Category: Short Stories

The War with the Fnools

The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Galactic Outpost Spring 1964

Once again the Fnools have invaded Earth intent on dominating the Solar System even though the humans defeated them before. This time, in the U.S., the Fnools are masquerading as real estate salesman in Utah. In Berlin they are appearing as VW inspectors, and in Poland they are disguised as chess players. Luckily they are only two feet tall and so they are easily spotted. 

CIA Captain Edgar Lightfoot travels to Provo to capture some Fnools and bring them back to Major Hauk. Since they are small they are easily apprehended, but while transporting two of them back in his ‘copter he lets them smoke a cigarette. Suddenly both Fnools are now four feet tall. Back at CIA headquarters Major Hauk is in despair over a possible Fnool victory. He drinks from a bottle of scotch and hides in a bunker with his secretary. 

When Lightfoot and the Fnools arrive the Fnools overtake Lightfoot while he is preoccupied with Hauk’s scotch. The Fnools then drink the scotch and instantly become six feet tall. Both Hauk and Lightfoot realize it is hopeless, since the aliens are indistinguishable from humans at that size. That is until the Fnools encounter Miss Smith in the bunker. After this third vice, a woman, the Fnools become eight feet tall. Confident no one will mistake them for humans now Hauk is assured the Fnools will be defeated.

Cast of characters

  • Edgar Lightfoot – Captain of the CIA
  • Julius Hauk – CIA Major
  • Miss Smith – Hauk’s secretary
  • Hochflieger – a General in the West German Security Service
  • Serge Nicov – local chief in Poland’s People’s Protective Agency for Preserving the Democratic Process
  • The Fnools

The Little Black Box

The Eye of the Sibyl and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Worlds of Tomorrow Aug 1964

Both the U.S. and Communist governments are threatened by the rise of Mercerism, a proto-religion formed around a man of unknown origin named Wilbur Mercer. Followers of Mercer watch him on a television screen and by grasping the handles on a black empathy box are able to feel the suffering Mercer feels as he walks through a desert on the way to his death. 

Everything else about Mercer is a mystery, but the State Department suspects he is an extraterrestrial connected somehow to jazz harpist Ray Meritan. In cahoots with the Chinese Communists they send Meritan’s mistress Joan Hiashi to Cuba under a ruse hoping she will connect Meritan to Mercer. 

While performing on a live TV broadcast Meritan exposes himself as a follower of Mercer, Joan is arrested in Cuba as a political agitator and all empathy boxes are rounded up and destroyed. Meritan avoids getting captured and finds one last remaining empathy box. When he grabs the handles he is connected telepathically to Bogart Crofts of the State Department who had been holding onto the empathy box at the same time. The state department knows then that Meritan is not Mercer but intend to arrest him anyway. Mercerism is illegal and with all the empathy boxes destroyed they are confident the religion will be eradicated. 

The state department releases Joan as bait to find out where Meritan is. When Meritan meets up with Joan they expect a hard time staying one step in front of the government, but help comes from a strange peddler who surreptitiously passes them instructions on how to assemble an empathy box out of ordinary household objects. 

The Mercerism religion makes an appearance later in Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Cast of characters

  • Bogart Crofts – works for the State Department
  • Joan Hiashi – Asian scholar in Zen Buddhism. Joan Hiashi is also in The Ganymede Takeover
  • Ray Meritan – a telepath and jazz harpist suspected by the State Department to be Wilbur Mercer
  • Douglas Herrick – Secretary of State
  • Mr. Lee – a Chinese telepath

What’ll We Do with Ragland Park

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First published in Amazing Nov 1963

“What’ll We Do with Ragland Park” is a sequel to “Stand-by” and takes place shortly after the events of that story. 

Max Fischer has somehow figured out a way to once again disable the supercomputer Unicephalon 40-D, regain the Presidency and imprison the news clown Jim Briskin. Media mogul Sebastian Hada wants Briskin to prop up the failing CULTURE programming on his network which is of course difficult with Briskin in jail. 

While plotting how to get Briskin out and airing nonstop editorials on his network about how Briskin must be released Hada pursues a folksinger named Ragland Park for CULTURE. Hada soon realizes that Rags has a latent ability to seemingly predict (or create) the future through his ballads and with the help of his psychoanalyst gets Rags to write a ballad where Fischer frees Briskin. 

Fischer does release Briskin from prison, and after Rags performs his ballad on CULTURE everyone, including Fischer, seems to have a grasp on what Ragland Park can do. Everyone that is except Rags himself who remains clueless of his abilities. He writes a ballad about the FBI killing him and then that’s what happens, although Fischer thinks it’s his own psionic talents that affected the outcome.

Cast of characters

  • Jim Briskin – a news clown imprisoned by the FBI after what happened in “Stand-by.” Briskin shows up later in Dick’s novel The Crack in Space
  • Sebastian Hada – a media mogul 
  • Dr. Yasumi – Hada’s psychoanalyst
  • Nat Kaminsky – Hada’s production chief
  • Maximilian Fischer – the President of the United States
  • Leon Lait – Fischer’s cousin and Attorney General

Orpheus with Clay Feet

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First published in Escapade 1964

“Orpheus with Clay Feet” is another meta time travel story along the lines of “Waterspider” which Dick wrote just before this one. 

