Archive for the ‘short stories’ Category

“The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 2” reviewed

9 February 2009

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. 360 pp.

This is the second of five volumes in the Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick series, which, as a whole, contains virtually all of his short writings.  This book contains 27 short stories, all of which were originally published between October 1952 and May 1954 with one exception: the title story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, which appeared in 1965.

“Wholesale” is certainly the best known story from this collection, largely since it inspired the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall. Plus, it is a really good story, albeit one considerably different from the movie that it inspired.  A small difference is the name of the main character: in the story he is Douglas Quail, not Douglas Quaid, as in the movie.  A large difference is that Quail never gets his ass to Mars, as does Quaid in the film.  Any fan of the movie should greatly appreciate the short story and will enjoy the many direct similarities, such as the quirky robot cabbie  and that most of the characters, like the director of Rekall, Quail’s wife, Kristen, and the Rekall secretary, are all straight out of the short story.

Speaking of the secretary, in an early draft of the movie’s screenplay that I read about a decade ago while home sick from school, she was either topless or wore a transparent top (I forget which).  I was surprised to see that this was faithfully adapted from “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” in which the secretary is “bare from the waist up” with her breasts spray-painted blue (42).  Later, “her melon-shaped breasts” are painted “an incandescent orange” and are “bobbing with agitation” (50).  I mention this, of course, simply to warn readers who may be offended or bothered by such descriptions; two or three others appear in this volume—including a mention of a “slim blonde [wearing a sideglance robe [which is] invisible out of the corner of the eye, but an opaque fountain when looked at directly” (192), which would perhaps alter people’s behavior at parties in interesting ways.  Again, these details are mentioned simply to produce a complete review of the work.

“Wholesale” is definitely the best story in the volume, which is why they subtitled the collection after it and they put “the story that inspired the hit motion picture TOTAL RECALL” on the cover.  (They further play off the movie’s popularity by making the guy on the cover look a lot like Schwarzenegger, whereas Quail in the story isn’t described as being very muscular.)

Many of the other stories are also quite worthwhile, such as “Jon’s World”, which takes place in the same fictional universe as “Second Variety”, a rare repeat setting in the Dickian ouerve.  The story involves a pair of men going back in time to try to alter history, which included a devastating war in which man-made machines ended up taking over and almost killing off humanity.  They end up meeting the scientist who invented the machine AI, which may remind other readers, as it did me, of Terminator 2 where the heroes meet up with Miles Dyson, inventer of the terminator’s AI chip.  “The Hood Maker” is another of the book’s best stories; it reminds me of both Dick’s story”Minority Report” (which is in Volume 1 of the series) and “The Mule” by Isaac Asimov, and, as most of Dick’s stories seem to, involves a main character who is always on the verge of being arrested.

Speaking of things that happen frequently in Dick’s stories, I hope you enjoy stories with a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting; if not, avoid, inter alia, “A Surface Raid” and “Breakfast At Twilight.”  Others take place during a wartime, such as “Some Kinds of Life”, which is a pointed critique of rampant consumerism for those with ears to hear, and “Imposter,” which is the second best story in the collection on account of its skillful use of misdirection.

Philip K. Dick (1928–1982)

Philip K. Dick (1928–1982)

Unfortunately, many of the stories have predictable twists at their conclusions.   For instance,  in “The Cosmic Poachers”, it was immediately apparent to me that what the humans thought were jewels being hoarded by the arachnid-like aliens were actually the aliens’ eggs (the story isn’t that good; this isn’t ruining anything for you).  As short fiction is really about the concept, as opposed to character development or setting, these stories aren’t as good as they would be if the endings weren’t so predictable.  A good conclusion or plot twist is one that (1) the reader didn’t see coming but (2) seems totally inevitable in retrospect.  Dick often fails at concealing his twists, but perhaps this is just due to my familiarity with his work and the conventions of the genre.

Another problem with many of Dick’s stories is the way the characters act; they rarely plan things out like they would in real life—even when they’re taking part in a massive government-led mission to travel through time or explore a distant star system—and they made odd decisions off the cuff even when the problems faced should have been easily foreseen and planned for.

Characters also act quite oddly, given their motivations.  The best examples of this occur in the story “A Present For Pat” in which Eric Blake comes back from Ganymede with what appears to be an alien idol but is actually the god itself (this is explained in a science fiction, not supernatural way).  His wife and friend act recklessly around it, even after the thing proves its great power, and are turned into stone and into a frog, respectively. Blake’s response?  He complains to the god: “This is the thanks I get for taking you off Ganymede.  Ruin my household and my social life.  Fine god you are!”  And later, he asks a robot cab driver, “What would you do if your wife had turned to stone, your best friend were a toad, and you had lost your job?”  Equally oddly, Blake’s boss accepts that this frog is his employee after just a few minutes—and no proof—and wants to rig up some equipment so it can keep working by spelling out words to communicate with them!  When the god asks if Blake wants him to restore his wife and friend his response is “Gosh, I sure would appreciate it!”  Despite all this, it’s a decent story—just don’t take it too seriously.

