(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The work of the late Philip K. Dick has long been held in high esteem by devoted readers of science fiction. In the years since his death in 1982, it has begun to attract attention in two other circles. Attracted by the philosophical puzzles that provided the bases for many of Dick’s plots, literary critics have compared his writings to those of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924). At the same time, Dick’s uncanny imagination has served to provide plots for Hollywood. The films Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), and Minority Report(2002) were all based on ideas in Dick’s fiction, the first on a novel and the second two on short stories included in this book. Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick brings together short pieces from the whole course of Dick’s career. Readers familiar with Dick will welcome this collection of his representative works, while those unfamiliar with this author will find that this volume offers an excellent introduction.

Film buffs will be intrigued to see the differences between Dick’s story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” and its film adaptation Total Recall and between the story “The Minority Report” and the film Minority Report. Both of the films were action pieces, relying heavily on shooting, fighting, chasing, and suspense. The short stories, on the other hand, are much more subdued and intellectual in character. “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” is a quirky and even humorous bit of fiction that almost whimsically poses its dark questions about how memory builds the human world. “The Minority Report” resembles its film version only in the basic premises of three “precogs” able to predict crime before it occurs and of a director of a precrime police division who is accused of a murder he will commit. While the movie hero ends up affirming human freedom and ending the precrime system, the story hero sacrifices himself to maintain that system.

Most of the stories are set in imagined futures, but the futures of science fiction writers are generally projections of their present times. Philip Dick was no exception to this rule. His writings can be seen as reflections of the 1950’s through the 1970’s and as commentaries on the concerns of those decades. The story “Foster, You’re Dead,” earlier published in a collection of stories in 1955, recalls the bomb shelter craze of early Cold War America. This satirical tale recounts the experiences of a boy in a society in which fear, conformity, and consumerism combine to keep the nation’s economy moving by selling ever-newer versions of shelters against nuclear destruction.

The Cold War itself is the subject of “Second Variety,” in which fighting between the Russians and the Americans has left Earth in ruins. The Americans, having lost the earliest battles, have developed self-designing robot killers to strike back. At the end of the story, it becomes clear that winning becomes meaningless in such a war and that pure suicidal destruction is the ultimate end.

The topics of consumerism and nuclear destruction appear again in “The Days of Perky Pat.” In this story, nuclear war survivors are kept alive by care packages from Martians, while the survivors spend all of their time absorbed in fantasy games with Barbie-type dolls. Beneath the science fiction setting of the story can be seen contemporary society, in which modern adults spend their lives in a pretend world of doll-like celebrities.

Social satire was only one theme of Dick’s work, however. Philosophical and religious puzzles intrigued him. In particular, he was constantly asking how people can know what is real with their undependable senses and easily deceived minds. In one of the shortest of the stories, “Roog,” he looks at garbage collectors from the perspective of a dog who sees the collectors as otherworldly creatures receiving offerings and kept at bay by canine guardians. The dog’s point of view seems entirely reasonable, and maybe even true.

Most philosophers only pretend to question the reality of the everyday world, since a serious questioning can easily lead to paranoia. Dick, who suffered some paranoid episodes in his life, frequently asks in his stories whether the world as it is perceived may be a put-up job or a conspiracy of some sort. In the story, “Adjustment Team,” a scheduling...

(The entire section is 1802 words.)