THE COLLECTED STORIES OF PHILIP K. DICK Underwood-Miller. 515 Chestnut St. Columbia, Penn. 17512 Five volumes. 1,950 pp. $125 MARY AND THE GIANT By Philip K. Dick Arbor House. 230 pp. $16.95
HIDDEN BENEATH science fictional trappings, the novels and stories of Philip K. Dick target the anxieties of the modern age with the accuracy of a cruise missile. Look beyond the drearily colonized planets, peevish robot psychiatrists and city-sized bomb shelters. In 40 novels and more than 100 short stories, Dick obsessively, relentlessly evoked the frailty of contemporary life.
Dick died in 1982 without ever receiving significant critical attention or commercial success. In the past several years, however, his mainstream novels, only one of which was issued during his life, have started to appear. And the sf community has been busy nominating him as its absolute best -- the writer who, over the course of his career, made the most brilliant contribution to the field.
What makes Dick important is neither his style (rarely more than serviceable) nor his characters (which, one critic has noted, have all the depth of a '50s sitcom -- his women, in particular, tend to be one-dimensionally nasty), but the portraits he draws of a universe running down, losing control. As one early novel puts it: "Dilemma of civilized man: Body mobilized, but danger obscure." His typical hero is an isolated man beset by the police, his wife, the government or sheer existence. He fights, at best, to a draw. This is not the smoothly functioning, pro-technology set-up of Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov. In Philip K. Dick's world, you barely have enough change for a cup of coffee, and then the vending machine will only dispense advice. Or insults.
The capstone to the recent Dick publishing boom comes with Underwood-Miller's publication, in five volumes, of his collected shorter work. The stories are presented in chronological order, with notes by the author and introductions from five prominent sf authors. Totaling almost 2,000 pages and numbering 118 stories (including five previously unpublished), it is the most important small press publication in the sf field since Arkham House issued H.P. Lovecraft's The Outsider in 1939.
Yet while this is clearly a major undertaking -- for one thing, all corrupted texts have now been restored to Dick's originals -- neither is it necessarily the place for the beginner. A number of these stories are very fine indeed, but they do not represent Dick's best work. For that, one turns to such novels as The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (a portrait of a metaphysics addict), A Maze of Death (the body of God is found floating in outer space), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (for Martian colonists, reality is an escape from drugs) or The Man in the High Castle (how to survive in a world where the Axis powers won World War II).
Nevertheless, The Collected Stories is awe-inspiring. Publication of a multi-volume set of a contemporary author's complete short stories is a rarity. It's never been done in science fiction on this scale.
In his very first published story, 1953's "Roog," Dick's lifelong attempt to see the ordinary from an unusual perspective is wonderfully apparent. Technically, it isn't science fiction at all -- just the melancholy and witty tale of a family dog who is hopelessly convinced the garbagemen are stealing something extremely valuable. The pet tries to warn his humans, but they, of course, never get the message. "You a good dog," one owner says. "I sure wish I knew what is on your mind."
"Sales Pitch," (1954), anticipates and extends the advertising blitz of the last two decades. One evening, Sally and Ed Morris are visited by a "fasrad," -- a super-robot whose mission is to sell itself. The fasrad can do anything and explain everything, and it won't rest until the purchase is made. " 'I cannot conceive of taking no for an answer .... You'll feel better after you've turned responsibility over to me,' it explained. It threw out some old soup Sally had been saving. 'Danger of botulism,' it told him. 'Your wife is sexually attractive, but not capable of a high order of intellectualization.' "
A later story, "The Pre-Persons" (1974), postulates an over-populated society where the abortion laws have been liberalized. A child is not deemed to have a soul until age 12, when he is presumed capable of higher math. Until then, his parents can send him to the County Facility. If the child is not adopted in a month, he's "put to sleep." A 35-year-old with a master's degree from Stanford allows himself to be picked up, claiming he doesn't understand algebra anymore. "I did have a soul," he says, "but I lost it."
Those are three of the best stories here, but many others are equally worthwhile. "The Golden Man" inverts the sf cliche' that evolved mutants will stick around to help out their less fortunate predecessors. In "Impostor," there's ingenious speculation on the question "Am I human? Or am I just a robot programmed to believe I'm human?" while "Foster, You're Dead" carries the "privatization" idea to its logical extreme, as bomb shelters are sold like cars -- with, naturally, the implication that each year you have to go in hock for the new, improved model. "The Father Thing" is a classic horror tale about an alien that can mimic human forms, one that chillingly proves that it's a wise child who knows his own father.
Dick was extraordinarily prolific. There have been 10 posthumous books -- four sf, one screenplay, five mainstream novels. At least five critical studies have been published in the last few years; an equal number are on the way. There's a PKD Society, theatrical productions based on his work, colloquiums, a tremendous interest in his first editions. Not bad for a writer who sold most of his novels for a couple thousand dollars, and was perpetually broke until shortly before his death.
Mary and the Giant is one of the 13 mainstream novels Dick wrote in the '50s, when he was trying to break out of science fiction. None of the published six is perfect -- you're constantly aware, for example, that if you had to live with the title character of Mary, you'd want to strangle her -- but they're readable and involving.
PART OF WHAT makes them unique is their attitude and setting: working-class lives and small shop-owners, seen from the inside. Dick's tales of tire-regroovers, traveling salesmen, record store employes and stenographers read like a collaboration between Raymond Carver and the early Doris Lessing. Both financially and emotionally, his characters can barely make ends meet: they strive for happiness, settle for occasional satisfaction.
Mary and the Giant is the low-key story of Mary Anne, a 20-year-old woman who is struggling to assert herself as a human being in a small California city. She is looking for something worth believing in, something to help her fight her fears: "I always wanted a place I could run to, a place I could hide . . . But when I got there, nobody would let me in, or it wasn't where I wanted to be after all."
Reduced to her spiritual essentials, Mary can begin the construction of her soul. The novel ends on a note of optimism so faint it is barely audible. Mary, in fact, could have wandered in from one of Dick's bleakly hopeful sf novels. Still, in all his work, grace is to be aspired to, no matter how elusive. "It is futile to try to make the universe add up," Phil Dick wrote the year before he died. "But I guess we must go on anyhow."
David Streitfeld is a reporter for the Style Plus section of The Washington Post.