What is the theme of Philip K. Dick's short story Second Variety?
Thematically similar to his later, and more well-known Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1953 short story Second Variety posits the ramifications of a human propensity for playing God, and for mankind’s wanton disregard of the consequences of its technological innovations. Whereas Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep would take place in a major city severely diminished by virtue of unchecked environmental contamination and population growth, Second Variety takes place in the aftermath of a major nuclear war between the Soviet Union and a coalition or alliance of nations led by the United States. At the center of Second Variety is the development by the North Americans of a series of robots, known as “claws,” designed to continue the fight against the Soviet Union in the wake of the latter’s military destruction of North America. The “second variety” is a class of robots that is so advanced they are indistinguishable from humans, and have become increasingly self-sufficient so as to pose an existential threat to their creators – much as would be the case with the androids featured in the 1968 novel that would later be adapted for the screen as “Blade Runner.” As significant, in both stories, the relationship of humans to their human-like creations begins to blur the distinction between the two, at the ultimate expense of the former.
Second Variety was written during one of the peak periods of Cold War tensions, with the United States and the Soviet Union both possessing nuclear weapons and both uncertain about the intentions of the other. The development of atomic and later hydrogen weapons appeared to represent the culmination of technological evolution from the perspective of those concerned about man having invented the very weapons that could lead its eventual destruction. Such was the depth of concerns about the path down which the two superpowers were headed that Dick prefaced his short story with the following heading:
“The claws were bad enough in the first place—nasty, crawling little death-robots. But when they began to imitate their creators, it was time for the human race to make peace—if it could!”
The theme of Second Variety is one of mankind’s propensity to take steps that could lead to its ultimate demise. Technology pursued for its own sake, especially when that technology is designed to kill, can prove self-destructive to its creators. And, it is about the blurring between humans and their creations and the dehumanizing nature of such developments.