A Glass of Dickness

by Arthur B

Part 2 of a survey of Philip K. Dick's output covers the ridiculous amount of stuff he wrote in 1953.
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Having finally become a professionally published author in 1952 despite the failure of his mainstream writing to scare up much interest, as I detailed in the previous part of this series, Philip K. Dick promptly quit his job and became a full-time author. This inaugurated the most prolific period of short story writing for Dick; the period from 1952 to 1954 saw him produce about two thirds of the short stories he would ever compose. 1953 was the white-hot core of this explosion, during which he cranked out short story after short story ranging from brief storylets to fully-developed novellas.

Several of the latter - A Glass of Darkness (later known as The Cosmic Puppets), Vulcan's Hammer and Time Pawn (novelised as Dr. Futurity) were substantial enough to get the notice of Don Wollheim of Ace books, who thought that with a mild expansion (or, in the case of at least one, no expansion at all) they'd make great entries in the Ace Doubles series - these books consisting of two short SF novels printed back-to-back and available for a budget price. This interest from Wollheim came at a welcome time for Dick, who in the second half of the 1950s was devoting most of his creative energies to his mainstream writing and getting nowhere and consequently was glad for an opportunity to make some comparatively quick and easy money by doing a second draft of some of his old SF material.

I do not have access to the original short stories these three Ace Doubles were based on because they aren't in the Collected Stories anthology, and I'm not about to go and drop a heap of money on eBay to acquire rare PKD stories which I already have versions of. I will, however, be reviewing the novel-length versions here, because for the most part Dick refrained from adding a transformative amount of new material to the books and, when reading them alongside his short stories from the era, he seems to have done a good job of recapturing the mood and tone of his 1953 material in doing the expansions. You see, in 1953, Dick was an author with an agenda - or, more correctly, a small stack of agendas, with a particular philosophy of how to advance them. The end results were rather mixed.

Cautionary Dick Tales of 1953


Back in the day, Imagination: Stories of Science and Fantasy ran a series of articles called Introducing the Author, in which they would select an author from the crop published in the issue of the magazine in question and do a quick profile of them - preferably a profile provided by the authors themselves. The February 1953 issue includes an Introducing the Author for Dick, written by the man himself, which offers a fairly telling snapshot of where his head was at the start of the year.

He is self-effacing, to the point of painting a picture of himself as a crank. "My wife and my cat, Magnificat, are a little worried about my preoccupation with stf. Like most stf readers I have files and stacks of magazines, boxes of notes and data, parts of unfinished stories, a huge desk full of related material in various stages," Dick says, and notes that the neighbours have been making comments. He notes how exciting and liberating he finds SF compared to other genres. ("One society, one given environment was transcended. Stf [...] was Faustian; it carried a person up and beyond." "I enjoy writing stf; it is essentially communication between myself and
others as interested as I in knowing where present forces are taking us.")

But what is most apparent from the piece is that Dick has lofty ambitions for his own SF, and high expectations of the genre as a whole. "Over the years stf has grown, matured toward greater social awareness and responsibility. I became interested in writing stf when I saw it emerge from the ray gun stage into studies of man in various types and complexities of society" he writes - and, even more tellingly, he says "We may yet live to be present when the public libraries begin to carry the stf magazines, and someday, perhaps even the school libraries."

Well, yes and no. Dick hadn't predicted the atrophying of the magazine field both in terms of commercial success and in terms of significance to the development of the genre as a whole, though he's hardly alone in that and being a shoe-in for more or less every SF section in a public library I've ever seen is a pretty good consolation prize. Moreover, Dick would have probably been profoundly depressed to see the arguments we have on the Internet every day between SF fans who say "hey, having more social awareness and responsibility is a fine and dandy idea, we should do that one day" on the one side and those who find the idea of SF no longer being about white dudes and things white dudes consider important absolutely terrifying on the other side.

The most telling bit about this article, though, is the note about school libraries. It is not there by accident; a large number of the stories Dick wrote in 1953 seem to be hell-bent on teaching the reader a lesson. A clear moral, warning, or other message is almost always present and almost always applied heavy-handedly. This would alleviate by the end of the year, by which point Dick would be producing some of his best work, but at the start of the year the Cold War nuclear jitters evident in stories like The Gun and The Skull (not to mention Voices From the Street) seem to have kept Dick in crisis mode: you get the impression, reading this material, that Dick felt that nuclear conflict was imminent and he had a duty to urge people to take immediate action to stop it through his writing - or, failing that, offer some insights into how this pass was reached for the benefit of future generations.

Although Dick's ambition at this point still seems to have been to become a mainstream writer eventually, he produced more or less no mainstream material in this year; he appears to have recognised that all-out, unrestrained two-way nuclear war (as distinct from unilateral attacks, for which precedent exists in the form of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) is essentially a science fictional premise; even today, with so many Cold War-era studies on the ramifications of nuclear war declassified, the magnitude of such a disaster is so vast that it's almost impossible for us to conceptualise, and how humanity would respond to such total destruction, assuming that there is even a viable human population left, is a matter of pure speculation. In short, at the start of the year Dick seems to have considered nuclear confrontation to be a subject of such overriding importance that he couldn't really justify spending time writing about anything else - and also a subject which he could only properly address in SF. The difficulty Dick seems to have at this stage of his writing, though, is in finding the balance between pushing whatever point he wants to make with his writing on the one hand, and on the other hand developing his stories sufficiently that they feel properly fleshed-out; often, his stories from this year come across as mere skeletal frameworks on which moral lessons can be hung.

That isn't to say that Dick was always preachy at this point of his career. Some of the stories from this period offer little more than a good old SFnal scare, like in The Father-Thing in which a boy realises his father has been killed and replaced by a pod person, who is growing pod replicas of the rest of the family in the back garden (this was a year before Jack Finney put out The Body Snatchers, by the way). Other Twilight Zone-esque "gotcha" stories from this period include Shell Game, in which a group of amnesiac mental patients from the paranoid wing whose hospital ship has crash-landed create a society at a constant threat of red alert because of imagined external and very real internal threats, and Fair Game, in which an esteemed professor is chosen out of all of humanity to make contact with an alien race who he at first believes are testing him like a lab rat to ascertain just how intelligent he is, before it turns out they have something more lowbrow in mind. (Incidentally, the fact that Dick was never asked to write for The Twilight Zone might have been one of the greatest ever oversights in SF television history - his short story style was perfect for the show.) Fair Game is a good example of the comedic bent some of Dick's stories from the period took. Other examples include A Present for Pat, in which Terran Metals salesman Eric Blake returns from Ganymede with a wonderful gift for his wife Patricia (Tinokuknoi Arevulopapo, a tiny wish-granting God who leaves plenty of mayhem in his wake), which is little more than a mashup of 1950s sitcom and cosmic-scale drama, and The Eyes Have It, a very brief pisstake of anatomically-themed writing cliches that reads like it was knocked off in a couple of hours after Dick had the original idea for it.

However, the stories which boil down to droll comedy or "gotcha" twists and don't have much in the way of a higher agenda are outnumbered by the stories overtly and consciously structured to address the major issues of the day. Breakfast at Twilight, for instance, takes an ordinary family and transplants them to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of World War III due to a sufficiently large explosion sucking them through a time hole. The family themselves are clearly meant to represent the typical nuclear family of the era - mom, pop, son and daughters - which Dick seems to have found challenging. As early as Voices From the Street, Dick's depictions of Californian suburban life had a ring of truth to them which made it easy to believe that he was drawing on his own real-life experiences and observations in their creation. Here, however, Dick seems to want to connect to a version of mainstream American life which he wasn't living at the time and hadn't ever actually lived. The result is that the time-displaced McLean family talk like refugees from a 1950s sitcom - and whilst it's genuinely funny to mash that sort of character up with cosmic clownery as in A Present for Pat, here the sitcom seems to be locked permanently in the five minutes at the end of the episode where the moral of the story is spelled out.

The lesson pushed here is, surprisingly enough, that nuclear war is kind of a bum deal, and little Earl might think fighting is ace but he needs to learn that the sort of society which would grow up in the wake of an atomic holocaust wouldn't be anything worth fighting for, and maybe now, today, we should all be working to make sure that sanity reigns and peace is maintained because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Unfortunately, the didactic, preachy tone of the story squanders what bite it has. It's not that Dick's ideas here are objectionable - it's an anti-war stance I can personally agree with and which was probably somewhat more risky in terms of social disapproval/yelling/death threats coming your way back in 1953 than it would be today. Even so, Dick seems to have taken the disappointing route of deciding that his message is too urgent to obscure with anything approaching subtlety - that he must bash the reader over the head with his anti-war pleas as much as humanly possible because nothing is more important than directly appealing to his readers to try and work against the nuclear war with the Soviets he saw the nation sleepwalking towards.

Another cautionary tale, pitched in more conventional SF terms for the era, is The Impossible Planet. Set in the sort of intergalactic civilisation a large proportion of SF used as its default setting at the time (but which Dick seems to have been not enormously interested in during his early career and more or less never addressed in his later career), it posits a point in the far future when humanity has more or less forgotten where Earth used to be and has written off stories of a single birthplace of human life as a legend. Space captain Andrews is therefore slightly perturbed when Irma Gordon - a woman so incredibly elderly, even by the standards of the far future, that she needs a "robant" to accompany her at all times as her android nurse - wishes to hire his starship in order to take a trip to Earth. The sum she offers for her ticket is so fantastic that he decides not to refuse and instead go for a scam - he simply collects all the legends about Earth, finds the most common features which might suggest candidate planets, and sets course for the nearest yellowish star whose third planet orbits at around 1 Astronomical Unit from the star. So what if it's a shitpile world that's been used up by war and industrial exploitation instead of the blue-green gem of her youth?

