This is the second collection of Philip K Dick’s stories and novellas. In the first collection (and these collections goes chronologically for the most part), it was mostly rough and early stories with a couple of real gems like “Paycheck” among others. What I tend to find really good about Philip K Dick novels is that he often has a good central conceit that drives the stories, but the story itself is often more weird and bizarre and off the wall than that. That’s why so much of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is about animals and so much of The Man in the High Castle is about I Ching.
The stories often don’t quite do this. Though I do have to say, the actual stories are tighter and better written than the previous collection over all. There’s both variation and motif happening here, so it often feels like some ideas are played around with one way in one story, and then redone or even reversed in another.
The collection opens with an oddity for Philip K Dick, a fantasy/horror story. In “The Cookie Lady” a young teen has been going after school to the house of a woman who bakes him cookies. She begins to notice that while he’s there, she begins to sap vital energy from him and grow younger as he grows more and more weak. In another later story, a husband and wife discuss the wars he keeps going off to on foreign worlds. It turns out that all the planets in the solar system contain one singular substance that it’s worth colonizing and fighting over, in order to usually provide a small singular service back on earth. In another story, humans are bent on taking over an alien spacecraft containing some kind of precious mystery. It turns out to be eggs about the hatch, and the aliens are perplexed about why the humans wanted them so badly, knowing how it would turn out for them. The stories here, like I said are better than in the previous collection, but I am still waiting for more of them to be like the novels. There’s still a lot of his famous stories yet to come — I am planning on reading all the collections before too long.
Second Variant – This novella is one of the best and most exciting stories in the collection. It’s the basis for the very obscure movie from the 1990s (which I loved) called “Screamers” about a moon colony (I think?) being attacked by outside forces. It starred Peter Weller, which is great. The story takes place primarily on Earth and we find out that sometimes in our future (past?) the Soviet Union started the big war which led to a back and forth of competing modes of death-dealing between the two powers. The story begins near the end of the war and the Soviets are no longer winning. The West developed a technology called “Claws” which are automated robotic entities that burrow under the ground and attack anything within reach, unless they happen to have some kind of atomic remote control device. The story begins on the battle lines when a base commander witnesses a Russian soldier running straight for the gates where he’s taken by the claws. Investigating, they find some strange messages and decide to go investigate. The commander takes off into the world and eventually finds a small boy clutching a teddy bear. He walks with him and soon comes across a group of Russian soldiers who immediately shoot the small boy, who explodes into cloud of robot parts. It turns out the robotic assassins have been replicating on their own and have started coming up with new designs to trick humans in to becoming their victims. We learn that the boy with the bear is one variant, a wounded soldier is another variant. They don’t know yet, who or what is the second variant, so the rest of the story involves a “The Thing” kind of back and forth as our commander and the Russians go around accusing each other.
This is a weird novella and in a way is a sequel to “Second Variant”. In the far future, a team of researchers plan on using a time machine they’ve just invented to go back in time and steal a set of research papers that details the necessary technology to fix their world. We are in the world of the post “Claws” war and everything is utterly destroyed. We also begin with our lead time traveler meeting with his son “John” who tells him of a vision he’s had of a world in which peace reigns, people are working the fields, and no one is worried about war or danger. So of course, he order that his son gets lobotomized.
They go off on their adventure going back in time, first checking on the recent past to view the war at its height. Then, the go further back to sneak into the army base where the scientist who would go on to invent the “Claws” has his plans, that they plan to take, not to stop to war, but to preserve the artificial brain technology they want to fix their world. Well, they end up killing him, and just decide to see what happens to the future instead of immediately trying to fix it. Wanna guess what they find?