Book reviews

I don’t read a great deal of science fiction but after reading the collection of short stories that make up Electric Dreams I think I’ll make an exception in future for Philip K. Dick’s works.

Each story in this collection dropped straight into the action and had me feeling immediately interested to know what would happen. The human characters mostly lived in worlds that required space travel to planets that nobody has ever heard of for their work commutes, and had to deal with kindly futuristic beings as well as scary monsters from other places. Each story was short and wasted no time telling anything that wasn’t necessary for the reader to know.

The first story, Exhibit Piece, will appeal to anyone who has ever wanted to travel back in time to what they might think was a happier, more carefree and a better time. The main character in this story was a historian from the future who specialised in the 1950s, who stepped through a time warp to find himself living in the 1950s complete with a wife, two children and a job he liked.

The Commuter also featured travel, although in this story the main characters set out to find a place on a train line which existed in some realities but not in others. Finding the place changed reality for these characters.

Impossible Planet was the story of a 350-year old woman’s search for the planet Earth, which was supposed by everyone to be a mythical place. It turned out that there were (are?) unscrupulous characters in the future too, including those who were willing to take the woman’s money and take her for a ride to a planet which they said was Earth.

The Hanging Stranger was probably the most macabre story in the collection and it also wins my vote for the most depressing. It left the reader in no doubt that in this version of the future there will be no hope for people ‘like us.’

I don’t know how long ago Sales Pitch was written but unfortunately for our generation some of the speculative fantasies in it now exist for us. They included the relentless advertising we are exposed to, terrible traffic (although in this story the 50-vehicle smash-ups involved spaceships instead of cars) and Vidscreens which constantly deliver the news of the world.

Foster, You’re Dead was another story that predicted elements of our future haven’t turned out well for our generation. In this story advertising was at its most successful when manipulating characters to buy products by playing on their worst fears, in the case, of the world ending.

The Father-Thing was the scariest story in the collection. The main character was a young boy who recognised that his father’s body had been taken over by something that wasn’t his father. I was amused when the young boy went to the bully who regularly beat him up for assistance as this behaviour reminded me of siblings who are happy to fight amongst themselves but will stick together through thick and thin against anyone else, or in this case, monsters.

Human Is also featured a swap but in this story, instead of getting a monster, the wife managed to snag a much nicer husband than her old one in an unexpected exchange.

The last story, Autofac was also the longest. It had an interesting lesson, in that sometimes a kindly dictator is better than freedom.

I was amused by some of the things that dated the stories, including the male characters dominating positions of authority in the community, workplace and the home, to the amount of smoking that went on (smokers are becoming a rare breed these days in Australia). Other inventions were quite apt while there were others that thankfully haven’t yet made it into reality.

I enjoyed the short stories in Electric Dreams very much and look forward to reading more works by this author.

Comments on: "Electric Dreams by Philip K. Dick" (22)

  1. I enjoyed the review! Philip K. Dick appears to be one of those sci-fi writers whose fame and literary reputation increases as time goes on (I read some of his stuff many years ago, in mass market paperbacks; he’s now published in a boxed set on acid-free paper by the Library of America! https://www.loa.org/books/311-the-philip-k-dick-collection-3-volume-boxed-set )
    I think you’ve put your finger on a main reason for his appeal, i.e., he’s a real visionary who can make you feel the immediacy of his visions. Also, again as you note, quite the spotter of disturbing cultural trends. It probably helps that his vision at times has that dark paranoid edge to it, making it perfect for our paranoid times.
    I’ve thought now & then of re-visiting the few novels of his that I’ve read, but . . . . so many books to read, so little time/energy. This short story collection, however, sounds much more doable!