Note that several of the stories in the collection are fantasy, and not science fiction.  This includes stories where a man is killed by a cuckoo clock and another where a woman is killed by an elderly apple tree.  I am not a particular fan of such fantasy stories; they never seem to have any rules that guide what can happen.

Readers will also probably note many influences from the 1950s era they were written, such as the idea of apocalyptic war between super powers and the role of the good, June Cleaver-type housewife who lives just to wait for her husband to come home from the office to cook him dinner.  This collection is definitely pre-women’s lib and includes only one or two female characters of any strength or real interest.  Just recall that not too many women wrote for or read science fiction magazines circa 1953, which perhaps explains the mention of “full, rounded breasts” (141) and bare breasts that glow via some unspecified technology (96).

Being an author involves wearing two hats: being a good writer and being a good storyteller.  Dick is not a good writer—all of his characters speak in basically the same voice, among his other enumerated deficiencies—but he is often a good storyteller.  However, while the payoff for many of these stories is high, the setup for them is frequently awkward and gives too much away; if he were better at misdirection almost all of these tales would rank considerably higher in my estimation.  Almost all of them need more editing work; it’s a shame that Dick was always so close to financial insolvency and had to keep churning out work as quickly as possible just to stay ahead.

If you have something of a libertarian bent and you can overlook the lack of literary polish, you’ll probably like Dick. If you like the surreal and don’t mind paranoid stories where characters are often unsure if they themselves are even real, or if the world is real, then by all means check out Dick. If you don’t mind critiques of mob violence, government sponsored violence, and of people who are controlled by propaganda and materialism, this is a book you’ll like. I do recommend the collection, and am looking forward to volumes 3, 4, and 5.  Kudos to my friend who got me interested in Dick’s corpus.

Leo Tolstoy: Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1

20 January 2009

Leo Tolstoy: Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1. Everyman Library’s (2001). 759 pp.

The Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1 from the Everyman's Library

Leo Tolstoy: The Collected Shorter Fiction, Vol. 1 from the Everyman's Library

Though I didn’t realize it when I purchased this book, it is only the first of two volumes of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction published by Everyman’s Library—and several of the stories I’d been most looking forward to are in the second volume, which I can tell because this book includes the tables of contents for both volumes.  It also includes a 12-page introductory essay which I did not find terribly useful, but a person who brings no knowledge of Tolstoy to the book may find it helpful.

This volume contains 22 of Tolstoy’s shorter works, only some of them qualifying as short stories, others weighing in as novellas; one, Family Happiness, is called “a novel” and another, A Landlord’s Morning, was apparently part of an unfinished novel, but is a complete work in itself.

My favorite item in the book is the short story “Lucerne” (available online here).  It is told in the first person by a wealthy man staying at a resort in Lucerne, Switzerland.  He sees a mendicant musician perform for a crowd of wealthy patrons there who then refuse to give him any money and, indeed, laugh at him.  The narrator speaks with the musician and shows him kindness, while observing how shabbily the hotel staff and patrons treat the man.  This is all told, basically, to lead up to the final third of the work, in which the narrator confronts and denounces the wealthy patrons and their attendants for their shallowness, lack of compassion, and self-absorbsion.  This portion of the story has no plot or characters, it’s basically a speech by the narrator, and seems to convey Tolstoy’s own sentiments, which are clearly filled with a lot of passion and righteous anger.  An passage:

“Who is the greater man, and who the greater barbarian,—that lord, who, seeing the minstrel’s well-worn clothes, angrily left the table, who gave him not the millionth part of his possessions in payment of his labor, and now lazily sitting in his brilliant, comfortable room, calmly expresses his opinion about the events that are happening in China, and justifies the massacres that have been done there; or the little minstrel, who, risking imprisonment, with a franc in his pocket, and doing no harm to any one, has been going about for a score of years, up hill and down dale, rejoicing men’s hearts with his songs, though they have jeered at him, and almost cast him out of the pale of humanity; and who, in weariness and cold and shame, has gone off to sleep, no one knows where, on his filthy straw?”

Also earning an underline from me is “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” one of the shortest items in the collection at just nine pages; it deals almost exclusively with the theme of forgiveness.

An 1887 portrait of Count Leo Tolstoy

An 1887 portrait of Count Leo Tolstoy

“A Prisoner in the Caucasus” is a good adventure story, detailing the capture and escape of a Russian soldier.  Like several other works in this volume, this story is based on Tolstoy’s own experience serving in the Russian army.

Like any collection of short stories written over four decades, the quality and interest of these works varies a good bit.  Some are written in first person, others in third person limited.  Tolstoy doesn’t use (at least in this collection) the omniscient point of view that would inform the reader of the thoughts and feelings of the characters, except insofar as they are manifested outwardly.  His descriptions of things is also very matter-of-fact, he doesn’t put a lot of poetry or soaring language into his descriptions of settings or actions; there is no purple prose here.

While I recommend with reservations the volume as a whole there are several items in it that I would highly recommend.  Perhaps more importantly, I am now interested in getting the second volume of Tolstoy’s short works.