Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Bleak Future

The Minority Report and Other Stories, by Philip K. Dick, Read by Keir Dullea, Harper Collins Publisher, 2002

Philip K. Dick was one of those writers who labored in semi-obscurity most of his life, then was discovered after his death to much acclaim. I’d always meant to sit down and really read him seriously, in bulk, by the ton, because as you can see here and here, the man was prolific. Amphetamines played a big role in this, and the resultant paranoia from extended extreme drug abuse is blatantly apparent throughout his writings.

This short collection brings together five stories, three of them the bases for recent films. Dick’s work, from what I can tell based on this brief toe dipping into his stories, seem fairly natural for the screen. They are paranoid adventures that take place in the future, typically, filled with plot twists and reversals of fortune as our hero confronts the dystopia society has become.

Many of these stories include one of the fun things I like best about old science fiction: how quickly anachronisms turn up. In “The Minority Report,” the three people, or Precogs, who are connected to machines to see into the future, are often casually called “idiots,” a term less unpopular when the story was written. And the computer that filters the Precogs predictions works on punch cards.

In “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” Doug Quail decides to write a letter of complaint about the company he hired to provide him a false memory. As he drives home, he thinks of himself already at home “at his typewriter.”

Jennings in “Paycheck” uses a film camera, despite the story being so far into the future that people regularly take “intercity Rockets.” This story is one of the more adventuresome with chases and narrow escapes prompted by seemingly meaningless trinkets the character sent to himself from the future.

“Second Variety” is perhaps the most chilling of the stories and doesn’t touch on any particular Dick theme common to the others in this collection save a bleak future. In this story, in the aftermath of WWIII, the Americans create robots that hunt the Russians on the European plains. The robots eventually construct other robots that look like humans, but this second generation of robots doesn’t make the distinctions between Americans and Russians the way the first ones did. In this way, you can even see how The Terminator is in many ways a direct outgrowth of Dick.

In these Dick stories, the conspiracy keeps changing, alliances fall through, and no one can be trusted. One storyline gives way to an altered, revamped one. You begin to develop a certain way of thinking about every character, but not even protagonists are immune from being reviewed. As I mentioned, Dick was an avid drug user, so his characters are often involved in lapses of memory, fake memories, hallucinations, difficulty in processing time, and paranoia. That the future is almost always a police state is a natural outgrowth of this paranoia. But as William S. Burroughs noted, a paranoid is someone who knows a little of what’s going on.

Business versus government or business teamed up with government against the bulk of the population is a commonplace these days, but it was Dick’s paranoia that sounded the alarm. The state of constant surveillance that the world has become is another paranoid fantasy he foresaw long before others.

Futuristic tales, however, have a common weakness of having to furnish the reader with a chronology from present day to the time of the story. Dick doesn’t provide this kind of background material in any subtle way, either flatly telling us or having characters do it in clunky expository dialogue. In a novel, there is more space to do this slowly, spread it out so it doesn’t come off as cheesy. In short stories, all the background has to be condensed down, which ends up with characters telling each other things they should already know. “You see, Jim, when the revolution came, all the scientists working on lasers were rounded up and publicly executed on television.”

This collection suffers from being such a limited amount. Only five stories total, each of them long, but without giving any hint of the scope or span of Dick’s life and work. Three of the five stories were written in the same year (1953), one written three years later, and the last one a whole decade later. Yet Dick wrote between the years 1952 and 1982. Also, the collection doesn’t hang itself on any greater vision than cashing in on the title story’s movie adaptation. Three of the stories were made into movies, but there are at least six movies from short stories out there. It’s neither an overview, a summary, nor a collection of stories connected by any more common element than author’s name.

The actor Keir Dullea provides a decent reading without frills but with a clean, crisp voice that gives the characters just a hint of vocal inflection. While most stories feature only two to three major characters, the longest tale “Second Variety” includes accents and both male and female characters.

Oddly, this is the second sci-fi book I’ve discovered in which the entire CD is made up of one big-ass hour-plus track. While that wouldn’t seem too odd in a CD of classic literature or cozy little English mysteries, for a genre that obsesses over technology it comes off as cosmic irony.

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