Today the majority of Philip K. Dick's novels remain widely available in print, largely due to recent canonizing pushes by major presses, as we can see in Jonathan Lethem's Library of America editions of the major works, and in the continued publication of many of the less likely candidates by Random House's Vintage Books imprint. The situation with Dick's short fiction, however, has always been considerably more vexed; at present, the most popular collection of Dick's short stories is probably Pantheon's useful if obviously limited Selected Stories (2002), which no doubt showcases some of the best of Dick's infamously uneven output of short fiction, but also less than a fifth of it. Although the desire to keep all of Dick's short fiction in print is certainly a reasonable one, I'll admit that I find the editorial approach taken in this new five-volume edition by Subterranean Press somewhat puzzling, even alarming at times. This review of the second entry in the series, then, will be devoted as much to the editorial decisions governing this particular volume as to the stories themselves, which—as it will likely not surprise any reader to hear—remain well worth reading over half a century after Dick wrote them.
Of course, any writer's "complete works" will contain stories of variable quality, and, since this is Philip K. Dick, the quality is almost asymptotically variable: Adjustment Team contains everything from masterpieces to total duds, interlarded with pieces of pure bizarrerie like "A Present for Pat," the story of a man who purchases an extraterrestrial deity for his wife. After all, the early 1950s were some of Dick's most productive years for writing short fiction, and we should remember that a high level of productivity plus youthful enthusiasm does not necessarily constitute the formula for an author's best work. All the same, a few standouts like "Second Variety," "Impostor," and "Breakfast at Twilight" probably rank among Dick's most compelling works, with only a few stories here—such as "Of Withered Apples"—probably deserving their obscurity. Rereading so many stories by the young Dick will also remind us that the author's reputation does not rest on his gift for scintillating prose; although Dick is certainly a highly "literary" writer by many metrics, his ideas tend to trump the quality of writing itself. Regardless, these early stories already display the range of Dick's own reading and his love of allusions, often made with verve and dry wit—as when a robot cabdriver glosses Ibsen as "clearly anticipat[ing] in symbolic form the trauma of robots to come" ("A Present for Pat," p. 278).
But one should not approach this volume with false expectations. This is still very much science fiction of the '50s, and gimmicky twist endings abound: one will have to admit that there isn't much to a story like "The Cosmic Poachers" except for the twist ending. Characters will also unabashedly explain every detail about their own worlds to one another for the benefit of the audience; consider, for example, the following exchange from "The Trouble with Bubbles": "Hull leaned back in his chair. 'It began,' he stated, 'when we failed to find life on any of the other planets. When our exploring parties came back empty-handed. Eight dead orbs—lifeless. Good for nothing. Not even lichen. Rock and sand. Endless deserts. One after the other, all the way out to Pluto.' 'It was a hard realization,' Bart said. 'Of course, that was before our time'" (p. 239). Yet through these clumsy conventions Dick's visionary genius—debased terms of praise, but certainly more true of Dick than any other science fiction writer—always manages to shine through. "Bubbles," for instance, astutely anticipates that half the appeal of the popular SimCity franchise would be the player's ability to call down natural disasters on their miniature worlds: Dick didn't need computer games to inspire him to ponder the consequences of such casual disposal of one's creations, or rather of pet virtual worlds that maybe aren't so virtual. It's a fine story, even if, again, the ending relies on a fairly predictable twist. Indeed, even in Dick's "Second Variety"—the crawling paranoia of which evokes John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing and the early SF story on which it was based, Campbell's "Who Goes There?"—the main twist will likely prove all too predictable if you know Dick or much SF of the time. Yet Dick's writing consistently demonstrates his ability to transcend such limitations, and "Second Variety" does contain a second twist of the narrative knife: a coda reveals that the story does not simply hinge on the revelation of the identity of a machine masquerading as a human, but also concludes with another unexpected reflection on humanity and inhumanity much grimmer and more substantial than a mere clever gimmick.