    • What a beautiful boxed set!
      If you’re looking to just dip in and out of his works the short stories are very short, but I think they’ll leave you wanting more (you’ll end up re-reading the novels).
      “Dark paranoid” was exactly the feel of all of these stories and they were all very relatable. Now I’m wondering if it is strange to be paranoid or if everyone is to some extent, or if these stories have just exposed some anxieties I didn’t know I had!
      I wish he’d written about some happier things for the future than those that resonated with me but don’t think that was his style.

  2. Hi Rose (hopefully this will show as a reply): From the little I remember of his work, Dick does not do happy.
    From a personal standpoint, I don’t think it’s strange for anyone these days to be just a teeny paranoid (I know my edginess has increased since 911, Middle Eastern wars and Covid-19), which is why I think Dick’s work has increased in popularity. Thie time in which he wrote had its own serious problems of course, but on the whole I do think things were less complicated.
    Did you see the cable series Man in the High Castle? It’s very, very loosely based on Dick’s novel of the same name and isn’t bad, until the last season (think there were three).

    • If Dick doesn’t do happy, it’s probably because scary, paranoia has a more interesting effect on his readers.
      Several of the stories in the collection reminded me of watching old film showing children preparing for a nuclear explosion by climbing under their school desks, so I suppose even though things seemed simpler then (although that was before my time) those people were worrying about and preparing for the end of the world.
      Glad to hear I’m not the only one whose paranoia is ramping up, though 😉
      No, I haven’t seen Man in the High Castle. I don’t watch much tv as prefer to read, and most of my tv watching is a shared experience (my family don’t always like my choices!). I just looked it up though to add to my list (if I ever get to hold the remote control) and learned that the film Blade Runner is based on a Philip K. Dick story.

  3. Blade Runner’s “inspired” by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep but bears little relationship to it. This is one of the novels I’ve actually read and I remember it as being pretty good (I think Dick’s ideas and vision are usually stellar, so to speak, and are sometimes better than the quality of the writing). Ditto for Man in the High Castle, which is actually (again I read it many years ago) a very good novel, in the alternate reality mode (a “what if” the Axis Powers had won WWII). The other novel I remember reading was The Simulacra, considered a minor work by the Philip K. Dick enthusiasts. I read it around age 15 or so and was utterly baffled (had to look up “simulacra” as wasn’t sure what it meant!). Its themes of illusion vs reality, and ambiguity, would be far more appealing to me now than as a baffled little teeny. The movie Total Recall is also based on a Philip Dick story or novel; can’t remember which one. It’s truly amazing how contemporary film makers have been drawn to his work.
    You make a very good point about the anxieties of a former age! I totally agree they ran deep and affected people’s lives very strongly. I think I was struggling to explain to myself why Dick is currently considered something of a “master” while during his lifetime he was a pretty fringe writer. I wonder if the collective cultural anxiety isn’t now centered more in a distrust of authority figures whom we’d formerly have regarded as benevolent or somewhat on our side? Sure, the Communists were out to kill us all but we didn’t seriously consider the possibility they were working with our own government, or that the two governments were creating an illusion of hositility to fool the masses! Dick is all about reality (if there is any) vs. illusion and we’ve had many years in which a large segment of the population thinks its been misled, on everything from the Middle Eastern wars to the efficacy of vaccines (big anti-vax movement here in the U.S.). Also, our current all-pervasive technology presents us with constant images which may or may not be real. I find the very concept of a “reality TV star” to be very Philip K. Dick!
    My apologies for nattering on, I’m afraid I get a little carried away when I find a subject that interests me! Our whole conversation in fact is re-kindling my desire to check out PKD’s work; in fact, it’s raining here today and I have a few hours — maybe, finally, time to re-read the Simulacra?

