PKD flashback: All 25 stories from ‘The Collected Stories, Volume 1’ (1987), ranked (Book review)

B

ecause the five volumes of “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick” have been reprinted many times under many different names, I’m referring to them here by their volume number, which is what they are known by in their original 1987 publication by Underwood-Miller.

For those looking to track down a copy, Volume 1 was later subtitled:

  • “Beyond Lies the Wub” (1990, Gollancz)
  • “The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” (1990, Citadel Twilight)
  • “Beyond Lies the Wub” (1999, Orion Books, pictured above)
  • “King of the Elves” (2010, Subterranean Press, with “Menace React” added)

Here are my rankings of the 25 short stories of Volume 1, featuring stories written at the beginning of PKD’s career, from 1947 to 1954. The year of writing is first, followed by the year of publication if it differs:

PKD uses an oligarchic state – where only the government and corporations have rights anymore – as the backdrop, as our hero realizes he’s helpless as an individual, but if he can get in with the company, he’ll be safe.

1. “Paycheck” (1952, 1953) – With its irresistible puzzle set-up, I can see why “Paycheck” was made into a John Woo thriller starring Ben Affleck in 2003. A repairman emerges from a two-year contract with a company with his memory of the time wiped, as per the deal he made. But he has smuggled out seven trinkets in his pocket: a bus token, a ticket stub, a key, etc. These items come in handy as he tries to figure out what the pre-mind-wipe version of himself is trying to communicate. A time-scoop, which appears in many stories in this collection, also plays a role. PKD uses an oligarchic state – where only the government and corporations have rights anymore – as the backdrop, as our hero realizes he’s helpless as an individual, but if he can get in with the company, he’ll be safe.

2. “The Variable Man” (1953) – This 57-pager is a robust exploration of the impact of a time traveler, and a superb military-state satire. A repairman named Cole is accidentally time-scooped from 1913 to 2128 by histo-researchers, but it turns out this “Variable Man” is exactly who is needed to program a bomb so the Earth can win the war against the encroaching Centauran Empire. Cole can go one better, though: He can program the bomb to instead serve as a faster-than-light spaceship; thus, the Earth can dodge the entire war and expand into the cosmos. As that scientific puzzle unfolds in the background, “The Variable Man” pokes fun at military cover-ups. Having become obsessed with a prediction model (all wars are fought – or not – on its basis), Security Commissioner Reinhart goes to the ends of the Earth to kill Cole, whose existence is messing up the prediction machine. Reinhart can’t retain his sanity without “knowing” how the war will turn out ahead of time; he’s paralyzed by having to make a decision at a time when computers have made human decisions archaic.

3. “Nanny” (1952, 1955) – Volume 1 closes with a winner in this satire of how product-makers play on consumers’ nature in order to get them to buy the next iteration, even when an older model has everything they need. (Twenty-five years ago, we left the house without a cellphone; now we somehow can’t live without it. Technology has tied us to gadgets even as it has given us freedom in other ways.) In this case, Nanny robots fight each other in a twisted, literal version of market competition. Probably by accident, PKD also has a little something to say about both helicopter parenting and parental neglect, and the irony that you can have it both ways if technology is good enough. These future parents hand off parenting duties to the ever-vigilant Nanny and are completely overwhelmed when the robot is out for repairs.

4. “The Defenders” (1953) – Later incorporated into “The Penultimate Truth” (1964), this anti-war story is structured such that a reader figures out Twist No. 1, then Twist No. 2, then Twist No. 3. Although I could sense each twist coming (particularly that the titular robots aren’t truly fighting a war aboveground), this is an important yarn that makes smart observations. The robots are like good Terminators as they fake the war against other robots while the humans live belowground, waiting until the time is right to let their charges emerge again. Today, we see the Pollyanna nature of what the robots have concluded: that humans will get tired of war if enough time goes by. As can be observed today, the human race becomes accustomed to war as time goes by (even if we don’t like it) – perfect conditions for those who profit from war. I suspect that once robots take over soldier roles from humans, although that will be a good thing in that it cuts back on human deaths, war will be even more locked into ubiquity.

