The Variable Man and Other Stories

By Philip K. Dick

Rating: 4 stars

Billed as a complete novel along with a selection of shorts, The Variable Man itself is more of a novella these days. A man is pulled accidentally from his own time into the 22nd century where his very existence is a variable factor that the computers planning the war against Centarus can’t plan for.

This story is very much of its age, with the idea of all-seeing computers, where you just feed in the data to complex sociological questions and the answer pops right out. Thomas Cole, the variable man himself, is a sort of genius with his fingers, able to repair almost anything. Dick couldn’t have predicted the integrated circuit revolution that was only a decade away and which would change so much, with pathways being embedded directly into silicon, removing the need for micro-wiring and effectively rendering the whole premise obsolete. Beyond that, Dick does raise the spectre of the human versus the machine that is such a mainstay of the genre, with the slavish obedience to the output of the machine being played against human creativity which works well.

I enjoyed the other stories in the collection as well, apart from Autofac about a network of automated factories that were no longer needed and the attempts of the human population to shut them down. I don’t know why this didn’t engage me, but it felt flat all the way through.

Minority Report is a pretty different beast from the Hollywood film of the same name, but is an enjoyable action romp, with a bit of Dick-ian twisty logic thrown in there; Second Variety is about the evolution of robots designed for war and A World of Talent shows the ultimate psi talent emerging, but unrecognised, on a breakaway colony world.

A good collection of fairly early PKD and solid SF of the era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780722129623
Publisher: Sphere Books Limited
Year of publication: 1957

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