For those who really haven't guessed the twist by this point, Dick drives it home with the last lines, a move which robs the story of a lot of its subtlety at the last turn; to that point, he had managed to balance "interestingly ironic tale about an ancient Earthwoman survived long past her time thanks to future medicine and good old-fashioned relativistic time dilation" on one hand and "cautionary tale" on the other quite effectively. An even more pessimistic story in the same vein would come later in the year; Survey Team depicts a bickering team of astronauts from a post-World War III society seeking suitable new planets in the Solar System for humanity to migrate to because Earth is, well, kind of fucked. They arrive on Mars, discover that Mars used to harbour life but had its resources entirely sapped by the warlike culture that lived there, and finally discover that the culture in question then migrated to Earth and became prehistoric humans. At the conclusion of the story, most of the team is intent on heading further out into deep space to find a new home, but the tone of the thing suggests our sympathies should me more with Mason, the pessimist of the group, who is appalled at the prospect of humankind hopping from world to world, consuming them one after another like parasites. (Planet for Transients, a mildly less misanthropic take on the same theme, has mainline human beings voluntarily exiling themselves from an Earth whose level of radioactivity makes it idea for various species of mutants who seem to be doing a good job of rebuilding.)

Dick's best anti-war piece of 1953, however, came in the form of the brilliant Foster, You're Dead, which was the last piece he wrote in the year and which I can't help but think that much of his other work from the year was building up to. Inspired by a newspaper report about the President suggesting that if people had to pay for their own bomb shelters they would take care of them, Dick posits a hyper-libertarian version of Cold War-era America in which the citizenry have to do precisely that - aside from the crappy public shelter (entry to which costs a mere 50 cents), citizens are expected to pay for their own defence. That means buying their own bomb shelters - offered, of course, in a range of sleek designer models with very reasonable payment plans - as well as paying voluntary contributions to civil defence which bring with them a range of delicious perks - such as a chit allowing your child to use the school bomb shelter if they happen to be in class when World War III happens.

Our protagonist, Mike Foster, is the son of the only breadwinner left in his town who hasn't fallen in line and paid his dues. He has no bomb shelter in his back garden or access to the school shelter, and all his classmates know it. This is really doing a number on his tiny mind. The teasing from his classmates and the pity of his teachers combine to make sure he's always aware of his status as someone marked to death due to his father's penny-pinching. He doesn't seriously expect to survive the next few years - not with the tensions between the superpowers and constant rumours of war - and his school work is suffering. He's taken to swinging by the local nuke shelter showroom to gawp at the newest models, to the point where the salesmen recognise him and have begun to regard him as a nuisance. How could a father subject his child to this?

Well, maybe it's because good old Bob Foster can't afford to do anything else. His business - an independent furniture store - is struggling, and the expense of paying up the defence subscription and buying a bunker would eat up too much of his profit margin for comfort. Still, Bob's no ogre - he sees how this is eating up Mike and, on consideration, begins to think that maybe helping Mike feel like a normal human being may be more important than sticking to his old-fashioned principle that the nation has a collective responsibility to provide for the defence of all of its citizens. What Mike and Bob don't realise yet is that by buying into this system, they've signed up as a family to an arms race with the Soviet Union - an arms race that Bob's shop just isn't doing well enough to support.

What makes this one of Dick's most successful cautionary tales is that he brings to bear all the skills he'd honed to this point as a writer on this one story. Rather than being constructed as a transparent and easily-digestible fable like Breakfast at Twilight, it's a combination of one of his anti-war dystopias with the sort of slice-of-life observations of suburban existence he'd been building his mainstream novels on. Although Dick had combined these streams of his writing before, this is the closest to the contemporary his SF had come so far; the world depicted here isn't a future world radically transformed by a wide range of new technologies, but essentially 1953 given a little twist - the sort of landscape which previously he'd explored more in his fantasy stories than his SF.

On top of that, Dick's observation of the characters - especially Mike and Bob - and the effect his science-fictional twist (which, in this libertarian era, doesn't feel all that SFnal) has on them in particular is brilliant. It's hard not to agree with Bob that in this cosmos the Cold War has become some sort of hideous scam, with the constant trickle of new Soviet advancements coming out just when the bunker manufacturers want to wheel out the next range of new up-to-date models. In one of those occasional instances where Dick's predictions start to seem prophetic, a similar scam would operate at a governmental level with the supposed bomber gap crisis of 1954 and the missile gap controversy of a few years later - both of which, in retrospect, appear to have been attempts to gather funding for massive military research projects by loudly declaring that the Soviets already had a massive head start in a particular area.

At the same time, though, it's hard to see how this offers much comfort to Mike, who is surrounded by propaganda at school (in the form of drills of the "duck and cover" variety) and massive peer pressure telling him over and over again that if his parents don't spend all this money on this stuff he is literally going to die. Society, in short, has turned Mike into a salesman for the bunkers without his realising it, and when it becomes clear that his family aren't going to be able to keep their bunker and will never get a replacement Mike is unable to process it. The wedge driven between Mike and Bob, combined with Mike's conviction that he has absolutely no future, constitute the real tragedies of the story, not a World War III which might never happen in the first place.

Between the high quality of the piece, the contention that the arms industry was driving American Cold War paranoia in order to ramp up their profits, and the general anti-capitalist tone of the story it's not surprising that after the story was mentioned in Harper's and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as an example of anti-war SF the Soviet periodical Ogoniok pirated the story in 1958 - exposing Dick to over a million readers in a market he'd never expected to or tried to penetrate, at a time when he was still not making many waves outside of the SF ghetto at home. Then again, if any story from this point in his career deserved to be a breakout one, it's this one, since it stands head and shoulders above more or less everything else he produced from 1948 to 1953.

As much as Dick was opposed to compassionless libertarianism, he was also profoundly worried about increasing centralisation of government. (In particular, he found Maoist-style "democratic centralism" disturbingly easy to imagine manifesting in the USA.) This worry is expressed over and over again in his fiction, although it's often present as a side dish to the main thrust of the piece; one of the few stories he wrote in which the concept is placed front-and-centre is Souvenir, in which a colony planet of artisans with a distinctive (and very violent) culture is destroyed by the central galactic authorities because they can't permit any cultural divergence within their area of authority - but a small hand-crafted object from their culture may, the ending hints, have the power to spark societal change in the next generation.

This is a difficult story because whilst genocide is clearly wrong, there's also clearly some profound issues with the culture of Williamson's World - the society is deeply patriarchal, and prone to solving its problems with violence in the form of clan warfare. I think the story slips up, however, in the Galactic government's declaration of Exterminatus on the entire planetary population, which makes the central authority clearly and obviously the villain. The position of the colonists on Williamson's World is a lot like that of American settlers who wake up morning to discover that the plot of land they've built their community on has been claimed by the expanding USA, and the Federal government holds sway here now.

The question the story poses and doesn't quite manage to deal with even-handedly is "how much meddling in local culture on the part of government is really acceptable?" Dick's position here seems to be "none, it's never right", but if we stuck to that then the desegregation of the Southern US might never have got underway. If the conflict between the central authority and the local culture had been over, say, forbidding clan warfare because the central authority doesn't think people have the right to murder each other over disputes then that might have added a more interesting dimension to the story. Likewise, it seems odd to me that the entire planet is happy to have one man speak for them when rejecting the central government's terms - if they're so fractious surely at least one clan, or one individual for that matter, might have found themselves so taken with a way of life where women are allowed to take part in decision-making and constant battle isn't part of the mediation process and you can expect to live to a ripe old age rather than being cut down in a fight once you start slowing down that they'd have switched sides. Cultures are not Borg-like monoliths, after all, and usually you can find agitators for change within any reasonably large one. As it stands, the story is a bit too black-and-white to be anything other than a polemic - you can tell that Dick sides with the colonists against the government because they make stuff with their hands, and anyone who does that in a Dick story is at least somewhat sympathetic.

Dick, you see, had kind of a Barton Fink thing going on - on the one hand, he had ambitions of being a Serious Artist who supported himself exclusively through art rather than hard labour, on the other hand he considered himself to speak for the put-upon "little man". His distrust of big government was part of a broader distrust of anything which put what he considered to be undue stress on the working class or lower middle class - the factory workers, the mailmen, the low-ranking office functionaries, those guys. For example, in To Serve the Master a courier is trolled into repairing one of the androids responsible for World War III; this is a result of the elites deciding that the lower classes don't need to know the truth about the War, which feeds into Dick's perception at the time that the US was being increasingly run by distant technocrats isolated from the concerns of normal people. In Sales Pitch a salesman, his nerves already frazzled from the pervasiveness of advertising in the future he inhabits, is driven to destruction by the pestering of a robot that literally sells itself, because like the advertisers themselves the robot just won't give up.

Of all of Dick's "don't mess with the little guy" stories from 1953, Small Town is the bitterest. Verne Haskel is filled with resentment at what he perceives to be his ill-treatment at the hands of the inhabitants of Woodland, the affluent San Fransisco suburb where he lives. He hates his job, he thinks everyone in town looks down at him, and his wife Madge nags him constantly and has obviously completely lost interest in him. Haskel therefore takes refuge in his only hobby - model trains. He's built an incredible replica of Woodland in his basement for his trains to run through too. Things hot up when, as his wife discusses the situation with her lover Dr Tyler upstairs, Verne realises what's been bugging him about his model - he's replicated all the businesses owned by his enemies and generally replicated the power structure as it stands, whereas as God of this tiny universe he should really be applying more poetic licence. Make himself the Mayor, perhaps, and purge all the people and institutions that make him miserable and replace them with stuff he'd rather see. This job done, he considers his model "complete" and in a violent apotheosis vanishes; Madge and Tyler think he's run away and vaguely hope he'll stay away so that Madge's marriage to him can be annulled, but as they drive to the police station to report him missing they soon discover there's a new Mayor in town...

The idea of someone in a Godlike position manipulating the reality of a small town would be revisited in A Glass of Darkness/The Cosmic Puppets, although the reasons behind it this time seem to be much pettier than the clash of divine forces in that story. The story is a little more problematic than "dork makes himself God-Mayor of town, turns out to be the last person you'd want to trust with power", because of the role Madge plays in the story - whilst it seems that a lot of people have done wrong by Verne, at least from his point of view, the only thing which really seems real to the reader is Madge's infidelity and the way she speaks to him like he's an enormous fucking disappointment and she can't stand the sight of him. Part of this is because this is the only injustice we ever see inflicted on Verne "on-camera", as it were, and part of this comes down to how Madge and Tyler carry half the narrative, ensuring that the cuckolding of Verne is very strongly highlighted. Given other stories by Dick in which marital infidelity (real or allegorical) leads to grotesque consequences it does seem we've come across a particular raw nerve of Dick's there.

