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Review: The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick

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The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick (Dover: August 2013)

Philip K. Dick published more than 120 brief works during his lifetime.  This anthology presents twelve of his finest early short stories and novellas, which originally appeared in Space Science Fiction, Imagination: Stories of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and other pulp magazines of the early 1950s.

This is probably a book for afficionados only.  If you’re already a fan and haven’t encountered these stories before, you’ll find a lot to like.  If you have an interest in 50’s pulp, Dick delivers here.

These are cold war stories.  Golden Age America imagines the future.  And the future, in so many of these stories, is slag and ash, roiling clouds of particles, obscured suns and engines of war with more resilience and longevity than their creators.

Anyone who didn’t live through or grow up under the threat of nuclear winter could read this as anthropology or ethnography.

Much of the set decoration and direction of later Dick is on display.  From our 21st century perspective, lighting up a cigarette aboard a spaceship, in a time machine, or on an extraterrestrial colony is as jarring as a telepathic pig.  Broken or breaking marriages form the emotional core for paranoid subterrans, magical realist cuckoo clocks, and living ships.

You can see a bright arc of evolution running through these visions of the end of the world.  Technology is both the enemy and the savior.  Weapons of mass destruction merely outlive their makers, turn on them, become them; eventually evolving beyond conflict and directing the future of humanity.  Is it any wonder he wrote himself into worlds where individuals couldn’t trust even themselves?

An objective standout is “The Second Variety.”  If you’re familiar with the Terminator franchise, you already know  some of the plot.  Killing machines disguise themselves as human.  Empathy is dangerous.  This is the core of Philip K. Dick.  As is the truth that empathy is also inevitable.

The writing itself is sometimes awkward and often repetitive.  The ideas are old ones, now.  You’ve probably seen them before. Taken as the germ of later writing or as a cultural artifact, they’re interesting.  But their execution is brutal and obvious.  These were stories bought by the word that paid the bills.

Recommended for fans of Ragged Robin, The Silver Agent, and Farscape.

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