BOOK REVIEW: “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 3: Second Variety” (1987)

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It’s a bit of a quandary: I really enjoy science fiction anthologies more than pretty much all other forms of literature, but given their nature, they’re really hard to review in any meaningful, organized fashion. As much fun as they are to read, they’re not so much fun to write about in less than ten thousand words, and as a result, I tend to read the books, but postpone reviewing them as long as possible, unto the point of having only vague and squishy memories of what was in them in the first place.

Not my best work.

This is made worse by these Philip K. Dick collections: While they’re the holy grail for any PKD fan, and required to own, there’s no getting around the fact that the first two volumes really weren’t very good. In fact, the first one never really got above ‘gifted amateur’ stage. The second book was, on the whole, a substantial improvement, and it had glimmerings of brilliance that was yet to come, but it was still on balance slightly below mediocre. Given that this was the first time I’d read these books in a decade, I was not exactly hepped up for reading the third installment.

I gotta’ tell ya,’ though, brother: This book is great!

Honest and for true: *this* is what I’d hoped the whole series would be like when I purchased it in the early ‘90s. In fact, it’s so good that it even redeems the previous two volumes a bit. Here’s my authorial perspective:

I’m not a *real* writer, but I’ve written a lot of stuff that nobody reads or buys. (Here
and Here
) and I’ve been doing that for a long time. If you want to be a writer, if it’s something that matters to you, you work at it a lot, you’re compelled to. Odds are, unless you’re Vladimir Nabokov, your early stuff is gonna’ suck. But you keep doing it, and you learn your abilities and gradually, occasional flukes notwithstanding, you get to the point where suddenly all the gears and reflexes mesh, and it don’t suck no more. How long this takes is entirely up to the individual. I started writing in ‘84 or ‘85, and I didn’t actually get *good* at it until 2005 or 2006, so call it twenty-one years. In my defense, I never claimed to be a prodigy. Also: I had a day job most of that time. And girlfriends. So, y’know, other stuff to do with my hands.

Mister Dick *was* a prodigy, he didn’t much of a job to speak of, and he tended to avoid the romantic girlfriend phase of his relationships, going directly to loveless marriages, thereby allowing him to completely ignore the women in his life. Thus: not so much to do with his hand *apart* from write. Man, oh man, did he write a lot! The “Collected Stories” series has *all* his known short stories in more-or-less chronological order. Volume 1 had 25 stories, Volume 2 had 27 stories, all of which were written in the space of about 18 months! The volume I’m reviewing today has 24 stories, mostly written between April of ‘53 and June of ‘54! That comes out to roughly 75 *published* stories in about three years, or roughly one every two weeks!

Harlan Ellison went through an extended period in this same time frame where he literally wrote and sold a story a week, or he didn’t eat. Thus, for several years there, Harlan was cranking out between fifty and sixty *published* stories a year. Even so: Phil’s output was still pretty phenomenal. There were a lot more major name authors in the period that didn’t manage to put out nearly as much content as Phil. (No one *ever* comes close to outpacing Harlan) By comparison, my first book took me two years to write, and it only had seven stories in it. My point being: I ain’t bragging.

And when you put it all in this context, when you realize that for about a thousand days straight, all Phil was doing was writing these stories, stacking albums in a record shop, writing these stories, becoming increasingly dysfunctional with is (Second) wife, and writing these stories, suddenly, suddenly, suddenly you can see his progression as an artist. You *know* this intellectually when you sit down to an obsessive-compulsive collection like this, it’s part of the attraction. Just the same, reading through all that early not-very-good crap, the appeal is lost on you. And when you read the second book, again, the awareness that it’s not as bad as the first book is still there, yet it’s a dry thing, remote and unconsoling.

Then you hit *this* book and you *FEEL* it.

Suddenly you can’t wait to read the later stuff, you tear through this batch in glee, and it even redeems the earlier stuff a bit. Not enough that you want to go back and re-read it as a whole, but just enough that you kind of don’t resent having to schlogg through it anymore.

The Evidence:

* “Fair Game” (1953) - a fairly pro forma alien abduction kind of story, the same sort of thing a million people had already done a million times over, and the sort of thing Phil himself would have hashed and botched just a year before. Here it’s still nothing special, but it’s so *engagingly* nothing special, with its vastly better writing, vintage paranoia, and the expected “Unexpected Twist” ending. In volume one, this probably would have been among his best material. Here, it’s probably the weakest story.

* ”The Hanging Stranger” (1953) - A man comes back to town to find a dead body hanging from a lamp post in plain view, but nobody seems to think anything unusual about it. As he tries to get to the bottom of it, things spiral out of control, until we get to the obligatory twist. Very good writing, very good use of a circular plot, it feels a bit like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though it predates it by a couple years, *and* there’s even a noteworth “Bible” bit in it.

*- “The Eyes Have It” (1953) - a funny little dawdle of a vignette of a trifle, written in the form of a letter to the editor by a man who doesn’t understand figures of speech. It’s *just* as short as it needs to be. Had Phil tried to write this a year before, it would have been four times the length, and one quarter the laughs.