Jesse Slade has an unfulfilling job helping people legally dodge the draft for the war in Proxima, so for some excitement he decides to take a vacation at Muse Enterprises. Through them he can be sent back in time to inspire a famous historical artist to create their seminal work. Slade’s first choice, to inspire Beethoven, has of course already been done, so he settles on a visit to the 1950s science fiction author Jack Dowland in order to inspire him to write his masterwork “The Father on the Wall.” 

Slade travels back to 1956 but has such a disastrous meeting with Dowland that when Slade returns to his own time he finds that not only did Dowland not end up writing “The Father on the Wall” but Slade actually turned Dowland off from writing much science fiction at all. 

In a metafictional twist the only story Dowland did write was a barely-read story called “Orpheus with Clay Feet” published under the pseudonym Philip K. Dick which is in effect the story we are reading. Based on Slade’s unprecedentedly bad performance the owner of Muse Enterprises has the idea to send him back in time to meet Hitler so Slade can uninspire him to not write Mein Kampf.

Cast of characters

  • Jesse Slade – travels back in time to ‘inspire’ Jack Dowland
  • Mr. Manville – owner of Muse Enterprises
  • Jack Dowland – fictional 1950s science fiction author and also the pseudonym this story was first published under IRL

Waterspider

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First published in If Jan 1964

The Emigration Bureau has run into a small problem in their attempt to send humans to other solar systems. When traveling at nearly the speed of light the humans lose mass and shrink to only one inch tall. So far only convicts have ‘volunteered’ for these secret experimental trips in exchange for their freedom, even though the puzzle of how to restore mass to them once they arrive at their destination hasn’t yet been solved. 

Edwin Fermeti and Aaron Tozzo who work at the Emigration Bureau have an unorthodox idea. They will go back in time and find out from one of the famous twentieth century pre-cogs how to deal with their re-entry problem. 

These ‘pre-cogs’ turn out to be science fiction authors of the 1950s. Tozzo and coworker Craig Gilly travel back to 1954, kidnap author Poul Anderson from a San Francisco science fiction convention and bring him to the future hoping he can use his precog abilities to tell them how they can restore mass to the humans in space travel. Anderson initially escapes from them but gets recaptured and writes them a story which does include the formula they need. They can’t send him back to his time with knowledge of the future so first they wipe his memory. 

They realize their error as soon as Anderson is gone. Because his memory was wiped he couldn’t write the story the future was based on, and the ripple effects from this change create an alternate reality where Tozzo, Gilly, Fermeti and the Emigration Bureau itself is transformed into something from a different story.

When Anderson returns to 1954 the only clue he has to his adventure is a piece of paper with notes scribbled on it which he doesn’t remember writing and which he hands over to be auctioned off at the end of the convention. 

The inclusion of a boatload of Dick’s sci-fi contemporaries and the fish-out-of-water scenarios are both great. This is a very meta story. I’m only a wannabe scholar of mid-century sci-fi (I had to look up half the authors he mentioned), so I have a feeling a lot of it went over my head.

Cast of characters

  • Aaron Tozzo, Craig Gilly – work for the Emigration Bureau
  • Edwin Fermeti – Tozzo and Gilly’s superior
  • Donald Nils, Pete Bailey – prisoners on a trip to the Proxima system
  • Poul Anderson – Hugo and Nebula award-winning author who Tozzo and Gilly kidnap in 1954
  • A.E. van Vogt, Jack Vance, Ray Bradbury, Jack Williamson, Evelyn Page, Margaret St. Clair, Robert Bloch, Tony Boucher, Howard Browne – science fiction authors who have cameos at the convention

Novelty Act

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First published in Fantastic Feb 1964

With just some minor changes, “Novelty Act” was threaded into Dick’s novel The Simulacra as one of that book’s many subplots. 

In this matriarchal United States the First Lady holds more sway over the citizens than the President. Ian Duncan, an aimless member of the Abraham Lincoln apartments, longs only to perform for the First Lady Nicole Thibodeaux in a talent show. 

He and his brother Al used to play classical music in a two-man jug band, but Al currently works in one of Loony Luke’s Jalopy Jungles selling spacecraft to people who want to emigrate to Mars. Ian eventually convinces Al to try for the talent show, and with the help of Al’s artificial papoola (a telepathic Mars alien) they get their audience with the First Lady. Nicole finds them absurd, and the papoola, controlled at that time by Loony Luke, bites her. Suspecting the whole farce as an attempt on her life she first wants them arrested but then decides to just have their memories wiped. 

Ian, who no longer remembers he even had a brother, is then rescued shortly after from his apartment by Loony Luke in one of his jalopies to be reunited with Al. 

I still think the idea of a classical jug band is hilarious. “Novelty Act” is good, but since it’s nearly identical to what’s in The Simulacra maybe just read that instead.

Cast of characters

  • Ian Duncan – aimless member of the Abraham Lincoln apartment building
  • Al Duncan – Ian’s brother and jug band partner. Works for Loony Luke’s jalopy business
  • Patrick Doyle – skypilot for the Abraham Lincoln apartments
  • Edgar Stone – scheming member of the Abraham Lincoln apartments
  • Donald Klugman – current chairman of the Abraham Lincoln apartments 
  • Bruce Corley, Joe Purd, Mrs. Wells – members of the Abraham Lincoln apartments 
  • Nicole Thibodeaux– the First Lady
  • Taufic Negal – the President
  • Harold Slezak – White House A & R secretary
  • Loony Luke – owner of the jalopy jungles