5. “Mr. Spaceship” (1953) – In this delightful yet creepy story, the Earth military – continually outsmarted by its enemy’s organic ships — devises a way to have one of its ships run via a human brain. An aging professor volunteers to die and donate his brain for the project, and it works, but the theorists get one thing wrong: the brain isn’t a mere tool. The professor is still in there, and he has his own strategy. As with most stories in this collection, the Earth is in a perpetual state of war, and the professor has long been saddened to see his bright students go into the military tech field. His solution – to launch a new civilization, without society’s built-in pro-war bias – is appealing, but PKD blows the science on the landing. The settlement will need a lot more than two people to start with; Adam and Eve works as a metaphor, not as a strategy.

6. “The Infinites” (1953) – What starts as a biological outbreak on a spaceship morphs into an unusual spin on the evolutionary process – swift and goal-oriented, rather than random mutations over a long period. The changes experienced by the three crew members are superficially horrific in the manner of “The Fly,” but as their brains and senses expand, they understand the universe better. Here we see PKD’s odd – or perhaps merely 1950s-ish – predilection with women’s modesty, as the female crew member refuses to let the men see how deformed she has become.

7. “The Gun” (1952) – Through most of my read, I thought, “Wow, PKD accidentally wrote ‘Planet of the Apes’ a few years before Rod Serling did.” As good as that movie is, the twist that they are on Earth the whole time is overrated as a surprise (since it’s telegraphed), so it’s interesting that PKD does not play up the idea that a group of explorers has landed on Earth in the future. He reveals it through a blatant clue: The explorers see a sign that says “Franklin Apartments” and assume it’s the name of the planet. My interpretation is that these are alien explorers and their language has been translated for us by PKD. They are too surprised by the aftermath of war on the planet to be human time-travelers. The clincher is one last savage critique as we see that humans’ obsession with — and skill at — warfare is so extreme that the wars continue in perpetuity long after humans have wiped themselves out.

8. “Beyond Lies the Wub” (1952) – This is a surprisingly cute one, considering it’s about a group of space truckers contemplating killing and eating a sentient being who also resembles (and is known to taste as delicious as) a large pig. Mostly, we soak up the humorous wrongness of eating any sentient being. PKD then hits us with a closing zinger that shows one more surprisingly way in which the Martian wub is unlike Earth creatures. (Wubs will later play a role in another of my favorites, “Not By Its Cover,” found in Volume 5.)

9. “The Skull” (1952) – Later in his career, PKD would become fascinated by the notion that supernatural events could be studied scientifically, so this is an interesting precursor to that as he imagines a time-travel explanation for the Christ resurrection story. His anti-war theme is both blunt and thin, although the idea is well taken that the masses are more likely to accept simple philosophies (such as that war is bad and we should live in peace) if they come from a powerful and popular figure.

10. “The Crystal Crypt” (1954) – We start with a great mystery hook: Martian authorities use a lie detector on the passengers of the last civilian ship leaving for Earth before the Earth-Mars war breaks out. They know three passengers destroyed a Martian city. Yet everyone passes the test. Eventually, the culprits recount their successful scheme to a fellow passenger.

11. “Colony” (1952, 1953) – A scary answer to the playfulness of “The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford,” “Colony” explores the idea of inanimate objects being untrustworthy. The yarn plays out in the “mysterious spaceship or space colony invader” formula later locked into iconic status by “Alien” and “Aliens,” as the crew tries to figure out which objects are real and which are deadly duplicates, even as they’re being picked off one by one. As with “The Infinites,” female modesty weirdly crops up as a stumbling block when a solution is settled on: The colonists must depart their base without even the clothes on their backs.

12. “The Great C” (1952, 1953) – Later incorporated into the novel “Deus Irae” (1976), this is a commentary on how the human race could recede to primitive levels after atomic-bomb warfare, with the last functioning computer as the new “god” they worship. But I suppose it would be a better god than the old ones, because at least its answers to the Big Questions are scientifically accurate. Having recently watched the “Matrix” films, I got a kick out of the fact that the computer runs on the bio matter of humans, who sacrifice themselves.

