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Minority Report

by Philip K Dick

(Gollancz, £6.99, 290 pages, hardback, published July 2002. Note: this is different to the Minority Report published as part Dick's Collected Stories.)

This is the "Now filmed by Steven Spielberg" edition, cover scannot to be confused with the earlier fourth volume of Dick's Collected Stories (also called Minority Report, also published by Gollancz in the UK, and by Citadel Press in the US as The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories). I suppose the confusion was unavoidable: the movie tie-in edition really has to bear the movie's name, even if there has already been a different Dick book published under that title. Just to add to the confusion, the "Also by Philip K Dick" listing at the front of this volume lists the fourth volume of his Collected Stories as We can Remember it for you Wholesale, which was actually the fifth volume. It's almost as if reality is shifting and reshaping itself around the author. Curiously Dickian, if he ever bothered with such trivialities...

It should be noted that the movie tie-in and Collected Stories volumes only have the title story in common. Where the Collected Stories set is more for completists -- which you may well become after reading the volume under review here -- the tie-in edition is something of a Greatest Hits, or as Malcolm Edwards says in his introduction, all the filmed stories ("Minority Report", "Second Variety" and "We can Remember it for you Wholesale") "plus a selection of others chosen as a representative introduction to this most imaginative and enjoyable of writers".

There are three Dicks at loose in this collection: the dazzler, whose stories feature stunning twists and turns and brilliant extrapolation of the mundane; the pedestrian, where the energy just isn't there and the author's flaws are more evident -- when there's no pizzazz to whisk the reader onwards past the flatness of character and lack of overall richness; and the downright weird.

Dick dazzles us in "Minority Report", where Anderton is head of the Department of Precrime, a policing unit that uses "precog mutants" to spot criminals before they can commit their crimes. When Anderton finds himself up on a charge that he will murder someone it has to be a conspiracy, doesn't it? What else could it mean? Suddenly, there are lots of factions at plays: Witwer, the newly arrived deputy commissioner, keen to take Anderton's place; Anderton's wife, Lisa, tired of him and maybe in league with Witwer; yet others, manoeuvring in the background. Almost with every page, every paragraph, paranoid conspiracies and interpretations of events twist and buck. This is classic Philip K Dick! You can question some of the plot turns -- a bit convenient, a bit too easy -- but it's hard to question the sheer helter-skelter zest of the thing.

He dazzles again in "Imposters", a story centring around questions of identity and shifting perceptions and understandings. No one thinks Spence Olham is really Olham, but he does... They think he's an imposter, a spy for the Outspacers from Alpha Centauri. The shaky underpinnings of reality and our understanding of reality are hallmarks of PKD, as are the frequent points where you pull up short, thinking "how could he get away with that?" or "why didn't they just...?" But the audaciousness of plotting is exhilarating even as it teeters on the edges of believability. What the hell...

"Second Variety" is another good one, although the twists are rather more telegraphed. This is Cold War sf about a war where what remains of UN forces are getting the upper hand by use of lethal robots. Now the Russians want to talk -- but why? This is one of three stories in the collection to have been filmed (by Dan O'Bannon as Screamers) which, with the films made from his novels, makes Dick perhaps the sf writer treated most seriously by the movie industry. But not only is he frequently-filmed, you can see clearly in stories such as "Second Variety" the germs of films like Terminator, with their replicating war 'bots threatening to take on a life of their own with new, improved varieties emerging all the time.

"We can Remember it for you Wholesale" should be familiar as the Paul Verhoeven's film Total Recall. Douglas Quirl is, in his own words, "a miserable little salaried employee" with a wife who knocks him back at every opportunity. He just wants to go to Mars. But he can't afford it and so is left with the next best thing: to have false memories of a visit implanted. If he can't go to Mars, he can remember having been. And from that point on, things get complicated, with the memory implantation process uncovering hidden memories and Quirl's understanding of his self and his past shifting frequently. Great stuff.

"Electric Ant" shows Dick the dazzler at work again. Garson Poole, a successful businessman, wakes up in hospital minus a hand. He just wants to get out of there, but then the doctors reveal something about him that even he didn't know: he's an "electric ant", an organic robot. This leads to something of an existential crisis and provides another wonderful flipping of perceptions as we view this revelation from Poole's perspective: we don't understand our own world, we don't even know ourselves...

In "Faith of Our Fathers" we have Dick getting weird and leaving this reader, for one, far behind. In a 1984-type future Hanoi, with the populace monitored through their TVs, Tung Chien is an official in the Ministry of Cultural Artifacts. When he's handed a new assignment to examine thousands of students' test papers for evidence of political deviance he knows it must be a trap -- a test of his own political values, which are starting to waver. All fair enough, but then he is dragged into the world of their great leader and the plot gets lost in a welter of hallucinogenic meanderings that may well have seemed interesting at the time.

"Oh to be a Blobel!", "War Game" and "What the Dead Men Say" are pedestrian Dick. A war vet struggling to cope with the adaptations he has had to make for war; the testing of a game, produced by potential enemies; a story of what happens after death. All interesting enough premises, but each illustrates how shaky are the foundations of much of Dick's work. In "What the Dead Men Say", death is followed by a period of "half-life", a short amount of time which can be rationed out over long periods in which the dead can be revived -- so that, potentially, they can "live" on for a long time. When attempts to bring back Very Important Businessman Louis Sarapis fail, it's clearly more than mere negligence -- this is Dick, after all. Sure enough, Sarapis starts speaking from beyond the grave. From outer space, in fact... Yet no-one seems terribly bothered, other than those directly concerned in the plot mechanics. Even when entire communications networks -- phones, TV, radio -- are blocked by Sarapis' broadcasts, it doesn't really seem to be a problem. This shows Dick deeply flawed: fiction, whether satirical (or even with outright comic intent - not that this is) or not, still needs to be grounded in a suspension of the reader's disbelief. At his ebullient best, Dick keeps things moving so fast that the reader is swept along, but where this approach fails him all that's really left for the reader is fascination with the workings of his imagination.


Review by Keith Brooke.

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