20 March 2008

Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: Do androids dream of mechanical oddities?

Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick, edited by Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg
Southern Illinois University Press, 1984

Warrick and Greenberg did a masterful job collecting these stories. They focus on Dick's ideas while also showing his gifts as a coherent short story writer (much more so than as a novelist). They also provide brief, yet illuminating, essays that situate each story in the context of PKD's personal life, literary output, mental state, the state of affairs in American politics, etc. This is a model anthology and a book my wife recommends I keep.

Here are my thumbnail synopses of most of the stories in this collection:
  • "The Little Movement," 1952 --- Dick's first tale involving a robot presages Toy Story, albeit with a much darker tone. Toy soldiers are plotting something insidious against Adults by controlling Children; the soldiers understand them to be two entirely different species. Their machinations are thwarted by other toys, although whether for good or ill purposes is left unclear. Less like SF, more like a Twilight Zone teleplay.
  • "The Defenders," 1953 --- A more hopeful predecessor to the novel Penultimate Truth, in which an 8-year war has been raging on the surface of the planet, carried on by robots while humanity toils in safety of the underground bunkers. A human contingent investigates the surface and discovers that the war has actually not been going on, and that the world is intead a verdant garden that the robots have been stewarding. The robots, it seems, have realized the illogical nature of war and are preserving the earth until humanity is mature enough to emerge to the surface.
  • "The Preserving Machine," 1953 --- An inventor creates a machine to "preserve" music by somehow rendering it into the form of a living animal-like creature. One of the creatures is allowed to "evolve" through prolonged exposure to the world and it becomes feral. When it is translated back into music, the music is absolutely alien and strange. The inventor concludes that everything evolves. The story explore themes of evolution (particularly the idea of evolving ideas--prefiguring the notion of memes), chaos, and preservation as translation.
  • "Second Variety," 1953 --- After being driven off-world to the Moon by the early attacks of the USSR, the US/UN government begins creating robots ("churning sphere[s] of blades and metal") to ambush and slaughter Soviet soldiers, which they do with chilling efficiency. The story begins when Major Joseph Hendricks is called to meet with some of the surviving Russians. Along the way, he meets a small, apparently traumatized boy named David who clutches his teddy bear while saying little. He discovers, thanks to the intervention of a handful of remaining Soviet soldiers, that "David" is a lethal robot, one of three varieties believed to exist. ("David" is a type III robot. The type I is designed to resemble a wounded soldier. No one has yet encountered a type II robot.) During the night, one of the Soviet soldiers kills the other, claiming that he believed him to be the second variety of robot. Major Hendricks, the surviving soldier (Klaus), and Tasso, a prostitute who had been with the Soviets when their fellows soldiers were wiped out by robots, decide to trek back to the US bunker, only to find it overrun with scores of "Davids" and "wounded soldiers." During the ensuing melee, Klaus is revealed to be a type II robot. A gravely injured Major Hendricks, hoping to escape to the Moon Base, leads Tasso to a hidden rocket, only to find that it is a one-person vehicle. Tasso convinces him to let her fly to the Moon Base, the secret location of which he reveals to her, in order to send back a rescue mission. It is only after she leaves that Hendricks considers that there might be more than three varieties of killer robot...
  • "Imposter," 1953 --- It isn't bad enough that PKD imagined a world where an observer couldn't distinguish between a robot and a human; what's worse is this well imagined story in which the observer and the robot in question are one and the same. The protagonist expects a normal day at work only to discover that he is suspected of being an android replica of himself---a replica containing a U-bomb, intended to be used by the alien Outworlders in their war against the human race---and therefore destined for immediate termination.
  • "Sales Pitch," 1954 --- A nightmare scenario of everyday life in the future. After an extraterrestrial commute at 60,000,000 mph during which individually tailored advertisements are beamed directly into commuters' brains, the protagonist finds himself held hostage in his own home by a giant robot selling itself and not taking "no" for an answer. This astute story left me in stitches and also in awe of Dick's insights into the ubiquity of commercial dross and the inability of the average Joe to escape it.
  • "The Last of the Masters," 1954 --- In a post-nuclear war future, members of the Anarchist League wander the world and maintain a sort of anti-government in which no one is allowed to amass power over others. It turns out that one of the war robots, machines programmed to maintain military-industrial civilization at all costs, escaped destruction at the hands of the AL. A few AL members, in cahoots with the robot's own people, kill the robot and prevent a military invasion of the surrounding territories. But there's always tomorrow.
  • "Service Call," 1955 --- What is a swibble? That's the question on the reader's mind throughout this delightful story about a repair person who comes to the wrong address.
  • "Autofac," 1955 --- Life will find a way. Automated factories (the titular "autofacs") have virtually become life forms, cranking out weaponry for us in fighting one another as proxies in a long-lost war. Humanity has survived, but the autofacs insist on producing everything, as per their programming. In the process they completely monopolize all the planet's natural resources, preventing humanity from reasserting its prerogative to global primacy. People try to sabotage the autofacs, but the simple, elegant directives guiding these autofacs drive them to evolve.
  • "To Serve the Master," 1956 --- This story, published in 1956 and never reprinted before appearing in this anthology, complements the earlier story "The Last of the Masters." Applequist (you have to love those PKD character names) is wandering through a ravine when he comes across the wrecked remains of a dying robot. It calls out to him. Over the next week, he visits with and helps to repair the robot, in return for which the he learns the history of the robot-human war; his efforts to obtain information about the war from his own locked-down human society avail nothing and so he believes everything the robot tells him. Much to his chagrin.
  • "Electric Ant," 1969 --- Waking up after crashing his flying-car, Garson Poole discovers that he has lost not only his hand, but even more shockingly his very humanity. He is not a human being but is instead an "electric ant," an android whose subjective experience derives from a player piano-like roll of tape spooling through his thoracic cavity. In a fairly transparent reference to the culture of psychedelia prevalent at the time, Dick has Poole experiment with the tape and note the effects of these experiments on his perceptions of the world. Finally, Poole cuts the tape; the effects were catastrophic, and chillingly so. Dick himself had this to say about the story:

    "Again the theme: How much of what we call 'reality' is actually out there or rather within our own head? The ending of this story has always frightened me ... the image of the rushing wind, the sound of emptiness. As if the character hears the final fate of the world itself."

  • "The Exit Door Leads In," 1979 --- Although I don't know it for sure, I suspect that this story came out of Dick's friendship with Paul Williams, author of the biography Only Apparently Real. That's because it was written--on the request of the editors, no less--for Rolling Stone College Papers, a short-lived spin-off publication of Rolling Stone, for whom Williams wrote on PKD. In this story, Bob Bibleman--again, what a name!--faces a dilemma: should he reveal classified information and in so doing save millions of lives, or follow the rules set by the authorities and return the information to them. He makes the "right" decision and returns the information, only to find that it has been a test that he has failed. He is expelled because he falls prey to conformity too easily and does what authority tells him rather than what he knows to be right. A pretty transparent parable about free will and moral agency in an authoritarian context.

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