BOOK REVIEW: The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard

The Unlimited Dream CompanyThe Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The protagonist, Blake, crashes a stolen small aircraft into the Thames River beside the sleepy English town of Shepperton. In short order, Blake discovers that he cannot escape Shepperton and gradually he comes to realize that he can do anything else that he can imagine. This gradual discovery is like a dream becoming lucid. At first the world seems right even though there is plenty that is odd about it, as is the case when one is dreaming and oddities and anomalies don’t trigger a response as they do when one is conscious. Despite the fact that Ballard captures the surrealism of the dream state well, and even uses the word “dream” in the title, the reader is never sure what is going on exactly until the book’s conclusion. Is Blake dreaming everything? (including the plane theft?) Or, was he knocked unconscious in the crash? Or, is something supernatural going on that is dreamlike, but not a dream. There are a cast of townsfolk who sometimes behave oddly, but who seem like they have enough depth to be more than projections of Blake’s subconscious. The unfolding of the story involves the surreal nature of Shepperton becoming more obvious as the reader — little-by-little — gets a better idea of what is going on there.

Readers with a prudish streak should be aware that references to sex are ubiquitous. It’s not that there are a lot of graphic sex scenes, but – as in a dream state, the subconscious mind is at the fore and primal urges take center-stage. Blake imagines having sexual relations with everyone in the sleepy town. He doesn’t, but he speculates about it. There is also symbolic sexual reference – e.g. flowers growing from his seed. Frequent references are made to Blake being naked, but the townsfolk not realizing it. There’s generally not graphic description, this recurring device primarily serves as a means to show how the other people in the story aren’t lucid, because Blake’s nudity doesn’t set off their weird-o-meters as it would in waking consciousness.

I enjoyed this book, and, if you like surreal and trippy stories, you should give it a read.

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5 of My Favorite Trippy, Mind-bending Books

I love books that send one down the rabbit hole. Here are a few of my favorites. [Note: as I was putting this post together, I realized that I’d left out Philip K. Dick entirely. That is a glaring oversight as almost any of his books could make this list, but I’m too lazy to make a bigger list right now, so you’ll have to wait for Part II.]

 

5.) The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard: A man crashes a small aircraft into the Thames, and after struggling up from the wreckage he discovers he can’t leave the town of Shepperton — though he can do just about anything else he likes.

 

4.) The Lathe of Heaven by Ursala K. Le Guin: George Orr believes his dreams shape reality. At first, he’s taken for a crazy man, but then his therapist begins to wonder.

 

3.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: A man hired for his skill at using his mind as an unbreakable encryption device, finds out that the job that seemed too good to be true, was.

 

2.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil comes to Moscow with his  rogue’s gallery, throws the city into disarray, and it’s all tied to a novel based on the life of Pontius Pilate.

 

1.) Alice in Wonderland  & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tumbling down a rabbit hole or walking through a mirror, Alice is transported to a whimsical land where everything is strange and exhilarating.

Let me know of any oversights [besides the aforementioned PKD.]

BOOK REVIEW: The Velderet by Cecilia Tan

The VelderetThe Velderet by Cecilia Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The dual protagonists of this novel, Merin and Kobi, live in a society in which equality is the supreme value, and in which sexual freedom is nearly complete (except where it bumps up against the aforementioned value.) For many, this would be a utopia, but the problem for Merin and Kobi is that they crave subjugation. That might seem an unusual desire, but one need not look far to see how urges develop for little apparent reason other than a person being told that such activities are prohibited or taboo. Merin is a straight female serving as legislative worker bee. Kobi is a bisexual male who bartends at a leisure club that not only serves drinks but facilitates virtual reality cyber-sex. The two are roommates (part of equality is a pairing of unattached without consideration of gender or sexual orientation), and one evening in a buzz-fed stupor Kobi admits that he would like to know what it’s like to be enslaved.