(Another take on the concept of a sufficiently detailed microcosm serving as a portal into a different reality is Exhibit Piece, in which a historian responsible for maintaining a museum's extremely detailed portrayal of life in the 1950s finds he can enter the exhibit and escape to a new life in his beloved time period - but this time around it doesn't turn out too well for him, because the museum authorities swear they'll tear down the exhibit if he doesn't stop this silliness, and the 1950s have quite a nasty built-in self-destruct system.)

Any writer wanting to write about disenfranchised people in the USA in the 1950s who ignored race would have been being negligent, of course, and Dick didn't do that. Of course, there were plenty of other oppressive dynamics he did ignore - in particular, Dick's cosmos is basically a heterosexual cosmos, and he tends to ignore women in the stories from this period unless he needed a supporting character, a love interest, a fantasy figure or a shrewish betrayer. But he was very, very keen to write about race, and unfortunately (as with earlier works) Dick's attempts to write about race from this period are a bit of a minefield. Take, for instance, James P. Crow, a rather blunt satire on the Jim Crow laws of the South as they existed at the time. The story presents an Earth in which human beings have been subjugated by robots and are kept as second-class citizens: in principle, they're allowed to enjoy the same rights as robots, but only if they are able to pass certain tests which are rigged in such a way that no human being could be reasonably expected to pass them. Consistently, humans try the tests out and fail, instilling a terrible sense of inferiority in them - until, one day, a man calling himself "James Crow" arises who has sussed out a way to cheat the tests and attain high-level citizenship.

The idea of writing an allegory about the Jim Crow laws was a timely one - remember, the judgement in Brown vs. Board of Education would come out in the next year - and using a science fictional conceit at the heart of the story might have enabled Dick to approach the subject from an angle unburdened by the terms in which the argument tended to be framed at the time. The problem here is that the allegory trips over itself because the humans-vs.-robots situation differs from the real life experience of segregation, and differs in such a way that the story either just doesn't get the point or has really unfortunate implications.

The key difference, of course, is that the capabilities of humans and robots in the story really are objectively different - a human clearly isn't the same thing as a computer, can't calculate at the same speed as computers and would fail dismally at most tests designed to test computing power and speed when pitted against even fairly elderly machines. In the story, James specifically has to cheat in order to pass the tests. This doesn't really resemble the sort of literacy tests used to deny people voting rights in the South, since those were tests that in theory a black person could pass and a white person could fail but in practice were administered in a disingenuous way, with enough exceptions, grandfather clauses, and scope for subjectivity to ensure that most white voters often didn't have to worry about failing whereas even highly literate black voters often be failed. (Moreover, there's nothing in the story to offer a parallel to the sort of intimidation that black voters who had passed the tests faced from whites keen to make sure they didn't do anything silly like actually exercise their rights.)

A more problematic difference is in how the typical human being responds to the tests. Through the supporting characters of young Donnie Parks and his family Dick tries to show us how the tests instil a sense of inferiority in human beings - the humans typically assuming that the tests are honestly applied and genuinely demonstrate robot superiority. The liberation of the human beings occurs because someone shows up who beats the robots at their own game and is, consequently, able to act as an inspirational leader for the humans, which I think mischaracterises how deliberately discriminatory systems work: black people couldn't expect to beat the Southern establishment at their own game because the white Southern establishment set the rules of the game in the first place, and were only too happy to change them about as necessary to maintain the status quo. The robots here, however, aren't up for dirty tricks, allowing James Crow to enjoy the benefit of the tests he has passed because they feel obliged to obey the rules they have set themselves consistently. Moreover, they willingly self-deport themselves to the offworld colonies, leaving Earth behind for humans to enjoy, in order to avoid a devastating race war. This is a solution which I suppose is viable for robots in futureland, but voluntary ethnic cleansing and ethnic separatism aren't really viable solutions for racial divisions on our world. Although the desire to solve the great problems of the era through science fictional means is an understandable one, here it not only makes the end of the story rather too simplistic and easy and isn't really helpful or interesting as a commentary on 1950s racial politics.

Another racially-themed story for the "good intentions, patronising results" pile is The Turning Wheel. In its favour, it has the distinction of being among one of the first (if not the first) SF stories to have a poke at Scientology - L. Ron Hubbard having only gotten around to turning his quack medicine racket (Dianetics) into a religious pursuit in 1952. Dick, having read some of Hubbard's fiction, couldn't take the whole thing seriously, but he had some exposure to it through his mother trying to convince him and Kleo (his wife at the time) to give it a spin; that said, the story was penned well before the secret Scientology doctrines about Xenu and all that were leaked (indeed, Hubbard hadn't even written the legendary Operating Thetan 3 documents which are the source of the Xenu legend yet, and wouldn't until some time in 1966 or 1967 as far as anyone can tell) so he didn't have much to go on beyond the fact that Scientologists believed in reincarnation and thought that Dianetics-style auditing practices could both let you make contact with your past lives and clear you of negative engrams to properly prepare you for your next life.

Our protagonist, Sung-wu, lives in a future where a distorted version of Scientology is the dominant religion (the priestly caste are the Bards, honouring the great Elron Hu) and the global racial order has shifted such that Asians enjoy absolute dominance whilst white people are at the bottom of the heap. Sung-wu has a problem: sneaky peeks at the Bards' time-viewing apparatus have led to him discovering that he's going to die of a horrible plague in the medium-term future - and he has too many sins weighing him down to expect a decent reincarnation next go around. A chance to earn some good karma pops up when he is dispatched to a remote province to check out rumours of uppity whites of the reviled Techno caste - those who sully themselves by association with engineering and the physical sciences - and even more disturbing rumours of a cult of Tinkerists out to disrupt the natural order through their scientific knowledge.

The Turning Wheel is one of those "but what if it were WHITES who faced massive institutional prejudice?" stories which kind of illustrates why that sort of premise fell massively out of failure long before the Save the Pearls debacle rolled around. The intent genuinely seems to be intended as a cautionary tale to whites that nothing is permanent so we'd better find a way to break the pattern of prejudice and learn to live with other races as equals if we don't want trouble for our descendents. Unfortunately, it does this with a story where a grassroots movement led by whites has the answer to the problems facing both the world in general (feeding enough people) and the grateful POC protagonist in particular (giving him some penicillin so he won't die of the plague). It also seems to be a fumbling attempt to tackle the idea of karma; whilst you could have some traction in reading it as a criticism of Scientology's use of the concept as a means of making people dependent on Scientology and contrasting it with more Buddhist notions of karma as a vicious cycle we can try to free ourselves from, it still feels kind of like misappropriation of other people's religious beliefs to make a cheap shot at L. Ron. Ultimately, if you want to write science fiction which makes Scientology look silly, Hubbard has kind of beaten you to it.

Tony and the Beetles is somewhat more successful; the titular Tony is a boy growing up on a colony planet, where human beings have set themselves up in charge and displaced the beetle-like natives. However, at last the forces of the wider beetle interstellar civilisation have started winning convincing victories against the Earthers, and the tide is finally turning; Tony earns, to his dismay, that even his little beetle friends aren't so keen on him or any other human now they know that liberation is within their grasp. Although the story is good as a critique of how the process of colonialism creates expat populations who end up becoming massive problems with the colonial era ends (because they believe they belong in the place where they were born and won't give that up without a fight), at the same time there's a rather basic issue with it in that it uses alien beetles as a stand-in for colonised peoples. Although this is arguably necessary if you want to shift the focus of the story away from any specific real-world colonial situation in order to make a more general point about colonialism, it's still executed in a creepy, othering manner - partly deliberately in the way Tony is so enchanted by the quaint low-tech lives of the charming beetle natives because it's specifically meant to depict an othering process, but even so, kind of ick.

I actually think Dick's most successful story inspired by racial politics from this year is one which doesn't actually directly address race at all. The Hanging Stranger is a piece which is, on the face of it, another Bodysnatchers yarn like The Father-Thing which reads a bit like a pitch for a Twilight Zone episode: man in small town realises someone has hung a stranger from a lamp-post and is puzzled by the failure of anyone else to react to it, it turns out there's an alien invasion underway - the hanging stranger is a test the aliens use to detect anyone who's slipped through their net, the idea being that anyone who freaks out at the sight of a dead body hanging from a lamppost is probably someone who wasn't expecting to see it there. The story has a bit more meat to it when you consider that the original Bodysnatchers was widely interpreted as being about insidious Communism (and Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, a predecessor to Bodysnatchers, was specifically penned with the intent of making such an analogy), whereas here the aliens seem less like Communists and more like the sort of folks who like a good lynchin' and have nasty plans for people who fall into their hands who object to said lynchin' - in other words, they aren't so alien to some parts of the US after all. (In fact, the hanging stranger trick is basically a sick sort of empathy test, and Dick's ruminations on empathy are another major theme of his which emerged in this year.)

The last category of current affairs-based stories from Dick in this era actually revolve around current fashions and controversies in the SF scene - a concept which sounds rather self-referential but rather makes sense when you realise that Dick was really into this whole Literature of the Future idea and thought it important to criticise that literature in order to encourage it to actually meet the high goals he set for it. Some of these stories lose a lot of their impact unless you actually know what they are making fun of. Take, for instance, Null-O, which on the face of it seems to be a particularly artless anti-war story, which speculates that the driving force behind the Cold War arms race is a hidden fraternity of mutants born with a strange combination of paranoia and sociopathy, out to destroy all life (and ultimately all matter) in the universe to return it to a state of primal chaos.

The problem with this story is that "our leaders are all sociopaths!" is the sort of political complaint which is perhaps better for relieving stress on the part of the speaker than actually acting as the basis for any sort of insightful comment or meaningful contemplation of the root causes of war; it shows the same basic failure to understand the people discussed as human beings with sensible motives as statements like "the common rabble don't have the sophistication to understand why this geopolitical brinksmanship is necessary" or "people on welfare are useless eaters who should be forced to either get to work or starve". In other words, it shows a failure of empathy which Dick himself would probably be rather ashamed of if you could get him to acknowledge it; I'm not saying here that you should love or befriend leaders who make bad decisions who make the world a more dangerous place, just that dehumanising them isn't the way to go.