* - “The Golden Man” (1953) - The standard assumption in the 1950s was that Evolution had to run from moron to super-genius, man to superman, and it could only go along one route. In this story, we get an exploration of *different* ways the Superman could logically arise, ad we hit on the chilling idea that it’s our intelligence that’s actually been holding us back. Beyond all this, we get some really good characterization, and dialog. If Tennessee Williams wrote SF, it’d feel like this.

* “The Turning Wheel” (1953) - A standard post apocalyptic story - already cliché in the early 50s - that jumps apart from its peers by more-or-less ignoring the wasteland and ruminating on the effects of technology on reincarnation, free will, and racial discord. The story is also a pretty open slam on Scientology, with everyone running around saying “Elron be praised” and “Clearness be with you.” Phil was *not* a fan of LRH.

* - “The Last of the Masters” (1953) - The last robot in the world is attempting to rebuild civilization following a disastrous war. The problem is that humanity no longer wants civilization, and is content to live in a state of happy (If useless) anarchy. The robot is old and falling apart, and has the ability to force people to repair him and do other things for him, but it’s obvious even to him that his efforts to force order are coming to nothing. Not my favorite story in the collection, it’s a bit too long and squanders some of its potential. Phil himself later said it was a variation on the Bible’s “Suffering Servant” motif, and I tend to see it as a horribly belabored rumination on humanity’s rejection of Christ. Being Phil in this period, of course, he seems to think this rejection is a good thing, but his opinions would change later on.

* “The Father Thing” (1953) - This is one seriously creepy-assed story, and I can totally see it freaking out people back in the day. It starts off in your typical Bradburyesque “Creepy” mode, with a kid’s dad apparently being replaced by a…thing. No one will believe the kid, of course. Then it just gets all disturbing. Phil attempted several times in earlier stories to ape Bradbury, but here he uses the man’s style as a stone to leapfrog off of into a completely different direction.

* “Strange Eden” (1953) - Basically a variation on the “Circe” myth from The Odyssey, and yet its given such an original, laid back, sexy spin that it manages to distract us entirely from the obvious twist. Short, sharp, scathing.

* “Tony and the Beetles” (1953) - A well-written, realistic alien story, with a somewhat abrupt moral. It plays nicely with perspectives: Earth loses a war, which we’re expected to see as a bad thing, but to a human kid who’s spent most of his life among aliens, there’s a different perspective. Largely an allegory of colonialism and race relations, this is another example of a story Phil couldn’t have done a year or two before. He could have *thought* of it, but he didn’t have the chops to write it until August of ‘53.

* “Null-O” (1953) - “They’ve always classed paranoia as a mental illness. But it isn’t’! Ther’es no lack of contact with reality - on the contrary, the paranoid is DIRECTLY related to reality. He’s the perfect empiricist. Not cluttered with ethical and moral-cultural inhibitions. The paranoid sees thigns as they really are. He’s actually the only sane man.” The story follows this assertion to its sociopathic conclusion. An uncharacteristically irony-free story, and brutish. This is a fumble: Phil’s skills aren’t quite up to pulling this one off yet.

* “To Serve The Master” (1953) - Yet another post apocalyptic story. This one’s about a man in a society that has outlawed robots for obscure reasons. He finds one that’s still functioning - barely - and repairs it while it teaches him about history. The thing about history, however, is how people tend to bend it for their own purposes. The story itself is somewhat pedestrian, but the reveal, shock, and betrayal at the end is palpable.

* “Exhibit Piece” (1953) - “The people in dreams are always secure until the dreamer wakes up.” This is one of those escape/wish fulfillment pieces where a guy is in two realities at once, and we’re not sure which one is real. What makes it work is the jaunty paranoia - yes, I said “Jaunty paranoia” - and the surprisingly tight characterization on a piece this short. There’s not a lot to this, it’s a chicklet, not a steak dinner, but it’s a really *good* chicklet.

* “The Crawlers” (1953) - A town is having deformed mutant children. The Government recognizes this as a threat to health, morale, morals, and the commonweal in general. They attempt to stop it, attempt to prevent it, while the parents mostly attempt to hide their little monsters Ultimately the government decides to just take all the kids, round ‘em up, and deposit them in some secure location where they can’t bother anyone. This is one creepy-assed story, but what really puts it over the top into disturbing-land is when we find out the humane option was the wrong choice.

* “Sales Pitch” (1953) - Remember the Daffy Duck cartoon where he’s trying to sell a handy-dandy item that’ll do anything to some poor, uninterested schlubb, and ends up destroying the guy’s life in the process? This is basically the same thing, minus the duck: It sells itself. And it’s not funny. It’s supposed to be a little chilling, but mostly it’s a muddle.

