PKD flashback: All 18 stories from ‘The Collected Stories, Volume 4’ (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 4 was later subtitled:

  • “The Days of Perky Pat” (1990, Gollancz)
  • “The Minority Report” (1991, Citadel Twilight)
  • “Minority Report” (2000, Orion Books, pictured above)
  • “The Minority Report” (2013, Subterranean Press)

Here are my rankings of the 18 short stories of Volume 4, featuring stories written from 1954 to 1963. The year of writing is first, followed by the year of publication if it differs:

The ever-present voice is a metaphor for the power of the mass media in their role as narrative shapers and opinion leaders, especially since its goal is to get Alfonse Gam elected president.

1. “What the Dead Men Say” (1963, 1964) — Set in the same universe as “Ubik” (1969), as it features bodies stored in cold-pack that can communicate with living people via their “half-life” state, this story is almost as robust as a novel. Louis Sarapis, the boss of protagonist Johnny, inexplicably can’t be revived, yet his voice fills radio, TV and telephones. It’s a metaphor for the power of the mass media (and attendant devices) in their role as narrative shapers and opinion leaders, especially since Sarapis’ goal is to get Alfonse Gam elected president. The story is propelled by the mystery of how the deceased Sarapis is communicating from deep space, but it also features compelling corporate power plays centering on Sarapis’ psychologically troubled and drug-addled granddaughter, whom Johnny is of course falling in love with.

2. “The Days of Perky Pat” (1963) – This is a masterful critique of the stagnation of industry and innovation that afflicts people who subsist on state aid, in this case post-Bomb Californians who live in fluke-pits. In a collection filled with more obvious examples of governments ruining people’s lives, “Perky Pat” illustrates the destructive power of meaning well. We know about the economic destruction of local rice farms in poor countries where the UN drops food out of the sky after disasters, but PKD takes this phenomenon a step further and imagines a case where the food drops are so consistent that they can be counted on. The result: Adults – who don’t need to be breadwinners — become like kids. They take basic amenities for granted and show a lot of imagination, but channel that imagination into trivial endeavors. PKD illustrates this through the Perky Pat doll and board game where the adults are content to imagine life before the war, yet are never inspired to build their actual lives back to that level. The children – miffed by their parents’ obsession with the game — realize that progress can be a real thing, not just something played out in a game. The reliable care packages have wiped out the adults’ ability to connect imagination with production, whereas the kids are excited to take that next step in building a society.

3. “The Minority Report” (1954, 1956) — It’s not an accident that this story inspired both a Steven Spielberg movie and a TV continuation (which focuses on the precogs, whereas they are mere tools in PKD’s version). The leader and vocal advocate of the government’s pre-crime unit, Anderton, is pegged by the precogs as a future criminal, which creates a tasty conundrum: If he proves he’s not a murderer, his career is done for and he’s responsible for filling prisons with innocent people. If he goes through with the predicted murder, he’ll join these people in prison. PKD doesn’t spend time lecturing about how it’s wrong to punish people for what they “will” do; that’s a given. Even though there are pre-crime laws on the books now (regulations about gun ownership, for example), PKD’s metaphor for real situations is broad and clever rather than pointed. He makes fun of the idea of pre-crime by showing the paradox of how a future event can be made to come about by the act of predicting it.

4. “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” (1963) – As off-planet officials visit a post-radiation Earth to find and charge the people responsible for the destruction, they dig through New York Times archives and fire up the automatically printed newspaper to learn what happened – and what is still happening. Although PKD doesn’t even try to explain the logistics, he comes up with a fascinating concept wherein reporters don’t exist anymore, but the newspaper still does, somehow extracting news from the ether. In a clever metaphor for newspaper bias or Fake News or any other angle on mistrust of the mainstream media, the NYT reports on a revolution by someone named Benny Cemoli. But the investigators find that no one by that name exists, and the protests and conflicts aren’t actually happening. The newspaper’s artificial brain – or people controlling the artificial brain – are using the NYT to not merely shape the narrative, but to create one for their own purposes.

