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Summaries of All of Philip K. Dick's Short Stories

“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” August 1965

Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1966
PKD V2 (35-52)

Douglas Quail is a minor government clerk who dreams of going to Mars. But even if he could afford it, only Interplan agents go there. He decides to have Rekal Incorporated implant a detailed memory of such a trip. Something goes wrong during the process. Under the drug used, he remembers actually going to Mars as an Interplan agent. Rekal sends him away without implanting any memories. Two Interplan agents appear at his apartment and he remembers almost everything. He was sent to Mars to kill a man. The agents can read his thoughts and decide they will have to kill him, but he escapes. He suggests that his memory be altered again, but Interplan points out the paradox: if he is made “normal,” he will crave the excitement of a trip to Mars and return to Rekal, where he will remember the truth yet again. He suggests they find some wish he has and implant a memory of it being fulfilled and they agree. A psychiatrist identifies the deeply buried wish. He imagined that as a child he witnessed the landing of an alien craft and learned that they planned to invade. He shows them “kindness and mercy” and they agree not to invade as long as he shall live. Interplan takes him to Rekal to have this memory implanted. But trouble arises again in a passage that parallels that recounting of the first procedure. He already has the memory of saving the world because it actually happened, exactly as he wished. In a nice twist, Interplan must not kill him now, or the risk of alien invasion would return.

Related, on Lit Reactor: Book Vs. Film: Total Recall / We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

“Prominent Author” May 1953

If May 1954
PKD V2 (21-34)

Henry Ellis works for Terran Development. His wife Mary is proud that they have a prototype Jiffi-scuttler, which gets him to work instantaneously. A 160 mile commute is collapsed handily into the fourth dimension. Henry starts to see little people through a thin spot in the wall of the tunnel. They start to give him sheets with questions. He has them translated and answered by the Federal Library of Information and retranslated then given to the mysterious little robed figures, which Henry takes as some sort of aliens using a non-Terran language. Soon he sees they are erecting a temple to him, making sacrifices, etc. But it all ends when his boss finds out. The little people are not aliens but ancient Jews. The answers Henry gave them have been compiled in a book called Holy Bible. Henry is fired, but he seems happy in his new career as a writer, even though his wife and her friend think he has gone mad. He is working on his second book. Holy Bible was “just a little thing [he] threw together.”

“Beyond the Door” August 1952

Fantastic Universe January 1954
PKD V2 (15-20)

Larry finally gives his wife the cuckoo clock she has always wanted, then announces that he got it wholesale and would not have been able to afford it otherwise. Doris loves the clock and the cuckoo, who pops out to see her more than is strictly necessary from a time-telling point of view. The cuckoo does not like Larry. Doris tries to show the clock to her “friend” Bob, but Larry arrives home unexpectedly. Realizing there are two “cuckoos” in the house, he throws Doris and Bob out, but keeps the clock. Finally, angry that the cuckoo consistently refuses to show itself, Larry comes at it with a hammer. The cuckoo launches itself out into Larry’s eyeball. His body is found and his death ruled accidental by the doctor, but Bob suspects otherwise.

Photo courtesy of our dear friend Sarah.

“The Cookie Lady” August 1952

Fantasy Fiction June 1953
PKD V2 (7-13)

Fat Bubber Surle can’t resist cookies. He goes to old Mrs. Drew’s house for the cookies that she bakes. She enjoys his company and his youth, but he is only in it for the cookies. When he returns home, his parents notice how tired he has become. Mrs. Drew, on the other hand, briefly grew younger while Bubber read to her. But it didn’t last. She has been moving her chair closer and closer to where he sits. His parents tell him not to go and see Mrs. Drew any longer because of the effects these visits have on him. He can go back one more time to tell her. When he does so, she is alarmed. This time she sits very close and touches him as he reads. His youth flows into her, and this time it stays. She is young and beautiful again. Bubber starts to head home, but is weak and cold and the strong wind is too powerful. When his anxious parents open the door to a faint tapping, they find only what seems some scattered gray rags and weeds on the porch.

