“Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick” (edited by Jonathan Lethem)

While technically the Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick  isn’t the first book of Dick’s I’ve read, that would be The Man in the High Castle around three years ago, it does allow me to feel as if I can properly cross him off of my literary blind spots. Not that I’ve read even a fraction of his work, the dude was damn prolific, but I have now read the stories that inspired arguably the two most famous adaptations of his work outside of Blade Runner. Those stories being “The Minority Report” which inspired a film and TV show both titled Minority Report, and “We Will Remember It For You Wholesale” which inspired two separate film adaptations, both titled Total Recall. 

“The Minority Report” is a story with a concept that is so brilliant and inventive that its action-thriller conspiracy plot just doesn’t do it justice. Set in the future where a murder hasn’t occurred in five years, and crime in general is on the verge of becoming non-existent. This is due to a controversial technology known as Precrime, where physically and mentally disabled people who while being incapable of living normal lives possess extraordinary mental abilities, and their abilities allow them to see into the future. They are referred to as Precogs, and this gift results in them being harvested as a means for the police to see into the future and stop crimes before they happen. There are fascinating ethical issues with how the Precogs are treated, but that isn’t one of the story’s focuses.

The story is fast-moving. Five pages in the founder and commissioner of Precrime, John Anderton, finds his own name on one of the cards that reveal the Precogs predictions, and the card predicts that Anderton will commit a murder. The timing is awfully convenient considering that Anderton had just met his young and spry eventual replacement, Leopold Kaplan, two pages ago. The narrative that progresses is full of action and twists, most of it feeling like distractions from a story world and technological concept that I was yearning to see explored more. The exposition we do receive comes in monologues by Anderton as he explains how the prediction that he will commit a murder was invalidated by him seeing the prediction. It seems rather counter intuitive for Dick to try to explain the intricacies of the Precrime system via a fluke in the system, and trying to comprehend Anderton’s technobabble was thoroughly disorienting. The plot itself, with its chilling military industrial complex critique, justifies the existence of the conspiracy far better than any convoluted exposition.

In the end I wanted to see the Precrime system in use more, the concept on its own is a fascinating exploration of free will and the ethics of justice. And if there was any exposition I was interested in it would have been the backstory of the Precogs. Dick was gifted at creating stories of perpetual suspense, which is surely why he is a Hollywood favorite. But “Minority Report” is a prime example of his action movie tendencies overwhelming his visionary ideas.

On the other hand, “We Will Remember For You Wholesale” is a perfect example of just how great Dick could be at mixing action and high-concept ideas. Like “Minority Report,” “Wholesale” is a fast-paced story married to a brilliant technological idea, but unlike “Minority Report” the action movie plot and concept are a beautiful mix.

Douglas Quail is a droll office worker for a dull government agency. He dreams of going to Mars, but the only people who go to Mars are the wealthy. After the usual morning of his wife berating him for day dreaming about Mars, Douglas visits Rekal, Inc. The company allows it customers to come up with their dream adventures, and will implant memories in their minds of them experiencing these adventures. It’s better than the real thing, claims the representative, because their memories don’t fade and aren’t subject to mis-remembering like real memories. Douglas is skeptical, but knows this is his only chance to experience Mars. He provides Rekal, Inc. with a story of him being a secret agent sent to Mars to stop a espionage plot, but when the company prepares to implant his memories they run into a problem – the memories Douglas wants implanted are exactly the same as real memories he already has.

The initial twist is only the start of a story that only gets crazier. It’s a glorious experiment of fiction clashing with reality, the complexities of memory, and the extent some will go just for the illusion of having lived a life of meaning.

Now, those are the two most well known stories of the collection. However, what may be my favorite story in the entire collection is “The Days of Perky Pat.” Set in the future after a global-scale nuclear war has left the planet in ruins, survivors live underground in bunkers and survive off of supply drops by ships from Mars. The story opens as the survivors are woken up by one of these supply shipments. They grumble about being forced to wake up, the aliens that drop off the supplies refusing to deliver without seeing people present, and once the shipment is dropped they seem most disappointed by what was left. There is mention of some of the supplies being used to make garage doors and other amenities that seem to make no sense for their underground enclave. We soon realize that none of the things the survivors talk about is for themselves per se, but for Perky Pat. Perky Pat is a doll made from plastic, and wearing hand made outfits. The adult survivors play with the doll while the children sneak above ground to hunt do-cats (mutant creatures that are a combination of dog and cat) and scrounge for parts to make weapons. The game of Perky Pat involves the adults using anything and everything they can find to build parts for their houses for Perky Pat. Each husband and wife have their own Perky Pat house but everyone shares the one doll. The adults take Perky Pat seriously, and their worth is measured by how luxurious their dollhouses are and how believably they can replicate pre-war life that they envision for Perky Pat. Arguments erupt over one couple believing therapy lessons were $20 while another thinks $10 makes more sense. The story is deeply satiric, the kind of humor where you laugh to keep from choking in agony over how deeply it understands and eviscerates the delusions of human nature.

Other highlights of the collection include “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” about decade long space mission to a new planet where one of the passengers’ cryogenic capsule malfunctions, resulting in him being forced to remain awake for the entirety of the trip. The ship, manned by AI, is forced to keep the passenger mentally occupied so his mind doesn’t disintegrate from inertia. But all the ship has at is disposal is the man’s memories, and every memory the ship chooses to use is infected by his anxieties and past traumas. It is beautifully melancholy.

Then there’s “Upon A Dull Earth,” a story that initially disinterested me due to its fantasy elements, but won me over with its twisted portrayal of angels as blood-drinking parasites manipulating faithful humans into a premature afterlife.

“Faith of Our Fathers” is a story that feels as if it was written in the same story world as The Man in the High Castle. Set in Vietnam, it follows a bureaucrat who is recruited simultaneously by a high official in the government for a job that, if successful, would lead to his rise in the ranks, and a rebel organization that wants to help him rise in the ranks to allow him a glimpse at the mysterious leader who they believe may be an alien. In a climax very reminiscent of Man in the High Castle, the protagonist, through help of a anti-hallucinogenic drug that allows him to see the leader in its true form, discovers that the leader is not human, but not exactly alien either, but instead something far more terrifying and primal.

The final story I’ll mention is “Adjustment Team” which inspired the film The Adjustment Bureau. This story is so wonderfully bananas. It’s as if Dick envisioned the kind of story Kafka could have written had he lived long enough to see the arrival of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. A mysterious bureaucracy that controls the world in the shadows, an everyman who through bureaucratic error glimpses the behind-the-scenes workings, I won’t even attempt to describe its terrifying strangeness, and how he struggles hopelessly to convince anyone that what he saw was real and not the ramblings of a madman. Feels like a slight missed opportunity that it wasn’t placed next to “We Will Remember It For You Wholesale,” both ending with their protagonists given an ultimatum to either forget what they’ve seen or die with the knowledge. Although, “Wholesale”‘s final twist is superior.

 

 

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