"Second Variety" is often singled out as one of the early stories that most anticipates Dick's preoccupations in his more famous novels, along with "Impostor" and "Human Is," also appearing in this collection. But nearly all twenty seven of these narratives of time travel, reality slippage, post-WWIII ash worlds, gigantic corporations, and unending mechanized warfare contain the seeds of Dick's later triumphs, exploring, for example, the diminishing boundaries dividing the human from the artificial, or mystical glimmerings of realities behind or beyond what we perceive. Many of the stories also exemplify Dick's tendency towards parable, sometimes in exaggerated fashion. For instance, in the somewhat heavy-handed "James P. Crow," humans live as (literal) manservants to robots: "Humans entertained nightly on the vid-screens. Humans made good entertainers. That was one area the robots couldn't compete in. Human beings painted and wrote and danced and sang and acted for the amusement of robots. They cooked better, too, but robots didn't eat. Human beings had their place. They were understood and wanted: as body servants, entertainers, clerks, gardeners, construction workers, repairmen, odd-jobbers and factory workers" (p. 378). Perhaps, however, Dick was writing at a time in the history of civil rights when a little heavy-handedness was warranted; while "The Hood Maker" is also one of the most blatant anti-McCarthyite satires disguised as SF, in a large field of such, that I have ever encountered, "loyalty probes" is a devastating pun for a young Californian to publish in the era of the loyalty oath (p. 289). Finally, the eerie "Breakfast at Twilight"—the story of a suburban family who finds their home suddenly the only building standing in that future post-apocalyptic ash world—also contains some stern Cold War moralizing, but it takes a final turn towards more sophisticated and more provocative meta-moralizing about the role of "visions of the future" like SF in changing culture.
As one reads farther into the volume, one will admittedly notice some repetition of themes, settings, and narrative structure; as Norman Spinrad had put it in his excellent introduction to the original Underwood/Miller volume, we see in this selection "a certain repetitiveness" but nevertheless "a uniquely Dickian sameness" (p. x). And, moreover, some stories simply glow with that same Dickian uniqueness that continues to surprise his new readers—and his rereaders—in the twenty-first century. For example, I was struck this time around by how the story "Small Town" shows Dick at his most self-reflexive and perhaps most prophetic. It tells the story of a man who dismantles 1950s suburbia quite literally, after building himself a model town that he realizes he can modify to suit his desires: we could label the man, like Dick himself, someone walking a fine line between the escapist and the visionary. Indeed, Dick was using his science fiction to trouble the categories of escape and escapism around the same time that Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were publishing defenses of these brave new genres of speculative writing (1947 saw the first publication of Tolkien's lecture "On Fairy-Stories"). See also Dick's "Survey Team," a story about the tragic impossibility of humanity's escape from our problems by finding a convenient "escape world" (p. 449). Indeed, Dick's response to the charge of escapism is always a far less straightforward self-vindication than we see in Tolkien or Lewis's critical writings; often, it even doubles as a self-indictment, for Dick's escapists neither flee reality nor confront it from a new and advantageous angle. Instead, they have a way of warping reality, as does the model builder in "Small Town": "All his life he's worked on it. Built it up. Made it real. He brought that world into being—and now he's in it. That's what he wanted. That's why he built it. He didn't merely dream about an escape world. He actually constructed it—every bit and piece. Now he's warped himself right out of our world, into it" (p. 425). Reading this passage in light of Dick's infamous transformative experiences of 1974, the "2-3-74" event (on which see Adam Roberts's review of VALIS and Other Novels (2009)), cannot but be an uncanny and thought-provoking experience. This parable of a man lost in a world of his own construction anticipates Dick's later life as a man alarmed but convinced that he was living in the different (un)reality hinted at by his own stories. As with many Dick stories and as with this collection, its implications will leave one thinking and also somewhat unsettled.
