1950s, 1952, 1953, 1954, anthology/collection, Cold War, Dover Publications, Fantastic Universe, Galaxy Science Fiction, If: Worlds of Science Fiction, Imagination, Orbit, Philip K. Dick, Planet Stories Magazine, science fiction, Science Fiction Stories, short fiction, social satire, Space Science Fiction
I’ve read and re-read so much by Philip K. Dick, I have trouble knowing where to start when reviewing him. Thus, I figured why not start with the beginning, Dick’s earliest works? I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out I got an eARC from Dover Books, but knowing it was an entry drug into reviewing Dick was incentive enough—with one or two possible exceptions, Dick ranks as my favorite science fiction author. Dover specializes in reprinting affordable copies of both rare and popular public domain works, and it’s no surprise to find that some of Dick’s earliest fall into that category.
So, here we are: a dozen of Philip K. Dick’s early works, pulled from a motley crew of magazines: the dying pulps (Planet Stories), short-lived digests (Space Science Fiction and Orbit), Imagination of low repute… yet also some of the era’s première magazines (Galaxy, though If and Fantastic Universe were quality second-tier digests). I’ve read several of these stories before, and a few others I’ve never heard of before; this should be interesting.
Beyond Lies the Wub – Planet Stories, July 1952 – short
A group of Terrans are heading home from Mars with a cargo full of exotic animals purchased from native trackers. The strangest of these was not on the manifest—one of the crew bought a bloated pig-like critter for fifty cents from the locals, who called it a wub. When Captain Franco wonders if the revolting wub will taste as good as an Earth pig, the wub reveals it can speak. You can see the roots of Dick’s later themes in this, his first published story; it’s a bit unpolished though the ending is an impressive trick the first time around. Beyond that, it’s an interesting little morality tale that tackles humanity’s primal violence when it comes face-to-face with sentience in the most unexpected place—a fat alien pig.
The Skull – If, Sept. 1952 – novelette
In an interesting twist, Dick presents a future where the common folk despise science because of the war—and better weaponry—that it brings, instead following The Church and the teachings of its pacifist prophet. Upon being released from prison, our protagonist is sent back in time by a batch of scientists. His mission: to kill the prophet and bring about a return of science in all its warmongering glory. Thus, he steps out of his time machine into a 1961 Middle America at the height of its Cold War paranoia…
Pretty heady stuff from an era when science, the magical benefits it would bring humanity, and the men who made science, were all glamorized. Like some of the other works in this collection, Dick displays a bitterness linked to the Cold War and the increasing industrialized slaughter of war. The jaunt into the story’s chronological past was nine years in the future from when Dick wrote it, and envisions a world even more entrapped by McCarthyism and fear of the Red Menace.
The Gun – Planet Stories, Sept. 1952 – short
Space explorers find an uninhabited planet, blasted to ruin and rubble from a war that ended ages past in annihilation. The only activity on the surface is a giant, automated gun guarding the treasures of its long-dead builders. Another strong anti-war message, as the characters trek across the irradiated slagheap that is the planet’s surface. While it evokes some powerful images—such as the last segment and final line—the story itself is rather shallow. Not disappointing, just not fully developed.
The Crystal Crypt – Planet Stories, Jan. 1954 – short
As tension between Mars and Earth grows to a head, the last starliner packed with human businessmen and expatriates prepares to flee Mars. The flight is stopped by Martian officers, seeking three humans—a woman and two men—wanted for their part in the destruction of Martian city hosting the planet’s high council. Most of the story is a flashback to the three saboteurs’ infiltration and attack on the city, a not too thrilling adventure with a predictable ending. Another story that’s a bit shallow, a pulp adventure with the era’s signature twist ending. Though, the story does make a single, brief, fascinating mention: the secretive Martians are upset by the Terrans’ interests on Mars was trade, business, and marketing—commentary on globalization’s commercialism before globalization was a thing.
Second Variety – Space SF, May 1953 – novelette
To win the Cold War turned hot, the Americans turned to their industrialization, churning out thousands and thousands of robotic claws to send against the Russian hordes. These death-machines of rotating blades turned the tide of the war in the UN-bloc’s favor, after Europe was turned into an ash-heap and the surviving Americans relocated to their moon base. The Russians have now made contact in order for a final surrender, due to grave new revelations about the ever-evolving claws and their automated factories…
Yet another anti-war story, but I think this one works pretty well. The gruesome nature of the claws and the apocalyptic battlefields bring to mind images of The Terminator‘s future, along with the horror of artificial killing machines barely under our control. To me, this is the first capital-letters Great Story by Dick, a bitter and bleak novelette that screws with your head and manipulates your expectations. It’s also the first Dick story I ever read, and the sheer brutality of it—the harshness of its technological Cold War run amok, the sucker-punch that is its revelation—just blew my mind. The Cold War angle may have dated it, and the story’s twist was telegraphed from miles away, but it has lost none of its power.
The Variable Man – Space SF, Sept. 1953 – novella
The far future sees Earth ringed in by the ancient and corrupt empire of Proxima Centauri; humanity is desperate to speed the empire’s decline in order to advance beyond our single Sol system. Before resorting to open war, planning computers are used to run the odds on a Terran victory over the Centaureans, and one invention—that of a faster-than-light bomb—may give Terra the right odds for victory. The only problem is that finishing the actual device is taking longer than anticipated. Meanwhile, an accident plucks a genius handyman from 1913 and deposits him into this far future—becoming the “Variable Man,” an unforeseen variable that makes the planning computers’ odds go crazy. And to stabilize Terra’s chance of victory, this variable must be removed from the equation…
Another anti-war story that’s at least a bit less blunt about being so; another of Dick’s early works that still has some staying power. It’s also one of the longer stories in the book, giving Dick enough room to maneuver between the technocratic war planners of the future and the mister-fixit out of time and on the run. War isn’t the only theme and message Dick plays with, though the multitude of meanings is left up to the reader to decide. The ending is at least more optimistic than “Second Variety,” and the story is a good blend of metaphor and action.