“Nanny” August 1952

Startling Stories Spring 1955
PKD V1 (383-397)

The Field children are watched over by a robot nanny. But Mrs. Field is worried about what the nanny does at night … she goes outside. It turns out the robot nannies are designed by different firms to fight one another. The Field’s green nanny is badly damaged by a neighbor’s more advanced blue one. Mr. Field takes her in for repairs and learns the truth from the service man, who urges him to upgrade to a new larger model. Mr. Field angrily resists, insisting on getting his repaired. The next day at the park, she is destroyed by a large orange nanny. Mr. Field shops for a new one, choosing a huge black one. He counsels his children to go where they wish without fear now. The next day, the orange nanny is killed by the Field’s powerful new black nanny. The orange nanny’s owner Mr. Casworthy is not amused. He will get the biggest nanny there is, even if one of the robotics companies has to design a new more advanced model. These firms are happy to do so, practically necessitating that owners replace them frequently with ever more advanced (and expensive) models. The story nicely parodies the foolishness of both the arms race and planned obsolescence. With Mrs. Casworthy’s question “Can we really afford it?” sounding a poignant note near the end.

Photo credit: edvvc (Flickr: 1952 Abarth 1500 Biposto BAT 1) Creative Commons 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Prize Ship” August 1952

Thrilling Wonder Stories Winter 1954
PKD V1 (365-382)

The representatives of Ganymede, a mere moon, have been trying to get equal status with the representatives of the planets. The other planets, especially Terra and Mars, are at war with Ganymede, which controls the space cradles they need to launch transport ships to their colonies in deep space. The situation looks grim, and the senators from the various planets are about to vote and, it would seem, to capitulate to the Ganymedeans. Then Mars captures an odd Ganymedean ship, and the Terrans decide to try it out before they can analyze how it works. A crew of four attempts to take it to Mars. But they end up somewhere different. Everyone is tiny, and soon part of the crew suspects that they are in the world of Lilliput created by Jonathan Swift. To test the theory, they take the ship in the opposite “direction” and they end up in Brobdingnag. They think Swift saw these worlds through his madness and put them in stories. They return to Terra where a Ganymede representative has come to claim his ship. It turns out it’s a time ship, not a space ship. The changing relative size of the Terrans over time is just a function of the expansion of the universe. And Gulliver’s Travels* can go on being just a children’s tale. Or a social satire.

Photo credit: Jehan Georges Vibert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Colony” August 1952

Galaxy June 1953
PKD V1 (347-363)

Military men and scientists on the Blue Planet are testing for harmful life forms. The place is beautiful, edenic, seemingly too good to be true. So far Major Hall has not identified any dangerous samples. Then his microscope tries to strangle him. Similar events follow with towels and rugs attacking people and a pair of gloves guiding the hands inside to take a blaster pistol and kill the unfortunate officer who chose those gloves from two identical pairs. Apparently there is a life form that can expertly mimic any inorganic thing. They cannot find an effective way to destroy it. They decide to flee the planet, naked and possessionless so as to keep from accidentally bringing the life form back to Terra. A ship lands, earlier than expected and everyone files into it naked. A bit later, the real ship arrives, but no one is left to meet it.

Image by VAwebteam at the English language Wikipedia (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

“The King of the Elves” August 1952

Beyond Fantasy Fiction September 1953
PKD V1 (329-345)

Shadrach Jones operates a small filling station in Derryville, Colorado. It is not on the main highway and sees little traffic. Derryville is a dying town with no industry and little hope, seemingly peopled only by the old. One night during a storm, Jones sees some little people out by the locked pumps. They are elves and one is their king. Wet and tired, they are on the run from trolls; Jones invites them to his home. During the night, the elf king dies, but he has selected Jones as his successor. Jones tells his old friend Phineas Judd that he is King of the Elves. Soon the whole town knows and thinks he must be crazy. Meanwhile the trolls have learned of the Elf King’s death and are massing for battle. Jones must meet the elves at the old oak tree after the moon sets. It is on Judd’s property, and he invites Jones into his home, seeming concerned about his health and sanity. Jones enjoys his coffee and rest, feeling very close to his old friend Phineas Judd, and he begins to think that all of this elf business is nonsense. He seems prepared to take Judd’s advice—a bath and brandy followed by bed. Forget about the elves. Just then, Jones realizes that Judd looks an awful lot like a troll. So he grabs a barrel stave and attacks him. Judd’s army of trolls scampers from the basement and attacks Jones. He is about to succumb when he hears the elves trumpet sound. Most of the trolls leave the house to engage with the elves and Jones defeats the last two. The elves triumph in battle. Jones is pleased but wants to return to his simple life and little gas station, even though the home and the station are crumbling and he makes very little money. The elves reluctantly release him, since the battle is over and he has slain the Great Troll. He looks at the ruin of what is left of his life in Derryville and returns to the elves. He will be their king after all.

