BOOK REVIEW: “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1987)

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Originally published under the somewhat more reasonable title “Second Variety” in 1987 (Because it was the second in the series), the book was re-titled and re-released in 1990 to cash in on expected the “Total Recall” bonanza. Lest there be any confusion on this point, the full title appears to be “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, The Story That Inspired The Hit Motion Picture TOTAL RECALL.” That’s the thing about trade paperbacks from the first half of the 90s: You’re never sure where the title ends and the subscript begins. In any event, apart from the title and an amazingly embarrassingly cheezy illustration of a beefy brush-cut guy clutching a throne-like chair, there appear to be no differences between this version and the original.

(Yes, I know what the picture is all about, I’ve seen the movie. If I hadn’t, however, I’d be lacking all context. Who is the man on the chair? What is he doing? Why does he look so intense? What kind of chari is it? He’s really clutching those armrests. The cords in his neck are really sticking out. Is it a toilet? Is it a really bad bowel movement? Does “Second Variety” refer to going number two?)

I’m not one of those people to complain for no reason (unless it’s funny). Some might kvetch over this insignificant difference, and one other detailed below, but the truth is: this series never would have been re-issued if it weren’t for that movie, so if they wanna’ do a little tie-in, go for it. If you’re a fan of PKD, these books were the holy grail in the late ‘70s: ALL of his short stories in five volumes!

This time out we get twenty-seven stories, mostly written in 1952 and 1953. In general, these are shorter, tighter stories than in the first collection. One would assume that this is because Phil was becoming a more polished, confident author, but check the publishing dates on the capsule reviews below, and compare them to the ones in my previous review. You’ll see the curious problem there. Can you spot it? We’ll meet up on the other side of the min-reviews to discuss it.

“The Cookie Lady” (1953) - A fantasy piece very much in the style of Ray Bradbury in his “October Country” mode. In fact, I think it deliberately is a pastiche of his style, since he was popular and pulps encouraged contributors to copy whatever style was trendy at the time. A withered old woman basically steals life energy from a dumb fat young boy whom she lures into her house with the promise of cookies. It’s not an auspicious start for the collection, him being derivative like this.

“Beyond The Door” (1952) - Another dark fantasy piece about a man with an abusive man who’s adulterous wife gets all glass menagerie with a cuckoo clock. Eventually the clock starts killing people, as such things are wont to do.

“Prominent Author” (1953) - An openly blasphemous story about a man who test-drives a stargate to work and ends up being mistaken for God by the primitive Hebrews, who then write the Bible based around notes he slipped them. He then ends up making a fortune in back-royalties. Avoid. Avoid. Avoid. This is a terrible story, not just for its offensiveness, but it’s stupid too. You can’t get royalties on a public domain book! It’s public domain, jackass!

“We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1965) - A henpecked husband dreams of going to Mars and being a spy, but he can’t afford it, and he’s clearly not a spy. He goes to Rekal, Inc, and has them implant memories of an adventure he never had, only to have him wake up on the operating table and discover - to everyone’s horror - that he really *was* a spy on Mars, who had his memories wiped once he retired. The Government - aware that he’s now aware of who he is - attempt to kill him, but he brokers a deal: find some *other* memory to enhance, thereby overshadowing his Mars obsession. Since the government really doesn’t want to kill the guy, they agree. Back at Rekal, Inc, they find a daydream from childhood: tiny white-mice-like aliens were going to invade the earth. Their scoutship crashed, and our protagonist showed mercy to them. In gratitude, they promised they wouldn’t invade earth so long as he was alive. Once again, he wakes up on the table, and it turns out this wasn’t a daydream: he’d really done it, and the aliens wiped his memory after the fact. The Government goons freak out realizing that killing him would have meant the end of humanity. Curiously, this story was *not* in the original 1987 printing of this anthology. It was inserted here as part of the promotional tie-in, and replaced the story “Second Variety.”

”Jon’s World” (1952) - A sequel to “Second Variety” taking place far in the future after the Claws have been defeated and humanity is gradually reclaiming the earth. A scientist’s autistic-seeming son Jon is having visions of a utopian world of platonic ideals. The scientist has his kid lobotomized, then heads back in time to try and get the secrets of the Claw computer brain - now lost - so they can build machines to speed up the recovery of the world. He changes the past, which results in there never having been a Claw War, which means that Jon’s visions were of this alternate time line. This is a weak, long tale, and vastly inferior to its predecessor, and irritatingly completely un-does the better original story by monkying around with time travel. Curiously, it’s a sequel to a story that no longer appears in this book.