However, the story actually makes sense when you realise it's intended as a parody of A.E. van Vogt's World of Null-A and its sequels, which posit a world ruled by hyper-rationalist supermen - as I'll get into later, Dick took pleasure at this time in tilting at what he saw as the less appealing aspects of SF writing and the SF fandom, and certainly SF fans even today tend to put slightly too much hope in the idea of being lorded over by emotionless ultra-rationalists. (Arguably, a lot of transhumanist hopes when it comes to AI are a manifestation of this.) Still, what we're left with is a story which only really sparkles if you're aware of what Dick is making fun of - a bit like how old Drop the Dead Donkey episodes need to have a bit at the beginning explaining what news stories they were making fun of so that you don't miss half the jokes.

Null-O would not be the only time Dick tried to tackle SFnal elitism. According to Dick, John W. Campbell Jr., editor of Analog, was glad to accept stories featuring mutants with special powers beyond those of regular humans. In fact, he couldn't get enough of that type of story, but he had a few requirements: the mutants had to be clearly benign, and - being superior to ordinary people - needed to be in charge, ruling society in a sort of benign genetic dictatorship where they had everyone's best interests at heart. Dick found this creepy and fascistic, so he ended up writing stories where mutants and psychics tend to struggle with profound disabilities, or lack qualities or abilities us normals take for granted, or don't care about mainline human beings, or are creepy fascists themselves who intend to supplant ordinary humans entirely.

The Hood Maker, for instance, is set in a time period where the aftermath of a nuclear war has caused a brace of telepathic mutants to be born. The telepaths are bit by bit taking control of the centres of power and resistance to them is difficult because, of course, you can hardly hide your thoughts from them. The titular Hood Maker has stumbled across a method of shielding your thoughts by making a metal strip or "hood" you can wear around your forehead concealed under your hat; with a hood in place, random thoughts of yours aren't going to be picked up by passing telepaths, though if they do try and focus in on your thoughts their inability to do so will alert them to the fact that you are wearing a hood. At the climax of the story the Hood Maker himself deliberately allows a crucial secret to be plucked from his mind by one of the telepaths whilst many of the others are observing the situation remotely, ensuring that the truth will spread rapidly through the telepath community. Fallout 1 players will find the big reveal curiously familiar, both in its details and in its effects.

The point made with the story, if you are aware of the context it came out in, is fairly obvious: ascribing special importance to an elite, especially if this amounts to giving them control of a society, is a fucking idiotic idea, even - or indeed especially - if they have magic powers beyond the capabilities of normal people. The context has now been somewhat lost, though I'm sure the tendency Dick identified behind it hasn't died:
My theory as to why people took this view is this: I thInk these people secretly imagined they were themselves early manifestations of these kindly, wise, super-intelligent Übermenschen who would guide the stupid - i.e. the rest of us - to the Promised Land. A power phantasy was involved here, in my opinion. The idea of the psionic superman taking over was a role that appeared originally in Stapleton's ODD JOHN and A.E. van Vogt's SLAN. "We are persecuted now," the message ran, "and despised and rejected. But later on, boy oh boy, will we show them!"
I don't know about you, but I can't read that analysis without thinking of some of the people you find getting really excited about Transhumanist ideas in SF and real life - if you've seen a few exchanges about the Singularity and other such concepts online you probably know the sort I'm talking about, they tend to think that post-Singularity techno-libertarianism would be downright Utopian and hold out hope that they'll be able to dodge death with brain-uploading if they can only live long enough. Although fearmongering about technology in a blind, thoughtless way is one of the worst uses of SF - and yet a depressingly common one - I can't help but think that SF which panders to this sort of wish fulfillment on the part of its readers is at best a waste of the medium's potential and at worst. Escapism is one thing, but there's something kind of creepy about fiction tailored to reassure people that they are members of an elite and privileged class who one day - maybe even in the reader's own lifetime! - will end up Winning Everything.

Either way, whilst The Hood Maker stands up to this day, The Golden Man reads a little more dubiously, even though it is more finely and specifically targeted at the satirical point Dick wishes to make against the Yay Mutants party in SF. The story tells of a future in which as a consequence of nuclear war grotesque mutants of various sorts are spawned all around the world. Our protagonist, Baines, is an operative for the DCA, a government agency devoted to tracking them down and exterminating the mutants, who are feared because at least some use nasty psionic powers against other people - including a few who are a little reminiscent of the Dominators of The Iron Dream. The Golden Man himself is Cris, the strange mutant son of the Johnson family; mute but rather handsome, he'd seem mostly normal were it not for the golden hue to his skin, and the DCA's tests reveal that he has no higher brain function at all - incapable of philosophy or abstract reasoning, he is purely a creature of instinct. But then, Cris doesn't need intelligence - not when it turns out his precognition and his hypnotic abilities of seduction are more than enough to get what he wants anyway.

The Golden Man is spoiled by two things. Firstly and most offensively, there's a nasty left turn into misogyny in the end, in which a weak-willed woman who doesn't like killing mutants for the good of humanity has sex with Cris under hypnotic coercion, said act is not really identified as rape, and it is revealed that the danger of Cris is that he'll rape all our women and thereby outbreed humanity - ew. Secondly, the story looks rather fascistic in itself with its fear of mutants. This second point is somewhat alleviated if you consider the context it was penned in - it was supposed to be an antidote to SF stories where handsome mutants with psychic powers would necessarily also be super-geniuses that nerdy SF fans would sympathise with and who would rule the world benignly. Here, Cris is a good example of how evolution doesn't necessarily take us down the road we would personally consider more attractive, and I quite like the concept of precognition being more useful than intelligence and consequently supplanting it (much as the combination of intelligence and tool use has allowed us to opt out of the evolutionary pressures which creatures with less capacity for rapid adaptation to changing circumstances are subject to). However, both this and The Hood Maker seem to occupy an extreme of "mutants are bad, fight them!" for the sake of counterbalancing the extreme of "mutants are superior, obey them!", both of which end up being kind of creepy. Granted, the extreme tactics of the DCA are something I don't think we are meant to sympathise with - particularly considering Dick's mistrust of heavy-handed central government interference - but at the same time given that Cris is portrayed as the catalyst for humanity's destruction you end up feeling that they kind of have a point.

Probably the most even-handed of Dick's 1953 mutant stories is The Crawlers, in which citizens living near a radioactive test area end up giving birth to squid-babies. Finding them repugnant, they leave the squid-babies to their own devices, and the little tykes turn out to be quite good at surviving on their own, so eventually the government decides to ship them all off to an otherwise uninhabited island and forget about them. Some time later, the squid-babies have their own problem: the first generation of theirs to give birth are producing nasty monkey-like things, so deformed with their stiff little limbs and their dry skin and their lack of tentacles that the kindest thing is to just kill 'em as they are born rather than to allow them to suffer the agony of living in such a state. I think I like this story better than the others because it gets across the idea that deep down the mutants and the humans are the same - right down to their inability to acknowledge this fact.

A more general gripe with the state of the SF scene as of 1953 is found in The Trouble With Bubbles, which is essentially an appeal to his fellow writers to take their work more seriously. Dick envisions a society downright obsessed with a pastime called Worldcraft - which we are introduced to through the medium of a Worldcraft contest - a war of Worldcraft, if you will. Worldcraft involves purchasing one of the titular bubbles from the Worldcraft company - the bubbles in question containing a virtual universe, which the owner can sculpt and mould and shape as they wish. The aim of the game is to create life in your pocket universe - preferably intelligent life, preferably intelligent life with as technically advanced a culture as you can get.

Sounds fun, right? Unfortunately, the culture around Worldcraft has become more and more neurotic as time goes by. We join the story as the protagonist, Hull, helps his wife Julia extricate herself from a Worldcraft party which turns into an orgy of destruction (and then, it's implied, a plain old orgy) once the winner is announced - for once the game's up, it's become the done thing to smash your bubble and snuff out what life exists therein. Hull believes that this is down to humanity failing to discover any other habitable worlds or alien life - the lack of any new frontier to explore prompting the culture to turn inward, creating fertile ground for Worldcraft to grow in the first place, but since the Worldcraft bubbles are seen as only substitutes for real life they aren't taken seriously and, if anything, are mildly resented on a subconscious level. Hull, however, is convinced that people's attitude to the bubbles are too cavalier - that that on at least some level the life growing within them is real and that every time a bubble is smashed represents a cosmic genocide. After this the story plunges towards a deus ex machina which renders the Worldcraft issue moot plus a final twist which I am 99% sure you've guessed already, but the message seems clear enough: Dick's trying to argue that SF/fantasy worldbuilding has the potential to be a big artform of the future, but unless SF writers yoke their work to some higher purpose than simply footling about with imagined worlds for its own sake their work will never be seen as anything more than disposable by the audience or by the artists themselves.

Whilst Dick's more topical stories from this period are rather hit-and-miss, with some of them dating rather badly, he also produced a number of ruminations about more timeless philosophical ideas surrounding politics, ethics, the nature of humanity and theology. The Last of the Masters, for instance, is one of Dick's more interesting political stories precisely because it is divorced from current affairs, focusing instead on a contemplation of theoretical anarchism and specifically on an integral contradiction of anarchism: if you wanted an anarchist state to last on a long-term basis, you'd need to have some sort of body empowered to keep a watchful eye out for people establishing institutions which are either intended to act as governments or have the potential to develop into governments after some time passes and the consent of the governed shifts from a conscious opt-in to an implicit assumption. But once you have a special Government Police patrolling the world looking for governments to bust up, you then have a sort of government in its own right, and a rather authoritarian one at that - it only imposes and enforces one law, but it must necessarily be completely draconian about this enforcement because if it lets this point slide you get government returning to the scene..

The story tells of Edward Tolby, his daughter Silvia, and their colleague Robert Penn, a trio of anarchist enforcers who roll into a small town chasing up leads. As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that in the form of the sidearms they carry they're actually better-armed in terms of personal sidearms than the general populace, so their organisation is clearly operating a form of the "monopoly of force" deal which is a hallmark of most things you would describe as a government - and the ironite staff they carry certainly seems like a fairly stark symbol of authority to me. And they need it - not least because the government they are tracking down can actually call on some impressive military might, for it is in fact built around a surviving government android from before the anarchist takeover.