This story in which these two try to figure out how to develop an underground community of those who revel in power dynamics as part of sexual activities, plays out in a larger geo-political and historical context. It turns out that the reason that this society (i.e. the Belledonians) is so keen on equality in all activities is that they were once a slave-owning empire, and they basically killed off another race of people who they’d enslaved (i.e. the Gehrish.) So, it’s a guilt-driven policy. As the individual level actions play out, this society is in trade and security negotiations with the Kylarans, a more technologically advanced society that still practices slavery. There is a fear that the Kylarans might decide not to trade as equals but to colonize the Belldonians.

The resolution of the story brings this sadomasochism fight club story line into contact with the larger geo-political story, and that raises the stakes and presents one with varying philosophical stances on the dominant – submissive relationship. While the Belledonians had brutally oppressed the race they subjugated (i.e. the Gehrish,) the Kylarans have a much more traditional, protocol-driven, and complex approach to these power dynamic driven relations. For example, leaders must spend time as slaves before they can progress upward in the chain of command.

As I hope has been made clear, this book combines erotica with sci-fi and sex scenes are ubiquitous and kinky. Readers who are squeamish about such matter will probably want to steer clear. However, if one isn’t disturbed by sex, and sexual power play, this story is readable and intriguing. I would recommend it for those who are intrigued by stories at the nexus of science fiction and erotica.

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BOOK REVIEW: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of eight smart short stories is most well-known for the eponymous story that served as the basis for the movie “Arrival.” The stories are sci-fi, but in the broadest sense of that word. “Speculative fiction” is probably a more apt descriptor. At any rate, the pieces all have nerd appeal and offer philosophical food-for-thought as well as entertaining stories.

1.) “Tower of Babylon:” The Biblical myth re-imagined. What if god didn’t sabotage construction by introducing varying languages and spreading humanity to the four winds? What if, instead, the tower did eventually reach to the heavens?

2.) “Understand:” A man who suffered severe brain damage due to a fall through thin ice, is put on an experimental medicine that begins to stimulate neurogenesis on a massive scale. The protagonist becomes preternaturally intelligent, realizes that such super-intelligence is considered a threat, but is able to keep one step ahead of the ordinary minds who pursue him. That is until he runs into another patient who had a similar accident and treatment. A thinking man’s “Lucy” (referring to the Scarlett Johansson movie), this piece considers the question of how different people would use such a gift, and whether differences could be reconciled.

3.) “Division by Zero:” If a scholar’s life was invested in an idea or way of thinking about the world, but then the scholar proved that that way was in error, might it cause a descent into madness and even a crumbling of one’s world?

4.) “Story of Your Life:” This is the story that the Amy Adams’ movie “Arrival” is based upon. The protagonist is a linguist charged with helping to communicate with a newly arrived alien species that has a very different approach to language. In the process of learning their language and interacting with them, she begins to see the world as they do – time being an illusion. Stories from her daughter’s life, which the lead character has seen in full before conception, are interspersed with the description of her work with the alien language.

5.) “Seventy-Two Letters:” This is a golem story. In this world, names have the power to animate matter and golems can be created. (A Golem is a living being created from inanimate matter; the idea comes from Jewish folklore.) The story ads a layer to the question of what would be created if humans could make a simulacrum of themselves – e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster style – and asks the reader to consider what would be the reaction to the dawn of an era in which the golems might be able to make themselves.

6.) “The Evolution of Human Science:” This is one of the shorter pieces and is also the least story-centric entry. It considers philosophical questions around the development of meta-humans.

7.) “Hell is the Absence of God:” This story is also not as story oriented as most of the others, but it is thought-provoking. It revolves around a support group for people who’ve lost significant others in tragedy and asks one to consider the various approaches to belief in the wake of tragedy.

8.) “Liking What You See: A Documentary:” This clever piece imagines a technology that prevents wearers from being able to recognized beauty (and ugliness as well.) As the subtitle suggests, it’s presented as if it were a documentary that is following a college’s debate over whether to require the student body to use said technology.

