Philip K. Dick’s Humanoid Robots & Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons

Recently I’ve been reading the Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, edited by Jonathan Lethem. Dick has been a writer who has long been on my reading list. A few years ago I read The Man in the High Castle, but nothing sense.

For a writer as prolific as Dick was, it has been a challenge to decide on what to read first. I’ve been jumping between Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly, as well as couple of lesser known works that have received praise by writers I respect. But while Dick has many novels placed in the pantheon of SF fiction, his short stories have inspired equal, if not superior, amounts of fascination from Hollywood. Minority Report, Total Recall, The Adjustment Team, and Next are among the films spawned from Dick’s stories, and then there is the recent Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, an entire anthology show of Dick adaptations.

So it seemed like a safe choice to start my exploration of his work with his stories, although it has been difficult to find a comprehensive collection. Dick was known for writing longer stories, often running 40 pages, which means a collection of merely ten stories would still run roughly 400 pages. Jonathan Lethem is a Dick fanatic, his early novels such as his debut Gun, With Occasional Music were heavily inspired by Dick. But even the Dick collection chosen by Lethem feels slight and restrictive. Through no fault of Lethem, Dick was simply incredibly prolific.

I’m saying all this just to highlight the randomness of my choice to read Lethem’s selection of Dick’s stories, and the strange connection that followed.

Yesterday I finished watching Battlestar Galactica. Galactica, the 2004 revival not the original from the 1970s, is a show I’m not sure I will be able to write about because my opinions are biased by passionate fandom. I have read the criticisms, critics complaining about its narrative transitions in the later seasons and its unceasing levels soap opera melodrama. I do not disagree with the criticisms, but I do disagree that they are more than minor faults built into a show with such lofty ambitions. However, this is an argument for another time.

Returning to the point of why I’m writing this. Yesterday I finished Battlestar Galactica, and I read the Philip K. Dick stories “Second Variety” and “Impostor.” If you are familiar with Galactica and have read those stories, take a moment to recall the worlds and ideas of those stories.

For those of you unfamiliar with them, I will try to give you a brief summary. “Second Variety” takes place on Earth at an unspecified point in the future where the entire planet is at war and humanity’s civilization is verging on extinction. The Soviet Union had started the war, destroying Washington and most of North America before the United States could respond. The U.S. government moved to an underground Moon Base and focuses on building robotic weapons known as claws. The claws are awkward and ineffective at first, but the technology rapidly improves and soon they are efficient weapons. And as the claws get more intelligent eventually they are able to repair themselves, allowing humans to focus on survival. In the story the Soviet Union sends a messenger to the American front requesting a meeting. Major Hendricks decides to make the journey across the war-torn landscape, leaving his men behind. Along the way he meets an abandoned child with a teddy bear. Hendricks lets the child follow but when he arrives at the Soviet front they shoot the child on site. Here Hendricks discovers that the child is a robot. The two Soviet soldiers remaining, and a Russian woman survivor inform Hendricks that the claws have evolved to the point where they have designed humanoid robots that resemble humans in every way until their hands turn into blades and they massacre entire platoons. Suddenly it isn’t the Soviets and Americans who are enemies because now every single person is a potential enemy in disguise.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story. It is dramatic and has a fantastic ending.

“Impostor,” on the other hand, isn’t as complicated as “Second Variey,” but it explores a chillingly similar idea in an equally action-packed way. It too is set in the future where the entire planet is at war, but this time it is the entire human race against an alien species. The aliens, known as “Outspacers”, attacked suddenly and swiftly, causing worldwide destruction from their ships in space, only stopped when a corporation surrounded all the major cities and eventually the entire planet in “protec-bubbles.” Now scientists all around the planet are working on technologies to use to win the war. Spence Oldham is a high up official at one of these labs, but, according to the two men who take him into custody at the start of the story, he is in fact a humanoid robot designed by the Outspacers. When he defends his innocence, and cites personal knowledge to prove it, his captors respond that the humanoid was designed to have all of the real Oldham’s memories and to have no knowledge of that it is in fact an robot.

Again, I won’t spoil the thrilling, plot-twisty rest of the story.

So, people only familiar with Galactica, do you notice some wonderful parallels between the ideas Dick was exploring in the 1950s and the ideas that Galactica would explore so eloquently in the 2000s?

It’s a bizarre and exhilarating sensation when the various works of art you are experiencing seem as if they are in dialogue together. I’m sure SF aficionados are shaking their heads at my naive amazement, having regularly encountered this. It is true, I’m rather new to the genre myself, it having been mostly a peripheral presence in my life as I’ve become first a film fanatic and then a compulsive reader.

I still find it fascinating that two early stories by Dick would explore ideas so close in many specifics to a show that would arrive so much later. Galactica itself doesn’t have any glaring similarities to Dick’s work other than an obsession with endless action and jaw-dropping twists. But these similarities are more adjacents of genre than similarities of individual style.

Nonetheless, every aspect of the humanoid robots in Dick’s two stories would become aspects of Galactica‘s cylons. In “Second Variety” the claws originated as man’s creation, made solely for use in war to kill, The cylons were made by man, but as much for their ability to make humanity’s existence more convenient as for protection. Both the claws and cylons ultimately evolve to their fullest potential on their own, the claws after being left to wage war while humanity hides and self-preserves, and the cylons after they enter exile after rebelling against man. They each create humanoids for the sole purpose of deceiving and ultimately destroying humanity.

“Impostor” features a version of humanoid that perfectly aligns with the cylons of Galactica‘s later seasons. After the initial destruction of humanity where the cylons represent evil and fear, the humanoids being maniacal demons in the shadows, the show’s portrait of them becomes more complex. We learn that certain cylons are able to reject their mission to destroy humanity and even develop love for humans, others reject the mission or highly complex moral grounds that reveal layers to cylon psychology. But ultimately the biggest shock to the show’s initial image of cylon villainy is the discovery that certain cylons live as human for their entire lives without being aware. And like Spence Oldham’s potential humanoid villain in “Impostor,” they never become aware until faced with the knowledge by outside forces. Either something switches in them making them a one-dimensional creature on a destructive course towards their mission. Or, more tragically, they become aware from more obscure circumstances (think Galactica‘s The Final Five) that leave them with the knowledge that they are humanoid, inhuman in their eyes, and unsure whether they are in charge of their destiny or at the whim of a purpose greater than them.

If you happen to not have watched Galactica, allow me to highly recommend you watch it, the show is beautifully human and psychologically complex. It’s amazing how a show with so much action, death, and explosions can have just as much focus on character development. Any story flaws come from the show having too many characters you love and/or are fascinated by, and I say that is an admirable problem to have. And if you have yet to read Dick, I also highly recommend reading the two stories I have written about here. I’m curious what it would be like to read those stories at the start of watching the show, and experiencing how unpredictably the show’s version of humanoid robots follows and experiments with ideas explored by Dick. I am still fascinated by the strangely perfect timing of my reading both stories (they are placed next to each other in the Lethem-selection collection) right in time to finish the show that has meant so much to me.

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