Who doesn’t know Philip K. Dick? He is one of the canonical writers of American science fiction. His influence is seen everywhere in the genre. His short stories have spawned a bevy of Hollywood adaptations. He is the endlessly creative spinner of idea-driven fiction that are among the most inventive in sf. He draws inspiration from a thousand variegate sources of human spiritual and material endeavor. He uses as his backdrop the star-spanning absurdities of human existence, from the personal to the political. No one science fiction writer has managed to capture the zeitgeist of the 20th Century has Philip K. Dick has.
Or so people tell me.
I admit, I hadn’t read much of Philip K. Dick. My acquaintance with Dick’s work was hitherto largely through the medium of literature in secondary school, then through the experience of films like Minority Report, Blade Runner and the Adjustment Bureau. Dick was, to my younger self, altogether too literary to truly enjoy, an impression undoubtedly reinforced through setting his short stories as homework. Later on, in college, I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as a mandatory starter novel for freshman year. I remember being one of the three students in that class who spoke.
Perhaps Dick was to me that over-subscribed legend, an unassailable literary figure, too feted to be truly enjoyed from my little fiefdom in the weird wilderness of genre literature.
Now, having read this carefully selected compendium of Dick’s most notable short fiction, the nagging sense of importance remains. But these short stories are like gems dug out of the morass of memory, of way back when, when they were little more than tedious assignments to conquer, not to grok. Dick built many of his best stories out the building blocks of ideas, influences, and a dash of the infinite. They were ideas-driven masterpieces, less concerned with the minutiae of plot, character or dialogue as they were preoccupied with the grand themes that Dick often found himself grappling – of death, life, space and time, God, memory, fantasy, mind, and destiny, money, autocracy, war, absurdity. Many of these stories were not stories as much as vignettes, sketches that serve to articulate Dick’s musings, but, as narrative arcs, cannot stand on their own two feet.
Some of these stories later became the basis of Hollywood science fiction films. However, the films differ greatly from their source material. Part of this is due to the fact that the source material, on its own, could not be adapted into a workable screenplay. Only the core of the ideas remain, while the story is shifted to pander to the sensibilities of a modern audience. To me, that shift illustrates the essence of Dick’s short fiction – that focus on ideation, of thematic sensibility, and a cheerful disregard to the staid requirements of story.
Here are my highlights of this collection:
Paycheck – A great story about a man who leaves clues for his future self, knowing that his memory will be wiped. This is one of the stronger narrative stories in the collection.
Adjustment Team – A cabal of time travelers alters the course of history to set on the right path. A classic mishmash of paranoia, conspiracy, and the question of whether these hidden guides are guardian angels, tyrants, or simply meddling voyeurs. Adapted into a rather more action-packed movie.
Foster, You’re Dead – Possibly one of my favorites. A satirical look at a world driven into consumerist frenzy with fear of the Soviet atomic menace. Fallout shelters become the ultimate status symbol and a thing that all the kids hanker their parents to purchase for Christmas. What happens when you choose to stay out of this fashionable paranoia? You get ostracized.
The Minority Report – Perhaps Dick’s most cinematic story, with a strong premise and and equally strong narrative resolution. I have memories of reading, and not comprehending, this story during lit class.
Faith of Our Fathers – Another favorite. The worldbuilding – of a world conquered by communist China – is superb and satirically on-point. The drudge of life as a Party bureaucrat is abruptly brought to its conclusion when the protagonist – SPOILER – finds out that Dear Leader is more – and less – than what he seems. There is also an element of existential horror, which was truly horrifying.
The Exit Door Leads In – A precursor to Battle School of Ender fame, except that it ends abruptly and in failure.
I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon – A fitting capstone to the collection, a bit melancholy, and the premise is that a man, woken up during cold sleep on a colony vessel, must relive his memories again and again until he comes to believe that nothing is real, and that he is still in his own dream. The ship computer that likes to swear is another plus point.
The other stories are mostly brilliant, but these are the ones I enjoyed more.
I give this collection: 4.5 out of 5 fallout shelters