I enjoyed this collection of stories. “Understand,” “Stories of Your Life,” and “Seventy-two Letters” are gripping stories, and all eight are thought-provoking and well-written. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of short fiction, particularly speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a work of dystopian fiction set in post-pandemic America. It’s the Zombie apocalypse sans Zombies, but with something additional: arts and entertainment. The fact that, not only is there an arts and entertainment industry but that it’s central to the story, is critical to Mandel’s ability to set her story apart amid the sea of post-apocalyptic wasteland stories that have been gracing the shelves of bookstores in recent years. Other branches of dystopian fiction have entertainers (e.g. “Hunger Games”) – often in a morbid form of gladiatorial combat – but one of the ways that post-apocalyptic wasteland stories show how dismal and colorless life has become is to eliminate all mentions of art or entertainment – presuming that in survival mode people “put away childish things.” Mandel, on the other hand, places members of a traveling symphony that roams about performing music and Shakespearean plays among her core characters.

The title, Station Eleven, is the name of a sci-fi comic book. I won’t get into specifics as it’s involved in the resolution of the story in a way that I don’t want to spoil. However, I will say that emphasizing what seems like a minor element of the story (through most of the book, anyway) is interesting in that it’s another way in which the author shines a light on how art – highbrow or low – will inevitably shape human culture, behavior, and mythology.

Mandel also shows how, even in a world in which the majority of the species have been killed off, there will always be connections in the web of human interaction. Through out the book flashbacks to pre-apocalyptic happenings are offered, mostly around an actor who – if not patient zero – was one of the early casualties of the pandemic. The actor was married multiple times and sired one child that is known about, and these characters – as well as friends and acquaintances — are seen in pre- and / or post-apocalyptic settings. And this allows the reader to imagine a web of humanity surviving massive fatalities. Often in this sub-genre, at most a dyad (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”) survives, and that existence amid strangers is part of how the wasteland is shown.

This is a highly readable book, and well worth the read. Even if one is prone to think, “Ugh, another post-apocalyptic wasteland novel,” one will find something a bit different in its supposition that art is necessary and inevitable for humanity and that there aren’t enough degrees of separation to kill off all connections without killing off the species.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManThe Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 18 science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury, featuring: space travel, androids, time travel, and alien invasions. However, many of the stories use science-fiction – space travel most extensively — to investigate down-to-earth subjects such as: religion, marital relationships, war, and race relations. The fact that the collection deals in everyday subject matter allows it to retain its relevancy. The sci-fi is definitely dated, from the fact that “Martian” is used as a synonym for alien to the Cold War themes, but the stories are still worth reading because they are well-crafted and continue to be thought-provoking.

The stories of this collection are integrated by the titular story. The Illustrated Man is a character who had his body covered in tattoos to continue his employment with the carnival, but the witch who tattooed him made shape-shifting images that told stories. The story of “The Illustrated Man” is the last in the collection, but there’s a prologue that sets it up. It’s not a novel-in-stories, however, as the stories aren’t connected — other than being collected into a universe of this character’s flesh. The end of several stories feature a quick reference to the Illustrated Man narrative arc, but generally there’s no other connective tissue to the stories.

Here is a brief overview of the stories:

“The Veldt”: spoiled kids are given access to a technology that goes one step beyond virtual reality to what might be called mentally constructed reality. They create an African savanna, and things go awry.

“Kaleidoscope”: An accident causes astronauts to be scattered into space, not dying immediately, but knowing the limited resources of their spacesuits will not last long. This is among the more popular stories in the collection.

“The Other Foot”: A white man is forced to take refuge on a planet that minorities had long-ago been relocated to, because now a war has made the Earth uninhabitable. The story deals with the tension between those who are willing to welcome him and those who think he should be treated as they once were.

