The Collected Works of Philip K. Dick: 11 Science Fiction Stories by Philip K Dick audiobook reviewsThe Collected Works of Philip K. Dick: 11 Science Fiction Stories by Philip K Dick

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDuring his lifetime, Philip K Dick published 44 novels, 121 short stories, and 14 short story collections. If you are interested in getting his short stories, you can find many of his earliest stories available in various combinations on Kindle for $0.99 or $1.99 since they are public domain now. For more dedicated fans, you can get the five-volume series The Collected Short Stories of Philip K Dick, which contains over 100 of his short stories (over 2,000 pages) from throughout his career. But what if you want audio versions?

If you search for his short stories on audio, there’s surprisingly little. Considering how cheap some of the e-book collections are, you’d expect much more, but the best overall deal I could find was the $1.99 Collected Works of Philip K. Dick: 11 Science Fiction Stories (narrated by Kevin Killavey), which if you buy on Kindle first, you can then get the Audible version for just $1.99. There is also Minority Report and Other Stories (narrated by Keir Dullea), which contains some of his stories that have become films, including “The Minority Report” (Minority Report), “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”  (Total Recall), “Paycheck” (Paycheck), and “Second Variety” (Screamers). If you want to hear some of his most well-known stories from the early 1950s, The Collected Works of Philip K. Dick: 11 Science Fiction Stories is a good solution.

All the typical early PKD themes are well represented, humans vs. robots, Cold War tensions between Americans & Russians (or between Terrans and Martians/Centaurans), the recurrent theme of nuclear destruction of civilization, the slippery nature of reality, and the classic ironic twist at the end. Sure, many of the details feel very dated (they’re over 60 years old, after all!), but they remain pretty effective stories. These ideas were frequently also in his early novels in the 1950s, as he frantically churned out a steady flow of stories and novels to pay the bills. But the quality and originality of these stories is quite high. Here are brief descriptions of the 11 stories in this collection:

Beyond Lies the Wub (1952): A crew of spacemen on Mars are loading up on food supplies and purchase a Wub, which turns out to be highly intelligent, peaceful, and likes to discuss literature, but Captain Franco seems intent on killing and eating the Wub, since it looks like a delicious pig. This was PKD’s first published story, and contains a clever twist at the end that you might miss if you’re not paying attention.

Beyond the Door (1954): A man buys a cuckoo clock and takes it home to his wife, who is closer to her male co-worker. This is not really a SF story, and has more to do with troubled marriages and frustrations.

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Buy the 1.99 Kindle version first, then add audio for additional $1.99.

Mr. Spaceship (1953): This was one of better stories, about a spaceship that has an old man’s consciousness embedded in it to be used in a galactic war, but which has ‘a mind of its own’. It’s a surprisingly touching tale of memory and longing. It’s also an early treatment of a spaceship with a human mind built in, and this theme has inspired many variations in the genre, including the AIs of Iain M. BanksCULTURE series, as well as Anne Leckie’s IMPERIAL RADCH trilogy.

Piper in the Woods (1953): This is a SF story with a fantasy feel, as a doctor on Earth examines soldiers returned from an asteroid that insist they are plants. The doctor visits the asteroid and discovers that the soldiers are claiming an indigenous people of “Pipers” in the woods are responsible for opening their eyes to being plants. The doctor searches for them in vain, but the story takes a surprising turn when he gets back to Earth. I’m not sure exactly how any asteroid could have an atmosphere, let alone a forest, but this story does have PKD’s playful tricks.

Second Variety (1953): This is another standout story, a surprisingly tense and chilling story about a future nuclear war which has reduced civilization to rubble, but the war continues thanks to “claws”, which are self-replicating robots that essentially attack any human being and slice them to bits with whirring blades. They were made by the US against the Russians, but they have apparently begun to made newer versions of themselves to be more effective killing machines, including humanoid forms. The entire time I listened to this I was reminded of James Cameron’s TERMINATOR films, since they ‘claws’ ruthlessly try to infiltrate the remnants of humanity hidden in bunkers, and wreak havoc when they get in. The story focuses on several characters who are trying to identify the unknown “second variety” of humanoid robots, and we can see all the classic paranoia over who is human and who is robot, which would later be explored in greater depth in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Bladerunner. This was apparently made into a film called Screamers (1995), but the reviews are universally negative so I don’t plan on watching it.

