PKD flashback: All 27 stories from ‘The Collected Stories, Volume 2’ (1987), ranked (Book review)


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 2 was later subtitled:

  • “Second Variety” (1989, Gollancz)
  • “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1990, Citadel Twilight; the title story was moved to this volume from Volume 5, and “Second Variety was moved from this volume to Volume 3)
  • “Second Variety” (1999, Orion Books, pictured above)
  • “Adjustment Team” (2011, Subterranean Press)

Here are my rankings of the 27 short stories of Volume 2, featuring stories written in 1952 and 1953. The year of writing is first, followed by the year of publication if it differs:

PKD illustrates how an individual defines a state of war based on how close the war is, and he makes me wonder if future historians will decide we’re already amid World War III in 2019.

1. “Breakfast at Twilight” (1953, 1954) – This unfortunately timeless story set in the future of the 1970s imagines that a family and their house get time-warped seven years into the future, from peace time to war time. The matriarch asks when the war began, and the military captain explains that the war was going even when they thought they were “at peace.” “There wasn’t any point when it became – this. We fought in Korea. We fought in China. In Germany and Yugoslavia and Iran. It spread, farther and farther. Finally the bombs were falling here. … The war grew. It didn’t begin.” PKD illustrates how an individual defines a state of war based on how close the war is, and he makes me wonder if future historians will decide we’re already amid World War III in 2019. I also enjoy the chilling ending where the family can’t do anything to stop the coming war, because no one will believe them.

2. “Adjustment Team” (1953, 1954) – Like Stephen King would later do with “The Langoliers,” PKD tells of a man who stumbles into a realm of space-time he isn’t supposed to see. Adjusters, who are a level of cosmic power above humans, are making changes (these gods work in mysterious ways) to Ed’s workplace and coworkers when he stumbles in. The refreshing twist here is that the controller, called “The Old Man,” doesn’t kill Ed as a solution. He simply asks that Ed not share what he’s seen. Indeed, there’s not much danger in letting Ed live, because if he tells anyone, they’ll think he’s crazy.

3. “Some Kinds of Life” (1952, 1953) – This piece of dark comedy may have some logic holes, including the question of why future humanity gets its resources via conquest rather than trading. But as a way to poke fun at those who defend warfare as something that’s “needed,” this is a delicious parody. Members of a family keep getting sent off to war to win valuable resources for the sake of comfortable living; eventually, all humans are gone and only their amazingly high-tech homes and transportation systems remain.

4. “Prominent Author” (1953, 1954) — Whether a twist clicks with a reader or not is a matter of personal taste, and this one did for me; it’s on the short list of the best of PKD’s looping time-travel yarns where the story’s events lead to the onset of something that already exists. Henry accidentally plays God to ancient Hebrews, and his answers to their questions end up as the basis for the Bible. As with Volume 1’s “Prize Ship,” the ancient people are smaller because of the expansion of the universe. This story also features a wonderful (and wonderfully named) PKD invention: the Jiffi-scuttler. Sort of an individualized stargate, it quickly transports a person from one end to the other, ideal for commuters in an era when the suburbs have spread out farther from the central business district.

5. “The Hood Maker” (1953, 1955)See review in “Electric Dreams” post.

6. “Impostor” (1953) – PKD delivers a proto-“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” as Spence – who believes he is human – is accused by the authorities of being an evil robot duplicate. While some stories in this volume peter out at the end, this one has a zinger of a final paragraph, which is especially impressive because a mystery with only two solutions (either Spence is right or the authorities are right) isn’t by its nature much of a brain-teaser. A reader can see how minor flaws in the story might have inspired PKD to expand them into issues worth exploring in “Androids.” Notably, there’s the problem of why the authorities don’t test Spence – by pricking his finger or something simple – rather than assuming he’s the robot. While PKD is saying something about wartime paranoia here, it’s a bit clunky. The idea of perfect replicants – and the problem of the empathy tests that spin off from that – is his solution in “Androids.” While “Androids” is a more robust story, here it’s neat to see the emergence of PKD’s idea of a robot that thinks it is human. (And if it believes it’s human, in what important way – if any – is it not human?)

7. “Souvenir” (1953, 1954) — Employing a light enough touch that one wonders if he makes a point by accident, PKD delivers a critique of military authoritarianism via a future society in which war has been abolished. The way it has been “abolished” is that the military destroys any society that shows the faintest signs of deviating from homogeneous state control. So another way of looking at it is that war is perpetual – but one-sided. But of course human resistance against being boxed in can never be wiped out. When a military man brings home a souvenir from a world he has destroyed, his son is intrigued, and the cycle continues.

8. “The World She Wanted” (1952, 1953) – This clever story plays with the idea that everyone “lives in their own world” by making the concept literal. Everything works out perfectly for Allison – winning poker hands, restaurants rearranged to her preferences, etc. – much to the amazement of her boyfriend, Larry. But PKD is also making a statement on why relationships so often fail: What’s perfection to one person might leave the other feeling minimized, like he’s “not completely real” in his partner’s world.

9. “The Trouble with Bubbles” (1953) – In a future where the successful implementation of robots into society has left humans with extra leisure time, the popular pastime is playing god. In snowglobe-sized bubbles, people spend years trying to get miniature Earths and their denizens to advance through stages of evolution. Then they purposely smash the bubbles in a frenzy. A “Twilight Zone”-esque final event then asks us to imagine if a god is exercising a similarly pointless display of power with us.