But now for the bad news. The first thing to be said about this new edition of the stories is that it is not, in any appreciable sense, new. In 1987, the now-defunct small press Underwood/Miller rendered an enormously valuable service to the science fiction community by assembling a five-volume edition of Dick's complete short stories that has since been repackaged in various forms by various new publishers: Subterranean is only the latest of these to secure the rights to this originary framework, although you will not find acknowledgment of that fact anywhere in their promotional material. With occasional slight modifications—one story switched out here or a title changed there—this five-part sequence is the same one that Gollancz, Citadel Twilight, and indeed several other presses have published in hardcover, trade, and mass market paperback over the past three decades, and it is the same one that Subterranean is now reprinting in a series of nicely-bound volumes that unfortunately come with correspondingly high price tags. In the U.S., I notice that Amazon.com still offers the Citadel editions new in paperback, and Amazon.co.uk also advertises all five of the Gollancz volumes; one can even find the Citadel version of this second volume in a March 2011 reissue. In the end, while there are some minor differences between this second volume and its equivalent precursors in the Underwood/Miller tradition, almost invariably these differences do not amount to a compelling justification for packaging and advertising the collection as a new edition rather than a simple reprint, do not live up to the implicit claims of additional original content made by the press, and occasionally even take the form of deletions or plain errors that make this edition considerably less useful than any of its predecessors.
First, I will not take issue overmuch with what this edition is not and could have been. But, as someone already implicated in the academic study of science fiction, I simply must observe that, due to the longstanding popularity of Dick's works in scholarship and criticism, the need for a proper critical edition of the short fiction—or at least a reliable enough basis for some kind of standard edition—has become increasingly acute. Despite the expanded story notes included in the back of the volume, Adjustment Team is by no means an attempt at a critical edition, or even a more reliable text. By way of contrast, this rather slapdash volume compares extremely unfavorably with the scrupulous project recently initiated by the first volume of Kent State University Press's critical edition of Ray Bradbury's stories. Indeed, the text of the stories in Adjustment Team appears identical to the original Underwood/Miller text, down to the typos. For instance, a passage in "Impostor" reads, "He had not seem [sic] him at all. It was too dark to see anyone" (p. 371). I have consulted the original 1953 issue of Astounding in which the story first appeared, and the word is correctly printed there as "seen," so the typo clearly descends from a mechanical recopying of the Underwood/Miller textual line, in which it does appear (p. 307). The story "Project: Earth" also contains a line reading "beyond out supervision" (p. 220), an obvious typo for "beyond our supervision" that had also appeared earlier in the Underwood/Miller. In fairness, I am basing this review on an uncorrected advance copy, but I doubt that all of its many deficiencies and oversights will be remedied: no one seems to be scrutinizing the text at all.
To put it bluntly, Adjustment Team is a sloppy cut-and-paste job, the entirety of its contents lifted wholesale from various earlier editions—perfectly legally, I'm sure, but also perfectly disingenuously. A case in point: my copy is missing the story note for "Second Variety" (arguably the most significant story in the collection), instead containing an incongruous note for "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," a 1966 story that appears nowhere in the collection. The note for "Prominent Author" is also out of order, so it appears quite plain that the notes were literally copied and pasted from the Citadel edition that, otherwise identical to the Underwood/Miller in terms of its selection and arrangement, switches out "Second Variety" for "Wholesale" and changes the position of "Prominent Author." Thus, whoever was responsible for the pasting at Subterranean did not bother to check the notes (apparently taken from the later Citadel edition) against the table of contents, much less the texts themselves (apparently both taken from an edition closer to the original Underwood/Miller). Even if this major error is corrected in the edition that goes to press, its existence demonstrates exactly how this volume was produced: not as an overhaul or an attempt to create a new edition, but simply as a thinly disguised reprint.