There's a genuinely interesting balance of dickishness between the anarchists in the story and the government they go up against. The government has bombs and war machines and honest-to-goodness WMDs; the anarchists are forcefully keeping humanity at a small village level of development. One may very easily question whether the anarchist revolution was followed by mass starvation due to the cessation of international aid and the dissolution of large-scale distribution networks. As a whole, the paradox that to prevent someone setting themselves up to use force on others you will often have to resort to force against them makes it fairly clear why Dick never embraced the sort of pacifistic anarchism some of his contemporaries espoused, but at the same time his distrust of big government (not to mention androids and other things which pretend to be one thing but actually aren't) means he's decidedly not on the side of the government in this story. Dick lays this out directly in notes for the story he wrote for a later anthology appearance: "Should we have a leader or should we think for ourselves? Obviously the latter, in principle. But - sometimes there lies a gulf between what is theoretically right and that which is practical." In other words, the story depicts a clash of extremes where Dick's own preferred position was somewhere in the middle. You can find niggles with it - for instance, there's supposedly a lawyer's office in town, but you can't have lawyers without laws and a judicial process and you can't really have that without government - but on the whole it's one of the best of Dick's political yarns.

In Human Is Dick tries to push a more small-scale lesson: namely, the good old Bill and Ted morality of "be excellent to each other". Lester Herrick is a man who it's almost impossible to like, and finds it impossible to like anyone in return - he's emotionally stunted to the point where he just doesn't care about anything which doesn't deal in cold hard facts, he's foul-tempered, and he treats his wife Jill and nephew Gus like they're enormous nuisances. After a business trip to Rexor IV, Lester returns a changed man - he's a kindly uncle to Gus, a considerate husband to Jill, and generally is much less absorbed in his work and more taken with simply enjoying being alive. Eventually, Jill's friend Frank - who works in the Federal Clearance agency, responsible for rooting out alien infiltrators - susses out that Les has been swiped by the Rexorians and replaced with this duplicate... this charming, warm, generous duplicate who, at the end of the day, goes free because Jill would much rather be married to a Rexorian illegal immigrant who behaves like a human being than an insufferable arsehole who is human only on a genetic level.

It's here that Dick clearly and unambiguously states a basic axiom of much of his later fiction - that being genuinely human requires a capacity to show empathy and kindness for others, and there are consequently people who are physically human but emotionally robots and things which aren't human on a physical level but qualify as such on an emotional, mental or spiritual level. Decades later, he would still hold to this concept: he declared as such in notes on the story penned in 1976 for an anthology appearance of it, and a large amount of the Exegesis and his post-1974 writing seems to involve a desperate attempt on Dick's part to convince himself that God and/or the Universe is capable of empathy, and is consequently on some level human and capable of doing right by humans. It's a somewhat more successful story than Breakfast at Twilight on several levels; the characters aren't the too-perfect sitcom family of Breakfast but show genuine-feeling quirks and motivations, the story is somewhat less overtly preachy, and moreover it's a bit more interesting in the context of the development of Dick's work and ideas as a whole.

As well as being a first draft of an answer to "What is human?", it's also something of a thematic sequel to Beyond Lies the Wub which takes the story a little further; whilst in both stories a nice alien supplants a horrible man, here Dick starts to consider how people might react to that after the initial shock and whether they have the capacity to accept this new person as being as human as the person they've supplanted. (Though interestingly, there's a failure of empathy on both the government's part and Jill's there: the government lacks empathy for the Rexorian, who might deserve it, and Jill is unable to summon empathy for the original Lester - who almost certainly doesn't deserve it, though he hardly deserves the cruel and unusual punishment her refusal to testify against the Rexorian condemns him to.)

Impostor is another take on the same theme - one which was eventually adapted into a movie ruined by an excess of padding (it was originally meant to a 30-to-40 minute segment of an anthology SF movie in the vein of Twilight Zone: the Movie but was then blown up to be a full movie) and by the director pulling their punches at the end. This time around the substitution is much crueller and less benevolent. Spence Olham, our protagonist, is a vital cog in Earth's war effort against Alpha Centauri, and his life is turned upside down when security chief Major Peters has him arrested under suspicion of being an alien android implanted with Spence's memories - and a bomb powerful enough to blow up the Earth, rigged to blow if Spence hears or sees the trigger phrase. Desperate to prove his innocence - or, if Peters is right, uncover the truth about himself - Spence leads Peters on a merry chase only ruin everyone's day when it turns out that the trigger phrase is "But if that's Olham, then I must be-"

This is, as well as one of Dick's earliest "false memory" stories is also by far the most personally pessimistic stories he had penned to this point. Global destruction and human extinction had been on the table in previous stories - in Second Variety in particular - but few Dick protagonists to this point had been as comprehensively screwed as Spence. Dick places Olham in a situation where to help out humanity - with whom his sympathies consistently lie throughout the story - Olham really should just allow his own government to murder him, whilst Spencer's quest to understand his origins and his place in the world turns out to reveal precisely the answers he doesn't want to hear, and as a side-effect destroys the Earth. Dick cites Impostor several times in the published Exegesis as an example of a gnostic theme in his fiction whereby a small stimulus (the trigger phrase) liberates a protagonist's true memories and identity, causing their false identity to be dissolved (Total Recall is actually a better cinematic adaptation of this theme than Impostor, but never mind...), but with the benefit of hindsight the theme of someone pursuing a philosophical enquiry into their own nature to the point of their destruction and to the detriment of those in their immediate circle is distressingly reminiscent of the immediate aftermath of 2-3-74, before Dick managed to restore some sort of equilibrium in his life.

The particularly fiendish accomplishment of the aliens here is to come up with the perfect motive for Spence to come face-to-face with the trigger phrase: seeking answers leads to death for all humanity, but at the same time Spence's natural human curiosity and desire to survive means it's unthinkable that Spence would pass up the chance to know. Explorers We, which was finally published in 1958 but which Dick's correspondence shows was penned in 1953, is an even cruller take on the idea: the protagonists are a party of astronauts returning to Earth after a deep space mission, only to be gunned down by the FBI as alien replicas. How do the Feds know they are replicas? Well, the aliens keep sending replicas of the same party of astronauts over and over again, and over and over again they are shocked and dismayed to be rejected by a humanity which doesn't want them.

Dick's spiritual interests also get an airing in this period. Adjustment Team is a light-hearted fantasy in which an office worker discovers that God is freezing parts of his Creation and tinkering with them section by section to bring them into accordance with His divine plan. It's played for laughs and on the whole is fairly lightweight by Dick's standards - when Hollywood turned it into The Adjustment Bureau (starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt), purists groused about the prominent romance plotline the scriptwriters added, but to be honest they'd have needed to add something to make up the running time either way and the story does get pretty saccharine towards the end, so the basic idea behind the additions suits the material even if the execution may be unsatisfactory. If you peel back the surface of the tale, though, it hints at theological ideas which would later obsess Dick; a crucial point of much of the Exegesis (particularly the portions underpinning VALIS) is the idea of a divine force continually refining and improving the universe section by section, which is precisely what you have here.

Prominent Author is another theological story masked with comedy; Henry Ellis, a lowly clerk, is assigned a "Jiffi-scuttler" - an experimental wormhole-based teleportation device - for the purposes of testing before his company bring it to the mass market. He likes being able to get from his home to the office simply by strolling down a short hyperspace tunnel, but what really grabs his attention are the tiny people he sees through a crack in the "wall" of the tunnel. They seem so small and helpless, and they seem to be looking to him for guidance. Then it turns out that they're not just any people, and the texts Ellis has passed to them through the crack have become the Ten Commandments. There's less in this story which seems to have become a significant part of Dick's theological musings in later life, except perhaps for the idea of supposedly "divine" beings turning out to be actually as confused and imperfect as we are, but each party sees the other differently due to the dimensional gap between them, which it seems would have been revisited in The Owl In Daylight had Dick survived to write it. More significantly for Dick biographers and critics is the fact that the story seems to take a very sceptical view of the very idea of divine revelation, which would be bourne out in his own ruthless interrogation of his own religious experiences as well as being a recurring theme of his fiction. Some divine revelations in Dick are best forgotten, as in Faith of Our Fathers or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, whilst others prove vital for survival, like in Ubik or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - and it's often the key task of the protagonist to discern what sort of intervention they are witnessing and how to respond to it. (Oh, and there's a plot point about how Moses and pals look tiny to Ellis because of the expansion of the universe since then - uh, that's not how it works, Dick.)

Lastly, we come to the final category of Dick's short fiction from this era: stories in which he's really weird about women. Like the "I don't like big government" thing, this is an aspect of his stories which is usually present in one form or another in most of his material, but sometimes it took centre stage. Strange Eden is perhaps the most direct manifestation yet of a figure who would haunt a lot of Dick's fiction - the dark-haired, unattainable but infinitely desirable woman, who the male protagonist yearns for but to pursue is to seek destruction. In this case, she's the scion of a race of highly advanced immortal aliens who may well be the gods of ancient myth; discovered by an intrepid astronaut conducting a little unauthorised scouting of a planet the starship he serves with is surveying, she captivates him to the point where he would do anything to be with her. She warns him that to be with her would be to give up his humanity - he would end up advancing through the future stages of human evolution by leaps and bounds, eventually arriving at a highly evolved state merely through the uplifting effects of her very presence. He agrees to this, and turns into a large cat, because that's what human beings will eventually turn into.

As far as Edens go, "strange" doesn't even begin to cover this one. Exegesis spotters may note the motif of ancient aliens acting as the gods and angels of myth, Dick biographers may note both the weird yearning for a woman who clearly says "stay away from me, I'm trouble" (not to least the recurrence of a fantasy figure who crops up in several other guises in Dick's fiction) and the irony of Dick writing a cautionary tale of bad things befalling someone who wants to get too close to divinity. It also qualifies as another of Dick's piss-takes of the way evolution was treated in a lot of SF at the time; being a great cat-lover, it's no surprise that Dick would jokingly propose that if humankind is really climbing a sort of evolutionary ladder towards higher and superior forms, the end result would be kitties. But it's the combination of all these factors, plus this weird fever dream atmosphere, which makes the story so much odder than the sum of its parts, to the point where I'm driven to wonder whether it wasn't inspired by a dream Dick had, or maybe one of his interactions with the AI Voice (which, remember, he claims to have heard since he was in high school).

