Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Selected Short Stories by Philip K Dick

Philip K. Dick may be better known to most for the movies based on his novels. “Blade Runner”, “Minority Report” and “The Man in the High Castle” (among many others) have become staples of the science fiction genre and are known to even the most casual moviegoer. “Blade Runner”, especially, is more than a movie: it launched the career of one of the most recognizable actors of his generation (Harrison Ford) and defined the visual esthetics of science fiction in general. The underlying novels and short stories, while less well known, are classics as well. They are often funnier and stranger than their movie adaptations and work as great companions to the movies they inspired.

The short stories in this collection – compiled expertly by Jonathan Lethem – offer an enticing overview of the author’s work. There is an enviable amount of variety in the stories, but they are not all equal. “Second Variety” and “Impostor” are instant classics. “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” and “Minority Report” are excellent, but better known as high budget action films (the former was retitled “Total Recall” and inexplicably starred Arnold Schwarzenegger). “The King Of The Elves” and “The Electric Ant” are delightful diversions, but don’t necessarily warrant another reading. Even the weaker chapters – namely “Rautavaara’s Case” and “Roog” – have their own role in the ensemble. They work as asides and transitions between the main material.

What stands out is that each short story has merit on its own, yet the collection adds something to each individual piece. Themes of apocalypse, insanity and the nature of reality are observed from different angles to create a surprisingly compelling whole. “Autofac” and “Second Variety” describe a world, where factories have been automated to produce weapons without the intervention of humans. The quest to win wars leaves all sides on the brink of humanity’s end. The last humans desperately look for respite in a world ruled by apocalyptic wastes and bloodthirsty machines. Yet in spite of the chilling and sometimes gruesome content, Dick has a knack for the absurd. Many of the stories have surprising levity, even as they explore serious topics.

If Ender’s Game mostly attracts nerds and military types, Philip K. Dick has a much wider appeal. The science fiction is mostly there as a backdrop to explore humanity's fears and frailties. His descriptions of future technology with gears and wires, clicking and whirring, may seem quaint in our digital world, but the consequences of that technology are depicted disquietingly. Casual readers will quickly pick up on how, half a decade later, humanity is still on the course outlined in these short stories – only we are closer to their future than ever before.

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