“The Highway”: A man living and working near a desolate stretch of highway meets a rare visitor who tells him that war is upon them. One of the Cold War end-of-the-world scenario stories.

“The Man”: The Captain of a spaceship is disappointed to find that none of the locals come to see them when they land. Little does he know, they were just visited by a Messianic figure the day before. The tension is between the non-believing, skeptical Captain and one of his men who is a true believer. A commentary on faith and belief.

“The Long Rain”: Space explorers are demoralized by the unceasing rain on a planet they are exploring, a rain that threatens to send them into madness.

“The Rocket Man”: The son of a space traveler wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but doesn’t know how hazardous a life it is.

“The Last Night of the World”: This story asks one to contemplate what if one knew it was the last night before doomsday. Another Cold War-era sci-fi piece that hinges on atomic apocalypse.

“The Exiles”: A crew of space explorers is falling to inexplicable illness. This story has a great deal of literary allusion with Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens each playing a part. Like Bradbury’s most famous novel, the story considers the issue of censorship.

“No Particular Night or Morning”: This story considers the question of how one knows anything is true. It does so through the lens of a spaceship crewman afflicted with solipsistic delusions – or so his crew-mates assume.

“The Fox and the Forest”: In this time travel story, a couple has escaped a dystopian future into Mexico, circa 1938, but the authorities of their time don’t intend to let them get away.

“The Visitor”: The story of a man with powerful psychic abilities who is coveted by competing factions.

“The Concrete Mixer”: A Martian pacifist is forced to participate in an invasion of Earth, only to find that it is an ill-advised endeavor for reasons entirely different from he’d thought. The story revolves around the centrality of materialism and consumerism in American culture.

“Marionettes, Inc.”: One man gets a look-alike android to cope with a wife who hates him, and another gets one to contend with a wife who is smotheringly needy.

“The City”: Explorers find that the abandoned city they’ve been sent to explore isn’t as free of sentience as they’d thought.

“Zero Hour”: Alien invaders find an unexpected ally in the impressionable youth.

“The Rocket”: A man wants his family to see the stars, but lacks the resources to make the dream come true. So, he gets creative.

“The Illustrated Man”: As referenced above, this story tells the tale of carnival tattoo’d man whose body-art mysteriously tells stories through its images, with special focus on two special designs.

I’ve never found a Bradbury work I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. The writing is beautiful. The story-telling is skillful, and, even when the sci-fi details are dated, there are themes that remain relevant. I’d highly recommend this collection for readers of sci-fi, particularly those who like classic sci-fi.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Science Fiction by Mark Brake

The Science of Science Fiction: The Influence of Film and Fiction on the Science and Culture of Our TimesThe Science of Science Fiction: The Influence of Film and Fiction on the Science and Culture of Our Times by Mark Brake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book grew on me. The reason I didn’t like it at first has to do with how the title sells the book in the wrong direction. When one sees the title “The Science of Science Fiction” one expects a book like those by Michio Kaku (e.g. “Physics of the Future” or “Physics of the Impossible” – or perhaps like Kakalios’s “The Physics of Superheroes.” In other words, one is expecting a book that teaches one about science through examples of science fiction, i.e. using science fiction to make science interesting and relatable. If you are expecting that kind of book, I suspect you’ll be disappointed.

The book doesn’t go into any depth on scientific issues. Instead of a book about the nexus of science and science fiction, one gets a book about the nexus of the history of science fiction, the history of science, trends in scientific progress, and trends in science fiction. (The confusing title is a little bit justified, therefore, given the broad territory of the books “niche,” but it could lead to confusion.) If you are interested in questions such as which came first the fictional atomic bomb or the real one, you’ll be reading the right book. If you are interested in whether or not quantum entanglement can be used for an ansible (faster than light communication) or how fast Superman has to jump to orbit the planet, you’ll find this book a disappointment.