Another story about a man who comes unstuck because of his infatuation with a creepy supernatural woman from this era is Upon the Dull Earth, perhaps the first of Dick's sideline in incredibly scary stories which mash up surreal SF/fantasy and horror. (This trend would include tales like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which it is something of a forerunner to, and Faith of Our Fathers.) Here, our protagonist Rick is in love with Sylvia, who reveals that she is a witch who can use blood to summon angels - the angels being terrifying inhuman forces from another dimension. A screw-up with a summoning leaves Sylvia trapped with the angels; the heartbroken Rick tries to summon her back but the process screws up when she is between life and death, and soon enough the world of the living begins to unravel entirely. The climactic sequence, in which the fragmented soul of Sylvia ends up possessing everyone Rick encounters before finally taking hold of Rick himself, qualifies as one of the most frightening sequences of Dick's early career despite - or in some respects because - of its mild cartoonishness and predictability.

Of course, you can't necessarily slot every story Dick wrote in 1953 into a neat category. A lot of his stories tended to play with several themes at once, and in particular the stories from this time he turned into full-length novels usually involve a more complex layering of his various preoccupations and obsessions.

Vulcan's Hammer


Vulcan's Hammer is, in terms of its premise, part of a long tradition of SF stories about people abdicating their decision-making to computers. In fact, it's a bit like Dick's take on the substantially later novel and movie Colossus: the Forbin Project, in that both stories involve a highly advanced computer built to be the ultimate Cold War intelligence analyst taking responsibility for all human policy-making, keeping in touch with humanity through a selected individual chosen to be the computer's primary point of contact, and creating an atmosphere of all-encompassing paranoia.

The major difference is that whilst the renegade computer (or, rather, computer network once it hooks up with its Soviet counterpart) in Colossus forcibly takes power in a coup d'etat, here the vastly powerful Vulcan 3 is given ultimate authority willingly by the surviving nations of the world after an impossibly costly nuclear war. The recurring theme - most timely during the Cold War, kind of relevant now in respect to the era of bailouts of businesses which are "too big to fail" - is that on the one hand abdicating our responsibility for making our own decisions to an exterior power (represented by the computer here but this just as easily applies to God or an organisation or a chain of command) ultimately infantilises us and makes us dependent, at the same time there are some issues like the use of nuclear weapons where the consequences of a bad decision are so incredibly extreme that you really can't afford to take a free vote on it or to leave it to bickering factions and nations and power blocs to sort out for themselves. If you have to step in and suspend democracy to prevent global human extinction, don't you have an ethical responsibility to do so?

Well, sure you do - just as others have an ethical responsibility to do what it takes to overthrow whatever dictatorship you set up. As of the start of the book the Unity organisation - the world government which reports directly to Vulcan 3 - is shaken by the rising of a radical protest movement known as the Healers, the most prominent leader of whom being Father Fields. Demanding the destruction of Vulcan 3 and the end of the Unity system, their grievances are just - Fields himself only narrowly escaped radical brain surgery and mind control procedures in Unity's nasty re-education centre in Atlanta - but their methods are alarming, particularly when it comes to their tendency towards mass violence. The novel opens with Unity bureaucrat Arthur Pitt being torn to bits by an angry mob led by Fields, an incident which prompts the main viewpoint character, William Barris, into action. Barris wants to know why Vulcan 3 hasn't acknowledged the existence of the Healers despite the prominence of the movement and the fact that it's been going on for well over a year now. As it turns out, the reason is simple: Managing Director Jason Dill, the one man empowered to interact directly with Vulcan 3, hasn't told the machine - because Vulcan 2, its predecessor, has warned him that if Vulcan 3 becomes aware of a widespread human movement dedicated to its destruction the action, catastrophe will ensue...

For its first two thirds or so Vulcan's Hammer is pretty good stuff. After butting heads with Don Wollheim at Ace over the Dr. Futurity expansion, Dick decided not to add that much in the way of new tangents to this story (expanded from around 20,000 words to 40,000 words), and it kind of shows, since it does slot neatly into the somewhat preachy tone his short stories took in this period. The expansion work was done in 1960, when Dick was still trying to leave SF behind and go into mainstream writing, but there's little sign of him bringing any techniques he'd been developing during that period into play here. Indeed, if I wasn't aware of the expansion work I could believe the entire text was churned out in 1953, since Dick seems to be reverting to an earlier, simpler style of writing than the sort he was playing with by the end of the decade.

There's the same didactic intent, the same conviction that nuclear war is coming any day now, and a bunch of themes that all resonate with the ideas he was playing with in 1953. For instance, the Healers are another manifestation of Dick's idea of a mildly Luddite new religious movement emerging to counteract the technological war machine, something he more or less directly calls for in The Skull but seems more sceptical of in Voices From the Street. Here, the Healers are depicted as being somewhat more sympathetic than the Unity organisation, concerned as they are for individual freedom and being broadly correct in their assertion that humanity is stunting itself by surrendering its policy-making to machines, but at the same time they're also a flawed and compromised organisation; as it turns out, their strings are being pulled just as Unity's is, and they also have a disturbing tendency towards mob violence, exemplified by the murder of Arthur Pitt at the start of the book.

What Dick seems to be specifically urging here is some sort of accommodation between the working class and the technocratic and bureaucratic sorts who he saw as gaining an increasingly excessive control over society - and in particular, an end to stigma against people who work with their hands and a society where craftsmen are given as much respect as scientists and statisticians are. The Healer-Unity conflict looks like a class war until it becomes apparent that both sides are being manipulated by hidden forces, and ultimately progress can only be made by members of both factions acting in the common interest of humanity. All noble-sounding stuff, though arguably a bit simplistic when applied to situations more complex than "a renegade AI wants to kill us all".

Another strand the novel picks on is Dick's depiction of hyper-paranoid organisations. The mutual suspicion and backstabbing of the upper executives of Unity calls to mind the similar games played by the government officials in The Variable Man; in both cases seems the cause seems to be a mixture of nasty, fascistic sorts thriving within a corrupt system which rewards them for their bad habits on the one hand, and genuinely good people who become paranoid and neurotic due to the unhealthy atmosphere created by a corrupt system. In The Variable Man the system's sickness arose from the total war footing it is on and the implicit assumption that there is no alternative to war; here, the system is based around the axiom that preventing war is an end which justifies any and all means (the same malfunction that the dystopia of Souvenir falls into), and also that human beings can't be trusted to stick to that principle. Consequently the officials of Unity have a dismissive attitude towards the common rabble (which the lynch mobs of the Healers don't exactly do much to dissuade). On top of that, whilst all of them are meant to be pulling in the same direction by following the policies set by Vulcan 3, the principle of human fallibility means they don't really trust each other to do it properly - or, indeed, at all. Since they don't expect to ever be in a position to make policy, whilst under other systems they might expend their energy chasing after political agendas and trying to get their favoured ideas implemented, under Unity there is no ambition available to them beyond pure personal advancement, which they chase after viciously.

The efforts of Barris to pierce through Dill's defences and find out just what Vulcan 3 thinks about the Healers - with the Healers themselves acting as wild cards in this conflict - are probably the best part of the novel. The bit where Vulcan 3 reveals that it's inferred that someone is keeping information from it, and so has used the automated systems under its control intended for use in self-repair to create extensions it can use to make direct observations and weapons it can use to eliminate its enemies is a decent reveal. Unfortunately, the core plot of the book unravels at this point since the actual resolution of the conflict is nonsensical, partly as a result of Dick not thinking through the consequences of his own ideas and partly for reasons which indicate that he just didn't give much of a damn about this story.

Let's talk about Dick not thinking through his ideas first: the novel is very obviously written in 1953 and the understanding of computers shown there is more or less in keeping with what a reasonable widely-read layman might be able to show. Consequently, there's a bunch of really glaring anachronisms, an especially plot-relevant one being that data entry forms have to be fed into the Vulcan computers by hand at a central location.

This would have a sort of retro charm to it if there were no sign of any sort of networking at all in the novel. However, the novel is mildly inconsistent on this point. The actual "hammers" of the title - as well as the large bombers that are their successors - are clearly and obviously meant to be networked with Vulcan 3. They aren't independent spy-bots who flit about and then report back; there's a part where Vulcan 3 uses one to speak directly to the Unity directors. Dick runs with the idea of Vulcan 3 being able to build these extensions of itself, but doesn't make the intuitive leap of having the computer build itself a backup brain networked to it at a remote location in case its main base is attacked, and you'd think that would be one of the first things it did once it realised that there was a widespread conspiracy against it and the Unity directors weren't necessarily innocent. But then, of course, Vulcan 3 couldn't be taken down by a direct assault on its base, so the ending wouldn't work.

I appreciate that this is a tremendously dorky objection to the ending, and an objection which probably only applies because of hindsight. It is, however, still jarring to be constantly thinking "why doesn't it network itself?" whilst reading the concluding factors of the book. Another technical quibble whose presence suggests rather more than a mere failure of Dick's powers of precognition is the means by which Vulcan 3 is killed: a nuclear hand grenade.

Yes, at the climax of the book Vulcan 3 is taken out by a hand-thrown nuclear weapon thrown by Barris, who survives. This is a spectacularly silly method of sabotage and represents a curiously flippant use of nuclear weapons on Dick's part, which sits oddly in the context of much of his work up to that point. You would think that Dick, considering his absolute horror of nuclear weapons, would be the last suggestion that they are essentially really big bombs which you can just lob about without consequences. It also renders the message of the novel incoherent; the Healers and the Unity members who break ranks are able to demonstrate that human beings can be trusted not to toss around nuclear weapons by, er, tossing around nuclear weapons. What?

The thing is, the novel is an expansion completed at a point when Dick was deep in his "I'm writing mainstream novels now, really" phase and was only doing the occasional bit of SF so he could eat, and was expanded from a short story from a period where he was cranking them out as fast as he could in order to earn some quick money. In producing the short story, Dick's aim was to show up, make a quick point, and then wrap up, characterisation completely optional. (Dick once said that the difference between a short story and a novel is that "a short story may deal with murder; a novel deals with the murderer"). In producing the novel, he still hadn't really convinced himself he could accomplish his artistic aims via SF novels and tended to see them as regrettable necessities on the path to becoming a serious author.

