My exposure to Dick’s work has been limited – The Penultimate Truth, which I didn’t care much for when I was young (and haven’t reread), and A Scanner Darkly, which I heartily disliked quite recently. But I’m nothing if not optimistic, so I thought I’d try again with this collection. I’m glad I did.
Most of these stories are quite good. The bulk of the narratives is competent, but not outstanding – there’s nothing really special in how he handles character here. The premises (often involving war) are interesting, but not truly innovative. What is unusual is the strength of the endings. Perhaps I’m sensitive to this from just finishing a Tad Williams collection, where the endings were almost uniformly weak. But Dick here shows a real knack for strong, satisfying conclusions, even in this very early work. This is what makes the stories worth reading.
- Beyond Lies the Wub – how alien livestock feels about its role. A gimmick story, but decently done.
- The Skull – a convict is offered freedom for one more misdeed. A stock setup, and one that Dick acknowledges. Even though the conclusion is visible from the early stages of the story, Dick manages to imbue it with a certain amount of interest.
- The Gun – interstellar explorers find a mostly desolate planet. This was the first story that made me sit up and say “Hey, maybe there is something to this Dick guy after all.
- The Crystal Crypt – Terrans take a desperate step in a looming battle with Mars. Another gimmick story. Interesting, but not very strong.
- Second Variety – in global war, one side is winning thanks to its robots. Again, the ending is visible a long way off, but Dick holds our interest, and makes the ending work despite the predictability.
- The Variable Man – as a decisive moment approaches in a pending war with aliens, a wild card is introduced. Not very credible, and again quite predictable, but engaging despite that, and with another nice ending.
- The Eyes Have It – a small joke about metaphors. Amusing.
- Mr. Spaceship – to win a war, humans introduce a spaceship controlled by a human brain. One of the weakest in the set. Highly predictable, implausible, and a rare case where Dick does nothing to improve the story as it winds down.
- Piper in the Woods – staff of a key asteroid develop unlikely symptoms. Another weak and predictable gimmick story. It’s moderately interesting, but doesn’t lead to much.
- Tony and the Beetles – a shift in the tides of war causes young Tony to reassess the human position. Dick makes an effort to show Tony waking up to another view of human domination of another race, but there’s remarkably little in the story that’s not obvious from the first few paragraphs.
- Beyond the Door – the underground population suspects their robot soldiers aren’t telling them the whole truth. Unlike many of the other stories here, this one is weakest at its end, which is almost entirely implausible. An interesting idea, well started, but Dick drops the ball in the resolution.
My feeling with several of these stories was that Dick succeeded with them despite himself. That is, that as a new writer, he relied heavily on cliches and stock situations, but that a little innovation and a genuine delicacy with endings save them from being trite. That same skill applied to newer ideas could be formidable, and I’ll be trying more of his work.
This edition provides an unedifying and unnecessary introduction. Mostly, it provides a summary of each story, which is the last thing I want to see before actually reading the stories. I felt the same about the two sentence setup that introduces each one, because they give away more of the premise than necessary. Otherwise, however, this is a fairly good selection, and a good introduction to Dick’s work.