5. “Oh, To Be a Blobel!” (1963, 1964) – The story’s end point – a human becomes a Blobel and a Blobel becomes a human – is a basic piece of irony, but the journey to get there is often hilarious. Blobels are, in a nutshell, like the green slime creatures in “Futurama.” After a war, they share the solar system with humans, but uneasily. People who are half-human and half-Blobel are shunned by both groups, even though they became that way fighting in the war. And even a part-Blobel human husband and a part-human Blobel wife can’t get along. In the Notes section, PKD says this story is about how war forces a country to become the same as its enemy; for instance, the way the USA has become more of a police state since fighting against the Nazis in World War II. That’s the subtext, but the story itself – when it’s not being humorous – is a personal tragedy, with George’s human-to-Blobel transformations serving as a metaphor for what was called shell shock in PKD’s day and is now PTSD.

6. “Waterspider” (1963, 1964) — This is a great time-travel story, as a time-scoop snatches a man from the 1960s a century into the future. He encounters all kinds of changes in the culture’s morals: A head of hair and a beard are unfashionable, it’s illegal to have more than two children (it’s not something to even joke about), and scantily clad women drive around on beds (a nod to the evolution of prostitution). But what makes this stand out from PKD’s other time-travel stories is that he goes meta in 1964: The inadvertent time traveler is SF author Poul Anderson. In a prime example of “write what you know,” PKD’s protagonist is plucked from an SF convention. PKD is hesitant to do anything wild with Anderson or other real-life authors who pop up in the story, no doubt being hyper-aware that they will read it and want to be portrayed favorably. In being an early example of meta storytelling, “Waterspider” is noteworthy …

7. “Orpheus with Clay Feet” (1963, 1964) — … but it’s not the only meta time-travel yarn in the collection. In “Waterspider’s” humorous thematic sequel “Orpheus,” Slade is bored with his job as a doctor who exaggerates afflictions in his patients so they can avoid being drafted into war. So he signs up to be a time-traveling muse, and picks the assignment of inspiring a famous mid-20th century science fiction author to switch from Westerns to SF. It’s funny to watch Slade botch the assignment, and I like the punchline wherein he plans to use his lack of skills to discourage history’s worst people, such as Hitler, from their pursuits.

8-9. “Stand-By” and “What’ll We Do With Ragland Park?” (1963) – As Mike Judge would later do with “Idiocracy,” PKD extrapolates the increasing stupidity of American politics into a high-tech future in these two stories that function as one grand narrative. A computer is the president of the United States; it’s more efficient than having a human do the job. (Also, I imagine the savings from skipping big-party primaries and elections is nothing to sneeze at.) Meanwhile, a union has struck a deal with the government to fill positions in case any computers break down, and a schlub named Max gets the randomly assigned stand-by president job. In an example of absolute power corrupting absolutely, his worst attributes kick in soon after the computer is destroyed and he’s thrust into the job he had previously dreaded. Max uses the state to quash his enemy, the “news clown” (PKD foreseeing the blending of news and entertainment) Jim-Jam, in the sequel. “Ragland Park” explores the possibilities of psi power, but while this is a common theme for PKD, here we get one of the wilder uses of it: The titular folk balladeer causes things happen if he sings about them. The increasing weirdness of this two-parter means it avoids a pointed message, but it’s an effective and fun-to-read farce overall.

10. “The Mold of Yancy” (1954, 1955) — “Service Call” (see below) introduces the harrowing emptiness of groupthink in this volume, but the mind-control machine in that yarn is ill-defined. Here, PKD gives us a thinly veiled metaphor for how the media controls the narrative in the real world: by understanding what appeals to people on a basic level. Political analysts in DC are (for some reason, maybe related to the Communist paranoia at the time of PKD’s writing) concerned that Callisto is turning into a totalitarian state. So they investigate and are surprised to find there’s no overt government force. People all think like grandfatherly TV personality Yancy (who is artificial, but aren’t they all, in a way?). What pushes this story from good to great is the twisted ending, as rebels reprogram Yancy’s tastes and opinions to much darker things. It’s delicious to imagine how a passive public will react when they can’t possibly agree with what their beloved opinion leader is saying (or can they?).