Consequently, when the story was orignally written Dick didn't really bother with much in the way of making the characters interesting and distinguishable, and when he did the expansion he doesn't seem to have put a high enough value on SF to do the sort of job we know he was capable of by 1960. Hence Dick deciding that a nuclear hand grenade was a sensible way to end the story; hence also the almost complete lack of any depth to the characters. Barris and Dill, our main viewpoint characters, are practically indistinguishable bar for their name and rank. Agnes Parker, a schoolteacher who is the only female viewpoint character, is depicted as being a shallow sort interested mainly in protecting her job and swapping contraband literature with her colleagues. Rachel Pitt, Arthur Pitt's widow and the only other woman of any significance to the story, is an early example of the emotionally inaccessible dark-haired women that Dick would insert in his stories with a troubling regularity; the first time we encounter her, she's on sedatives which suppress her emotional response enough to make her conversation with Barris really weird and uncomfortable and the second time we meet her she's undergone horrifying treatment at Atlanta which apparently included brain surgery, a convenient excuse for Dick to keep her creepily unemotive.

Beyond this oddness, Vulcan's Hammer isn't really a text that lends itself very well to particularly deep consideration. It's cheap trash which is aware that it is cheap trash but isn't willing to be loud and proud about it, the end result being a story where the story builds up to a climactic action sequence with all the sparkle and verve of a dry turd. For his part, Dick considered it one of his two worst novels, and whilst authors aren't always the best judges of their work I think he is on the money there, at least as far as work published in his lifetime goes.

Doctor Futurity (AKA Time Pawn)


The story Dr. Futurity was expanded from - Time Pawn - was penned some time after Vulcan's Hammer, though the expansion work to turn it into a novel occurred before the Hammer expansion. Whilst Dick would be very true to the original story in his expansion of Hammer, this was because Don Wollheim and he ended up upset at each over over the Dr. Futurity expansion, since Dick had added a substantial amount of plot to the end of the book and sprinkled on a bunch more setting details besides. That said, as far as I can tell the new plot and setting details arise fairly naturally from the premises of the original story; certainly, it doesn't feel like 1959-vintage Dick, but as with the other expansion it feels like the new material was a throwback to Dick's early-1950s writing style.

The story focuses on Jim Parsons, a 21st Century doctor who is mysteriously transported forward in time to a future society where global racial intermingling has resulted in ethnic homogeneity and a monoculture drawing heavily on Native American tradition (weeeeeell, not quite - but I'll get into that later). To conserve Earth's limited resources the size of the human population is kept absolutely constant; men are sterilised when they hit puberty and a massive centralised IVF system (the Soul Cube) is utilised, such that whenever someone dies a new zygote is taken from the Cube. This feeds into a fatalistic attitude towards death; unless despairing, people don't deliberately seek it out, but when it comes they don't resist since they know that their death will allow somebody else to live and on a spiritual level they believe their soul will be reincarnated as that person.

This has a number of consequences for society. On a logistical level, society has stagnated and in particular the colonisation of space - an absolute necessity, as a jaunt by Parsons to the distant future proves - has stalled because there's no extra population to send to the stars. On a cultural level, the practice of medicine is a taboo because it's seen as tampering with the cycle of life; after all, if you save someone's life you're birthblocking someone else.

Of course, some people don't accept this, particularly when they have a relative they are strongly attached to. Such is the case with Loris, the public face of the Wolf tribe, and Corith - a man she somehow knows to be her father, despite reproduction in the usual manner being absolutely forbidden. Loris, her mother and her grandmother - the secret matriarchs of the Wolves - have conspired to bring Parsons into this future to provide the medical expertise needed to save Corith. What Parsons doesn't realise is how stubborn Corith's death will prove to be. And how, in the far future, did Corith come to be killed by a flint arrow to the heart?

On a broad-brushstrokes level this is essentially a rerun of The Variable Man: a person from the general proximity of our present day (in terms of the time scale played with by the story at least) is snatched away unexpectedly to a future with mildly totalitarian overtones, in which they find a society which has no use for their sort and which ends up beginning to change as a result of their intervention. The mechanics of time travel itself are actually reasonably similar between the two tales. There are major differences between the stories as well, of course - Parsons is more active in trying to work out what is going on here and is generally more adventurous as a protagonist than Thomas Cole was in The Variable Man, and of course Parsons was brought to this future on purpose. However, the differences aren't enough to disguise the fact that this is essentially a second stab at a very similar formula, and by my reckoning a decidedly inferior one.

Let's discuss race first. The treatment of race in the novel is, like in James P. Crow or The Turning Wheel or most of Dick's others stories about race up to this point, more or less exactly what you expect from a white guy in the 1950s who is making a good faith attempt to do the right thing but doesn't quite have enough of a clue to not completely mishandle the issue. As a matter of fact, some of the plot details like the depiction of an interracial relationship between Parsons and Loris, the more widespread depiction of a highly mixed race population creating a high-tech society, and the extinction of Christianity over a timeline running thousands of years all made Don Wollheim of Ace really, really upset with the expanded version of the book, since (at least by Dick's account) he was hostile to more or less all of those concepts. On the other hand, it is more than possible to produce something that will piss off an old-school racist but is still massively problematic for different reasons.

Setting aside the whole "race mixing ultimately leads to a homogeneous society" deal, which reminds me uncomfortably of the greyed-out dystopia in LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven, by far the biggest issue here is the plot concerning Corith's actual agenda. As it turns out, his injury occurred because he went back in time to try and assassinate Sir Francis Drake on his visit to what would eventually be California, as the opening shot in a campaign to nip European colonisation of North America in the bud and set up a Native American superpower which would keep Europe in its box and lead to a far more humane history of the next few millennia.

Despite Dick evidencing a fervent belief that the colonisation of North America constituted horrible, horrible genocide, there's still a wealth of problems with this idea. First off, whilst I can see why Drake's visit to California would interest Dick as a bit of local history, I can't really see it as being that much more significant to the colonisation process than, say, those expeditions which led to the establishment of actual colonies rather than Drake wandering onto the beach, claiming dibs on the west coast, and sailing off again. In particular, Corith's plan seems to assume that if you scare away the colonies from North America then the Europeans will be stuck on their side of the Atlantic, which rather ignores a whole continent-sized orgy of genocide occurring right as Drake is doing his thing courtesy of the conquistadors. Corith's plan, as explained, doesn't really make any allowance for how he's going to deal with that (dude, just give Montezuma nukes, problem solved), which gives me the distinct impression that Dick straight-up failed to consider that angle altogether. It's the sort of howling blunder which happens when a US-centric worldview, a simplistic understanding of history, an assumption (conscious or otherwise) that Central and South America don't really matter in the grand scheme of things and a simple failure to think shit through all come together in one big failure bomb.

That isn't the only problem with Corith and the Wolf tribe's motivations. The reason Corith is doing this in the first place is that the Wolf tribe claim to be purebred Native Americans (maintaining this through their bypass of the Soul Cube system), and consequently they feel really strongly about the indignities their ancestors suffered under colonialism and the era of white supremacy, so they want to stop that happening. Let's leave aside for now the fact that such a strong identification with a particular ethnicity completely flies in the face of the way the Soul Cube system is meant to work and would require manipulation of the system extending far beyond the manipulations the Wolf tribe are already shown as undertaking. The concern I have here is this: are they actually going to care that much?

Think about it: Corith, along with everyone else in the Wolf tribe, has never met a white person. Nor has anyone within living memory. That shit went down centuries, millennia ago. Yes, people do bear grudges for an unholy long time for things people's ancestors did to each other, but that usually spills over into real anger only when there's still ongoing and identifiable consequences of that persisting today. Historical antisemitism is relevant because of real antisemitism today. The Israel-Palestine conflict, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and so on can all be linked to historical nastiness but they are/were driven by modern-day inhumanity. The USA's heritage of slavery and Britain's track record in Africa and the Caribbean wouldn't be half the emotive topics they are today if black people weren't still disadvantaged by a racist system in the US and UK.

Look, I can't speak for how Native Americans, I don't remotely have any standing to do so. But it doesn't seem to me that Dick really sells the reader on why Corith would feel so strongly about this stuff. Corith grew up in privilege in a society where people who look like him are in charge and his own tribe is one of the most powerful, in a culture which post-dates whitey to such an extent that you can't even feel the aftershocks of white atrocities in the dim and distant past. For him to be so monomaniacally devoted to exterminating something he's never encountered and only read about in books seems bizarre; it would be like me mailing letterbombs to Rome to avenge atrocities against the Britons by the Roman Empire. (Well, OK, Corith had a time machine he could use to observe this stuff, but when you can make the bad things go away by hitting the return button on your time ship you're probably going to be a bit less invested in them, right?)

Moreover, it makes it seem as though Dick can't think up anything for brown people to do with their high tech civilisation of the future beyond perpetuating grudges against white people, to the point where they have to go back in time to find white folks to fight because the Caucasian package has dissolved entirely into the melting pot by this point. The implication of "You people will just never be satisfied, will you?" is, though probably unintended, still obnoxiously prominent. Of course, Dick's SF is of the sort which uses SFnal tropes to talk about the present, but the premises of the story don't support a discussion about 1950s conflicts about race because the society it posits has an entirely different set of dysfunctions which don't support that sort of conflict.

Oh, and apparently the solution to the conflict is for Loris to sleep with Parsons and have mixed-race babies, which causes her to mellow out and lead the tribe away from racism. Ew, really Phil?

As well as having a plot which only white people from the 1950s (or, say, Reddit) could mistake for being credibly anti-racist, and which doesn't even make sense considering the facts we are given, Dr. Futurity's cast makes the characters of Vulcan's Hammer seem vivid and memorable. Parsons, the character we spend the most time with, shows few personality traits except for things which make me instinctively despise him. He's happy to punch Loris square in the face when she gets in the way of him trying to do some time nonsense, and is equally happy to arrange to leave his wife back in the 21st Century for an older Loris once sixteen years or so have passed and the age difference isn't squicking either of them. (Spare a thought for poor Mrs Futurity: she never actually appears in the novel and seems to exist only so that Parsons can briefly hesitate before boinking Loris, boink Loris anyway, and then go back home to a marriage which, unbeknownst to Mrs Futurity, now has a clear expiry date set.)

