PKD flashback: All 25 stories from ‘The Collected Stories, Volume 5’ (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 5 was later subtitled:

  • “The Little Black Box” (1990, Gollancz)
  • “The Eye of the Sibyl” (1992, Citadel Twilight, with “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” moved over to Volume 2, which takes that story’s name as its subtitle)
  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (2000, Orion Books, pictured above)
  • “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (2014, Subterranean Press, with “Goodbye Vincent” added)

Harlan Ellison earned a credit on “The Terminator” because of his stories that (perhaps) inspired the movie, and a case could be made that PKD deserved a credit too.

Here are my rankings of the 25 short stories of Volume 5, featuring stories written from 1963 to 1981. The year of writing is first, followed by the year of publication if it differs:

1. “Holy Quarrel” (1965, 1966) – Harlan Ellison earned a credit on “The Terminator” because of his stories that (perhaps) inspired the movie, and a case could be made that PKD deserved a credit too. This story examines the thought processes of Skynet – called the Genux-B computer here — before it launches bombs. Although the communication procedure – typing cards and feeding them to the computer – is delightfully archaic, it’s surprisingly gripping as a technician and FBI agents try to solve the puzzle of why the computer decides to target a gumball-machine trinket manufacturer.

2. “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (1965, 1966) – In the PKD short story most familiar to a casual fan, Douglas Quail works through the mystery of which of his memories are real and which are fake. The notion that people might get memory implants of a vacation rather than going on a real vacation is increasingly plausible as VR technology improves and travel (especially to Mars!) continues to be expensive. The back-and-forth between Quail, government agents and the Rekal Incorporated technicians is gripping enough that I understand why two sets of filmmakers expanded this story into “Total Recall” – and it makes me want to watch the movies.

3. “The Electric Ant” (1968, 1969) – Later adapted into a comic book, this is perhaps the most PKD-ish PKD short story. After cutting to the chase of the “Am I human?” question from “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968) by revealing that Poole is a robot (although he thought he was human), the story digs into the nature of reality. Poole experiments on himself — by messing with a spool of tape in his chest (as PKD never made the leap to a digital future) — to learn if reality comes from within or without. If it’s from without, he’ll simply die. Since PKD stories are rarely that simple, it turns out his reality comes from within – and this has bizarre consequences for the people in his sphere.

4. “Not By Its Cover” (1965, 1968) – This one is silly at first glance, but ultimately fascinating, as the wub fur that binds a book turns out to be sentient. It therefore rewrites parts of the book to align with its religion of eternal life. I love the idea that truths about life can be learned by wrapping any book in wub fur – it’s absurd on the surface but intellectually irresistible.

5. “Retreat Syndrome” (1963, 1965) – Similar to the world of “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” but showcasing a different puzzle/adventure, this one is about a man who vividly remembers killing his wife – who is still alive. John also knows he lives on Ganymede, but he seems to be in Los Angeles. Although the revelation of the high stakes for the citizenry of Ganymede gives weight to this yarn, the fascinating pseudo-science of “Wholesale” gives that story a slight edge.

6. “Precious Artifact” (1963, 1964) – This is a poignant blending of hopelessness and hopefulness, as Martian reconstruction engineer Milt gradually realizes humans have not won the war against the Proxmen after all. But the Proxmen value his skills and want him to help rebuild Earth. PKD paints a picture of what it’s like for someone to carve out a decent life in a post-war society where he’s on the losing side, and the author also touches on the idea of a small comfort being a huge thing, as Milt values his pet cat.

7. “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” (1980) – This is another story that blurs the line between real and false realities, but in this case, a ship’s computer purposely blurs the line in the mind of passenger Victor, who — thanks to a malfunction — is conscious for the decade-long trip. It’s for the sake of his sanity, something that proves ironic. Perhaps relatable to many fans of PKD’s work, this is an excellent study of the mind of a neurotic person, showing how the web of guilt in his mind emphasizes negatives and makes it difficult for him to enjoy positives.

8. “The Exit Door Leads In” (1979) – In addition to some juicy commentary about how the government will get you if it really wants you, PKD offers up a clever way to test someone for rebellious traits: Bait them with classified documents that could – if released – improve life for all mankind. Will the person do the right thing or the legal thing? Several sci-fi stories since this one (and probably before) have done variations on this trick.

9. “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” (1973, 1974) – The USA’s first tempunauts successfully travel one week into the future, but they blow up on their return trip. But because of Emergence Time Activity, they also exist at the points they traveled through – or something like that. So they’re caught in a one-week time loop. This is a vintage PKD mind trip, and one that I was mostly able to follow despite its weird perspective on past, present and future. There’s a dreary but appropriate sense of inevitability to the proceedings, which ultimately raise the question of whether free will can trump something that has “already” happened in the future.

10. “Faith of Our Fathers” (1966, 1967) – Although not explicitly set in the world of “The Man in the High Castle” (1962), this chronicle of comrade Chien makes me think of that novel. Chien loathes the Big Brother government he lives under, his paper-pushing job, and ultimately his own self. Simply by hating everything, he has gone beyond a PKD sad-sack protagonist and into the realm of revolutionary. When comrades come to his door to see if he’s following protocol, he farts and says “Up yours.” Chien is a rebel who has been driven to his last straw, not one who is driven by belief.

11. “Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday” (1965, 1966) – PKD is working out the rules of “Counter-Clock World” (1967), but actually, he has bigger — but more unwieldy – ambitions here, playing up the idea of backward-moving time. The Librarian’s goal is eradicate a key text so time won’t move forward again, but he has to do it in a precise way lest time become stuck in a feedback loop. It’s amusing, but a reader is also glad when it’s over, otherwise his head will start to hurt. (In the novel, processes move backward, but the action has traditional linear movement, thus making it easier on the reader – and the writer.)

