Thursday, January 18, 2007

Upon the Dull Earth

by Philip K. Dick
from Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick

Something else I don't usually read: science fiction - at least not on a regular basis. I try to get in at least one sci-fi book a year but even that's often too difficult to do. I'm impatient and often bored, I've found, with talking, furry aliens from other worlds, disgusting creatures, space travel, robots, and all other manner of fantastic technologies. And I've had the misfortune of reading sci-fi authors whose only point, it seems, is to write about cool aliens and fast space jets. But I refused to give up and last year I finally decided to stop dicking around (pun intended) and bought The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, mainly because I'd seen most of the movies based on his short stories and liked them well-enough to wonder and hope that the stories would be better, as is often the case, than the movies they had inspired.

There isn't a movie based on the short story "Upon a Dull Earth" but if there was it would have definitely been a horror flic. This is the creepiest, most disturbing in a send-shivers-down-your-spine kind of way story that I've read in a long while. Jonathan Letham hits the nail on the head when he says that it "reads like a Shirley Jackson outtake." It would be easy to say that "Upon a Dull Earth" is a lesson in being careful what you ask for. In this case, the main character Rick only wants to marry his girlfriend Silvia, have some kids, and grow old with her. Silvia however dies prematurely and when he tries to get her back, he and her both bite off quite a bit more than they can chew. It sounds a bit like Stephen King's "Pet Cemetery" but it's much more subtle than that. Silvia comes back - a lot of her comes back - but she doesn't eat or kill anyone. She's just there and it is creepy.

But to simply qualify this as a "be careful what you ask for" story would be an injustice. In the process, Dick reinvents heaven, angels, humans, God and the "dull earth" between. I'm half-way through The Selected Stories... and I have already decided that Dick has written the best sci-fi I've ever read. I have only just discovered that that's because, although, like other writers of the genre, Dick writes of the future, technology and otherworldly creatures, they are all second fiddle to the men and women who populate his stories. The stories are not about the science, they're about the man. Those are the kind of stories, sci-fi or no, that I would read any day of any year.