Today would have been Philip K. Dick's 91st birthday. Here's a look at some of his short fiction, based on my reading or rereading them in old copies of SF magazine.
Retro-Review of Space Science Fiction, May 1953
Finally, "Second Variety" is justly one of the best known of Philip Dick's early stories. It was also made into a recent movie (Screamers (1996)). The US and Russia are fighting an endless war. Everyone is underground or on the Moon, and the war is continued by the means of robots, shaped like wounded soldiers, little boys, beautiful women, etc. The idea is that people try to help the wounded soldier, for instance, and it blows up after a certain time. The story turns on the real identity of a "Second Variety" of robots, which in the end is (inevitably) autonomous robots that will continue the war on their own, after having killed all the humans.
Retro-Review of Space Science Fiction, September 1953
The novella is another strong story, Philip K. Dick's "The Variable Man". It's very long indeed at about 26,000 words. In 2136, the Earth is engaged in a war with the Centaurian Empire, an ancient alien empire, somewhat decadent but still powerful, that is keeping Earth hemmed in from any expansion to the stars. The Security Commissioner, Reinhart, is looking for an excuse to launch an attack on Proxima Centauri to resolve the war, but he is waiting for the "SRB computers" to decide that the odds favor Earth. Finally, a promised super weapon, based on a failed FTL drive design, is almost ready. It will destroy the Centaurian base planet, making a human victory likely. He orders the attack, but two problems occur. First, it seems the delicate wiring of the bomb's circuitry is causing problems. Second, a time travel project has mistaken taken a man from the early 20th Century to 2136. The introduction of this "variable man" into the SRB computers' calculations makes reliable statistical estimation impossible. Reinhart tries to capture, then kill, the man, by the most over the top means imaginable. But the man is a "fix-it" guy, with an instinctual ability to sense how to repair machines, and the leader of the bomb project decides he needs the "variable man" to fix his bomb. Remember what the bomb was originally designed for? That kind of tells you how the story ends -- in some ways an oddly optimistic ending for Dick, after a story that rather cynically described humans acting mostly very badly.
Retro-Review of Science Fiction Stories #1, 1953
And Philip K. Dick's "The Eyes Have It" (1400 words) is a little bit of amusing paranoia about a man who realizes that aliens are invading masquerading as humans. How does he know -- basically, by reading a bunch of passages from Thog's Masterclass, in which body parts are shown to be able to do implausible things, as in the phrase "the eyes slowly roved about the room". Surely only an alien could send its eyes roving?
Retro-Review of Cosmos, July 1954
Dick's "Of Withered Apples" is a sad little story, to my mind somewhat uncharacteristic of Dick, a fantasy about a young wife who feels called to a withered apple tree, and what happens when she eats one of the apples.
Retro-Review of Galaxy, October 1954
The opening novelette is Philip K. Dick's "A World of Talent" (14800 words). This is an interesting story that is almost really good but falls just short. It's set on a colony of Proxima Centauri. The colony is dominated by Psis with various talents, though there are also "Normals" and "Mutes". The colony wants to be independent of Earth, partly because on Earth Psis are persecuted. The problem is, the Psis on the colony are ready to start persecuting Normals: and everybody persecutes Mutes. The protagonist is a Precog, Curt, trapped in a loveless marriage to another Precog. Their child, intended to be a super-Psi, instead seems to be a Mute, and to be obsessed with beings no one can see. Curt is one Psi who wants to work for a tolerant society, but the other Psis, including his wife, see that as treason to their class. But Curt has found a woman on another planet who as a new power -- she is an "Anti-Psi". He sees this an inevitable, and something to be encouraged, but of course his fellows want Anti-Psis eliminated. Moreover, Curt has fallen in love with her. The resolution turns on the very strange power that Curt's son turns out to have. It's kind of frustrating: the story seems very close to brilliance, but just doesn't quite work. Part of the problem is that I can't believe very easily in Precognition, and especially Curt's son's power is difficult to describe or represent. '
Retro-Review of Fantastic, February 1964
The most significant novelet, surely, is Philip K. Dick’s “Novelty Act.” This story mixes a strange set of notions, all very Dickian — the country is ruled, it seems, by an immortal First Lady (Nicole) who takes a new husband as President every four years, based partly on talent shows. There are also papoolas, natives of Mars, that everyone loves, perhaps because of their telepathic powers. And a jalopy dealer named Loony Luke with a plan to send people to Mars. And the central character, Ian Duncan, an aging resident of the Abraham Lincoln apartments, who plays classical music for a jug band and hopes to win a talent contest and meet the First Lady. Pretty weird stuff, really, and very much of the Philip Dick flavor, but perhaps, I thought, more of an undeveloped idea that could have been a novel than a truly successful novelet.
Retro-Review of Amazing, July 1964
The third novelet is by another major writer, the most significant in this issue, "A Game of Unchance", by Philip K. Dick, concerns a colony planet visited by a traveling carnival. They have the usual rigged games, but it turns out one of the colony boys has psi powers -- and he can detect that the carnies are using their psi to rig the games. He is able to overcome their efforts and win some valuable prizes -- but they turn out to be booby-trapped. The colony is in danger ... and then another carnival comes, with perhaps just what they need. And the same deal applies, and the young boy realizes he can outwit this carnival psi individual as well -- the colony is saved. But ... isn't it a bit convenient that his powers are always just enough to beat the carnival psi powers?