Philip K. Dick’s Paycheck And Other Stories

Of the many and glaring gaps in my reading, perhaps the most conspicuous involves genre writing in general, and science fiction writing in particular. I have never read Asimov, Wells, Clarke or Le Guin, not to mention William Gibson or Douglas Adams – and this despite an abiding love of science fiction films, often based on the works of the aforementioned writers. And like a great many people, I was a fan of Philip K. Dick, one of the giants of 20th century sci-fi, without even knowing it: the films Blade RunnerMinority ReportTotal Recall and A Scanner Darkly are all either adapted from or inspired by Dick’s fiction. Nonetheless, I resisted, leaving this collection of his shorter fiction, Paycheck and Other Classic Stories, untouched on my nightstand for months on end. In the end, it was the desire for radical change, a break from my usual fare, that prompted me to pick up this book.

In his introductory Preface, Philip Dick attempts to define science fiction, and that is a greater challenge than you might imagine. Can science fiction take place in the past? Must it involve some new technology or advanced science? Does any fiction set in space, or pertaining to space travel, automatically count as science fiction? Can a useful distinction be made between science fiction and fantasy? (Dick’s answer: “Fantasy involves that which general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances.”) Ultimately, his personal definition of science fiction, whether or not it proves useful in discussing the genre as a whole, nonetheless provides some insight into his own work, and so merits reproducing in full:

It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society – or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one – this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition.

This “dysrecognition” must not be total, for that would strip the writing of any meaningful reference points, and thereby deny us a means of sympathy. A “conceptual dislocation,” on the other hand, destabilizes us within a world we recognize as essentially our own. By this yardstick, every story in this collection succeeds, and succeeds brilliantly. Dick is a master innovator, a destabilizer of Borgesian inventiveness, and in story after story we are treated to new and fully articulated worlds. What was not original about this collection, however, was the direction and subject matter of the conceptual dislocations.

Every short story in this volume appeared during the Cold War (Dick died of a stroke in 1982, before the fall of the Berlin Wall), at a time when phrases like “mutually assured destruction” and “expected nuclear fallout” were staples of the world’s collective consciousness, and so, naturally, the lunacy of nuclear war, the suicide of the entire species, underscores almost every piece. In the collection’s longest piece, “The Variable Man,” set centuries in the future, our solar system, the Terran system, is in a deadlocked confrontation with Proxima Centauri, with scientists on both sides eager to tip the balance in their favour through innovative new weapons. A sophisticated computer tabulates the known variables, and provides an expected outcome of the combat in the form of gambler’s odds; the Terran government places its faith in this calculus to decide whether or not to go to war. In another piece, “The Defenders,” the nuclear apocalypse has already happened, and the surviving members of both the Soviet Union and the United States have tunnelled underground to escape radiation poisoning. But with the earth largely destroyed and uninhabitable, neither side has lost its lust for war, and both continue to contrive new weapons with which to destroy the other. These stories are powerful indictments of our moral and spiritual blindness, and yet you can only read so many variations on the same theme before tedium sets in.

This, it occurs to me, is the great flaw of science fiction writing: in Dick’s words, “the true protagonist of an sf story or novel is an idea and not a person.” This strikes me as true, and it is at once the source of the genre’s greatest strength and greatest weakness, for even the most compelling idea cannot match the complexity and contrariety of a human being, whereas a human being can – and very often does – embody an idea. Consequently, characterization takes an obvious backseat, in Dick’s fiction, to plot and theme and idea. As the ideas become predictable and stale, so too does the writing, and, inevitably, the reading.