I must say, I ‘m having real fun with my forays into classic Science Fiction. In fact, I was even more excited about this short story collection than I was about ‘Embassytown’, my first Science Fiction novel in years (reviewed on the blog last year, you can read my thoughts here). ‘Embassytown’ showed me that such books could be less intimidating than I’d suspected, but something told me these short stories were going to surpass my fearful re-introduction to the genre.
I had high hopes for this book because the short story form just seems so perfect for Science Fiction – long enough to explain the set up, but not so long that holes start emerging. Also, if anyone can get me into the genre it has got to be Philip K Dick, the man behind ‘Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep’, which is one the books that first got me thinking ‘Hey, I can read Sci Fi too!’ (It was also one of the prompt for my books vs. films post because it is probably most famous as the source for Ridley Scott’s beautiful 1982 film, ‘Blade Runner’). Finally, I had the geeky pleasure of knowing that the stories collected were originally published in magazines such as ‘Amazing Stories’ and ‘Beyond Fiction.’ Such magazines play important roles in some of my favourite Margaret Atwood novels. By reading them, I could imagine myself to be Elaine in ‘Cats Eye’ or Iris in ‘The Blind Assassin’. In fact, maybe these stories would prove to be not out of my comfort zone at all.
Although the tales collected here clearly fit within the Sci Fi canon, the book is an example of genre labelling being as problematic as it is helpful. This is mostly because I believe that anyone who likes short stories and appreciates a darkly comic view of human nature will enjoy this book. It is not a case of style or characters serving second place to ideas; as with all good stories, the premise is believable because the characters work and the characters work because they perfectly inhabit the fictional world. In ‘Small Town’ the everyman protagonist who builds an entire new world for himself in his basement is a convincing enough mediocrity for his increasingly unsettling obsessive behaviour to genuinely ring true – to the extent that the fantastical denouement is eerily satisfying rather than silly or melodramatic. In the penultimate story ‘Foster, You’re Dead’ the anti-capitalist polemic which runs through the narrative is given depth by a young boy’s distressingly convincing terror when his father refuses to buy ‘protection’ for his family. While the stories are about ideas, and very interesting ideas at that, they are also about emotions and the basic questions of what it is to be human. They made me think, but, more importantly, they also engaged me emotionally and made me care for fictional characters in a way which surpassed my expectation.
One final reason to enjoy this collection is the authentic period flavour. Philip K Dick was prolific by necessity as well as by vocation, and all of the eleven stories in this collection were published in pulp magazines between 1954 and 1955. They are written to appeal to a specific audience, so main characters are office workers and shop keepers, when scientists appear, it is frequently their home lives that receive the attention. This went against all my preconceptions of the genre and introduced me to another thrill of classic Science Fiction. I’m someone who loves to learn about different times and places through literature; what better way to discover 1950s America than through the dreams, fears and aspirations of characters in such short stories? Judging by this collection, I’m on to a winner, and, knowing what I do about Philip K’s Dick’s output, I can only hope for more volumes to follow!
I received my copy of ‘The Early Science Fiction of Philip K Dick vol. 2’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.