The book is divided into four parts and has many brief chapters in each. Most of these chapters take as their lead a recent work of science fiction (usually a movie) though the book is at its strongest when it’s teaching the reader about the history of science fiction and how that history was influenced by – and influenced – real world events.

The first part is about space. It considers such questions as whether we will see alien visitor or invaders, the likelihood of parallel universes, and when we can expect to colonize other worlds.

The second part is entitled “time” and it considers the many ways time has been explored through science fiction. The time machine is considered from several dimensions and through movies such as the “Terminator” series and “Looper.” However, other time-related plot devices are also given scrutiny, such as precognition.

The third part is about machines and the interaction between man and machine. What can we expect from the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots? The reader learns about the earliest use of the term robot and how historical science fiction compares to the realities coming to fruition.

The fourth, and final, part is entitled “Monster” and it investigates the realm of biology. Can monsters or supermen be created through super-serums or genetic modification? What are the limits of the human body and mind? These are the type of questions that are investigated.

There are no graphics, notes, or back matter in this book. However, I did read a review copy, so your results may vary.

If you are interested in the history of science fiction and how science fiction relates to scientific progress and the effect of science on culture, then I recommend this book. As I said, if you’re wanting to learn about science through the lens of examples from science fiction, then this is probably not the book for you. As I said, the book is at its strongest when it explores the history of science fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim

Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War PreludeMarvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This two issue comic book was released in advance of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It revisits the events of previous movies adding a few snippets of new material here and there. Of the new material, much of it elaborates upon events that are known to have happened behind the scenes of earlier movies. Not surprisingly, given Marvel’s penchant for secrecy, there are only a few frames that offer insight into activities that a fan who’d seen all the preceding films would be in the dark about.

I’m assuming that anyone considering reading a prelude to “Infinity War,” by this point, has already seen that movie and relevant preceding films such as “Captain America: Civil War,” the first two “Avengers” movies, “Guardians of the Galaxy 1,” and “Doctor Strange.” If that’s not the case, and you want to avoid potential spoilers, stop now.

The first issue recaps “Captain America: Civil War” while providing insight into what happens with Captain America’s team in the wake of that film, at the end of which they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Much of the issue is verbatim repetition of the events of that movie. There’s also elaboration about the Black Panther’s assistance to Winter Soldier (Sgt. Barnes) via his genius sister Shuri, as well as a scene showing what Captain America, Black Widow, and other team members are up to in the aftermath of the breakup of the Avengers.

The second issue consists largely of Wong schooling Doctor Strange on the powers of the infinity stones and their current whereabouts. Those who’ve seen all the films know that five of the six stones were accounted for before the third Avengers movie. Only the whereabouts of the soul stone remains in doubt. This book doesn’t solve that mystery and merely offers a cryptic comment about the soul stone’s power. As Wong is describing events, the reader is shown flashback scenes from the movies and post-credit scenes that explain where each stone is and how they were used in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “Avengers 1 & 2,” “Doctor Strange,” etc.

If you are an intense fan who craves every new bit of information, you may enjoy combing through this comic book. Otherwise, it’s mostly of use for those who are planning on seeing “Infinity War” but who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War,” “Guardians of the Galaxy 1” (which contains a brief piece of exposition that clarifies the nature of the stones), or the previous “Avengers” films. I don’t know how big that demographic is, but I suppose new fans are coming along all the time. I wouldn’t recommend you purchase the prelude expecting anything new and earth-shattering. The art and dialogue are all well done and inline with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.

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5 Bizarre Moral Dilemmas for Your Kids to Worry Over

5.) Can “innocent until proven guilty” survive the next generation of predictive models?