Other errors and idiosyncrasies make this second Subterranean volume, along with the one that preceded it, an inauspicious beginning to an informative and uniform five-volume edition. Especially misleading is the title page itself, which claims that the second volume covers the years 1952-53; the notes, conversely, indicate that some of the stories were written prior to this range, and that most were published after it. In fact, none of the stories Dick published in 1952 appear in this volume, and many of his more famous works first published in 1953 are not included here: "Paycheck," "The King of the Elves," "The Variable Man," and others. From the content of the notes, we can eventually puzzle out that this range must refer neither to the dates of original composition nor to the dates of first publication, but rather to the dates on which Dick's agent first received his manuscript. To arrange an author's stories in a collected works chronologically by the date his agency received the manuscript seems more than a little idiosyncratic, but the Underwood/Miller order has become the canonical one by default. We begin to see one of the major problems of this method of chronology when we read the note to "Of Withered Apples," which reveals that Dick had submitted the story "to many magazines in 1951-2" before submitting it to his agent—meaning that it was also likely written before many of the stories placed before it in the chronology (p. 479). In addition to perpetuating this chronological confusion, by choosing a new name for the collection, Subterranean has also exacerbated the bibliographic confusion caused by the legacy of the Underwood/Miller reprintings; no doubt the title was chosen because of the recent release of Hollywood's latest mediocre, free adaptation of a Dick short story, as presumably was also the case for their first volume, The King of the Elves (the story's long-awaited Disney adaptation had been getting more serious buzz a few years ago). While there is nothing in principle wrong with selecting the title of a collected stories volume in order to capitalize on contemporary film versions, it does seem a stranger practice when the product isn't the mass market paperback of Blade Runner with Harrison Ford on the cover, but instead a fine press edition clearly meant to last for some time. And at least Ridley Scott's film will itself withstand the test of time; The Adjustment Bureau I expect will prove fairly ephemeral.
But there are bigger problems of truth in advertising. On the back cover of my edition, the publisher proudly advertises the "extensive story notes" added to this "new volume." The notes turn out to occupy 10 generously spaced pages—for almost 500 pages of fiction—and the majority of them consist of a single line listing date received by agent, date of first publication, and place of first publication. I count expanded, paragraph-length notes for only 9 of the 27 stories here (not the 26 advertised on the back cover); four more have a few sentences of Dick's own auto-exegesis carried over from the Underwood/Miller and ultimately other earlier collections supervised by the author himself. The publisher nowhere indicates the source of the notes not written by Dick, but I have determined that they all earlier appeared in Gregg Rickman's own recent edition The Early Work of Philip K. Dick (2009). Rickman's notes provide some interesting some interesting information—e.g., about where Dick's agency sent the story before its eventual place of publication—but can seem vignette-ish, almost whimsical. Moreover, several typos and other errors appear in the notes as a result of the cut-and-paste process.
Finally, I also find it curious that an edition priding itself on its explanatory notes should lack any explanatory introduction: Subterranean's original press release had mentioned plans to commission new introductions for each volume, but these plans seem to have fallen through. Unfortunately, when we consider whose introductions appear in the other printings in the Underwood/Miller tradition—Zelazny, Spinrad, Brunner, Tiptree, Disch—their absence from this edition will be strongly felt. Instead, Adjustment Team simply confronts the reader with "The Cookie Lady." If this is really the first Philip K. Dick volume that the reader has ever picked up (as the promotional material makes it clear it could be), this story strikes me as an unusual place to begin, as it is hardly representative of either Dick's later writings or his other short fiction of the time. This volume also suppresses the original epigraph by Dick; the first Subterranean volume had at least made available the previously unpublished fragment "Menace React," but Adjustment Team largely subtracts from earlier incarnations of the same edition. Like the original Underwood/Miller volumes, Subterranean's editions are truly built to last, so it will be a shame if the text really remains this error-riddled; while I understand that it must be too late to alter the aims and scope of this five-volume project, one hopes that somewhat more care will be taken with the remaining three volumes. The stories collected here are indisputably worth reading in some edition, but one can't help but feeling that this particular reissue is nothing but a missed opportunity.
Dick, Philip K. The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume Two: Second Variety. Intro. by Norman Spinrad. Los Angeles: Underwood/Miller, 1987. Print.
Dick, Philip K. The Early Work of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 1: The Variable Man & Other Stories. Ed. Gregg Rickman. Rockville: Prime, 2009. Print.
Dick, Philip K. The Early Work of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 2: Breakfast at Twilight & Other Stories. Ed. Gregg Rickman. Rockville: Prime, 2009. Print.
Dick, Philip K. "Impostor." Astounding Science-Fiction June 1953: 58-70. Print.
Dick, Philip K. We Can Remember It for You Wholesale and Other Classic Stories. New York: Citadel Press, 2002. Print.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.
You must log in to post a comment.