Short Story Review: “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick

(Cover by Alex Ebel. Space SF, May 1953.)

Who Goes There?

With most authors I’ve covered they’re either new to me or I don’t know enough about them to get really nostalgic and defensive about their work; unfortunately I won’t have that vantage point with Philip K. Dick. Spoilers in advance, but it’ll be virtually impossible for me to pretend to be objective about Dick, who has been for a good decade one of my top five favorite authors—inside or outside of genre fiction. I had read “classic” science fiction before but Dick was the one who turned me into an addict. You could say I like Dick a lot. From his debut in 1952 to his untimely death in 1982, Dick pushed the boundaries of what was possible in SF writing, evolving over three decades into someone who still remains a unique voice in the field—despite all the folks who owe a debt to him. He’s also, perhaps not incidentally, a perennial favorite for academics and fanboys with degrees in the growing department of science fiction studies.

Before he became one of the field’s top novelists, though, Dick started out as one of the best and most prolific of short story writers; in what was in hindsight a short time span (most of his short fiction was published before 1960), Dick sold dozens of short stories a year during his peak, with something like thirty short stories being published in 1953 alone. I don’t think even Robert Sheckley wrote this much in a single year. Yes, 1953 was a boom year for Dick, and today’s story, “Second Variety,” might be the most famous to come out of that batch, garnering a Retro Hugo nomination for Best Novelette and coming close to winning—only losing to James Blish’s “Earthman, Come Home.” Truth be told, I always found the Blish story hard to digest without prior knowledge of his Cities in Flight series, whereas Dick’s story very much works on its own terms.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the May 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. If I was to go through every time this story has been collected and anthologized we’d be here all day, so I’ll restrict myself to reprints that are in print, since even then you have several options. First, if you want a free and accessible version that’s not a legal grey area, good news, somehow “Second Variety” fell out of copyright a while ago and now you can read it perfectly legit on Project Gutenberg, link here. I do recommend reading a copy that doesn’t include interior illustrations, as while the ones by Alex Ebel for the magazine publication (and on Gutenberg) are nice, they also allude to the two biggest twists in the narrative. For book reprints the best choices would be Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, The Philip K. Dick Reader, and The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick. As for myself I also have The World Treasury of Science Fiction, a typical David G. Hartwell anthology in that it is fucking massive; proceed with caution.

Enhancing Image

Earth is fucked. The Cold War between the Americans and Soviets has long since gone hot and pretty much the whole planet has been rendered unhabitable. The American government, now in exile, has retreated to Earth’s moon. How they managed to build a moon base is beyond me. Meanwhile nearly the whole human population has either died or gone off-planet. “All but the troops.” Even the military is no longer organized, “a few thousand here, a platoon there,” with the only thing giving the soldiers a sense of cohesion being comms with the moon base. We start in one of the bunkers that are surely scattered throughout the scarred landscape, with Major Hendricks as our protagonist—a disciplined but otherwise unexceptional man who will prove to be our eyes and ears for the hell we’ll witness.

A Russian troop runs across the battlefield with a message (unbeknownst to the Americans) before getting killed and torn apart by a pack of claws—little robots that have enough agility and raw steel to slash a man’s throat. The Americans wear badges that prevent the claws from going after them, as they should, considering the claws will go after anything that’s organic; even the rats that populate the trenches and holes of the ruined earth sometimes get caught up a claw’s blades. The Russian’s message reads that the Russian encampment is looking to make peace with the Americans, a call for a cease fire that naturally the Americans are skeptical about. One soldier needs to head over to the Russian base to agree to peace. Simple enough. Hendricks volunteers and the plot, such as it starts, is a simple point-A-to-point-B mission, assuming the claws never mistake Hendricks for the enemy and assuming the Russians don’t get themselves killed by then…

Some backstory…

The Americans were losing the war, and badly; thus a super-weapon was needed to push back the enemy, and in this case the Americans got the bright idea to build the claws. Now the claws aren’t just killer robots: these are robots that are not only rabidly bloodthirsty but also granted enough cognitive capacity to be able to reproduce themselves, in that they’re able to run their own factories where they can build and program more claws, independent of human input. Since the top brass couldn’t figure out a way to program faction loyalty into the claws (an RPG, after all, cannot know anything about nationalism), they’re designed to go after anything that moves, making them not-too-picky killers.

Hendricks leaves, but en route to his destination he comes across a boy with a teddy bear who has apparently been surviving on his own. So, the boy is named David and he has a teddy bear. Did Brian Aldiss take inspiration from “Second Variety” when writing “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” or is this one of those weird coincidences? Anyway, Hendricks takes the boy under his wing until they’re stopped by a pack of what appear to be Russian soldiers, who at first seem to take aim at Hendricks—only to shoot David, blowing him to metal pieces and revealing him to have been a claw in disguise. Hendricks has unwittingly almost let a claw into the bunker with him, having mistaken the robot for a human. It wass a good job too; other than some strange behavior that can be explained by the fact that people become unhinged when put in isolation, the claw convinced the jaded military man that it was a real boy for a time. The blurring of the line between the real and fraudulent is a theme Dick will return to many times over his career, and while “Second Variety” was not even the first example of this, it was, along with “Colony,” an effective use of the theme to invoke horror.