I started thinking about this post as I was reading Dean Haycock’s book Murderous Minds, which is a book about the neuroscience of psychopathy. In that book, the author evokes The Minority Report, a Philip K. Dick story turned into a Tom Cruise movie about a police agency that uses three individuals who can see the future in order to prevent violent crimes before they happen. Haycock isn’t suggesting that precognition will ever be a tool to predict crime, but what if a combination of genetics, epigenetics, brain imaging, and other technology reached the point where the tendency toward violent psychopathy (not redundant, most psychopaths function fine in society and don’t commit crimes) could be predicted with a high degree of accuracy. [Note: unlike the Tom Cruise movie, no one is suggesting all violent crime could be anticipated because a lot of it is committed by people with no risk factors whatsoever.] One is likely to first go to the old refrain (Blackstone’s Formulation) that it’s better that 10 guilty men escape justice than one innocent man be punished. Now, imagine a loved one was killed by a person who was known to have a 99% likelihood of committing a violent crime?

Of course, one doesn’t have to lock the high-risk individuals away in prison. What about laws forcing one to take either non-invasive or invasive actions (from meditation retreats to genetic editing) to reduce one’s risk factors? That’s still a presumption of guilt based on a model that  — given the vagaries of the human condition — could never be perfectly accurate.

 

4.) What does “trusted news source” mean in a world in which media outlets tailor their messages to support confirmation bias and avoid ugly cognitive dissonance? (i.e. to give viewers the warm-fuzzy [re: superior] feeling that keeps them watching rather than the messy, uneasy feelings that makes them prefer to bury their heads in sand and ignore any realities that conflict with their beliefs.) Arguably, this isn’t so much a problem for the next generation as for the present one. The aforementioned sci-fi legend, Philip K. Dick, addressed the idea of media manipulation in his stories as far back as the 1950’s. However, it’s a problem that could get much worse as computers get more sophisticated at targeting individuals with messages tailored to their personal beliefs and past experiences. What about if it goes past tweaking the message to encourage readership to manipulating the reader for more nefarious ends? I started to think about this when I got the i-Phone news feed which is full of provocative headlines designed to make one click, and — if one doesn’t click — one will probably come away with a completely false understanding of the realities of the story. As an example, I recently saw a headline to the effect of “AI can predict your death with 95% accuracy.” It turns out that it can only make this prediction after one has shown up in an emergency room and had one’s vital statistics taken and recorded. [Not to mention “95% accuracy” being completely meaningless — e.g. in what time frame — minute of death, day, year, decade? I can come up with the century of death with 95% accuracy, myself, given a large enough group.]

 

3.) When is it acceptable to shut down a self-aware Artificial Intelligence (AI), and — more importantly — will it let you?  This is the most obvious and straightforward of the issues in this post. When is something that not only thinks but is aware of its thoughts considered equivalent to a human being for moral purposes, if ever?

 

2.) When is invisible surveillance acceptable / preferable? This idea came from a talk I heard by a Department of Homeland Security employee, back when I worked for Georgia Tech. He told us that the goal is eventually to get rid of the security screening checkpoints at the airport and have technology that would screen one as one walked down a corridor toward one’s gate. At first this sounds cool and awesome. No taking belts and shoes off. No running bags through metal detectors. No having to pitch your water bottle. No lines. No dropping your laptop because you’re precariously balancing multiple plastic bins and your carry-on luggage. [I don’t know if they would tackle one to the ground for having a toenail clipper in one’s bag or not, but — on the whole — this scheme seems awesome.] But then you realize that you’re being scanned to the most minute detail without your awareness.

One also has to consider the apathy effect. If one can make an activity painless, people stop being cognizant of it. Consider the realm of taxation. If you’re pulling a well-defined chunk of pay out of people’s income, they keep their eye on how much you’re taking. If you can bury that tax — e.g. in the price of goods or services, then people become far less likely to recognize rate changes or the like.

