Short Stories

The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford

Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction Jan 1954

Doc Labyrinth decides he has figured out the origin of all life: at some point in the distant past an inanimate object was annoyed enough by some irritant that it sprang to life to escape it. The Doc dubs this the Principle of Sufficient Irritation. 

In order to demonstrate this theory he builds the Animator (described as a Dutch oven but more accurately is probably a crock pot since it has a heating mechanism). When his invention doesn’t sufficiently irritate a brass button enough to provoke sentience he sells the device to his friend for five dollars. His friend puts his wet oxfords in the Animator to dry overnight and one oxford is sufficiently irritated enough to come to life. Everyone is sufficiently amazed especially when the oxford finds a woman’s slipper to animate for a companion. 

Cast of characters

  • the unnamed narrator – the same unnamed narrator from “The Preserving Machine”
  • Joan – the narrator’s wife
  • Doc Labyrinth – inventor of the Animator. Also inventor of the preserving machine in “The Preserving Machine”

The Crystal Crypt

Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Planet Stories Jan 1954

Before the last Terrans flee Mars ahead of an outbreak of hostilities a group of three saboteurs shrink down a major city and trap it in a small glass globe. In the last outgoing ship the humans are able to evade the Martians’ lie detector with some semantic trickery (they didn’t ‘destroy’ the city, they just captured it), but they get overconfident when they think they’ve escaped and confess to a Martian posing as a fellow traveler.

A low-budget short movie based on “The Crystal Crypt,” which I have yet to see, was released in 2013. Find out more here.

Cast of characters

  • Bob Thatcher – Martian posing as a Terran 
  • Mara, Ralf Erickson, Jan – the three saboteurs 

The Indefatigable Frog

Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Fantastic Story Magazine July 1953

Professor Hardy, a physics professor, and Professor Grote, a teacher of logic, have a fundamental disagreement about Zeno’s Paradox. Hardy believes Zeno was illustrating a fact of science (if a frog attempts to leap from a well it will never reach the top, since it has to travel half the distance, then half the remaining distance, then half that remaining distance, ad infinitum…), whereas Grote understands it is only a thought experiment.

The school Dean catches them arguing and forces them to settle the dispute once and for all with a demonstration. They construct a tube, put a frog in one end and send him hopping. Except that Hardy has rigged the tube so that the frog shrinks in size as it moves through a force field. Feels like cheating to me. Nonetheless, the frog is ushered through the tube and shrinks to invisibility. Grote enters the tube in search of the frog and Hardy shuts him in, forcing him through the tube as well. Grote eventually shrinks to a sub-atomic size and falls through the molecules of the tube, just as it turns out the frog did. Luckily, both return to their original size when they escape the tube’s force field, but unfortunately this means the experiment is inconclusive.

Cast of characters

  • Professor Hardy – a physics professor
  • Professor Grote – a philosophy professor
  • Pitner – the student who starts the dispute by questioning Professor Hardy

The Variable Man

Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Space Science Fiction Sep 1953

A failed experiment with faster-than-light travel shows promise as a potential bomb that could instantly destroy the Centaurans, but the problem of the central control unit has so far been unsolvable. This all changes when Thomas Cole, an itinerant handyman with the uncanny ability to fix anything, is accidentally brought forward to the present from the year 1913.

The statistical computer can no longer reliably compute odds of victory at all once this ‘variable man’ is around. Security commissioner Reinhart wants Cole killed before the Council realizes the odds of winning the war are no longer in their favor, while the Military Design director Sherikov wants Cole to help him fix the control unit of the so-called Icarus bomb. Cole does eventually ‘fix’ the bomb by figuring out why it wasn’t working as a ftl drive in the first place. Reinhart still tries to kill Cole, Earth loses the war with Centarus when the bomb doesn’t explode (which doesn’t really matter since now Earth possesses the knowledge of faster-than-light travel), the scheming Reinhart is removed from power and Sherikov promises to send Cole back to his own time.

Cast of characters

  • Eric Reinhart – the security commissioner
  • Kaplan – lab organizer
  • Peter Sherikov – director of Military Designs
  • Thomas Cole – handyman from 1913 with the intuitive ability to fix anything
  • Margaret Duffe – President of the Council
  • Joseph Dixon – Reinhart’s second in command


Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Fantasy & Science Fiction Jul 1953

A man is terrorized by ants and is subsequently informed by some spiders that he is correct to be afraid because the ants want to destroy him and all of mankind.

Cast of characters

  • The man – our unnamed protagonist
  • Tirmus, Lala – anthropomorphic ants plotting against the humans
  • the Cruncher, the Stinger – anthropomorphic spiders

The Infinites

Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Planet Stories May 1953

While exploring an asteroid with an Earth-like atmosphere (but strangely no sign of life) the three-person crew of a prospecting ship is hit by a blast of radiation from the asteroid’s core. Once back in space the crew members exhibit mutations that appear to be radiation sickness before they realize the radiation is actually causing their senses to evolve.

With his expanding intellect, Harrison Blake wants to return to Earth and dominate mankind. It seems he will get his way until the other two are rescued by beings of pure energy, which turn out to be the ship’s hamsters in this increasingly preposterous story. The crew kept hamsters on board to test unfamiliar planetary environments, and these hamsters were hit by the radiation before everyone else which somehow caused them to evolve more than the humans.

The energy beings kill Blake, restore Eller and Simmons to their pre-mutated form and head out into space leaving Eller and Simmons to return to Earth.

Cast of characters

  • Major Crispin Eller – captain of the X-43y cruiser
  • Harrison Blake – second in command
  • Silvia Simmons – the ship’s hamster wrangler