fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSelected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsSelected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick

I’ve been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick the last two years: 10 novels, 7 audiobooks, and now three short story collections. The more I read, the more I’m drawn to his hard-luck life story and strange religious experiences in the 1970s. In particular, his VALIS trilogy was probably the strangest SF exploration of suffering and salvation I’ve ever read. The only books left to read are two biographies and his 944-page Exegesis of personal writings.

I wanted a collection that would capture the whole range of his ideas without spanning multiple volumes and thousands of pages. There are many options, and I settled on Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, 21 stories selected by Jonathan Lethem, one of the two editors of the 8,000 hand-written journal entries winnowed down to The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. Who better to select stories from his entire oeuvre spanning three decades?

The 21 stories contained in this collection are as follows:

“Beyond Lies the Wub” (1952), “Roog” (1953), “Paycheck” (1953), “Second Variety” (1953), “Imposter” (1953), “The King of the Elves” (1953), “Adjustment Team” (1954), “Foster, You’re Dead” (1955), “Upon the Dull Earth” (1954), “Autofac” (1955), “The Minority Report” (1956), “The Days of Perky Pat” (1963), “Precious Artifact” (1964), “A Game of Unchance” (1964), “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966), “Faith of Our Fathers” (1967), “The Electric Ant” (1969), “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1974), “The Exit Door Leads In” (1979), “Rautavaara’s Case” (1980), and “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” (1980).

The first 11 stories are from his most prolific period in the early 1950s, and overlap with Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. In fact, four inspired the feature films Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, and Screamers. I consider this period his Golden Age, showcasing his favorite themes: What is reality, what is human, should we create artificial minds, and will we destroy ourselves in a nuclear holocaust? These stories display a subtle black humor and sense of irony, especially the idea that robots may outlive us after we destroy ourselves. PKD loves to throw in a surprise twist that alters the characters’ perception of reality. These stories were all published in the leading SF magazines of the period, and are very entertaining.

The next six stories are from the 1960s, which coincides with the shift in the format from short stories in the 1950s to novels in the 1960s. PKD’s themes and writing also gained in depth and complexity. For example, “The Days of Perky Pat” is an early draft of his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, one of his first books that directly explored hallucinatory religious experiences and shifting realities triggered by drug use. Surprisingly, the short story version does not feature any drug use, altered consciousness, or meeting an alien being that may be a lonely god, but instead focuses on the idea of people escaping into fantasy role-playing in the aftermath of a devastating war. “The Electric Ant” also has a lot of similarities with the reality-bending of Palmer Eldritch. “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” forms the basis for the Arnold Schwartzenegger SF action extravaganza Total Recall (1991). It’s a very intricate story that is only 22 pages long and covers just the opening scenes of the film, but the ideas are fully developed.

“Faith of Our Fathers” is a notable story that first appeared in Harlan Ellison’s famous anthology Dangerous Visions (1967), a watershed collection that essentially defined the New Wave Movement and challenged established practitioners to either get with the program or be rendered irrelevant. That collection is amazing for many reasons, not least of which is that many veteran writers did take up the challenge, including Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon. “Faith of our Fathers” is a story in which the Communists have conquered the world, and features a Communist Vietnam that resembles George Orwell’s 1984. The main character is given a powerful anti-hallucinogen that allows him to see that the TV broadcasts of the Great Leader are actually bizarre views of a powerful and capricious alien being that both loves and hates his creations. It’s a creepy and deliberately provocative story that presages PKD’s later religious musings but predates his strange hallucinatory experiences with the pink laser from VALIS in 1974.

The last four stories date from 1974 to 1980, which were PKD’s strangest and most eccentric period, triggered by his 1974 religious hallucinations that inspired the novels Radio Free Albemuth, VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. I didn’t even know he was writing short stories at this point, but the stories found here show clearly that PKD had completely departed from his pulp SF magazine roots and was now intent on questioning reality with a much darker and more hopeless tone. You won’t find anything uplifting here, as each story has characters trapped in time loops (“A Little Something For Us Tempunauts”), covert government training programs (“The Exit Door Leads In”), dead astronauts resurrected by aliens to test their religious beliefs (“Rautavaara’s Case”), and a man being endlessly cycled through his past memories by a ship’s AI to try to prevent psychosis (“I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”).

Overall, Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick gives an excellent overview of PKD’s evolution as a SF writer, starting with entertaining but darkly humorous pulp stories that gradually evolved into much more challenging and complex works, while still adhering to a short format with sharply-described characters and reality-bending twists. If you are looking for a single volume covering three decades of his work, this a great place to start.