- The Good: Thought-provoking and clever psychological science fiction
- The Bad: Less-developed early-career stories
- The Literary: Short stories from one of the greatest science fiction writers
Widely considered one of the greatest science fiction writers, Philip Kindred Dick sold his first short story in 1951 but found little recognition until his novel The Man in the High Castle earned him a Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1962. He is known for his imaginative paranoid fiction, self-identity, and fragile realities, inspired by his own mental states, attempted suicides, and drug abuse.
The Eyes Have It — 5 stars
One of the funniest PKD stories I’ve read, based entirely on a misunderstanding of English phrasing. Literally interpreting a line in a novel that reads, “his eyes roved around the room”, the protagonist believes he’s found evidence that aliens have invaded Earth and are living among us. Humans cannot remove their eyes from their heads after all. The story continues, one phrase after another, “he put his arm around her”, and “she gave him her heart and hand,” with a fun punchline at the end. It’s almost as if PKD is poking fun at his own tendency to question reality.
Second Variety — 5 stars
In the aftermath of nuclear war between Russia and the United Nations, UN troops fight among the devastation while most of the government live on a Moon base. The tide turns once the UN develops robots that seek warm bodies and kill with a churning sphere of blades. With a few years, the “claws” devastate the Soviet forces, and learn to repair and redesign themselves in automated factories. This story feels very much like later PKD, with a small group of people surviving against a backdrop of what feels to be a doomed war. But the real story is in the robots, and the robot models they self-create.
Beyond the Door — 4 stars
Larry Thomas brings home a cuckoo clock for his wife Doris, who loves it. But Larry is a thoughtless man who doesn’t seem to love his wife and ruins the moment by announcing he bought the clock wholesale. Doris fawns over the clock, talking to the cuckoo sweetly. Larry becomes jealous and kicks his wife out. But he keeps the clock though he hates it and eventually threatens to smash it with a hammer, upon which, Bob mysteriously dies. I love that wholesale is a bad word for PKD, symbolizing the loss of individuality and the worst of consumerism. The cuckoo seems to be alive, something suspected by nearly everyone in the story at some point, and I wonder if it would have been more powerful if only Larry suspected it’s autonomy.
The Variable Man — 5 stars
The human race is in a cold war with the Centauran Empire, which won’t allow humans to expand beyond our solar system despite mastering space travel. As the war progresses, a probability machine re-calculates the outcome of the war. Everything seems grand with the theoretical invention of a faster-than-light bomb, but a man from the past who travels to the present through a time bubble becomes the unknown variable, confusing the probability machine. Thomas Cole, the variable man, is from 1913, highly capable, and a “fixer of things”. He evades the authorities and goes on the run. Surprisingly twisty, this story is satisfying in its homage to the idea of “the renaissance man”.
Beyond Lies the Wub — 4 stars
Loading up a spaceship with food animals from Mars, Peterson buys an enormous pig. The captain comments on how good he’ll taste, but eventually the pig speaks up, introduced himself as “wub”, and asks not to be discussed in that fashion. Peterson and wub discuss mythology, but the captain only becomes more obsessed with eating wub. There’s a nice twist at the end, but I’m unclear exactly what this story is about, other than a talking creature who looks like a pig.
Tony And The Beetles — 4 stars
Tony is only 10 years old and hasn’t ever thought about the long-standing subjugation of the insect-like Pac-udeti by the human race. He lives on a planet in the Betelgeuse system with his parents. And though he plays with his best friends, most of whom are Pac-udeti, he accepts the world as it is. When the war takes a turn, his best friends turn on him, call him a “white-grub”, and Tony only then recognizes that he’s on the side of the oppressors. I love that this story is told from the POV of a child who doesn’t question or see his privilege. Bleak and tragic, and quite a way to end a short story collection.
While the editing of this particular collection isn’t great, the stories themselves are. Highly recommended for fans of PKD. If you’re new, I’d recommend reading his most famous novels first.