 

1.) If society can reduce pedophilic sexual abuse by allowing the production and dissemination of virtual reality child pornography (computer generated imagery only, no live models used, think computer games), should we? This idea is discussed in Jesse Bering’s book, Perv. It’s not a completely hypothetical question. There is some scholarly evidence that such computer-made pornography can assuage some pedophiles’ urges. However, the gut reaction of many [probably, most] people is “hell no!” It’s a prime example of emotion trumping reason. If you can reduce the amount of abuse by even a marginal amount, shouldn’t you do so given a lack of real costs / cons (i.e. presuming the cost of the material would be paid by the viewer, the only real cost to the public would be the icky feeling of knowing that such material exists in the world?)

BOOK REVIEW: Human Is? by Philip K. Dick

Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader (Gollancz S.F.)Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20 of Philip K. Dick’s short stories written between 1952 and 1973 that explore what it means to be human. Dick waxed philosophical on the question enough that a large collection could be assembled that examines humanity from many fascinating angles. While the age of these stories (and their Cold War taint) might make them seem obsolete, there is more than one way in which this collection is extremely relevant today.

First, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be on everybody’s mind of late, and several of these stories feature machine intelligence as a means to understand what makes a human in a world in which there are other intelligent entities (in a similar vein, alien intelligence is also considered.) Second, Dick also asks us to consider the reality of a fictitious character who is alive in the minds of many and who might have more impact on the world than any living being. In our current phase of the information age, in which merchants of [dis-]information are becoming adroit at manipulating information and misinformation for their own desired effect, this seems a more crucial question than ever. Finally, there remains the age-old unresolved question of whether there is some x-factor beyond biology (i.e. a soul) that separates humanity from other forms of intelligence. While this is an old question, the fact that most people still believe there is a “soul” (by whatever name it’s called), even if most scientifically-minded people don’t see any reason to think so, means that it will continue to be a question with potential societal ramifications.

A sub-theme across these stories is the Cold War undercurrent of anxiety that the world could be turned into a dystopian wasteland at any moment. (In most of the stories, it already has been.) Again, if one can look past the references to the Soviet Union being cast as foe in many of the stories, one will find that the stories and the emotional zeitgeist aren’t as faded as they might at first seem.

The stories include some that movie-goers unfamiliar with Dick’s writing will know from Hollywood cinema (e.g. “Second Variety” (movie title: “Screamers,”) “Paycheck” (an eponymous film with Ben Affleck,) “Adjustment Team” (movie: “The Adjustment Bureau,”) and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (i.e. both “Total Recall” movies.) But it also includes some deep cuts and lesser known stories.

1.) Beyond Lies The Wub: The crew of a ship is divided over whether to make an intelligent alien a prisoner or dinner.

2.) The Defenders: Owing to high radiation in the wake of nuclear war, humans are living underground, leaving the war-fighting to AI machines. A group of military men make an expedition to the surface only to get a big surprise.

3.) Roog: A dog is more than the family pet they think him to be, it’s secretly a guardian against the Roog.

4.) Second Variety: The Cold War went hot and the US built AI metallic creatures to fight the Soviets. The problem arises when these intelligent machines developed their own ideas, building androids because a robot that looked human could get into the midst of humans for better killing. The Soviets – after taking heavy losses – discover from serial number placards on androids that variety 1 is a wounded soldier and variety 3 is an orphan boy, begging the question of what is the Second Variety? When Americans end up among the last survivors, the question becomes essential for them as well.

5.) Impostor: Police take a man into custody who they believe to be an android with a dead human’s consciousness loaded into it, along with a bomb that could do tremendous damage. Of course, the man thinks they’ve got it all wrong.

6.) The Preserving Machine: A scientist builds a machine to preserve music, which he believes is at risk of being lost to future generations, but ultimately he learns that life always adapts and changes in unanticipated ways.

7.) The Variable Man: In a world in which decisions are made based on statistical models, the decision to go to war is in gridlock because the odds of winning stay close to 50/50. When a man from the future with a gift for repairing devices shows up, he upsets the apple cart by making the models unstable.