“The Cosmic Poachers” (1952) - An earth ship stumbles across an alien ship gathering jewels from a strange world. They capture the ship, and take the jewels back to earth where they know they’ll be a wildly profitable fashion item among ladies of status. Only it turns out the aliens weren’t taking the jewels, they were placing them. And they aren’t jewels, they’re eggs…

“Progeny” (1952) - Sort of dull, dry-yet-cloying story about a man who’s son is raised by machines rather than people, in accordance with the child rearing theories of the day. Intended, I suppose, as a slap at Dr. Benjamin Spock et al. Yawn.

“Some Kinds of Life” (1952) - A series of wars with aliens for resources kills off a family one-by-one, and ultimately kills off the human race. The gag is that all the resources are related to creature comforts, not necessities. This is a dry, serious, fairly obvious little story that seems like it wants to be funny, but lacks the never.

“Martians Come In Clouds” (1952) - Despite the lyrical title, this is a great, earthy little story about repeated utterly pathetic attempts by Martians to invade our world. A young boy learns the truth: that the aliens are nonviolent, and only want the part of the world we can’t use, because their species is dying out. Bowing to peer pressure, he kills them.

“The Commuter” (1952) - Another Ray Bradbury fantasy pastiche. A man keeps seeking a commuter train ticket to a town that doesn’t exist at a stop that doesn’t exist. Whenever he’s confronted with the facts, he vanishes. Eventually it turns out that he’s from an alternate world where the bones rolled slightly differently. Yawn.

“The World She Wanted” (1952) - Phil’s first experiment with Solopsism. A man meets a girl with supernaturally good luck, who explains that this world exists entirely to serve her. The twist, of course, is that she’s wrong: this world exists entirely to serve him. The most noteworthy bit is this scene where she’s attempting to explain her philosophy:
“The reason why both the benevolent Creator and the ‘Best of All Possible Worlds’ theory seems to bog down is because we start out with an unjustified assumption - that there is the *only* world. But suppose we try a different approach: assume a Creator of infinite power; surely, such a being would be capable of creating infinite worlds.”

“A Surface Raid” (1952) - Centuries after a nuclear war, humanity emerges from caves to snatch some of the mutant humans who live on the surface for no good reason. This goes badly, and we discover that surface humans aren’t mutants at all, but the subsurface humans have become Goblin-like. Yawn.

“Project: Earth” (1953) - Heaven is preparing to wipe out humanity, and start over again. A young boy discovers the supernatural being (not God, but rather a hired hand) who’s been researching us, and corrupts his prototypes for the next experiment in sapient life. Thus we play the role of the snake in the garden. Meh.

“The Trouble With Bubbles” (1953) - There’s no life in space, so humans amuse themselves by creating tiny real worlds in little bubbles, entering them in contests, and then smashing them afterwards, killing everything inside. Then it turns out Earth is - say it with me - in a bubble. Seriously: was Phil frightened by a snow globe as a kid or what?

“Breakfast At Twilight” (1953) - Terrible. Just terrible. A family wake up one morning to find out that their home has been propelled forward into the middle of World War III, then, after a whole lot of exposition, they get propelled back to the present again, and debate what they can do to change the horrible future they saw. Just screams “Message.” No. Scratch that: It just screams “Dull Message.”

“A Present For Pat” (1953) - Ok, now this one is pretty great: A guy on a business trip to Ganymede buys an alien god for his wife as a present. It’s really a god, honest and for true. The god bickers with the man’s wife (“You were right, she is stupid!”) and turns his best friend into a toad. The bulk of the story revolves around the man arguing with the god, who’s on a mission to capture an evil god, and rescue the toad from a lab. In the end, it all works out, of course. It’s funny, fast, and gloriously off-center. My particular favorite bit is that everyone just accepts the toad really was human with no proof. This is probably the earliest example of Phil’s really loopy sense of humor.

“The Hood Maker” (1953) - in a future ruled by Telepaths, some people attempt to hide their thoughts by wearing “Hoods” which shield them from Telepathy. If you pretend the hoods are tinfoil hats, then the story isn’t *quite* as dull as it sounds. Otherwise, yeah, these are some mighty dry crackers.

“Of Withered Apples” (1953) - Another fantasy piece about a woman who has a love affair with a tree. This is a dark variation on Snow White, I think, all moody and windswept and New Englandy. Not particularly good, but short and weird enough to avoid being particularly bad.

“Human Is” (1953) - an alien takes the place of a woman’s husband. She decides she likes the alien better, and keeps him. Straightforwardly bland little romance that suffers from being entirely too black-and-white. We’re supposed to think the husband is a jerk, but in fact he just comes across as rather Aspergery.

“Adjustment Team” (1953) - Recently filmed as “The Adjustment Bureau,” (2010) I review that film here Basically a man stumbles into some supernatural beings while they’re re-writing reality. Higgaldy Piggaldy ensues. Good story, mostly played for laughs. Better movie, mostly not played for laughs.

