Prometheus

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Volume 21, Number 3, Fall, 2003

Selected Stories

By Philip K. Dick

Pantheon, 2002
Reviewed by Michael Grossberg

Dont be paranoid, but they really are after you.

Don't get alarmed, but the world is in big trouble.

Don't go crazy, but you may not to who you think you are.

Such alarming attitudes pervade the world of Philip K. Dick, one of science fiction's most troubled visionaries. Best known as author of the novel that inspired Bladerunner, a film released just after his death in 1982, Dick was a mad prophet of American individualism. His metaphoric mottos: Question Authority...and Question Reality. His best stories, collected in Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, rail against bureaucracy and colorate conformity and against the burdens of modern selfhood.

Here are 21 stories, spanning Dick's career, about what it means to be human in a deceptive universe of constant serial and technological change. From largely forgettable early stories to his mature and most prophetic work, the collection charts the evolution of Dick's obsessions.

An introductory essay by Jonathan Lethem places Dick's troubled life and work in the context of his time while drawing persuasive comparisons to Kafka and Vonnegut's dark humor and serial commentary.

Like too many pulp sci-fi writers. Dick recycled familiar genre elements without much depth of characterization. What made his best work endure was Dick's paranoid imagination, which still packs a distinctively modern punch in "Adjustment Team" and "I Hope Shall Arrive Soon..."—haunting stories about people struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible. Also included are the tales that inspired Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (which has a different but not better endings; Total Recall (based on "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"; and the upcoming film Paycheck (abut a man on the run without memories).

Like Mary Shelley, Dick wrote about "monsters" with wary ambivalence. "Autofac" wryly dramatizes a struggle for freedom against seemingly benign machines, while "Precious Artifact" mourns the loss of humanity amid technological "replacements."

Several stories seem mired in now stale 1950s themes, from Cold War apocalypses to status-conscious consumerism. Yet, whenever one begins to write off Dick's futures as fading into America's past, his brilliantly twisted scenarios and vivid metaphors resurrect such anxieties for tray. Case in point: "The Days of Perky Pat" a satirical portrait of rival communities entertaining themselves after the collapse of civilization with elaborate role-playing games involving dolls. Even after civilization collapses. Dick fears, survivors will be motivated by the same flawed passions: to "keep up with the Joneses" and keep out strangers.

A few later stories threaten to cross the border from reality to insanity paralleling Dick's descent into drugs and psychological disorder-but his test works are cautionary antiauthoritarian fables that provide some semblance of sanity in a changing world. LIbertarians sometimes embrace Dick's stories as metaphoric libertarian parables about the individual versus the state, but that can be carried too far—over the edge from politics into psychopathology.

Who owns reality? If you think you do, you don't know Dick.

This review is adapted and reprinted from The (Columbus) Dispatch.

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