Monday, October 20

Considering the short stories of Philip K. Dick

Reading the short stories of Philip K. Dick today is a trip and not in the mind-bending, dear-God-you-were-so-out-of-your-mind-on-LSD-when-you-wrote-this sense I expected after reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? They were a trip in time. The stories featured in The Philip K. Dick Reader are amazing products of the 1950's and Cold War tensions. In those few stories in which the Russians are not an opponent either as the outright antagonist or malevolent background figure, some alien race or model of robot or human mutation now plays much the same role. That's ignoring, too, how many stories feature H-, C-, Q-, U-, the entire alphabet of bombs. As you might guess, imminent apocalypse and extreme levels of paranoia are common themes. Having not lived through the '50's myself, I do not think I could find a better way to understand the mentality then.

Unfortunately, temporal dislocation is about as about the greatest value I found in most of these stories, and that is really too bad since I was looking forward to reading them so much after immensely enjoying Electric Sheep. For the most part, characters are underdeveloped and interchangeable. Not much distinguishes the heroes and their allies from one story to the next, and it is a struggle to remember much about them at the end. Instead the stories depend on plot conceits. A beetle has devoured and replaced a boy's father, and only the child knows. A colony preparing to wage war on the galaxy discovers the ship logs which reveal they are all actually paranoid schizophrenics. A veteran of a war yet to come appears in the past, and the top military officials try to figure out how they can win what he says they will lose. More than a few feel like old hat today, but if Dick is the reason we feel like we've already read them, that's alright. The greater problem, for me, is that they put too much emphasis on some twist in the final paragraph, and the whole piece ends up feeling like a cheat, as though it came right out of an episode of The Twilight Zone.

I think the problem is the medium. Dick simply does not have the opportunity to really develop this paranoia and sense of a world shifting beneath our feet in under 20 pages. He did this brilliantly in the novel Electric Sheep. By the end, you're not sure who is an android and who is not, who can be trusted, who cannot, who is who, what is real, what is illusion, what it means to be human and even whether any of it matters. It was mind blowing. When he tries the same in a small fraction of the original space, the tension disappears.

Still, Dick is able to pull off some amazing work. My absolute favorite of the collection is "Foster, You're Dead." Once again, America is threatened by imminent desctruction, and various security companies are more than willing to exploit their constant terror for maximum profit. They design shelters for installation in the backyard and constantly release improvements, all available for monthly installments, for the trickiest of potential Russian weapons. Dick's decades-old social commentary remains relevant, and he concisely evokes a society utterly overcome by fear through classes where students fashion their own knives in case of nuclear armaggedon and gym periods where children run without taking a breath as practice for an onslaught of chemical weapons. Even better, there is a hefty emotional punch in the father's final confrontation with his son and last scene. It is too bad Dick could not capture more of this spirit in his other short stories.

Though four of his novels recently became part of the The Library of America series, Dick is probably better known today for the movies his works have inspired, ironic since he died before the first was released. Since Blade Runner in 1982, nine of his novels and short stories have been the basis for feature films and another three are set to come out. These range from the classic Blade Runner (based on Electric Sheep) to the middling Minority Report (same name but with 'The' at the beginning) to the very deserving of the Rifftrax treatment Next ("The Golden Man"). For what it's worth, his written work is way better than what has appeared on the screen. We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (source for Total Recall) has a ridiculous final twist but actually manages to create some honest tension before it. Paycheck the short story beats Paycheck the film in every possible way, except for the ninja robot arm. I still want to see A Scanner Darkly with Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. in all their rotoscoped greatness.

1 comment:

Emmett said...

I still say Dick's main claim to fame is being a strong contender for author who is the worst at titling their stories.