The Eyes Have It – SF Stories #1, 1953 – short
One astute reader has picked up on signs that another species is among us, finding suitable proof in the book that he’s reading. A social satire of (bad) paperback writing that is more trite than comedic; I’m sure someone will find it punny, but I found it groan-inducing. Dick didn’t write much numerous fiction, and “The Eyes Have It” shows why.
Mr. Spaceship – Imagination, Jan. 1953 – novelette
In a similar vein to “The Variable Man,” mankind’s interstellar exploration has ran head-first into another alien species, leading to continual war. The enemy’s defenses—bio-technical living mines—can disable Terran spaceships before their remote operators even see the threat. One risky idea to counter this is to place a human brain into a spaceship, allowing a human operator into the void of space—and the scientists have a perfect candidate in mind. The story is rich in details though weak in execution; while the characters and ideas are interesting, the ending felt rushed, unexpected, and a bit ham-handed in its commentary. Not Dick’s strongest work, though one of his most imaginative.
Piper in the Woods – Imagination, Feb. 1953 – short
Army doctor Henry Harris has a puzzling case: a soldier on Asteroid Y-3 claims that he is a plant, refusing his duties in favor of sitting on a rock in the sun all day. As Harris investigates, he determines that the man truly thinks he is a plant. As more and more people from Asteroid Y-3’s garrison are shipped to the mental ward, all claiming to be plants, Harris heads to Asteroid Y-3 seeking the truth. Well, don’t expect any here; the ending is disappointingly vague. A fascinating concept for a story, it feels like Dick didn’t know what to do with it, and the story suffers—a shame, since it’s not a bad story overall and an entertaining read.
Tony and the Beetles – Orbit #2, 1953 – short
Tony has grown up watching Terra fight an insectoid alien species derogatorily called the beetles; born on a planet captured during the ongoing war, Tony’s friends are all beetles. As Terra’s fortunes turn and the beetles gain the upper hand in the war, Tony learns a harsh lesson in race relations. An interesting slice-of-life story the deals with racism/colonialism and the loss of childhood innocence, but like “Piper in the Woods” I don’t feel the story’s fascinating idea was used to its full potential. It’s not bad at all, but felt under-developed, leaving the reader with that neat idea and its shallow execution.
The Defenders – Galaxy, Jan. 1953 – novelette
Eight years ago a nuclear war engulfed the world, driving its populace to below ground to live in subterranean cities. For eight years, the United States and Soviet Union have fought their battles remotely, using “Leadys,” robotic automatons that could survive the radioactive environment. And now Taylor, an American war planner, is being pulled up to the surface by his bunker’s leadership, who suspect the Leadys aren’t telling the full truth about the surface situation…
Another Cold War story with a more uplifting message. Editor H.L. Gold liked it enough that Dick got front-cover billing and illustration—a first for the young writer. The story itself is pretty good, with the twist succeeding because it’s more unexpected and a message that’s withstood the test of time. The big ideas the story generates make up for its heavy-handed message, and I think it’s one of the better ones in this collection.
Beyond the Door – Fantastic Universe, Jan. 1954 – short
Housewife Doris is gifted a cuckoo clock by her husband Larry, which she grows very attached to. After discovering her infidelity, Larry throws her out of the house, and must put up with the increasingly depressive cuckoo clock that he wasn’t a fan of to begin with. Another of Dick’s few tales that straddle the line between urban fantasy and the supernatural. While the idea behind it is good, the characters are abrasive, the writing is dry, and the overall plot is rather dull and predictable.
The Bottom Line
The themes that Dick would tackle throughout his career—an endless succession of parables and formulae attempting to resolve the questions “What is human? What is reality? What is real?”—begin to take shape in the pulp ghetto, buried within the tropes, cliches, and contrivances of the genre in the 1950s. (Look at those titles, too—“The Skull,” “The Gun,” “The Crystal Crypt”—that look like they’d be more at home in a 1930s issue of Weird Tales.)
Dick was well-suited for the social satire and mind-bending trick endings that were the norm for ’50s SF short fiction, and several of the stories have a playful humor to them. That said, he could also take it a step further—“Beyond Lies the Wub”, for example, raises a number of unasked questions about how advanced humanity is when, upon meeting a sapient life form, the first thing we try to do is eat it… just because of its beast-like appearance. Most of the other stories have heavy anti-war themes, whether their outcome is bitter and soul-crushing (“Second Variety”) or uplifting (“Variable Man,” “Mr. Spaceship,” “Defenders”).
That would be part of the problem: consumed individually, the stories can be quite good; in one lump sum, the constant anti-Cold War messages can make them a bit blunt and same-y. Dick had a habit of re-using themes in an attempt to find the perfect solution to his questions, and while seeing them all together can make for an interesting comparison, it can also lead to theme fatigue. The execution for many is also very, very rough; none of them are as polished as Dick’s most famous works. It should be obvious, but these are closer to Solar Lottery than Electric Sheep.
The spread of stories in this collection range from one of Dick’s best (“Second Variety”) to one of his worst (“Eyes Have It,”). There are a number of bona-fide PKD classics in here—“Variable Man” and “The Defenders” still hold up rather well—while the rest fall somewhere around average: early stories with a strong Cold War bent and new-writer roughness. I’d say there’s more hits than misses, and the collection is a great look at Dick’s early career for those who are interested in seeing his pulpy beginnings. That said, this is probably a collection that Philip K. Dick fans will appreciate more than casual SF readers.