Paranoia is your prime state of being. Nothing is what you think it is. Everything that exists is in your head, or it’s a vision that someone else put there. Trust nothing and no one, especially your spouse. Throw in some high concept science fiction, interstellar war and a bit more paranoia. Then make an awesome blockbuster movie out of it.
While I was pretty familiar with the gist of these stories, thanks to the films that some of these are based on, each one came across fresh and surprised me in a good way. It’s as though studios can just about handle one aspect of these stories, but other than Second Variety no one has quite managed to translate on in its entirety. Anyway, here’s my brief reaction to each story and, where appropriate, how it compared the film.
The Minority Report
Haven’t seen the Tom Cruise film recently, but the story fits quite closely. Police Commissiioner John Anderton works in Precrime, an elite police force that uses psychic ‘Precogs’ to spot murderers and prevent this crime before it even happens. Of course, what happens when your name appears out of their predictive brain soup? This reminded me of a very paranoid Robert Heinlein sort of story, with lots of professional men doggedly arguing back and forth. Maybe the style of Phili pK Dick takes a minute to get into, but as the opening story it’s just not my favourite one in the collection. I understand the theory of the precogs, and I get that timelines can change when you have prior warning. I liked that he had to basically adhere to their predictions after all, and the emphassi that Anderton was a one off, owing to being able to see his prediction ahead of time. He leaves this knowledge with his replacement, which was a nicely evil little payoff. I thought in this case the film was stronger, but it’s a fast moving story once it gets going, and I loved how paranoid Anderton was about being replaced only to find that the conspiracy goes a lot further up.
Shades of the Blade Runner movie here, and elements from this were lifted wholesale for a memorable Futurama episode! I haven’t seen the 2002 film of this story, though. As a rough outline, man called Spence Oldham is sent to stop a robot imposter from landing on Earth, who will be able to destroy the world with a bomb inside his body. The bomb is set to trigger on the utterance of a specific phrase. Distractingly, this happens to Bender in Futurama, and I’m not sure if that makes this even better or spoils the mood completely. It wasn’t hard to guess the rest of what would happen, but this is a fast and nasty story with the best payoff yet.
Philip K Dick excels at twist endings and this is one of the strongest. It feels like the new Battlestar Galactica borrowed large chunks of this, too. In a future war on Earth, robotic monsters called ‘Claws’ effectively wipe out the two armies, leaving only a few small pockets of US and USSSR soldiers trapped in bunkers, scattered around wastelands. The only stronghold remaining is on the moon, and only a select few know how to reach it. When a soldier named Hendricks rescues a small boy clutching a teddy bear, and the pair of them are captured by USSR soldiers, Hendricks soon learns how much the Claws have been evolving. I always liked this story, and it’s the basis for Screamers, and 1990s film starring Robocop’s Peter Weller. The Peter Weller film was maligned, but it’s a great story and I think the film stuck to it pretty closely. This is one of his clearest narratives. Like Battlestar Galactica (and of course Blade Runner) would do, it really questions who and what is human. Paranoia about the unseen Varieties of humanoid robot quickly becomes deadly. It’s fair to say that seeing hundreds of identical kids with teddy bears coming towards you is a bad sign. It’s another twist ending, but WHAT a twist. Hendrick’s final thought is my favourite part, though. When all seems lost, he realises the Varieties have learned to kill each other. Brilliant.
Not my favourite. I did like the creepy toys the manufacturers were experimenting with, but it didn’t work for me. The dark ending involving the distribution of the most deadly toy was great, though. Reminds me of the Small Soldiers movie by Joe Dante, and a nightmarish incarnation of Toy Story!
What the Dead Men Say
I didn’t think this one was ever going to end. In the future, humans can pay to be kept alive as a ‘half life’, the moment before death eked out so that they can remain useful for at least a century after their actual ‘death’. Then one of the voices won’t go away, although the body is long gone. This is another one that feels like a drawn out Robert Heinlein story, with businessmen arguing back and forth, and a drugged out female character in the background. It’s not a huge mystery to figure out who’s behind behind the whole thing. And why does no one seem to mind at all about their blocked radio signals?
Oh, to be a Blobel!
I liked this one a lot. It contained a lot of humour regarding the ridiculous state of a former espionage agent. During an intergalactic war with the gelatinous blobs, or the Blobels, the agent underwent genetic surgery to become a Blobel so that he could work undercover. In peace time, he finds himself returning to Blobel form whenever he’s stressed, or during half the day, even though he was assured the state would not become permanent. Naturally this makes it very hard to find work. Luckily, a psychiatrist finds a Blobel who disguised itself as an Earth woman, and the pair eventually hit it off. When kids and trouble enters the marriage, some terrible ironies are about to strike. Sad and funny, the Blobel story is one of my favourites.
The Electric Ant
This is another ‘man discover he’s a robot’ story, but plays out very differently. Following an accident, a man called Garson Poole discovers he is an ‘electric ant’, an organic robot built for his employers. His reality comes from a tape in his chest. Despite warnings, he’s soon poking holes in the tape and altering what goes on in his head, or is he altering the outer world as well? With an eerie ending, this is a particularly trippy story, which I liked but don’t love.
Faith of Our Fathers
China has taken over the world, or at least the United States, and a bureaucrat named Tung Chien has just taken some snuff in front of the mandatory (watch or be locked up) TV speech of the leader. The snuff, bought from a peddler outside, has an odd effect on Tung and he gets a terrible vision as he watches the Leader. Moments later he’s approached by the female leader of a resistance group, who reveals that he’s taken an anti-hallucinogen. The Leader is something terrible, but no one can quite decide what it is. I read this as an hallucinogenic “Nineteen eighty-four” and enjoyed it a lot. Reality blurs. As the “Matrix” movies would later, it questions if we’re happier left cocooned within our delusions. Also, it suggests that drugs are pretty useful for escaping mind control, except when they’re used on everyone at once. The idea of the Government drugging its population is pretty scary. Liked this one a lot.
We Can Remember it for you Wholesale
Paul Verhoeven would use the bones of this story for the excellent “Total Recall” (1992) but this is a terrific story in its own right, which manages a twist of a totally different kind at the very end. The basic plot is the same; a downtrodden everyman called Quail (it’s Quaid in the movie) tries to go on an imaginary trip to Mars on the cheap, using some brain implants from the Rekal company to simulate the trip. Instead the implants shift some actual memories of a past life as a secret agent on Mars, and he’s soon hunted by secret agents and the company who wants him to keep their secrets. In the film, Quaid is constantly questioning his own reality, and at the end it seems likely that his brain is completely fried and his mind will end once the happy ending is over. The original story has a twist that’s even weirder. To stop him being a threat to the company, Quail is about to get new mind wipe and have new brain implants that use an old dream of his, where he saves mankind as a small boy. If he dies, mankind will be invaded and destroyed. It’s meant to appeal to his sense of self importance and fulfil him so that he won’t pursue greater excitement through another adventure implant. However, Quail has led a more exciting life than the Rekal company or his employers ever imagined.
A brilliant selection of Philip K Dick’s always memorable stories. The strongest ones stay with you, and for me these were ‘Second Variety’, ‘Oh to be a Blobel’, ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ and ‘We can remember it for you wholsale’. Each of these illustrate Dick’s paranoia and extremely wicked sense of humour, and they remain exciting and fresh slices of pure pulp sci fi, even if they’ve been filmed and homaged to death.