13. “Prize Ship” (1952, 1954) – It may not precisely fit the theory of an expanding universe, but it’s undeniably clever to imagine that people in the past are tiny and people in the future are giants, as a group of time travelers learns. PKD expands his notion of normalized war to the solar system here, as Ganymede holds colonists hostage until the system’s government turns over control of a key launching platform. One little frustration of “Prize Ship” is the running joke of one crew members’ refusal to spell out the “Gulliver’s Travels” parallel to his less literary colleague.

14. “Piper in the Woods” (1953) – As with “Mr. Spaceship,” we find PKD looking for a way out of war culture and dreaming up a second Garden of Eden, this time in a beautiful forest on an asteroid. Soldiers keep wandering into the forest and losing their desire to do their jobs, instead preferring to sit in the sun all day. Obviously this was written before sunburns became a concern. This isn’t the most twist-laden story, but it has a nice initial hook with a soldier declaring to the military psychiatrist that he is not a person, he’s a plant.

15. “The Builder” (1952, 1953-54) – Like Richard Dreyfuss and his mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” a morose man obsessively builds a boat in his backyard but he doesn’t know why. The lack of an answer, or even clues, makes this a rare PKD short story that’s more about the person than the plot. It calls to mind his non-SF novels and has a nice “a-ha!” revelation at the end.

16. “The Preserving Machine” (1953) – PKD introduces his lovable mad scientist Doc Labyrinth, a precursor to Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” – someone who can invent crazy things for the sake of the story’s real point: to explore how the idea plays out. Here, the doc aims to preserve great music by encoding it into animals. Put the animal back through the machine, and you get the music again – hopefully. It’s a wonderfully silly and imaginative idea, but the story ultimately peters out.

17. “The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” (1954) – In the second Doc Labyrinth story, the brilliant scientist invents a machine that can infuse inanimate objects with life. Eventually, a shoe is running around causing mischief. It’s a simple story, but a cute one.

18. “The Indefatigable Frog” (1953) – Two science teachers debate whether a frog would reach the finish line if each hop is half the length of the previous one. I’m no math expert, but it seems to me the answer is obviously “no.” PKD paints a nice picture of what the surface of a metal pipe looks like to someone shrunk to microscopic size. He doesn’t have much of an ending in mind, though, settling for giving us a chuckle about the teachers’ single-minded obsession with this puzzle.

19. “Meddler” (1952, 1954) – PKD brings back his time-scoop (here called a “Dip”) as a scientist takes the device into the future to gather details about why the human race has disappeared. The writing is evocative, like when the man enters an abandoned library. But the final twist is a standard scenario wherein we’re doomed by an invasive species.

20. “The King of the Elves” (1952, 1953) – This fantasy tale is simply about a gas station owner who becomes the King of the Elves. The idea doesn’t interest me, yet I found it completely readable, which tells you what a good writer PKD is.

21. “Expendable” (1953) – In this five-pager, spiders and bugs take over a man’s house, an incursion for a takeover of the Earth. It’s mostly for the sake of a kicker where the government exterminator tells the man not to worry: The human race will survive. However, he won’t. It’s a sly little commentary on how we casually discuss survival of races or species, brushing aside impacts on individuals.

22. “Roog” (1951, 1953) – PKD’s first published story effectively gives us the point of view of a barking dog who believes garbagemen (a.k.a. “roogs”) are evil. It’s a clear example of the author’s empathy for all creatures as he explores one of his favorite ideas: that one being’s sanity is another’s insanity. His essay in the book’s Notes section about “Roog” is better than the tale itself.

23. “Out in the Garden” (1952, 1953) – I think this weird story, where a husband is jealous of his wife’s pet duck, aims to be a psychological nightmare scenario for fathers who fear not being able to bond with their child. Your mileage may vary.

24. “The Little Movement” (1952) – This is essentially “Toy Story” or, more to the point, “Small Soldiers,” nearly a half-century before those movies came out. An occasional problem with PKD’s early works is that the twists are easy to spot, and that’s especially the case here. He doesn’t do a whole lot after revealing that the toy soldier is a living being.

25. “Stability” (1947, 1987) – PKD’s very first short story, lost for 40 years, shows his interest in a structure he would often return to (especially in this volume): a closed-loop time-travel story. Exploring a totalitarian state (which aims to maintain “stability”), this story is hard to follow and closes with an out-of-place mean-spirited ending.

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