8.) Paycheck: A gifted engineer gets his memory wiped as part of a deal with a huge firm so that he cannot disclose any secrets about the top-secret high-tech project he was working on. He’s irked to find out that before his memory was wiped he asked for an envelope full of odds and ends in lieu of his lucrative paycheck. However, after being picked up by police, he soon realizes that the junk in the envelope was actually a well-thought out collection of useful items – if he can figure out how to use them.

9.) Adjustment Team: In a world in which a heavy hand has to periodically make major societal adjustments without people knowing, one man unwittingly becomes witness to these secret machinations. (Like “Paycheck,” the movie uses Dick’s concept without sharing the same character details and story details. However, I’d say “Paycheck” is closer to the story than is this one. However, it’s worth reading both because neither is exactly like the movie.)

10.) The Father-Thing: What if aliens could take over the consciousness of a loved one? How soon would one recognize the difference, if your father looked just like your father, but his behavior became a bit… off?

11.) Foster, You’re Dead: The “Keeping Up with the Joneses” mentality is a central theme in this story. A son wants one of the latest high-tech bomb shelters both because of Cold War anxiety, because it would be cool for a boy to have a subterranean lair, and because would be a prestige signal. The dad, however, is reluctant to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses.

12.) Human Is: A scientist, who happens to be married to a woman who finds him cold and distant, is body-snatched while he’s away on assignment on a different world. His wife is the first to recognize her husband has been replaced, but does she want the original back?

13.) The Mold of Yancy: This story is about a soft dystopia, but instead of Huxley’s vision of people being plied with drugs and free and easy sex, these subjects are kept docile by the folksy wisdom of a beloved character who’s a complete fiction (unbeknownst to everyone.) Everybody wants their kids to grow up in the mold of the great war hero, Yancy. [Note: Even with all the AI stories, this may be the most apropos for today’s world, information used to manipulate people’s behavior without any threat of force.]

14.) If There Were No Benny Cemoli: Like “The Mold of Yancy” this story explores the question of what it means to be human by considering the fictitious person as a societal touchstone. If you can make people believe in a person who isn’t, and to change their behavior accordingly, what have you created?

15.) The Days of Perky Pat: In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, people are passionately into playing a game which revolves around a character named “Perky Pat.” In a way, she is a surrogate for who they were before war transformed the world. What will happen when they expand out to play members of a neighboring enclave who have a similar “Connie Companion” game?

16.) Oh, to be a Blobel: In a war against an alien race, a former spy was genetically altered to appear like the enemy species. After the war is over, he discovers that he can’t be stably turned back to human form. He will revert to the amorphous form of a Blobel for several hours per day, and stressors risk causing spontaneous transformation. As he will never be able to be married and have children with a human woman – who would have him – a solution is suggested whereby he will marry a former Blobel spy who turns into a human form for several hours per day.

17.) We Can Remember It for You Wholesale: A white-collar worker, Douglas Quail, who wants to go to Mars, decides to go to a memory-implant clinic that can provide him with a vivid detailed memory of a vacation to Mars. But when they try to implant said memory, it’s discovered that he isn’t who he – or the company — thought.

18.) The Electric Ant: A man who thought he was human finds out that he’s actually an android. The identity crisis that follows causes him to contemplate suicide.

19.) A Little Something for Us Tempunauts: There’s an accident with the first American crew of time-travelers, putting them into a closed time loop (i.e. like the movie “Groundhog Day.”) The question of the meaning of life in this story revolves around the unclear question of whether the tempunauts are alive or dead.

20.) Pre-Persons: In a future dystopia, abortion isn’t only legal; the age until which it can be carried out has been extended to 12. There are forces in society who rail against the government doctrine that a soul is attained precisely on one’s twelfth birthday, but that minority is considered to be the lunatic fringe.

This is an exceptional collection of stories, offering plenty to consider about the meaning of being human. Dick takes on the questions from several angles with a level of creativity only he could. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of science fiction or those who enjoy philosophical fiction.

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