Upon the Dull Earth

Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Beyond Fiction #9 1954

‘Upon the Dull Earth’ is a great horror / fantasy story about a young girl named Sylvia who has a unique ability to attract angels. She is thrilled by this, until the angels, drawn by blood from a cut on her finger, kill her and take her away. Her boyfriend Rick tries to bring her back from the spirit realm, but things don’t go as planned as everyone on Earth is slowly replaced by Sylvia, a scenario that reminded me of one that plays out in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

Cast of characters

Sylvia – our protagonist who has the ability to communicate with angels
Rick – Sylvia’s boyfriend
Walter Everett – Sylvia’s father
Betty Lou and Jean – Sylvia’s sisters

Foster, You’re Dead

Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in STAR Science Fiction Stories no.3 1955

Schoolboy Mike Foster desperately wants a bomb shelter, partly to fit in (his is the only family not to own one) and partly for a sense of security (this is 1971 and the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union). Mike eventually convinces his father to buy the newest model shelter on an installment plan. His family though can’t afford it after the Russians develop a new weapon rendering all shelters obsolete unless owners pay for a costly upgrade. The shelter then gets repossessed sending Mike into a fit of despair.

‘Foster, You’re Dead’ was adapted as ‘Safe and Sound’ for the first season of Amazon Prime’s Electric Dreams. It’s not a terrible episode of television, but it shares very little in common with the short story.

Cast of characters

  • Mike Foster
  • Bob Foster – Mike’s dad and the last of the town’s anti-preppers
  • Ruth Foster – Mike’s mom
  • Bill O’Neill – shelter salesman for General Electronics

Adjustment Team

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First published in Orbit Science Fiction #4 Oct 1954

On the edges of reality an adjustment team constantly tweaks the known world in order to nudge things in a certain direction. Ed Fletcher accidentally sees behind the curtain when an adjustment team clerk misses his cue and allows Ed to arrive at work late. After Ed witnesses the terrifying spectacle of the adjustment team in full-on adjustment mode he is taken before The Old Man, a godlike figure in charge who eventually lets Ed return to his life as long as he promises not to tell anyone what he has seen.

I really like the 2011 movie, refashioned as The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. It takes just the basic idea and turns it into a love story (which admittedly doesn’t feel all that phildickian) that deals with predestination and free will.

Cast of characters

  • Ed Fletcher – our everyman protagonist
  • Ruth Fletcher – Ed’s wife
  • Nathan Douglas – Ed’s boss
  • The Old Man – in charge of the whole shebang

The King of the Elves

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

Shadrach Jones owns a failing gas station in the small town of Derryville. He is visited by elves one rainy evening and lets them rest in his home. The elf king dies overnight but not before naming Shadrach as his successor. Shadrach then helps the elves defeat an army of trolls, and he chooses to remain the elf king rather than return to his old life.

Cast of characters

  • Shadrach Jones – the king of the elves
  • Phineas Judd – Shadrach’s friend who turns out to be the great troll

Imposter

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First published in Astounding Science Fiction Jun 1953

During a war with Alpha Centauri on Earth Spencer Olham is captured by the government under suspicion of being an alien masquerading as a human. He escapes and attempts to prove his innocence, but it turns out he was this alien imposter all along and didn’t know it.

Dick had written nearly fifty short stories at this point as he really starts to dig into ‘what is human?’ a question he would spend a lot of time with in his later books and stories.

Gary Sinise stars in a 2002 movie, but there’s not much to recommend about such a dull adaptation… at least they kept the ending.

Cast of characters

  • Spencer Olham – part of a team developing a weapon to use against the alien invaders
  • Mary – Spencer’s wife
  • Nelson – works with Olham
  • Major Peters – member of government security

Second Variety

Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick
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First published in Space Science Fiction May 1953

A war between Russia and the U.S. left the world’s cities destroyed. The American government fled to a secret base on the moon, while behind on Earth a skeleton crew of soldiers fights what remains of the Soviet Army. The Americans have the vicious robotic claws on their side until the claws learn to evolve. Deep in underground factories the claws begin to build machines, indistinguishable from humans, that kill without loyalty to Russia or the Americans.

While traveling to meet with the Russians, the American Major Hendricks finds this out when he encounters the young child David, the third variety of these robot simulacra. The Russians tell him about the first robot variety, but then the question becomes which one of them is the second variety pretending to be human.

The next story Dick wrote is a sequel of sorts called “Jon’s World” that takes place in the future after the war. The 1995 movie Screamers based on “Second Variety” starring Peter “RoboCop” Weller sticks close to the short story and managed to entertain me in spite of some 90s-era special effects.

Cast of characters

  • Major Hendricks – our protagonist
  • David – the third robot variety
  • Klaus Epstein – a Russian soldier
  • Rudi Maxer – a corporal in the Soviet army
  • Tasso – a young girl embedded with the Russians