Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Early Work of Philip K Dick Volume One: The Variable Man and Other Stories

From one sci-fi great to another, this time it’s Philip K Dick. This collection contains short stories from the first two years of his publishing career, 1952-53. They are not the polished science fiction he is known for, but they certainly touch on some of the themes familiar from his later work. It is an intriguing collection of stories; the quality can be, well, variable, but there are a lot of interesting ideas and some of these stories are very successful.

The collection is nicely published. The book has a good introduction (which does give away the first story, but not any others). It also has story notes at the back, with information about when they were published, and how they fit into his body of work. The stories range in length, beginning at only ten pages, while The Variable Man is almost a novella. I would expect they would be new to most people, except for Adjustment Team, which was made into a movie starring Matt Damon last year.

Some of the concerns of Dick’s later works are already cropping up. Robots feature prominently in many of these stories, as do post-nuclear societies. Some though are much more whimsical, such as Beyond The Door, which is about an overprotective cuckoo clock, of all things. One of the unfortunate things about science fiction is it can date rapidly, and Dick’s obsession with a futuristic Soviet threat is an example of this. Mind you, give the world another twenty years and maybe it won’t seem so!

There are some excellent stories in this collection. While sometimes you can see the twist at the ending coming a mile off, Dick knows how to deliver that twist with such panache it doesn’t matter. Even when a story as a whole doesn’t appeal, a scene or image can contain a spark of brilliance that hints at the mature writer he is becoming. Dick’s vision of a man wandering through an office building turning into dust around him in Adjustment Team is a great, creepy, piece of writing
The man slowly collapsed. He settled into a heap, a loose pile of gray ash. Dust. Particles. The two women dissolved when he touched them. Silently. They made no sound as they broke apart.
A favourite of mine is Beyond Lies the Wub, Dick’s first ever published story. It is very short, but a real gem. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it is available to read online and is well worth the time to read it. There were some that I enjoyed less; Of Withered Apples, about a young woman who becomes infatuated with a dangerous apple tree, was particularly weak.

Last year I read Embassytown by China Mieville, and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin one after the other. Both books by great sci-fi authors, one newly published about colonialism and language, the other a classic exploring gender. It wasn’t planned, but they made an intriguing double bill. I feel I may have done Dick a disservice. I read this straight after reading The Dispossessed, also by Le Guin. While it is not about gender, feminism is present in the book. To go from that, to Dick’s (admittedly earlier) works I felt incredibly frustrated at his paper thin female characters. There are very few of them; his futures are all very patriarchal. Without exception, every female in this book is either weak or passive. This is part of what annoyed me so much to start with in Of Withered Apples - the story begins with a young woman requesting permission for a walk from her husband, by promising to be home in time to cook dinner. Urgh. On the other side, it adds to my appreciation of Le Guin’s work. While I think her books are anything but heavy handed, it does bring home the establishment she was reacting against. Dick’s stories are hardly unusual in this matter. It is merely a reflection of the society he was living in, but it still annoys me.

Feminist gripes aside this is a fine collection of stories. I’m no expert on Dick’s writing, but I could see the early traces of ideas explored in his later novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep being a particular example. It is also interesting seeing how his career got started. He was able to support himself publishing these stories in sci-fi magazines. While some literary journals still exist (McSweeney’s springs to mind), it is hard to imagine a writer financially supporting themselves from publishing in these. While many lament how the internet and text messaging are reducing our ability to digest longform writing, I wonder, how is our obsession with the novel hindering the careers of the novelists of tomorrow?

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