    • Well, I just looked up the meaning of ‘simulacra,’ and am positive I’ve never even heard this word before.
      I’m a big fan of alternate reality stories so will look for Man in the High Castle in book form, and will work harder to gain control of the television remote control to watch the series eventually.
      There is certainly less trust in or respect for people or groups in positions of authority than ever before. I think being able to communicate amongst ourselves more than ever before feeds into this collective anxiety, it doesn’t matter if something is true or not but if people hear something often enough they are more likely to believe it. I’m particularly thinking of large groups of people behaving poorly after being manipulated by public figures via social media.
      Your comments about Dick’s themes of reality vs. illusion certainly tie in with his use of advertising in several of the short stories in Electric Dreams and am very amused at your comment about reality tv stars being “very Philip K. Dick”! I suppose their fame or stardom is real while it lasts!
      Don’t apologise, it’s a joy to find other readers who enjoy something that you love too. I’m only be a newbie to this author but you clearly understand and appreciate his work and themes and your enthusiasm is inspiring!
      Hope you find time for a re-read of something by this author 🙂

  4. Wow, these sound good, will make a note of the book. I haven’t read any of his short stories, have read some novels but they were all confusing and very trippy and paranoid! The amusingly dated aspects I find are common to all sci fi from back then.

    • I think you would enjoy this collection and appreciate the cleverness of the futuristic ideas combined with the dated aspects. Confusing, trippy and paranoid, hmm, not sure if that’s a good recommendation or not!

  5. I love the way your reading is going off on different paths at the moment! I haven’t read any Philip K. Dick but have heard good things since I started this blogging and now that I’ve opened the sci-fi door with The Female Man I think I could give him a try!

    • I’m well and truly out of my comfort zone with some of these books, but trying different things is good for us.
      I think I put The Female Man on my list after reading your review 🙂

  6. This short story collection sounds really interesting. I’ve been meaning to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for a while, but never got around to it. Perhaps, I will start with the short stories instead to see how I get on with the author. I do like science fiction, but like you, I don’t read a lot and it has to be “the right kind” of science fiction to keep my interest.

    • I like that short stories are less of a commitment than a whole novel, particularly when I’m trying a new-to-me author or genre.
      I found Dick’s writing style very accessible and didn’t feel overwhelmed by the sci-fi aspects of the stories and think you would like the short stories in Electric Dreams.

  7. I do like short stories, though am not a HUGE fan of science fiction. However, I think a collection like this would appeal.

    BTW I love the sound of Autofac, and the idea “that sometimes a kindly dictator is better than freedom”. A work colleague and good friend of mine often talked about politics and leaders and we thought that the best might be a “benevolent dictator”! One of the problem is, though, that old think that power corrupts!

    • Although the stories in Electric Dreams had sci-fi elements, the characters were human with relatable emotions and behaviours. I think that’s what made this collection so good, as if the stories had been more about the fantastical future (I’m thinking about the technology in the Star Wars films as an example) I wouldn’t have been so interested.
      Autofac was terrific and made me think of times when I’ve wanted change but ended up worse off. I suppose on a larger scale the story relates to countries overthrowing dictators. I think another book reviewer introduced me to the idea of a “benovolent dictator.” I hadn’t heard the term before but it came up in a conversation about when I was remembering a time when my family had been part of a community club and the running of it had been difficult, with a great many egos and strong voices having their say. A kindly dictator would have been the exact thing then, although I can’t imagine the club’s members agreeing who that would have been!
      Power corrupts, Yes! Some animals are more equal than other animals.

      • I know that the best sci fi really is about universal human emotions and behaviour … I loved John Wyndham when I was a teenager because his novels seemed to be about that. I just don’t like it when it gets too fantastical with too many non-human “beings” etc but even there there are exceptions aren’t there?

        • I like your point about the best sci fi being about universal emotions and behaviour and would expang that to include all fiction. And you’re right, it’s harder to connect with more fantastical stories when there isn’t a relatable emotion, behaviour or situation.
          I came to John Wyndham later in life and while I appreciate his stories, I didn’t feel the connection you did.

  8. I’ve read a couple of Dick’s novels and haven’t loved them but your review has made me curious about his short stories. I might like his work better in smaller doses because you’ve made these sound pretty fascinating!

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