The Crystal Crypt (1954): This is another story about future war, this time between the Earth and Mars. It’s more of an espionage piece, very much a product of the Cold War, as several Earth agents seeks to get off Mars and back to Earth with a very valuable bargaining chip, and attempt to stay ahead of Martian forces that have lie-detecting abilities. The method by which they get this valuable object is so completely far-fetched it borders on ridiculous, so I wasn’t that impressed by this story.

The Defenders (1953): This was an excellent story, again about a nuclear exchange between the US and USSR, which has forced all of humanity deep underground. However, the war is carried out by lethal robots built by both sides that can withstand the radiation above ground. Humanity continues to toil away producing more and more advanced weaponry for the robots to carry on the battle. However, after several years some Americans become suspicious about real conditions outside the bunkers, and get a huge surprise when the sneak outside for a peek. This is a classic PKD tale in which the apparent reality is completely untrue, and questions whether robots created for war will continue to do so forever.

The Eyes Have It (1953): This is brief and humorous story that basically plays on the literal nature of expressions like “give her a hand”, “doesn’t have a brain in his head”, “his stomach was completely empty”, etc. It’s fun but not particularly substantial.

The Gun (1952): This is an effective story about space explorers who find a planet that seems devoid of life, but then their ship is shot down and they crash land. They discover a giant automated gun that seems to be guarding the skies. They manage to destroy it and steal the treasure it protects, but there is a twist at the end I won’t reveal.

The Skull (1952): This one was a bit confusing at first, but involves a prisoner and hunter being given the chance at freedom if he agrees to go back in time and kill a man who began a religious movement that ended warfare. It’s ironic that the future society wants to eliminate this, claiming that war is useful for getting rid of worthless people in society. And while they cannot reveal the identity of the target, they give him his skull to help recognize him. He goes back to 1960 and a very paranoid small-town community that is extremely suspicious of strangers, and are quick to think he is a Communist spy. The story is as much about the Red Scare paranoia as time travel, but it has the inevitable twist that I thought was fairly predictable.

The Variable Man (1953): This is the longest story in the collection, a novella about a future war between the growing Terran empire and the larger but deteriorating Centauran Empire. Terrans wish to expand beyond the Solar System, but the Centaurans are keeping them contained, so a war erupts as both sides develop an endless series of weapons to counter each other in a frantic arms race. The Terrans discover a technology that allows FTL travel, but because of faults it destroys the object when it comes out of FTL speed. They hope to use this as a bomb to destroy the Centauran star, but need technical help to complete the weapon. So who do they turn to? Well, how about an uneducated fix-up man from 1913 accidentally transported in a time bubble? SAY WHAT? Yes, this made absolutely no sense whatsoever, but this man (yes, the Variable Man of the title) has a natural knack for mechanical things, and apparently can intuitively figure out what is wrong with the FTL bomb and fixes it up by mucking around with the circuitry. WTF???? Well, nobody ever said PKD was a future science expert.

Anyway, there is a massive battle between one side allied with the main strategist for the Terran plan, and the Polish scientist who is handling the FTL bomb on the other side, and a good part of the story is occupied with a pretty intense and extended running battle between these forces, with the poor fix-it guy the target of the Terran strategist because the entire strategy rests on the calculation of favorable odds by a super-computer, and the “Variable Man” is screwing up the calculations. So despite his help being the only reason that the Terrans have a chance, one faction is expending bombs, laser beams, and whole squadrons of soldiers trying to kill him. It’s all very absurd but played straight. And in the end there is another surprise revelation about the fix-it guy’s genius. This story felt the most Golden Age pulpy of the collection, and despite being fast-paced it really stretched my credulity many times.