“The Impossible Planet” (1953) - This one feels vaguely Asimov-ey, if Asimov did emotions, which he kinda’ didn’t. An old woman wants to go to earth, which is now merely a legend (“It’s been proved that human life arose independently in several different planets at roughly the same time”). She’s really old and has a ton of money, so an unscrupulous captain takes her to a random, burned-out cinder of a world and dumps her. She dies. It turns out the planet really was earth. Yawn.

“Imposter” (1953) - This is probably the first Philip K. Dick story I ever heard of, *possibly* the first one I ever read, and it’s still pretty good: A man is accused of being an alien spy, despite tons of proof to the contrary. He flees and attempts to prove his innocence, but *is* he innocent, or are his memories false? Meanwhile, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

“James P. Crow” (1953) - As the title tells you, this is a way-too-pointed, way-too-obvious “Message” story about segregation. Which isn’t to say Segregation wasn’t an important issue at the time, and hats off to Phil for tackling it - that’s gutsy - it’s just that he doesn’t tackle it very well. It’s a long, slow, boring story. Only the ending - which suggests the bad guys losing isn’t entirely a good thing - takes some of the curse off of it. The unexpected moral seems to be that you can’t just expect a manipulated people to go free, only to be manipulated by new masters from time to time. Ouch, that’s cold!

“Planet for Transients” (1953) - Yet another one of those “Centuries after a nuclear war, the last remnants of humanity come out of their underground cities to find the world is now a crazy quilt of mutants and monsters” kinda’ story. (How many of those has Phil done so far?) This one is better than most. Humans - from Pennsylvania - are going extinct, and are desperately searching for any other surviving bands of humans. One scout has various adventures with various post-human creatures before eventually coming to the remains of a recently-abandoned human habitation in Canada. He realizes that he’s just missed them by a few day, and resigns himself and his people to death. Presently, a rocket lands, and it turns out the Canadians have built a space ship and are going to Mars. Our hero talks about reclaiming the world, but the Canadians point out that this would mean the death of all the sentient post-human species who need the radiation n’stuff to survive. “It’s their world now,” the Canadians say, while offering to take the Pennsylvanians to Mars. Smart people, those Canadians, despite the goofy accent. I’m half Canadian on my dad’s side, you know. Non-practicing, of course.

“Small Town” (1953) - Yet another fantasy piece about a henpecked husband with an adulterous wife who retreats into his hobby of miniature train diorama building, which - oh the pain! - ends up building a new real world that - it pains me to write this - sucks in his wife and her paramour and - yeah, you get it. No need for me to go on.

“Souvenir” (1953) -A long-lost colony is rediscovered by the Galactic Government. They’ve developed a local culture, and want to keep it, whereas the Galactic Government values uniformity. When the colonists won’t give in, the government blows up the planet. However, one of the government’s goons took a few souvenirs, which introduce vanity and greed to his family, and culture, which - presumably - will eventually topple the Galactic Government.

“Survey Team” (1953) - Once again, Earth has blown itself up in a nuclear war. A desperate mission to Mars hopes to populate the planet with survivors, but they quickly realize Mars is even worse than earth: the local species utterly used up every resource on the planet, then abandoned it for another world. The human explorers are furious before realizing that the Martians migrated to Earth half a million years ago, and were our ancestors. Having come full circle, most of the men want to look for a new world to ruin, but one says “Two is enough.”


I have to say it: I’m surprised by how lame a lot of these stories are. Yes, many of them were utterly brilliant when I was 20 and easily impressed, but as a jaded, dead-eyed and joyless fat man in my mid-40s, they’re not. The twists aren’t very twisty, the ideas aren’t all that amazing, and it’s weird to see Phil so derivative in a lot of places. Also: I just don’t like his fantasy stories. They’re not very good. Phil himself always wanted to write straight fiction, not SF, but generally his non-genre work is terrible. This seems to be the case with fantasy as well.

Basically he’s got a lot of gifts, but he’s really phoning these stories in, and not making use of said gifts. When he cuts lose - as in “A Present for Pat” - he’s great, but the rest of the time he’s just cranking out crappy stories for crappy pay. And, hey, nothing wrong with that: that was the game at the time, and everyone played it: Write fast and continue to eat, *DO NOT* labor over every word like a pretentious Lit Major Undergrad, trying to make your goofy story about talking dogs ascend into the rarified air of pure art. That said: the average here is pretty low.

I’m a little surprised and confused by the decision *not* to run these stories in their chronological order. This was true even before they diddled around with the contents of this volume for re-issue: Some of these stories are written after, before, and between those in the previous volume. Weird. I’m assuming it was for space reasons. Volume 1 seems to be generally longer stories.


Probably not too much. “Prominent Author” will annoy everyone. The rest is kinda’ ‘meh.’ There’s the overt liberalism of “Breakfast at Twilight,” but apart from that, not much objectionable to the right, but not much to really endear it either.