Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams
By Philip K. Dick
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 224 pp. $20
Reviewed by Mark Athitakis
Philip K. Dick loved to write about ordinary guys. Ordinary guys who commute by space-car to Ganymede every morning. Or make a wrong turn on a business trip and muck up the space-time continuum. But ordinary all the same. The short stories that launched his career in the 1950s are rife with guys named Doug and Ed and Bill, middle managers who kiss their wives at the door before stumbling into a galactic predicament that evokes one of Dick's favorite themes: Are we sure our reality is ... real?
The makers of the TV show Electric Dreams, an anthology series in the tradition of The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, are just taking advantage of a reliable resource. Its first season, which debuted Friday on Amazon, is based on 10 stories Dick published between 1953 and 1955. The companion book collecting those stories isn't his best work. There are gimmicky climaxes and strained dialogue. ("Something's wrong! Something's happened! Things are going on!") But they reveal how Dick's key obsessions - the ideological and commercial forces that shape and threaten identity - were in place from the start.
Dick's stories have lasted because he grasped that oppression and paranoia were local as well as intercontinental events - indeed, they festered quite well in conformist suburban neighborhoods. "The Hanging Stranger," by far the strongest story in the collection, is a bleak tale that suggests Dick admired Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," published just a few years earlier. A TV salesman emerges from his basement to discover a dead body hanging from a lamppost, but his neighbors are strangely sanguine about the lynching. Soon enough, it's clear aliens have taken over his neighbors' minds: "Controlled, filmed over with the mask of an alien being that had appeared and taken possession of them, their town, their lives." An allegory of racism? Capitalism? Communism? Take your pick.
No matter the format he wrote in, Dick was consistently skeptical about man's fate. "We're licked. ... We humans lose every time," laments one of the rebels in "Autofac." But he stopped short of certain answers, stopped short of dooming us entirely. Because who could say for sure with us baffling humans? In uncertainty, Dick suggests, there's always a glint of possibility.
Mark Athitakis is author of "The New Midwest," a critical study of the region's fiction. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.