The Best Short Stories of Philip K. Dick

I’ve been reading more of PKD’s short stories. He is outstanding in this format of 10-20 page pieces. They are more robust, better edited, less meandering, more potent treatments of the themes from his novels. They express his ideas on war, technology, government, the media, and the nature of reality, in a way that is thought-provoking and digestible in one sitting.

I’ve read about twenty of them. Here are five I have selected for special consideration, short stories of his that deserve to be widely read, and have yet to be made into film or TV.

If There Were No Benny Cemoli (’63) is a story about revolution, the media and constructed realities. An extraterrestrial reconstruction team arrive on Earth after triumphing in war. They revive an automatic newspaper press on Earth, which begins to report on a revolutionary pacifist; however, he isn’t real.

The Mold Of Yancy (’55) is about how the government and TV can influence a population, and build a consensus among them. Here, civil servants from Earth investigate an off-world society ruled by a fictitious benign dictator called Yancy. He broadcasts Ike Eisenhower-esque speeches that are full of cozy home-spun wisdom, which is without substance, but is well received; the same kind of glib and specious lines that are recited regularly by our modern politicians:

“…Yancy likes people to take a spiritual view of matters. He’s strong on God and honesty in government and being hardworking and clean-cut. Warmed-over truisms.”

The expression on Taverner’s face hardened. “Interesting,” he murmured. “I’ll have to drop by and meet him.”

“Why? He’s the dullest, most mediocre man you could dream up…”

Foster, You’re Dead (’55) depicts a society which has wedded Cold War nuclear paranoia and consumerism, where the newest bomb shelters are the must-have status symbols; even the children of those without are ridiculed. It’s full of observations that are remain relevant to modern life, where capitalism tries to play on our insecurities:

“You know, this game has one real advantage over selling people cars and TV sets. With something like this we have to buy. It isn’t a luxury, something big and flashy to impress the neighbors, something we could do without. If we don’t buy this we die. They always said the way to sell something was create anxiety in people. Create a sense of insecurity — tell them they smell bad or look funny. But this makes a joke out of deodorant and hair oil. You can’t escape this. If you don’t buy, they’ll kill you. The perfect sales-pitch. Buy or die — new slogan. Have a shiny new General Electronics H-bomb shelter in your back yard or be slaughtered.”

Elsewhere, The Days Of Perky Pat (’64) looks at the ways a post-nuclear war society occupies their humdrum lives by playing a nostalgic virtual reality game featuring Barbie and Ken-like dolls and accessories. It’s a prescient story about the nature of escapism, where children are more worldly than adults, and the genesis of his novel The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch.

The protagonist of Electric Ant (69′) discovers that he is an android after a traffic accident. He begins to explore his machine anatomy; discovering an ability to manipulate his perception. This is a lucid speculation about free will and reality (is it entirely subjective?) with memorable flourishes of surreal imagery. It’s a worthy and arguably better written companion to PKD’s longer novel of robots in society, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? as well as the distinctly PKD-like television series, Westworld.

These short works are found in numerous compilations of Philip K Dick’s. I recommend Gollancz’s Human Is? volume in particular. The author is arguably at his best in here, where he is able to speculate about his preoccupations without the (difficult to negotiate) trappings of writing a longer novel. They combine cutting satire with acute observation, and philosophy, in a way that is entertaining and edifying.

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