Book review: The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford

Philip K. Dick. The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1: The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford. New York: Kensington Publishing, 1987. 404 pp.

Philip K. Dick, in my estimation, was one of the most significant American authors of the 20th century. Though he worked for the most part in “mere” science fiction, his writing tackled many serious themes: What does it mean to be human? What is reality? His typical protagonist is a simple, beleaguered salesman/mechanic/robot/alien confronting a hostile world. A paranoid vision, yes, but a nonetheless compelling one.

The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford collects some of Dick’s earliest writing, including much of his output from 1952-1955. Even writers who don’t appreciate his prose style would have to admire his fecundity: some of these stories were written within days of each other, yet each has something unique about it.

Fans of Dick will see early brushstrokes that were later transformed into masterpieces. There are a few post-apocalyptic stories here; this is a genre that Dick would revisit throughout the 1950s, as mounting hysteria, foreign and domestic, seemed to make war inevitable. There are also scheming insects (and even a murderous bath towel), vengeful teddy bears, sentient shoes, and world-weary computers. One of Dick’s best qualities is that he can make the reader feel empathy for just about anyone–a dog barking for what seems to his owners like no reason, a teary-eyed Martian swine, or a hyper-evolved hamster. So reading this collection might, for some, be a bit of a workout. Unlike a novel, where the reader sees through the eyes of one or maybe two characters for 200+ pages, here you’re walking in someone–or something–else’s shoes every few pages. At times, it’s almost intoxicating.

On to the stories: I’ll just mention a few of my favorites, though they’ve all got positive qualities.

Stability, which is the first story Dick wrote, would be of interest just because of its priority, but it’s worth a read strictly on its own merits. Dick creates a world where innovation is frozen, a la Rand’s Anthem, inviting the reader to root for a young man with an invention. But, there is a very unexpected twist…

Roog, the first story Dick saw published, is a dog’s eye view of the world that deserves a second read after reading Dick’s note on the story in the appendix.

Beyond Lies the Wub is an incredible piece of short fiction that really makes you think. I read the story three times, and each time took something different away. Not to give anything away, but you’ll definitely think twice before you eat your next steak.

The Infinites is a story that everyone who hated the infamous Star Trek: Voyager episode “Threshold” should read. Not to give anything away, but “Threshold” is one of several Trek stories based upon the erroneous idea that evolution is a teleological process, with an endpoint already mapped out in our genes. Here, Dick takes this idea, turns it on its head, and does something with it.

Variable Man combines a few Dickian favorites: omniscient computers, a constant war terror, and a wily, inarticulate everyman protagonist. Some elements of the plot are visible miles off, but the ending isn’t.

Paycheck is a longish story with a typical Dickian hero and several elements that would later make it into We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which was in turn the basis for Paul Verhoeven’s excellent Total Recall. I think that it deserves a movie treatment of its own.

Colony takes paranoia to an absurdly high level. As Dick says in his note, it’s one thing to think that your boss is plotting against you, and quite another to think that your boss’s phone is plotting against you.

Nanny is a biting indictment of planned obsolescence. It was a true story in 1952, and an even truer one now.

All told, this is a great introduction to the writing of one of the acknowledged masters, and certainly belongs in the library of every PKD fan.

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