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Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams (SF) – Philip K. Dick ****

The ten stories in this collection originally appeared in various science fiction magazines between 1953 and 1955, when Philip K. Dick was still in his twenties. They’re packaged here to tie in with the TV series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, currently showing on Channel 4. I imagine most readers –certainly those who’ve never encountered any of these pieces before – will approach the book via the somewhat anachronistic perspective of the TV episodes (most of which are best described as ‘homages’ to the original stories rather than adaptations). In this context, there’s an illuminating two-page introduction to each piece by the screenwriters behind the corresponding TV episode.

Unfortunately, with this wrong-end-of-the-telescope approach, you’re more likely to spot elements that are ‘missing’ from the originals, rather than all the extraordinary and thought-provoking ideas they do contain (many of which get glossed over in the TV version). The ideal approach would be the exact opposite – to forget everything you know about the last 60 years and try to appreciate the stories in their original historical context. I don’t think I’ll quite manage that in this review, but I’ll do my best.

A prominent element in the TV series – and a hallmark of Dick’s later work – is a profound sense of ambiguity over what is real and what isn’t. By and large, that isn’t a major factor in these early works ... with the striking exception of the first story, ‘Exhibit Piece’, which is as mind-wrenchingly surreal as science fiction got back in 1953. Is the protagonist a museum researcher of the 22nd century living a delusional existence as a 1950s office worker, or is it the other way around? Or is he as sane as he thinks he is, and this dual existence is objectively real? The reader never finds out – and I bet Dick didn’t know, either.

The second story, ‘The Commuter’, features another archetypally Dickian shifting reality – but this time it’s rationalized in a kind of Schrödinger’s cat ‘many worlds’ context that avoids the outright ambiguity of ‘Exhibit Piece’. I don’t know if Dick ever commuted to and from work on a suburban branch-line – but if he did, you can imagine him daydreaming this branch-line-in-time story as he did so.

Next comes ‘Impossible Planet’, set in a far-distant future when the human species has colonized the galaxy to the extent that its planet of origin – Earth – is believed to be nothing but a myth. This struck me as the most conventional of all the stories in the collection – it might even have been intended as a pastiche of Isaac Asimov.

The book includes two stories that were never reprinted in Dick’s own lifetime (which means, incidentally, that I’d never come across them before – since most of my short-story reading was done in the 1970s and early 80s). That’s not to say they’re second rate, though. The first of them, ‘The Hanging Stranger’, is a good candidate for the best story in the collection. It’s not a particularly original idea – an invasion by alien ‘body snatchers’ – but Dick’s treatment of it here is as good as they come. It’s a theme that was particularly popular during the McCarthyite paranoia of the early fifties, which hallucinated secret Communists everywhere (we’ll come across a few more examples before we get to the end of the book).

Switching from the sublime to the ridiculous, we come to ‘Sales Pitch’ – the only out-and-out comedy in the whole collection. It’s a satire on the rampant consumerism of 1950s America, featuring an over-the-top Jetsons-style vision of the future, and a robot salesman that wants to sell itself – and won’t take no for an answer. This was the only story I felt really could do with updating for a modern audience – for example with the robot replaced by a virulent form of AI ransomware (although the actual TV adaptation didn’t do it that way).

Now for another alien body snatcher – ‘The Father-Thing’. As a general rule, I dislike adult stories that are told from the point of view of a child ... but with that proviso, this one isn’t bad. As it happens, I used ‘The Father-Thing’ to make a point in my book Pseudoscience and Science Fiction ¬– although if I’d been aware of ‘The Hanging Stranger’ at the time I probably would have used that instead.

‘The Hood Maker’ is the second of the two stories that wasn’t reprinted until the late 1980s. Once again the target is McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee – but there aren’t any shape-changing aliens in this one. Instead, the focus is on a new and ultra-reliable method of ‘loyalty testing’, using telepathic mind-probes. The  titular ‘hood’ is the closest thing I’ve seen in science fiction to the archetypal ‘tinfoil hat’ that no government-fearing paranoid should be without.

Yet another aspect of 1950s paranoia – the ubiquity of fallout shelters and the fear of radioactivity – crops up in the next story, ‘Foster, You’re Dead’. Like ‘Sales Pitch’, this is basically a satire on aggressive consumerism, but this one is played straight, with no humour at all. I understand that satire doesn’t have to be funny, but with one or two exceptions I dislike unfunny satire because I find it preachy and patronising. ‘Foster, You’re Dead’ isn’t one of the exceptions.

The penultimate story, ‘Human Is’, provides yet another twist on the ‘alien body-snatcher’ theme – as well as something precariously close to a happy ending. It may not be the best story in the book, but it’s definitely the nicest. 

Finally we come to ‘Autofac’. I found this story rather boring – or to be more analytical, it’s the only one that doesn’t revolve around a really engaging central character. On the other hand, it may be the most prophetic of all the stories – insofar as it deals with a problem that didn’t exist when it was written in 1955, but is all too common today. Stripped to its basics, it’s about software that does exactly what its designers programmed it to do, rather than what its end-users need it to do.

For those readers who venerate Philip K. Dick as a counterculture icon, or a mystic visionary, or a proto-cyberpunk, or a pioneer of postmodern metafiction (any or all of which he may have become later in his career), these early stories may be a disappointment. But if you want to see how a precocious 25-year-old hit the 1950s SF scene like a bombshell, perfectly capturing the paranoid spirit of those times, you’re going to enjoy this book as much as I did.

[Editor's note - we have a convention on this site of not using middle initials, but in Dick's case they seem so strongly part of his name that we had to include them.]

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Review by Andrew May

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