BOOK REVIEW: “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1: The Short Happy Life Of The Brown Oxford” (1987)

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Ah, Philip K. Dick, is there any dead SF author I loveth more than thee? I think not. Let’s just get the gonzo stuff out of the way up front: I first *heard* of the guy when reading “Space Worlds, Wars, and Weapons,” an odd little cover art coffee table book from the late 1970s, which had a paragraph about Phil’s story “Imposter.” I knew Blade Runner, of course, and I knew nebulously of Phil thereby, but couldn’t remember his name. I do not remember the first story I read by him - odd how true love comes from sometimes murky beginnings, huh? - but I remember my friend John Sternamon loaning me his copy of “Blade Runner,” which I mostly read in my parent’s driveway while attempting unwisely to give myself skin cancer. (Not my stated purpose, of course, but that’ll be the ultimate result no doubt) I can honestly not recall if that was the first think I’d read by him, I seemed to already know who he was by that point, but maybe not. Maybe not.

In any event, by the mid-80s I had the right combination of boredom with Heinlein, over saturation with Niven, and the proximity to a really good college library, and that’s when I discovered crazy ol’ Phil. I instantly fell in love with his books: their odd tone, his weird humor, his weirder mopey qualities, his utterly unpredictable plot twists, his eerie religious speculation, and his general feeling that something was not quite right in reality - not just in the books, but in real reality as well. It encapsulated my mood, it felt as though he was writing just for me. I poured through at least a third of his work in about 18 months in ‘86-‘88, and picked the rest up piecemeal since then. In the early ‘90s I picked up “The Collected Stories” series, which reprints every known short story, including several unpublished ones.

Eventually, having exhausted everything, I kind of drifted away, and got more interested in the man himself. In the years since, I’ve become friends with a couple people who knew him well, and that’s changed my memory of his work, but to be honest, apart from kvetching ’bout how they get it wrong in movies, I haven’t really *read* anything by him in probably going on a decade. I have a semi-eidetic memory (Or at least I did when I was younger) so there wasn’t much point. Knowing what I know now, however, and gradually realizing my perspectives have changed over the decades, I thought “Hey, is this guy really as good as I remembered, or was it entirely because of who *I* was when I read him?”

“The Collected Stories” seemed the best place to start.

“Volume 1” consists of 25 stories written between 1947 and 1955, though the overwhelming majority are from the period between ’51 and ’53. This seems unbelievably prodigious to us today, but back in the pulp era there was a *huge* market for these things. Harlan Ellison wrote (And generally sold) a story a week in the late 50s. Phil was cranking ’em out, but in context, he was about on average with mid-list writers from his day, amazingly over-productive by our day. What makes him remarkable is simply his odd take on everything.

“Stability” (1947, previously unpublished) is a weird little time travel tale about a man who enters a causality loop by giving himself a time machine. The plot revolves around him inadvertently releasing a city so evil it was shrunken down and encased in glass by God in order to protect humanity. The stuff pertaining to the city is suitably weird and compelling, and this is our first experience of Phil’s casually cruel government bad guys. Interestingly, the question of who built the time machine vanishes once the causal loop is resolved: The machine simply evaporates, ceasing ever to have been. Wildly unsatisfying and clunky, not a great story, but it’s got a few glimmers. Phil would have been around 19 when he wrote this, and it shows.

“Roog” (1951) is another weird little tale, and Phil’s first story he got paid for. A dog barks at the garbage men who pick up the trash. His family is annoyed by this, thinking the dog can’t understand the trash men aren’t stealing from them, they’re simply doing their job. The dog is right, though: the garbage men are evil, and they’re doing something that neither the dog nor the family understand. We never find out quite what.

“The Little Movement” (1952) An army of little toy soldiers attempt to take over the world by passing themselves off as children’s toys. It turns out that children’s other toys - for no adequately explained reason - are already alive and defeat the soldiers. Tedious tale, tediously told.

“Beyond Lies the Wub” (1952) For me, Phil’s style starts here. This isn’t just a twist story - when it comes, the twist is nothing we haven’t seen elsewhere - but just that the sensibility of it is so odd, and it’s so funny in a deliberately obtuse way. The first expedition to Mars buys a “Wub” - a pig basically - to bring back to earth. The captain is intent on eating it, but the Wub argues - quite eloquently - that he shouldn’t do so. He attempts to discuss philosophy and quote the Bible and whatnot, but the captain insists. Stuff happens. It’s not a particularly smart or original story, but it is aa charming, short, funny, wise-assed little thing just the same. Our first glimmer of what he could do.