10. “James P. Crow” (1953, 1954) – This is a blunt story in some ways, with future humans as stand-ins for American blacks in the civil rights era and robots as stand-ins for whites who hold power. As pointed as it may be, it’s still amusing, especially when PKD gets into the robots’ beliefs about their own evolution in the face of Crow’s assertion that robots were created by man: “The early types were simple because they were original stages, primitive forms that gave rise to more complex forms. The laws of evolution fully explain this process.” I like the “Planet of the Apes”-style way in which the robots are shocked to learn the tables had been flipped in the past. One way in which this story diverges from its civil rights metaphor is Crow’s argument that humans and robots are too different to live together, which I presume is not meant to be a parallel to humans of different skin colors.

11. “The Commuter” (1952, 1953)See review in “Electric Dreams” post.

12. “Second Variety” (1952, 1953) – In the story that became the 1995 movie “Screamers,” PKD – as he so often does – presages “The Terminator,” in this case inventing human-looking infiltrator robots. There’s one major inefficiency in the robots’ plans, and it strikes me as more of a writing glitch than an intentional point: After a human sees one robot from a line of identical infiltrators, he won’t be fooled by any of the others. While this is among the weaker of this volume’s stories that got adapted for the screen, it has enough horror/action elements – including piranha-like robots – that I understand why filmmakers tackled it.

13. “Jon’s World” (1952, 1954) – Here PKD plays with the “butterfly flapping its wings” notion of time travel while also showing sympathy for people who have visions. At one point, lobotomies were the medical treatment, and – perhaps anachronistically – that’s also the case in this fictional future. But PKD suggests such visions are glimpses into alternate timelines in one of his early stories that presaged his own peek into another world in the 1970s.

14. “Survey Team” (1953, 1954) — This is both a scathing critique of mankind’s destruction of Earth and one of those ubiquitous early PKD stories with a broad twist that even I can see coming. In this case, human explorers travel to Mars hoping to find a fresh start now that Earth is depleted. They find nothing but wastelands on the Red Planet, along with evidence that humans originated there; Earth was the fresh start all along. While the twist is amusing and the point is well taken, the logistics are shaky because PKD imagines a future where space travel is easy yet humanity has little knowledge of Mars until setting foot there. Even less logically, humans have explored many other planets and moons prior to Mars.

15. “Planet for Transients” (1953) — Similar to “A Terran Odyssey” in Volume 5, but with more of a SF spin, PKD imagines life after the bomb. Beings who look like large insects are the least of the strange creatures that have evolved from humans on the radiated Earth. An unusual angle here is that all these varied species get along with each other. More than a conflict piece, it’s a mood piece about the sadness of mankind being forced to leave the home it has destroyed.

16. “A Surface Raid” (1952, 1955) – PKD puts a fresh spin on H.G. Wells’ Morlocks-and-Eloi split in “The Time Machine” as humans finally emerge from underground to check out the post-World War III wasteland after the radiation has subsided. Their culture is technologically advanced, but the sticks-and-stones humans above seem happier, as PKD revisits the notion that high technology doesn’t equate to happiness, and vice versa.

17. “Human Is” (1953, 1955)See review in “Electric Dreams” post.

18. “The Cosmic Poachers” (1952, 1953) – PKD imagines a horrific fate for Earth – invasion via aliens’ hatching eggs – yet this plays as a quick comedy piece. Terran authorities in colonial systems try to figure out why Adharans are placing riches on unpopulated planets rather than exploiting the worlds’ resources.

19. “Progeny” (1952, 1954) – If “The Cosmic Poachers” is a brisk humor piece, this is a quick downer. In a future where the raising of human children has been “perfected” and handed off to robots, a man from a colony planet returns to Earth to get to know his son. The son humors him, but can’t relate to him on any level. He feels at home with the robots and alienated by his father in a stark and depressing illustration of the dehumanizing that can come with perfect technology.

20. “The Impossible Planet” (1953)See review in “Electric Dreams” post.

21. “Martians Come in Clouds” (1952, 1954) – This somewhat heavy handed piece is a lecture on humans’ tendency to fear and destroy the unknown before figuring it out. Aliens rain down from Mars, and – as one child finds out via telepathic communication – they want to ask humanity for permission to live peacefully on platforms in the vast oceans. But the adult humans kill the Martians before they find that out.

22. “Small Town” (1953, 1954) — This is a classic story of a put-upon man, in this case one who loves working on his model train/town in his basement, thought to be crazy when he’s actually the only sane person around. Whatever changes Verne makes to his model are reflected in Woodland. It’s one of those yarns that seems dated and obvious now, but probably was as thrilling as a great “X-Files” episode when it was released.

23. “Of Withered Apples” (1953, 1954) – This story is straightforward: A woman is drawn to an apple tree, which encourages her to eat an apple; she then dies and an apple tree grows on her grave. I suppose PKD is saying something about the power of nature, but what’s really impressive here is the sense of place he creates when describing a desiccated orchard and the brisk winter weather of Vermont.

24. “Project: Earth” (1953) – PKD imagines a scenario where a human plays god to another race. An old scientist is trying to design the human race, but they are miniature people in this case. It’s a fun and weird little yarn as the mini-people become coveted by schoolkids, but in this particular subgenre, “The Trouble with Bubbles” is a tighter story.

25. “A Present for Pat” (1953, 1954) – This comedic tale reminds me of “Gremlins” as a traveling salesman brings a tiny god home from Ganymede and the creature proceeds to cause problems.

26. “Beyond the Door” (1952, 1954) – A cuckoo clock kills a guy as PKD shows he can hold a reader’s attention even in a story without much substance.

27. “The Cookie Lady” (1952, 1953) – In an idea that was later repeated in many SF stories, including the energy vampire episode of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” an old lady taps into a fountain of youth via a kid. This is one of those PKD stories that perhaps deserves the benefit of the doubt for being original at the time.

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