Saturday, 1 February 2014

Beyond Lies the Wub

Philip K. Dick Beyond Lies the Wub (1987)

I bought all five volumes of Dick's short stories ages ago, well before I'd made my way through all of the novels, and I've since somehow lost track of which of these I've read; so for the sake of completism - not to mention the sake of reading yet more stuff by an author I like - I'm beginning again with volume one. Adhering to a fairly strict chronological order, this collection opens with the previously unpublished Stability dating from 1947, with the rest being stories dated to a nine month period spanning 1951 to 1952; so although Dick had already written and failed to find publishers for the mainstream novels Gather Yourselves Together and Voices From The Street, these tales were written prior to his first full length science-fiction efforts and thus represent his earliest surviving formal excursions into the genre.

Perhaps inevitably, this is an oddly uneven collection, its stories informed by the process of Dick feeling his way forward through a genre which wasn't quite his first choice. He tries different approaches. Some of them work, and some don't, although amongst the more successful are those revealing a powerful A.E. van Vogt influence such as the aforementioned Stability, a typically surreal van Vogtian account of a winged man arriving at an office only to find himself berated by an authority figure for the invention of a device of which he knows nothing. Even more interesting is perhaps that Stability is run through with the typically Dickian theme of change in opposition to the dreaded forces of stasis or decay, so as with Gather Yourselves Together, we see how much of what made the guy tick was already present and fully realised even in his oldest narratives.

Similarly Paycheck and the novella, The Variable Man - presumably Dick getting in training for his first novel length science-fiction story - both feature distinctly van Vogtian running men attempting to make sense of the irrational worlds in which they find themselves. Elsewhere there's whimsy of a form which seems almost reminiscent of John Wyndham or Fritz Leiber in The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford and the wonderful The Preserving Machine wherein classical music scores are transmogrified into living creatures capable of, it is hoped, surviving a cataclysm; and it is from the humour of such tales that Dick's distinctive and familiar voice begins to emerge. Roog and The Little Movement exemplify this voice - small ideas beautifully and succinctly explored by means which resolutely remain a narrative, never once reducing to only a vehicle for novelty. The same is true of The Skull, an ingenious tale which might be seen as precursor to both Moorcock's Behold the Man and every crap Steven Moffat script wherein the Doctor materialises the TARDIS inside his own grandad's bumhole, but which nevertheless remains a neat little paradox, a story written over half a century ago which ties time into a fancy little bow and still delivers the unforeseen forehead slapping revelation despite all those crap time travel shows we've sat through since.

Contrary to what one might expect, the more overtly Dickian stories of the collection also seem to be the earliest, which at least seems to support the idea that he knew what he was going to say from the beginning, but took some years learning how best to say it. Other stories contained herein reveal possible instances of experimentation with Asimov's penchant for problem solving and the like, and it never seems to work so well as when Dick is writing true to himself; not every last one is a classic, but a good number of them are clearly top shelf.

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