“Out in the Garden” July 1952

Fantasy Fiction August 1953
PKD V1 (321-328)

Robert Nye and his wife Peggy have a visit from Robert’s friend Tom Lindquist. He sees Peggy in her garden with her pet duck Sir Francis Drake, where and with whom she spends most of her time. Lindquist is impressed with the garden and the duck and is reminded of a poem. He quotes Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” the line where Zeus ravishes Leda while he is in the form of a swan. Peggy is outraged. She immediately announces her pregnancy. While she is in the hospital giving birth to her son Stephen, Robert gets rid of Sir Francis Drake, vaguely suspicious that the duck might be the father of the child. Peggy returns and is silent for a while, but gets over the loss of Sir Francis Drake. Stephen grows downy and strong and loves the garden. Robert remains suspicious but talks to his son one day while Peggy is gone and Stephen is drawing. Stephen shocks him by asking about Sir Francis Drake, but is vague about where he heard about him. He may have appeared in a dream as a large white object flying toward him. Robert is shocked and dismayed, but Stephen invites him to a private party. His hope that Stephen is actually his own son is restored and he looks forward to sharing a secret with him. He washes his hands and heads to “the party,” which has already started. He sits down to a large bowl of tasty worms and spiders—the favorite fare of Sir Francis Drake. Robert heads back to the house, defeated.

“The Great C” September 1953

Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy September 1953
PKD V1 (309-320)

The setting is a post-apocalyptic future where people have reverted to tribal primitivism and the cities lay in ruins. Each year a young man is chosen by the tribe to go to the Great C and ask three questions. Apparently these young men never return. Young Tim Meredith is chosen, outfitted, and given the three questions. He says goodbye to the tribe and makes his way to the ruins where the Great C is situated, dodging rats, giant insects, and radiation pools along the way. We learn that civilization was destroyed by the Great Smash (nuclear destruction). When he arrives at the Great C (which turns out to stand for Computer) at a former Federal Computation Facility, he asks the three questions, which to a primitive would seem impossible to answer: where does rain come from; what keeps the sun moving through the sky; how did the world begin. Of course the computer provides encyclopedia answers to these simple questions. Then in a twist on or updating of a typical primitive-human-sacrifice-to-the-gods narrative, Meredith is asked to step forward and leap into a vat of fluid within the Great C. It is hydrochloric acid. His remains (bones and helmet) join those of previous questioners while the rest of him somehow provides power to the computer. Like humans, it adapted itself after the Great Smash. Back at the tribal encampment, they realize Meredith, like the others, will not return. If only they can find a question that will stump the Great C. Grimly, they begin planning for next year.

“Paycheck” June 1953

Imagination June 1953
PKD V1 (279-308)

In the future, the U.S. is a police state. Jennings has taken a job as a mechanic with Rethink Corporation. After his two-year contract is up, his memories of the time are erased. He’s two years older with no knowledge of the time period, but he’s due a sizable payment. For some reason, he has agreed to an alternate clause, accepting goods instead of money. For his two years, he receives a cloth bag containing a code key, a ticket stub, a parcel receipt, some wire, half a poker chip, a strip of green cloth, and a bus token. As soon as he enters the street with this dubious treasure, he is picked up by the police. They want to know where the Rethink plant is and what Jennings did for them. Of course he cannot answer these questions, but the police are not about to believe that. The situation looks grim, and Jennings decides to escape the police cruiser using the wire to short circuit the lock. He races to the nearest bus and uses the bus token that was in his cloth bag. He is beginning to suspect why he took the cloth bag full of trinkets rather than money. He examines the ticket stub and determines based on the information there that the Rethink plant is in Stuartsville, Iowa. He takes the train there and finds the plant. He suspects Rethink has been operating an illegal time scoop, thus the police interest. He plans, with the help of Kelly from Rethink, to go into the plant and get evidence to blackmail Rethink into providing him protection from the police. Using the green cloth, he poses as a worker and gets into the plant. He manages to evade capture and get the evidence out to Kelly, who takes it back to New York. They meet with Rethink to discuss it. Rethink is ultimately unwilling to take Jennings on as an equal partner. It is a family business and Kelly is the daughter of the head of Rethink. And some day, Rethink will lead the revolution that will overthrow the police state. She has the compromising pictures and schematics in a safe place and will return them to her father. Just then the time scoop appears and snatches the parcel receipt from her hand. It is the one already in Jennings possession. So he has them after all, but he implies that he will join the family and keep alive the Rethink vision of freedom from the police state.

