Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 32: Second Variety by Philip K. Dick

Dick, Philip K. "Second Variety." Space Science Fiction, May 1953.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   8.88/10
My Rating:        8/10

"The Russian soldier made his way nervously up the ragged side of the hill, holding his gun ready."

Opposing Russian and American forces are nearing the end of a lengthy world war that has decimated much of the Earth. The Russians were in control of the war, but the Americans developed a new weapon, small machines called "claws" that dig around searching for prey, essentially tearing to pieces any life it encounters, human or otherwise. Americans have radiation shields to protect themselves from attack, and in the latter stages of the war it was the Russians who were being decimated. But these machines have evolved, gained sentience, and have been able to construct improved versions of itself, and smarter claws have begun to appear. Humans have been forced to live sheltered underground, the only place they are protected from the claws. The American leaders, however, have managed to escape to the moon, where they are safe from both claws and the Russian military. Communication has become difficult on- and off-planet

An American bunker is visited by a single Russian soldier who is taken down by a claw as he delivers a message, asking for an American officer to visit the Russian bunker. Senior officer Major Hendricks decides to comply, and makes his way through ash-ridden wasteland France toward the enemy base. At the Russian base he discovers a new kind of claw, far more advanced than former counterparts. The remaining three Russians show him faded photographs of other advanced claws, and inform him that the two they have encountered each have a plate indicating their make: V1 and V3. Therefore, there remains a still undiscovered second variety.

Then the real paranoia sets in.

I have always admired the work of Philip K. Dick, and I have read a good deal of it. "Second Variety" is among his better stories. While it has some clunky bits in the first half and some less polished sequences in the latter quarter, it is nonetheless a good, energetic read. (Dick rarely polished his work as he was in a rush to get it published.) In this story Dick mixes his usual paranoia with a powerful comment on human nature, and it is this comment that he chooses to end the story with, rather than the expected final twist. Dick does try to veer us away from guessing that twist, but really it is only direction in which the story can head, and because he chooses to end on his social commentary, the story is not weakened by predictability, but rather elevated by this decision.

Oddly, the original interior artwork used in Space Science Fiction, by Alex Ebel, gives away the story's two major surprise plot points. It would be interesting to know what was Dick's response response to this, as well as that of the readers.

The story was adapted in 1995 as Screamers, an entertaining movie diminished by a final act made up of generic drawn-out fight sequences. The ending tries to capture Dick's intention but is not as effective, though has Peter Weller and a nice post-apocalyptic setting filmed in my home city. If I were to re-watch it today, though, I would probably be disappointed.

For more of this week's Wednesday Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


Todd Mason said...

At that point in his career, I imagine Dick was probably mildly annoyed by something such as thoughtless "spoiler" illustrations, but too busy moving on to new work to spend too much time worrying about it. Popping speed probably could tend to cause one to Move On even if one did want to indulge in some irritation.

Todd Mason said...

The Luminist Archives will allow you to check the (relatively few) subsequent issues of this SPACE SF (as opposed to Lyle Kenyon Engel's much worse later and even shorter-lived one) for any reader response:

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