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Second Variety
Philip K. Dick
Orion Millennium, 395 pages

Second Variety
Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928. While attending UC at Berkeley, he dropped out rather than take ROTC training. There he stayed to write some 36 novels and 5 short story collections. He won the 1962 Hugo for The Man in the High Castle and the 1974 John W. Campbell Award for Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. He died of heart failure caused by a stroke in 1982.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Martian Time-Slip and A Scanner Darkly
SF Site Reading List: Philip K. Dick

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Death has been a good career move for Philip Kindred Dick. My guess is that his work is more widely known and discussed than when he was first churning out what has now become a prodigious legacy (36 complete novels and 5 short-story collections, not to mention 5 ex-wives). He wasn't the most popular SF writer when he was alive (never made the top 20 in sales, although he was hugely popular in France, which has a history of embracing American oddballs). Today, even a mall bookstore or small independent is likely to have at least one of Dick's novels on its shelves. Indeed, 18 years after his death (following a stroke that may have been brought on by heavy drug use), not only is most of his work still in print, but he even has a mainstream publisher, the US literary imprint, Vintage Books. Dick continues to be the subject of critical attention not only in the SF field, but in "serious" literary and sociological studies, and retains a loyal following of readers who proudly proclaim themselves as "Dickheads." And if that isn't enough of a testament to lasting authorial immortality, Dick even got an award named after him.

Perhaps the most famous of his books is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in part because it became the basis of the classic flick Bladerunner (and although these two are really different creative conceptions, as movies and books typically are, Dick reportedly was highly fond of the celluloid adaptation). A short story, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," served as the basis for the somewhat less classic Arnold Schwartzenager vehicle, Total Recall. Dick's work continues to be optioned for screenplays -- most recently Stephen Spielberg's take on another Dick short story, "The Minority Report," starring Tom Cruise and scheduled to begin shooting in April 2001. It never became a movie, but Dick's 1963 Hugo award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle, which postulates an alternate reality (actually, several alternate realities) in which the Axis Powers won World War II and divvied the US into Japanese and Nazi occupied zones, is arguably the grandfather of the Sidewise History sub-genre.

So it's no wonder that the UK Orion Publishing Group, under the Millennium imprint, has not only been reissuing Dick's work in its very impressive SF Masterworks series of paperbacks, but also that Dick has more titles than any other single author in the series. But even that's not enough; now the Millennium imprint is putting forward 5 volumes of his collected short stories, outside of the Masterworks line. If you're unfamiliar with Dick, I would not recommend that you start with Second Variety, the second of these chronologically-based editions, as it is hardly a "masterwork." Indeed, based on this collection alone, you may well wonder what all the fuss is about.

That said, for Dick's fans as well as any serious student of SF, this is a volume well worth having, to study the origins of both the genre and one its geniuses. The reasons for this, in the kind of paradox that Dick relished, have something to do with how these stories are both familiar and unfamiliar to a reader in the 21st century.

The familiarity arises from the predominantly Twilight Zone feel in which strange situations are resolved in the last few sentences by a sudden trick ending. Of course, these stories were originally published between 1952 and 1955 in magazines with names like Fantastic Universe and Startling Stories, well before the Twilight Zone's television premiere in September 1959. (Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling was accused of ripping off SF motifs like those employed by Dick here. I don't know how original Dick's plotlines may have been at the time of first publication, but nearly a half-century later, overworked "Twilight Zone clichés" generally cause shudders among SF editors and sophisticated readers.)

The unfamiliarity stems from the prevailing tone (with the exception of a couple of Bradburian-type tales) that is firmly rooted in the epoch in which these stories were written: the time of McCarthyism, the Organization Man, Ozzie and Harriet, and the Cold War. If any of those terms puzzles you, you're not likely to "get" what's going on here.

Dick was not the kind of Arthur C. Clarke SF writer proselytizing the technological prospects of the future. Though his characters often travel in space and have robot assistants, they also use manual typewriters and wear ties. They work for companies in which a dictatorial boss lords power over haplessly quivering subordinates. They have names like "Ed" and they eat steak and drink martinis. Their wives don't work, are at times a bit dimwitted, and in the typical pulp pornography of the time, have heaving bosoms the reader (and it was assumed the readers were typically male) could imagine beneath future fashions primarily composed of cellophane. And there is one crackpot who manages to strike back against the powerfully prevalent societal forces of the status-quo.

This is all a subversive critique of the grey conformity of the 50s which the Beats rebelled against. But since the genre was taken considerably less seriously than it is today (which is perhaps still not quite as seriously as it should be), the relative anonymity of being just an SF writer virtually guaranteed you didn't wind up on anybody's witch hunt list. Of course, it also meant you weren't widely read, either.

Mocking social conventions often went hand-in-hand with apocalyptic themes, an understandably pervasive obsession of an art form that had not only just recently seen the atomic genie let out of its lamp in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but had been predicting it for decades. (For a chilling reminder of how fans were often more enamoured than shocked by the actual reality of atomic warfare, see the 1945 letter reprinted in Amazing Stories 600 in which the correspondent revels in the fact that something SF predicted had actually come true, rather than ruing that it did.) The way these things usually went is that there's been Third World War with the Soviet Union. Civilization as we know it has been reduced to rubble, and a ragtag group of survivors carries on for the cause of humanity and anti-Communism.

But Dick did more with this than just replay a propagandist Good against Evil morality play in a nuclear holocaust setting. Take the title story, for example (which was the basis for the 1996 film Screamers, and although I haven't seen it, I assume it must be very much different to interest a contemporary audience). Earth has basically been rendered uninhabitable in some sort of post-nuclear war fighting. However, American and Soviet forces soldier carry on their dispute in a basically winless conflict directed by the powers safely relocated on the Moon, a metaphor for the Korean War, then taking place in Asia (which was also the precursor to a long series of overseas "police actions" that culminated in the Vietnam War.) The US has devised another super-weapon, a series of self-replicating robots that devastate their targets. While this gives the "good guys" an edge over their enemies, the hero encounters a "Second Variety" of humanoid robots that have decided to take matters into their own hands and get rid of all imperfect humans, regardless of ideology. Out of necessity, the Americans and Soviets band together to seek their mutual enemy hidden amongst them (a metaphor for all those Soviet agents believed to be lurking throughout American society, ready to prey on the "weaknesses" of democracy -- an idea that catapulted Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy to infamy.) Most readers will quickly figure out who is the robot and who isn't, but the story ends on a higher thematic level than "just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean someone isn't trying to get me" (although, as it happened, paranoia, fueled by drug abuse, became a Dickian obsession). The point of the story for Communist-fearing America becomes, once you get rid of your enemy, who else do you have to turn on?

As Norman Spinrad notes in his introduction to Second Variety, "These 27 stories are not perfect. It would be disservice to the truth and to Philip K. Dick's literary reputation to contend that they represent the flowering of the mature talent to come. But they too are a series of windows... into the fully developed vision of the mature master the talented young apprentice who wrote them one day was destined to become."

Copyright © 2000 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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