11. “Autofac” (1954, 1955)See review in “Electric Dreams” post.

12. “Novelty Act” (1963, 1964) — This is an amusing excerpt from “The Simulacra” (1964) about a classic PKD sad sack — a jug musician, in this case — who is in danger of being kicked out of his apartment complex. The world-building is excellent, from the notion of apartment complexes as insular communities with communal pride to the notion that the First Lady holds the political power. Her husband is chosen every election cycle, with the populace hoping it’s someone she’ll approve of. While it’s not clear why the protagonist is surprised that the First Lady is an actress (since she should be 90 but looks 20), this is still a funny piece.

13. “Service Call” (1954, 1955) — PKD uses an old fallback — accidental time travel — to give a harsh warning of the future. A man in the mid-1950s gets a visit from a swibble repairman, despite not knowing what a swibble is, let alone owning one. As this goofy but compelling mystery unfolds, we learn that swibbles control people’s political opinions so they are in line with the status quo; as such, there are no disagreements and society is peaceful. But how did swibbles become popular? The swibble people killed all the anti-swibble people in a war, naturally. Reminiscent of Volume 2’s “Breakfast at Twilight,” our main character has this war to look forward to in the years ahead.

14.  “The Unreconstructed M” (1955, 1957) – PKD extrapolates a future where identifying culprits can be done with a nine-point checklist; as such, a frame-job can be achieved be checking those nine boxes. It’s somewhat similar to “The Minority Report” in that bad actors can use a supposedly foolproof system to ensnare innocent people because the system so rigidly defined. The power games surrounding the use of the titular machine for the frame job are murky. But this future’s system for getting rid of convicted criminals is an interesting parallel to England’s use for Australia back in the day: They are banished via “Star Trek”-style beaming to primitive colony planets.

15. “Captive Market” (1954, 1955) — This creative story is a broad metaphor for regulatory capture and other strategies used by modern corporations to stay on top and in some cases achieve government-backed monopolies. A saleswoman has a group of loyal customers thanks to a quirk in space-time: They live in a future wasteland that only she can access. Meanwhile, their money is useless in the future but valuable in the present. When they’re ready to travel off planet, the seller manipulates the time flow to make their ship fail, thus preserving the captive market. She finds that cheating is easier than winning a share of the market honestly.

16. “War Game” (1958, 1959) – PKD doesn’t bore me when writing about children’s game testers who are trying to figure out a game where action figures storm a castle and are absorbed by the castle. But it’s a lot of words for something that’s not central to his zinger, wherein a Monopoly-style game encourages kids to give away stock rather than accumulating it. The idea of games shaping children into pliant citizens is a good one, but this story doesn’t do much beyond introducing the idea.

17. “Explorers We” (1958, 1959) – As with “War Game,” this is a good piece of writing with a tame kicker. We feel for the astronauts who return from Mars only to be met with fear by Earth residents; and we get caught up in the mystery along with the astronauts. The explanation is that the original astronauts died and that the returnees are fakes, but they don’t know they are. PKD ends the story abruptly, but he’ll later famously dig into the idea of “people who don’t know they’re not people” via the replicants in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968).

18. “Recall Mechanism” (1959) – In one of his weaker time-loop yarns, PKD explores the future’s impact on the present via psychoanalysis: A man has a deep-seated fear of falling, but there’s nothing in his past to explain this. That’s because the event will happen in the future. PKD also dabbles in the notion of balance among the collective unconscious, as another man has a compulsion to always be at the highest elevation possible.

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