“The Gun” (1952) is just a plodding, predictable piece of crap. Not florid, but at least twice as long as it needs to be, with a lot of experimental culture-building that adds nothing and detracts lot. An alien expedition to a dead earth gets shot down by an automated defense system left over from the last great war. How will they escape? Yawn.

“The Skull” (1952) - I’m going to advise my readers to avoid this story. It’s a transparently blasphemous parody of the life of Christ involving a time traveler who’s sent back in time to assassinate a political leader and ends up becoming that leader. As a time travel story, it’s dull. As a political story, it’s duller. As religious fiction, though nothing religious actually happens in the story (As I said, it’s a parody, not an actual story about Jesus), it’s offensive to no real payoff. Avoid, Avoid, Avoid.

“The Defenders” (1953) - This is almost, but not quite, a good story. Again, it’s a bit too long, and the ending is an anticlimax, but, man, is the premise great! The US and USSR have gone to war, and their respective populations have been moved into vast underground cities for their protection. There, they produce robots to fight the war for them, as does the other side. No humans have been above ground - which they’re told is radioactive and instantly lethal - in years and years. But it turns out the robots themselves ended the war almost immediately, and have been faking it since then for their own purposes. Phil would revisit this concept several times, and never quite managed to pull it off successfully, but *man* what an image! It haunts me.

“Mr. Spaceship” (1953) - Earth is at war with another solar system, and they’ve got a super missile that just might pull it off, but it’s too complex to use existing controls. They talk a dying professor into donating his brain, and, of course, the ship becomes his new body. Oddly, no one saw this coming. He kidnaps a man and a woman, and goes off to find a new world for them where they will study war no more. “There were many human groups that did not go to war; the Eskimos never grasped the idea at all, and the American Indians never took to it well,” the story says by way of justification. This is patent nonsense, of course, but it was the popular wisdom of the time. Yet another bland Adam and Eve story, noteworthy only for the interesting living mines the aliens use.

“Piper in the Woods” (1953) - an interesting story that never quite makes sense, but has a neat feel to it just the same: soldiers on an asteroid keep going off into the woods, and come back convinced they’re plants. There it is, that’s all you get.

“The Infinites” (1953) - Your typical ‘astronauts exposed to mysterious radiation rapidly evolve into super-beings, and the most advanced of them plays god’ story that we’ve seen a kerjillion times. Dull and dry until a clever twist ending that I *did not* see coming.

“The Preserving Machine” (1953) - A professor is afraid that a nuclear war will destroy all the great music of the past, so he creates a machine that converts music to animals, and can convert them back again, under the theory that bugs and such will breed and survive and reproduce, and eventually be able to be re-constituted back into music by some future civilization. Alas, he didn’t count on evolution…this is a very clever, kinda’ silly story.

“Expendable” (1953) a great, great, great little vignette about a paranoid guy who keeps hearing ants plotting against him. Ultimately it turns out that the ants really *are* trying to kill him because he can understand their language. Then some spiders show up and explain that they’ve been defending humanity from the ants for hundreds of thousands of years. The paranoid takes some relief in this until the spider explains himself better…

“The Variable Man” (1953) Stinks on ice. Far and away the longest story in the collection, it’s actually a short novella. Earth is in an extended state of cold war with aliens, neither side shooting for a century because they’re playing the odds. A new weapon is developed that gives earth a statistical advantage, and it’s rushed into production. For no reason whatsoever, apart from the plot needs it, a handyman from 1912 or so ends up in the future, and his presence introduces a variable (see?) that upsets the stats so that the chances of earth winning are now less than they were before. This spawns possibly the most boring civil war in history between the factions of the earth’s government. A bunch of stuff happens, and then stops happening. Also, really, the war plays no significant role. It’s just awful. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I ever managed to plow all the way through to the end of this one before this week.

“The Indefatigable Frog” (1953) Another short comedy story in which two scientists who hate each other attempt to resolve Xeno’s paradox of the frog in the well once and for all. Short. Again, this has got the oddball humor, the clever twist, the whole PKD thing, it’s particularly welcome after “The Variable Man.”

“The Crystal Crypt” (1954) A clever little adventure: Earth is on the edge of war with Mars when a Martian city disappears. Not destroyed, just…gone. The authorities can’t figure out what happens, but then some earthling spies get to bragging about what they did over drinks. One of the guys isn’t what he appears to be, though. Interestingly, we revisit the “Evil snow globe city” concept from “Stability” seven years earlier.