“Meddler” October 1954

Future October 1954
PKD V1 (269-278)

Histo-Research has a device called a “Dip” to travel in time and study the past. It is forbidden to go to the future, but Wood has done so at the urging of the Political Science Council. Somehow they introduced a lethal factor that at some future point will destroy the human race. Hasten, an expert, has been chosen to take a Time Car to the future and find out what has happened. Cities and cows remain, but no people. There are a great many enormous colored butterflies, one of which flutters up and stings Hasten’s hand. He is sick immediately, and the tissue in his hand and arm turns black and dies. He tries to find information in a library, but the newspapers are in another language. He debates his next actions as he heads back to the Time Car with some newspapers. Then he sees a swarm of butterflies. He gets into the Time Car but the butterflies descend upon it. They proceed to cut perfect circles into the ship and enter it, but Hasten kills them with a blowtorch. He returns swiftly and explains the situation to Wood. He seems somewhat optimistic that knowing what has happened, they may be able to stop it. Then Hasten sees that the Time Car is covered in cocoons, most of which are now empty. He has unwittingly brought the killer butterflies back with him.

“The Builder” December 1953-January 1954

Amazing December 1953– January 1954
PKD V1 (259-268)

In an odd retelling of the Noah’s ark story, E.J. Elwood can only work on and think about the large square boat he is building in his backyard. Though no date is mentioned, the racism and anti-communist hysteria embodied by Elwood’s co-workers put the action in the fifties, when the story was written. Elwood’s younger son helps him with his project, but his wife and older son, as well as a neighbor, clearly think he is mad. When his older son jokes to friends that it is a nuclear submarine and a neighbor asks if it is really powered by uranium, Elwood realizes he has forgotten to include a source of power for his boat—no motor, not even a sail. Then he realizes that he never really understood why he was building the boat in the first place and he wonders whether he is perhaps insane after all. Then the large drops of rain start to fall from the sky and he understands.

“The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” January 1954

Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1954
PKD V1 (249-257)

Doc Labyrinth has a new invention. He has a dutch-oven looking animator to bring inanimate things to life by using the principle of sufficient irritation. His first experience with a brass button was a failure, so he sold the animator to the story’s narrator for five dollars. At his wife’s insistence, the narrator puts his wet shoes in the animator to dry them out. One of the shoes comes to life and Doc, who meanwhile has decided to buy the animator back, is very pleased. He calls in the authorities to witness this great moment in science. But the shoe escapes. When the experts arrive, the shoe appears, along with an animated lady’s party shoe that the brown oxford figured out how to animate for companionship. They both disappear into the woods.

“The Crystal Crypt” January 1954

Planet Stories January 1954
PKD V1 (231-247)

Mars and Terra are poised to wage war against one another as a final ship leaves Mars for Terra. A Martian Leiter (a kind of military policeman) makes everyone aboard the ship submit to a lie detector test about a city destroyed by three saboteurs. All the passengers pass the test, so the ship is allowed to leave. Meanwhile, Bob Thatcher strikes up a conversation with a woman named Mara and joins her and two others for drinks in the lounge. Though fearful at first, the three concede to fellow Terran Thatcher that they are the saboteurs. They tell the story of how they shrank the city down and now carry it with them for ransom. It looks like a paperweight. Thatcher congratulates them on their ingenuity then reveals that he is a Martian Leiter. They will not be returning to Terra after all.

Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

There is an award-winning film adaptation.