* “Shell Game” (1953) - A band of humans on a mysterious planet are attacked every night by an enemy that leaves no evidence. Eventually some of the humans begin to suspect that maybe there is no enemy, maybe they’re just paranoid schizophrenics. The question then becomes one of how you prove insanity in a world where everyone is mentally ill in the same way. A clever, tight, funny little story.

* “Upon the Dull Earth” (1954) - A disturbing story about a girl who can call angels. Angels, it turns out, are not exactly what they’re reputed to be in the Bible, but I’ll not say more about that for risk of offending my Christian readers. Something goes wrong, and the girl dies. The attempt to bring her back results in things going even vastly more wrong. Creepy story that never quite focuses, but maintains a low-level dreamy nightmare feel all the way through.

* “Foster, You‘re Dead” (1954) - Another of Phil’s spastic anti-consumerist message pieces, this one a bit better than most in that it focuses on the effect it has on children: Basically what do you sell people after they’ve got all the cars and toasters and TVs they can reasonably hope to use? Bomb shelters! Bomb shelters and paranoia, a clientele’s best friend. This is regarded as one of Phil’s classics. It’s not, but it’s way better than stuff like “Sales Pitch.”

* “Pay for the Printer” (1954) - an absolutely fracking wonderful story about benevolent aliens who attempt to help earth rebuild following a nuclear war, and end up basically enabling our inherent awfulness. I’ll say no more about it, but this thing is haunting from any angle, and it’s got a chewy moral, too.

* “War Veteran” (1954) - A very clever story that, unfortunately, manages to trip itself up into a rambly, sprawly mess. It still ends up very clever, but it takes way too long to get there, and wraps up too quickly. This is a tale of time travel, con jobs, interplanetary politics, and the extinction of the human race, but it reads like something that just kind of got out of the author’s control, and then was summarized rather than ended when he got sleepy or bored with it. At 36 pages, it’s far and away the longest story in the book, as well.

* “The Chromium Fence” (1954) - Feels like something out of one of the previous books: basically a great political divide has formed over utterly trivial matters (Relating to personal hygiene) and the world is on the edge of political uprising. One man refuses to choose a side, and this is taken as a triumph of will, but in fact it’s just kinda’ a waste.

* “Misadjustment” (1954) - A great little who-watches-the-watchers story involving a future civilization that has to deal with psychic powers. This then twists into recursive logic and a rumination on the nature of reality itself. If you’re looking for a particular story that shows how much PKD’s style improved in just a year, compare this with “The Hood Maker” from the previous anthology. It tackles the same basic concept, but whereas that is content to muck around in boring old political outrage, this one simply uses that as a premise and then moves above the confines of mere allegory into art. And the ending is funny, too.

* “A World of Talent” (1954) - Second longest story in the book, but far, far better than the “War Veteran” novelette. One of earth’s colony worlds in another solar system has revolted. The only thing protecting them from losing the war is a small number of emotionally erratic people with psychic powers. But can emotional basket cases who can’t really keep themselves running protect a society? And when a never-before-seen power shows up, that changes thing. What room for love is there in this brave-but-messed-up new world? While Phil’s whole wife-is-death-bitch-goddess / Girlfriend is Savior thing isn’t new here, this is his best exploration of it in short story form to date.

* “Psi-Man, Heal My Child!” (1954) - yet another post apocalyptic story. This one involves a small band of psychics who repeatedly attempt - and fail - to prevent the war that destroyed the world. In between, they do faith healings and various other odd jobs for small settlements of survivors, and debate the wisdom of their decision to stay nonpartisan. Explores the idea that saints and healers and magicians and wizards were real, just psychics before we had any scientific explanation for their phenomenon.

* “Second Variety” (1952) - In the original 1987 printing of “The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick,” this was the titular story of volume two. When re-printed in the early ‘90s, to cash in on the popularity of the “Total Recall” movie, they swapped “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” out of volume three, and they swapped “Second Variety” in. This created some problems, in that Volume 2 now contains the sequel (“Jon’s World,” not very good) to a story that doesn’t show up until volume 3. They also swapped out the titles of the volumes.

Irrespective of that, though, “Second Variety” is a really good story, “Ten Little Indians, One Of Whom Is A Murderer, But We Don’t Know Which One” is probably the best way to sum up the plot, but it’s so laconically told, so desolate and hopeless that it’s not hard to get sucked into the people’s malaise, and share their plight.
And that’s the end. If still in doubt, : This is the book. This is what we were all looking for. We are done with mere glimmerings of brilliance yet to come, we’re nowhere near the full potential in his future, but make no mistake about it: book encapsulates the fourteen month period in the mid-1950s when he *BECAME* Philip K. Dick


More than the previous ones, yes. He’s less interested in leftist politics, and more interested in the more psychological aspects of human nature. The stories have grown from simple morality plays into explorations of more philosophical issues like ‘what is human?’ and ‘what is reality?’ and his own special ‘I know I’m crazy, but how do I know the rest of you are sane?’ Well worth reading, and far less religiously offensive than the earlier volumes.