.

--Richard Ryan
9 April 2003

Additional Information

Libyrinth Philip K. Dick Page -- The Modern Word's own Philip K. Dick site. -- A massive and comprehensive site about PKD, maintained by Jason K.

Vintage Books -- Vintage Books, a Random House imprint, currently has the bulk of Dick's SF novels in print.


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Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.