Speaking of which, I did say that I’d prefer you read a version that doesn’t come with illustrations, but I’ll allow the first of Ebel’s interiors, which gives away David being a claw but which I think still properly conveys the eeriness of the claws starting to replicate humanity. This is a reminder that much of what Dick wrote can be classified as horror, even though Dick is never talked about as a horror author—probably because, in the hierarchy of genres, horror, for Dick, always came second to science fiction. The two genres have had a symbiotic relationship since the days of Mary Shelley, but that’s a lecture for another time. Like I said, Ebel’s work is good.

Hendricks meets up with a small group of survivors—some Soviet troops who have been cut off from headquarters. The implication, of course, is that there’s no longer any headquarters to get in touch with. The survivors are Rudi, Klaus, and Tasso, the last of these being a young woman whose relationship with the others is unclear. It’s here, in temporary safety (but are we really safe), where we get a further explanation of the claws, including the humanoid varieties, of which “David” is one. Variety I (mind the Roman numberals) is the Wounded Soldier, Variety III is the David, but nobody’s yet found what Variety II would be—hence the title. The idea behind the varieties seems to be not just extermination but infiltration, with claws posing as humans so as to make real humans let their guard down. Apparently the varieties were not the Americans’ idea…

The claws are evolving; not only can they make more of themselves but they’re producing new models, with the varieties even being immune to the badges the American troops wear. Nobody is safe anymore. “It makes me wonder,” says Hendricks, “if we’re not seeing the beginning of a new species. The new species. Evolution. The race to come after man.” It’s possible for a David or a Wounded Soldier to trick an American bunker into being let in, which does not bode well for Hendricks when he eventually has to get back to HQ. Ah, but as long as the claws don’t get to the moon base…! Not to spoil things, but if you’re looking for an optimistic take on mankind’s future you make wanna look elsewhere is all I’m saying.

A lot happens in “Second Variety,” which at first glance, going by page count, looks like a novella, but with a lot of scene breaks and short punchy bits of dialogue it turns out to be not as long as it looks. Still, this is a long novelette at 15,000 words, and Dick demonstrates his mastery of economical writing by keeping the pace of the narrative at a pop-pop-pop rhythm, only giving us a single lengthy infodump towards the beginning before letting short bursts of action and dialogue speak for themselves. It’s still a long story, but given how much Dick crams in here it’s a lot of bang for one’s buck. We spend enough time in the bunker with the survivors in the story’s midpoint that we’re lulled into a sense of security—which proves to be very false indeed. Everything goes to SHIT after this point, let’s see how.

There Be Spoilers Here

The party starts to dwindle. Klaus kills Rudi on the suspicion that Rudi is a claw—or so Klaus claims. Turns out, judging from the organic remains, Rudie was not a claw, but the damage has already been done. Personally I would take this as a huge red flag with regards to Klaus, but for the time being he has plausible deniability. SURPRISE, Klaus is a claw too, only stopped from killing Hendricks as well thanks to an EMP bomb that Tasso carries, which would only really be useful against claws. You’d think this would absolve her of being a claw herself, but there’s one little problem with that: Tasso is the second variety. More successfully than David and even Klaus, Tasso manages to trick Hendricks into thinking she’s human until it’s too late to stop her. I wanna point out that this is not as much of a shock if you’re reading the magazine version or on Gutenberg, where we get an illustration showing a woman-shaped robot well before the reveal, but I also have to admit that the foreknowledge of Tasso’s nature does little to lessen the impact.

Not that Dick’s stories tend to have happy endings, but “Second Variety” has to have one of the bleakest. Hendricks has just unwittingly let a claw take a ship to the moon base where the last of the American faction will probably get annihilated. As he’s fending off an army of claws and bleeding out he reflects back on the anti-claw bomb Tasso used on Klaus, and we get one of the most haunting final lines in a ’50s SF story: “They were already beginning to design weapons to use against each other.” A charitable reading of the ending is that the claws may destroy each other, having rid themselves of humanity at last, but Dick may also be implying that the end, for better or worse, is not yet. There will be no clear end to the destruction. There are quite a few post-apocalypse narratives that sprouted following the end of World War II, but unlike those other stories, wherein the fighting has more or less stopped at least, humanity being in too much a state of disarray to make matters worse, the ruined world of “Second Variety” continues to degrade itself, with machines simply continuing humanity’s “work.”

A Step Farther Out

Admittedly part of the fun of reading “Second Variety” is understanding the historical context behind it, because this is a Cold War story from start to finish. I actually watched Screamers, which is loosely based on this, the other day, and it just didn’t have the same punch—in part because it lacked the background of Cold War paranoia. In fairness to the filmmakers, Screamers came out in 1995; the Soviet Union had collapsed a few years prior. Sure, the claws are creepy, but the overall creepiness in the short story is greatly amplified by the constant uncertainty of things. We managed to stop the real Cold War from going hot, but in the ’50s it must’ve been easy to imagine the worst-case scenario, resulting in one of Dick’s bleakest narratives. And I’m here for it! Of Dick’s short stories, “Second Variety” is one of the most memorable that I’ve read; I suspect it didn’t find its way into any of the major magazines because a) Dick was too prolific at this point, and b) the story was too dark, at a time when editors—even the more liberal ones—preferred happy endings. Really it was their loss.

See you next time.


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