“The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” (1954) A sequel to “The Preserving Machine” involving the same characters (One of whom I believe is Phil himself, though he never says his name). The professor figures out a way to bring inanimate objects to life, which ultimately results in an Adam shoe and an Eve shoe (High heel) making baby shoes in the bushes. Better than it sounds. Phil’s then-wife Kleo makes an appearance. Phil never did extended sequences of interlinked short stories like Heinlein or Niven or Asimov or others did. These two stories are as close as he ever came. I really do wish he’d done more, though.

“The Builder” (1952) I thought this one was a lot cooler in 1986 than I did this week. Basically a modern-day guy is building an ark in the back yard. You can guess what happens next, right? It’s an open question of whether this is in the future, or the past.

“Medler” (1954) Every time probe sent into the future keeps finding the world completely dead. Ultimately they send a man into the future to find out what happened, and when he comes back to the present, he inadvertently brings the element that activates their fate. A pretty straight-forward and uninspired tale, but it’s very well written.

“Paycheck” (1953) Recently made into a movie, *this* one is a real classic. A man takes a two-year top secret job on the condition that he’ll be handsomely paid, *but* they’ll remove all memory of what he was doing during that period. Sure enough: he wakes up in the back of a car, to be told that he waived his salary in favor of seven useless trinkets: a piece of wire, half a poker chip, a bus token, a torn ticket, a package receipt, etc. Why would he do this? The story is an exploration of the “Stitch in time” thing: what if half a poker chip means the difference between life and death at that one moment? Isn’t that worth more than $50,000? And of course this begs the question of how our protagonist *knew* he was gonna’ need these things.

“The Great C” (1952) A computer has destroyed the world. A tribe of stone age sorta-Indians has grown from the survivors, and every year they select a brave to go and ask the computer three questions. We assume this is so they can gain knowledge to, I dunno, survive or something, but no, the twist is they’re playing “Stump the computer.” He’ll let ’em go if it’s one he can’t answer, he’ll eat the brave if he can. The questions are pretty stupid - they’re stone age. What could they really know to ask? - and the dude gets eaten. It’s ok. Interesting because the computer could easily destroy the world again (He did it once before for no stated reason, but it’s implied that he’s kinda’ nuts), but is entirely dependent upon people coming and feeding him, and is lonely.

“Out in the Garden” (1952) an odd little riff on Zeus turning into a swan to knock up a human woman. Which, apparently, he does again. Nice creepy ending, but it doesn’t really suit Phil’s style. This is really a fantasy story.

“The King of the Elves” (1953) A fun little fantasy story about an elderly gas station owner who inadvertently becomes kind of the elves, a job he doesn’t particularly want, even though he’s good at it. Suffers only from a tacked on ending the editor insisted upon.

“Colony” (1953) Another instant classic, and one of those rare stories where I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first read it. (1987, engineering building, *not* paying attention in class) Like “Expendable” this one revolves around paranoia. In this case, inanimate objects appear to be coming to life and killing an exploratory team on a new - apparently harmless - world. In essence everyone who dies in this story does so because they’re just not paranoid enough. Their natural psychological equilibrium works against them. It gets cleverer and cleverer the closer you look at it. Great story. Nobody does paranoia like Phil.

“Prize Ship” (1952) A stolen space ship ends up in Liliput and then in Brobdignag, much to the consternation of the crew. Eventually it turns out it’s ‘cuz it’s not a space ship, it’s a time machine, and the universe is expanding. Which actually makes perfect sense, and is really clever. I have no idea why Phil goes out of his way to avoid saying “Liliput” in the story, but has no qualms about dropping “Brobdignag” in there. Odd. Nice fun story, though. Well worth the time.

“Nanny” (1952) A pretty solid little tale of planned obsolescence. Aggressively planned obsolescence.

And that’s pretty much it. It’s a good collection, though I wonder why the stories aren’t ordered chronologically, as that would presumably show Phil’s style developing more clearly. Just the same: well worth the read, even if it’s kinda’ rough and not generally up to his main-sequence standard.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

On the whole, yes. This is straight-ahead 1950s SF, without anything untoward to offend, *excepting* “The Skull,” which is, I think, probably blasphemous. There’s a bit of mushy-headed one-worldism, which was popular at the time, but not much, and it mostly seems tacked on to stories like “The Defenders” and “Mr. Spaceship” because he didn’t know how to end ‘em otherwise.

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