Transwarp Tuesday! The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick

Sci-fi from the Cold War era…

 

This collection includes 12 of Philip K Dick’s early stories, published between 1952 and 1954 in some of the many sci-fi magazines that were in their heyday in the ’50s. I’ve already reviewed one of the stories, The Variable Man, taken from the book, but now it’s time to look at the other eleven for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

 

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick

 

the early sci-fi of philip k dickPhilip K Dick was one of the biggest names in sci-fi in the second half of the twentieth century, and his stories have been the inspiration for some blockbuster movies – Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report among others. These early stories already show the imagination and story-telling skills that would mark his later work.

Certainly on the basis of these stories, Dick’s work couldn’t be classed as ‘hard’ sci-fi – the ‘science’ aspect is frequently so unscientific that even I can spot it. However, in general, there is an internal consistency to the made-up science that allows the stories to work. Perhaps the more interesting aspect is how many of the stories are clearly influenced by the Cold War which was well under way by the time of writing – there is a feeling of paranoia that runs through many of the stories. Most of the stories involve war in some form or another, often between people on Earth, but just as often between Earth and alien species. Nuclear holocaust is central in more than one, and there are mentions of terrorism and spies. None of these wars are glorious though and victory, if it comes at all, comes at a terrible price. As a collection, it is an intriguing and enlightening look at the fears of Dick’s contemporary society.

beyond lies the wub

Fortunately, amidst all this bleakness, there are a couple of lighter stories with some quirky and occasionally black humour. In Beyond Lies the Wub, we have a psychic Martian creature who wreaks a form of poetic justice on the Earthman who eats him; while Beyond the Door might easily be retitled as The Disagreeable Husband and the Revenge of the Cuckoo Clock! Dick also heads off into the field of (pseudo)psychology in Piper in the Woods, as men on an outpost on an asteroid suddenly start believing they have turned into plants. As with the war stories, this story seems to grow out of the stresses of Dick’s own times, and as a result probably resonated more with contemporary audiences than it perhaps does today.

Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick

Overall, the collection is both interesting and enjoyable. I’m not sure that I would recommend it as an introduction either to the genre or necessarily to Philip K Dick – the bleakness and narrow focus of the majority of the stories might give an unfairly grim impression of either to the new reader. However this would be an intriguing read for anyone who admires Dick’s later work, or who is interested in seeing how sci-fi writers used the greater freedom that the genre gave them to examine real-life contemporary concerns.

 

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Dover Publications.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Transwarp Tuesday! The Variable Man by Philip K Dick

the early sci-fi of philip k dickCalculating the odds…

 

Another of the biggest names in sci-fi in the second half of the twentieth century, several of Philip K Dick’s books and stories have been used as the basis for blockbuster movies – Blade Runner, Total Recall, etc. The stories in this book are taken from the early part of his writing career, all first published in the various sci-fi magazines in the mid-1950s. I will as usual be reviewing the whole book later, but here’s one I’ve picked pretty much at random for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

* * * * * * *

The Variable Man by Philip K Dick

 

the variable man 2

The year is 2136, and Terra (Earth) is at war with the Centauran Empire. As each side continues to make advances in weaponry, the balance stays in favour of the Centaurans, whose territory surrounds Terra in an unbroken ring. As any changes are made, new information is fed into the SRB machines that calculate the odds, but each time they show Centaurus still in front. However things are about to change. Leading scientist Peter Sherikov has found details of a failed experiment to travel at faster than light speeds and reckons he can turn it into a massively destructive bomb. He has the original blueprints – now he just needs someone with the skills to do the intricate wiring. As this information is fed into the SRB machines, the ratio suddenly swings dramatically in favour of Terra. Security Commissioner Reinhart issues orders to start preparing an attack on Centaurus.

the variable man 1

Meantime, elsewhere on Terra, scientists are carrying out time-travelling experiments. Ordered by Reinhart to close the experiments down before the beginning of the battle, an accident means that they also bring a man, a general handyman, from the early 20th century. He escapes into the mountains, but not before proving he has unique skills at fixing things. On being told about the existence of this man, the SRB machines close down and no longer show a ratio at all. Reinhart believes the solution is to find him and kill him. But Sherikov still needs someone to fix his bomb…

the variable man 3

This is quite a long short story, perhaps novelette length. I’m no scientist, as you know, but I feel the science in this book is a long, long way from being founded on anything realistic. However it sounds pretty good nonetheless and is consistent within the story. The dependence of the future men on computers and technology is contrasted with the man from the past’s ability to work with his hands and his brain, with Dick being clearly in favour of the latter. The two warring sides at a standstill, desperately trying to gain a technological advantage, clearly mirror the real-world cold war and arms race which were just beginning to get seriously under way at the time of writing. There’s a lot – a lot! – of people chasing and shooting and bombing each other with massive destruction all over the place. And that’s just the Terrans! For much of the story the view of how man has developed over the next couple of centuries is pretty bleak, but the ending is much more hopeful – courtesy of the twentieth century visitor, of course.

Philip K Dick
Philip K Dick

For the most part this is a very well written story with an imaginative plot. The ending is signalled a bit if the reader is paying attention, but still works. It dips for me a bit when the blowing-things-up stuff goes a bit over the top – blowing up an entire mountain range to kill one man seems excessive even by 1950s standards. But it’s an enjoyable read overall with the right kind of mix that makes for good sci-fi – a strong speculative future used to look sideways at contemporary society. Even as early in his career as this, Philip K Dick is showing the imagination and storytelling skills that enabled him to become one of the greats of the genre.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

(Now, as I said, this is quite a long story, but here’s a link to The Eyes Have It, a delightful little Philip K Dick story that won’t take you five minutes to read – funny, quirky and clever. Is it sci-fi? Well, it’s about aliens…sorta…)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link