Not only does Dick fail to sell me on the idea of Parsons being willing to go through with such a facade, but he fails to convincingly sell me on the idea that Mrs Futurity is a real person; we learn literally nothing about her and Parsons never gives her the slightest bit of thought beyond remembering that she exists. Consequently, Parsons choosing to bed Loris doesn't have nearly the dramatic impact it ought to have given what we know about them because we don't feel he's choosing one human being over another, it's more like he's choosing a human being over a drawing of a stick figure labelled "wife".

Once again, Dick's assessment of his own work proves correct here. Dr. Futurity is an impossibly shitty novel which should have been euthanised when it was still a short story.

The Cosmic Puppets (AKA A Glass of Darkness)


It isn't really accurate to call The Cosmic Puppets an expansion of the novella A Glass of Darkness, because it's actually shorter than the original by some 740 words. So far as I can tell, it would be more accurate to call it a refinement, tightening up the pacing here and there and reordering some scenes in order to make the story flow better. On the whole, it doesn't seem as though the original version needed much polishing to make it ready for prime time; certainly, the end result is so much meatier and more interesting than Vulcan's Hammer and Dr. Futurity that the original must have been pretty good in its own right.

The novel follows Ted Barton, who is on a road trip with his wife Peg when he realises they're very near Millgate, the little town he lived in before his family moved out when he was 9. Ted has fond memories of the old town - to the point where Peg is sick of hearing about it - so he decides to swing by so he can show Peg the town and bask in nostalgia. The plan is rather sabotaged when, on arriving in Millgate, Ted discovers that none of the streets have the right names, and none of the shops are as he remembers them, and landmarks like the old park with its antique cannon are completely missing. What makes Ted determined to stick around and investigate isn't this, however - it's a story he digs up in the newspaper the archives from the year his family moved away from town, reporting that nine-year-old local boy "Ted Barton" had died of scarlet fever.

Meanwhile, young Peter Trilling and his rival Mary Meade are fighting an occult war in the shadows with golems, bugs, animals and ghosts as their troops. Maybe they know something about what's going on in the town. At the very least they or those close to them might offer an explanation as to the identities of the spectral figures who stroll around town walking through walls and the like - or, for that matter, the giant whose head is the Sun who faces off against the giant whose head is cosmic darkness in the sky above the town...

Although it is mentioned once in the published version of the Exegesis when he's looking at past works of his that deal with ideas that seem relevant to 2-3-74, Dick doesn't seem to have given this one as much thought as some of his other novels in his considerations of his 2-3-74 experiences - at least, not in the most expansive version of the Exegesis that is available to us currently. This is surprising, because the cosmology which is revealed over the course of this fantasy is in its essential features identical to the most prominent of the cosmologies Dick proposed to make sense of his mystical experiences. Let's see, you have...

  • ...two divine entities who are counterparts of each other.
  • ...a projected reality which is arises from the two deities' interactions.
  • ...a false history associated with this projected reality.
  • ...a man who by a cosmic twist of fate is able to see through the false reality and fake timeline to perceive the true reality underneath.
  • ...an ongoing process whereby the corrupted reality is bit by bit converted into the true reality.
  • ...a female Messiah figure associated with the benign divinity.
  • ...divine entities hiding from human perception by pretending to be the landscape.

More or less all of these points end up arising again (with radically scaled-back anthropomorphism) in VALIS, but whereas Dick's 2-3-74 speculations consist of him juggling ideas about what he believes to be a genuine theological incident, here he's doing a thought experiment: what if the premises of Zoroastrianism are more or less true, but the battle between good and evil divinities became so intense that it ended up becoming concentrated in a single town? Oh, Dick doesn't mention Zoroastrianism by name, and some of the concepts he utilises don't seem to have been especially deeply researched - the impression given is that he read a not especially detailed encyclopedia article about the religion and thought it would be good material for a story - but the fact that he actually uses the terms "Ormazd" and "Ahriman" for the good and evil gods respectively is a honking great hint. That said, his Christian sensibilities do work their way in, in particular when it comes to the discussion of the Messiah figure Armaiti, who declares herself the daughter of Ormazd.

The novel is, as a consequence, mildly appropriative towards Zoroastrianism. Dick does end up creating something which, between its Messianic Armaiti and amnesiac Ormazd and Ahriman, ends up as something which theologically resembles Zoroastrianism only in its basic premises of its backstory and in the terms used; even so, whilst the use of the names in question does highlight the dualist cosmology developed and flag where Dick got the idea from, equally if Dick hadn't used the names the novel would feel much less appropriative and would make it clear that whilst the novel is based on a dualistic premise, it isn't the specific dualism of any particular variant of Zoroastrianism.

Another disconcerting aspect of the novel is its treatment of Peg, Ted's wife. She makes only two brief appearances in the story, and both times it's clear that she doesn't really care for or support what Ted's trying to achieve in his visit to the town. At the end of the book, Ted leaves her because after encountering Armaiti in her divine form he doesn't really want to settle for a spouse who is mortal and thinks he's an idiot. Dick, of course, had been divorced once already, but this plays into other trends that had been developing in Dick's fiction which I believe point to the dysfunctional way in which Dick would relate to women for much of the rest of his life. As in Strange Eden, you have the unattainable, godlike "dark-haired girl" who would haunt so much of Dick's fiction in the form of Armaiti; as in Voices From the Street, you have a wife who is far too petty and narrow-minded and stunted in her interests to really appreciate the higher philosophical or intellectual aspirations of the protagonist. Ted's abandonment of human women in the pursuit of an impossible ideal of womanhood does rather seem to capture a pattern which would repeat itself in Dick's own life more than once after this story was penned. (There is an extra ick factor here in that Armaiti had, before this point, been masquerading as the underage Mary Meade; granted, it isn't Mary that Barton becomes infatuated with, but still.)

Despite all this I can't help but have a lot of love for The Cosmic Puppets. It seems to me to be a refinement and culmination of his fantasy material to this point; you have the divine reality-tampering of Adjustment Bureau, the bug conspiracies of Expendable, the well-observed child characters of Project: Earth, and so on. In addition, in his depiction of both versions of the town Dick draws on the skills he'd honed in his mainstream writing to evoke a picture of a believable community. (In Will Christopher, the owner of Will's Sales and Service transformed into an alcoholic dropout by the metamorphosis of the town, we even get another iteration of Dick's "benign, mentorly radio/television shop owner" motif.) Although the characterisation of individual characters isn't very deep, I find that even after multiple rereadings the little world of Millgate - both versions - still feels like a rich, vibrant place with a real life to it rather than a backdrop for a story. Dick shows a particular genius here for touching on one of the oddities of the town just briefly enough to get your imagination racing and contemplating how that changes things here without unpacking it so much that it seems prosaic or like a prop added to the setting for the sake of the story.

On top of all that, the pacing of the story and Dick's clear, unfussy prose pretty much never fail to get me turning the pages at a rapid pace. Even though I know full well how the mystery turns out, some parts still retain a genuine ability to shock and surprise and overall the novel leaves me broadly satisfied, although perhaps slightly more conflicted about how I feel about Ted than Dick might have intended. This is easily Dick's first really top-class novel, as well as an often-overlooked insight into the trajectory the rest of his writing and, to a certain extent, the rest of his life as a whole would take.

Dick Gets Ripe


In 1954 Dick would begin to shift the emphasis from mainly writing short stories to mainly working on novels. According to his biographers, the catalyst for this was an encounter between Dick and A.E. van Vogt at an SF convention, in which van Vogt explained to Dick how he'd actually earn much more money if he could produce SF novels than if he relied mainly on sales to the magazines. The story goes that Dick, still not earning very much despite getting an epic amount of material accepted by the magazines in the past two years (and also being an enthusiastic fan of van Vogt's work) took this advice to heart, and went off to write Solar Lottery, the first of his SF novels to be constructed as a novel from the beginning rather than being an expanded short story.

I see no reason to believe that this story isn't true, but I also think that the shift in Dick's output would have happened comparatively soon even if the meeting had never taken place. Reading Dick's stories from 1953, I get the impression that by the end of the year he was just about ready to get back into writing novels. Whilst short stories from late in the year like Foster, You're Dead are very, very good and he had clearly been honing his skills over the course of the year, at the same time he was beginning to hit the limits of the format. Whilst short stories are good for providing a quick reaction to current events, Dick still seemed interested in developing his more intricate philosophical ideas to an extent which the limited space available in a short story doesn't quite allow for. A lot of the time, the stories from this year err towards being simplistic, perhaps because Dick simply couldn't work in the nuances he might have wanted in the word count available to him. Whilst the various Ace expansions from this period tend to be dross, The Cosmic Puppets is brilliant precisely because Dick is able to stretch out a little and make use of the broader canvas offered by the novel.
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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2014-03-05
I forgot about this for like, ever, but it's too good an observation to pass up.

Corith grew up in privilege in a society where people who look like him are in charge and his own tribe is one of the most powerful, in a culture which post-dates whitey to such an extent that you can't even feel the aftershocks of white atrocities in the dim and distant past. For him to be so monomaniacally devoted to exterminating something he's never encountered and only read about in books seems bizarre; it would be like me mailing letterbombs to Rome to avenge atrocities against the Britons by the Roman Empire.

Clearly, Corith is the 31st Century Robert E. Howard.
Whatever you think about Dick's issues with women, whoever came up with that cover for The Cosmic Puppets wasn't helping.
Orion at 17:52 on 2014-12-07
Why does Dick refer to science fiction as "stf" in his self-profile?
Arthur B at 18:35 on 2014-12-07
"Stf" was an abbreviation of Hugo Gernsback's "scientifiction", itself an awkward contraction of the awkward-sounding "scientific fiction". Dick is referring to it there because it was the in-vogue term back when he started reading SF and he's indulging his nostalgia for the genre as it existed when he was 12, essentially.
Orion at 18:53 on 2014-12-07
For a brief moment you had me convinced PKD had written a story called "Human is Dick."
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