12. “A Terran Odyssey” (1964, 1987) – Unpublished at the time, but now reading like a teaser story for “Dr. Bloodmoney” (1965), this is more of a slice of life than a narrative. PKD shows how the post-World War III Bay Area repeats the process of building toward civilization. Stuart’s quest to advance from selling animal traps to premium tobacco illustrates the individual ingenuity that – when multiplied throughout society – will lead to growing wealth. The mix of technological scraps with old-fashioned processes – for example, a horse pulling an engineless car – creates a plausible dystopian world.

13. “The Pre-Persons” (1973, 1974) – In a rare example of PKD tackling a specific and sensitive political issue, he imagines that the legal abortion cutoff is not at some point during pregnancy, but rather at age 12. In a way, this is a strawman argument, since no abortion proponent advocates that children be killed after they are born. Still, with the state deciding that the soul enters the body at age 12, it does make a reader think about the very idea of a government defining who counts as a person – and the notion that people gain more rights as they age. Making the story weirder, Ian ascribes the pro-abortion movement to something intrinsic in women; this doesn’t play as effectively.

14. “Rautavaara’s Case” (1980) – The notion that the spiritual realm could be scientifically studied fascinated PKD in his later works, and this is a prime example. Aliens from Proxima revive the brain, but not the body, of an Earth astronaut. As part of an inquiry into what Earth authorities see as a botched rescue, the woman’s brain is observed, and it gives us a window into the next realm.

15. “The Little Black Box” (1963, 1964) – PKD works out the specifics of Mercerism, a religion based on communal emotions and pain that will serve as a backdrop in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968). The yarn is about the state’s futile attempt to wipe out the religion and the clever way Mercerism persists in sneaking messages past the authorities. It’s not the most memorable tale, but it is a nice side document to go with “Androids.”

16. “Return Match” (1965, 1967) – Officer Tinbane plays a pinball game confiscated from an alien-run casino and the game analyzes his strategies. The imagery of giant pinballs attacking a person is too funny to take seriously, but PKD is ahead of his time in highlighting the dark side of analytics and metadata.

17. “Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked” (1971, 1987) – In this cute tale, PKD experiments with using animals as stand-ins for humans, like a Disney story for adults. Through the titular beaver – who has a job chopping down trees — PKD comments on the drudgery of work and the vagaries of love. The anthropomorphic metaphors get whittled away, though, when he starts describing Cadbury’s love interests by their human physical traits.

18. “The Eye of the Sibyl” (1975, 1987) – A God in Roman times sees into the future of 1974, specifically into the mind of an Average Joe living under a 20th century Western government. The Romans who call on Sibyl for her vision are surprised that humans’ comfort with tyranny extends that far into the future. But PKD suggests a period of wakefulness will soon follow. Although readable, this is ultimately too meandering for its basic, if hopeful, conclusion.

19. “A Game of Unchance” (1963, 1964) – The geologically questionable (yet persistent in sci-fi) notion of Mars as a frontier to be tamed like a second Wild West is front and center, making me think of the Wong ranch in “Futurama.” Robotic rodents that ruin crops further meld past with future. But the story’s thrust is that an alien carnival comes to the Martian settlement and purposely lets the settlers win these small robots; it’s a test run for their invasion of Earth. Given that the carnies want to “lose,” the psychic battles between settler and carny don’t click, and overall, this tale muddles along.

20. “The Day Mr. Computer Fell Out of Its Tree” (1977, 1987) – In this broad critique of central planning, society has decided to leave the operation of everything up to a single computer, with one woman living at the Earth’s core serving as the emergency backup. There’s potential here, but the execution is strange, as PKD becomes more interested in a romance between the schlubby male lead and the central planner.

21. “The War with the Fnools” (1964) – As the title suggests, this is a goofball piece wherein an alien race tries to infiltrate Earth but is easily spotted because – although they otherwise look human — they are 2 feet tall. The womanizing that sometimes creeps into PKD’s work (and a rare aspect of his writing that doesn’t age well) is central here, as a military officer tricks his dimwitted, big-busted secretary into joining him in his fallout shelter so he can take advantage of her – a thread “24” Season 2 later used with Kim Bauer. It’s all for the sake of a chuckle when the woman is objectified on the same level as cigarettes and alcohol.

22. “Chains of Air, Web of Aether” (1979, 1980) – Similar to “Cadbury,” this short story – later incorporated into “The Divine Invasion” (1980) – plays like a thinly disguised way for PKD to work through a real-world relationship via a sci-fi story, and a dreary one at that. McVane holds a white-collar job on a remote planet where he receives audio-visual signals and passes them along to the colonists — a rare example of PKD underestimating automation. When Rybus – the woman in the next dome over — gets sick, McVane shows compassion, but none of it is genuine.

23. “Strange Memories of Death” (1980, 1984) – A man ruminates on the fate of his crazy neighbor during his building’s transition from apartments to condominiums, expecting she is to be evicted. While the point that the man is actually the crazy one is well taken, it doesn’t land with much panache, and the title promises more than what’s delivered.

24. “The Story to End All Stories for Harlan Ellison’s Anthology ‘Dangerous Visions’ ” (1968) – For this one-long-sentence story, PKD pokes fun at the familiar elements of his own plots, concluding with the roundabout discovery of God. There’s nothing wrong with it for what it is, but being so short, it naturally lacks the details we love about his work.

25. “The Alien Mind” (1981) – In a cruel little yarn, a space delivery man kills his cat in a fit of pique, so then animal-loving aliens get a twisted measure of revenge on him. I guess PKD is illustrating the irony that the man can’t fathom the aliens’ behavior but meanwhile doesn’t recognize his own cruelty. By PKD standards, this is a blunt and bland entry.

Overall collection:

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