Earth is almost destroyed by a nuclear war, but the United Nations and Soviet Union still fight amongst the dust. Victory is in sight, and as Russia begins to deliver its triumphant blow, the opposition returns fire. Self-replicating robots are introduced to the fight, and now there will be only one winner.
Well, I’m slowly making my way through the work of Philip K. Dick. I say slowly because I have barely scratched the surface of the forty-four novel and over one hundred and twenty-one short stories. However, I do not want to overindulge, and I’m happy to take my time. Second Variety is a science-fiction novelette, first published in 1953 for Space Science Fiction Magazine. The story was later adapted for the movie Screamers in 1995, plus the Curious Matter Anthology podcast released an audio drama based on the story in 2020.
I try to avoid learning anything about a story before I finish my review. Once you begin to learn more about the stories you have read from other sources, your own interpretation quickly disappears in a mixture of others thoughts and comments. I need to try and save my own views before that happens. However, Strange Horizons called the story one of “Dicks most compelling works”, plus it is “often singled out as one of the early stories that most anticipate Dick’s preoccupations in his more famous novels”. However, this story never really surprised or entertained me that much, and I have to ask why?
It did entertain me, but in a way that felt familiar, if that makes any sense? But then I realised Second Variety was written nearly seventy years ago, and it reads like something from the 1980s or ’90s. I think there are enough ideas in this entire story that you could build a whole franchise around it. I know there is a film based on this story, but I couldn’t help but think of the T-850 making its way into a bunker in The Terminator, 1984.
Anyway, here are just a few of my thoughts and a link for the full story below.
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The story starts well and sets up the plot right away. I enjoyed the imagery of a lone soldier making his way into enemy territory and the horror of the first attack by the claws.
“Across the ground something small and metallic came, flashing in the dull sunlight of mid-day. A metal sphere. It raced up the hill after the Russian, its treads flying. It was small, one of the baby ones. Its claws were out, two razor projections spinning in a blur of white steel.”
It’s hard for me to try and imagine what life was like in 1950’s but looking back, nothing really changes. The threat of war is a constant and the next line by PKD is almost prophetic. Maybe that is a bit drastic, but you can see the warnings.
“There was not much else to do. Europe was gone; a slag heap with dark weeds growing from the ashes and bones.”
I did find the characters in this story to be a bit of a let-down, to be honest. I didn’t like any of them, apart from David, but maybe that is the point? It’s hard to believe that the Russian soldiers couldn’t find a simple way to find out who is human or not, given that the losing side is busy creating artificial life? Plus, Major Hendricks just giving up the ship to the Moon to save his own life is a little bit strange.
“We’re supplied from the moon. The governments are there, under the lunar surface. All our people and industries. That’s what keeps us going. If they should find some way of getting off Terra, onto the moon—”
I guess I shouldn’t take it so seriously and look at the bigger picture. Imagine reading this story on your commute to work in 1953 and your feelings about the story afterwards. For me, it represents the stupidity of war, the programming of soldiers, both metal and flesh and how we use technology in the future. One mistake, and we may never go back.
I feel like I am putting the story down, but I did enjoy it. I just think I might be on a bit of an A.I overload at the moment. Looking at the top twenty science-fiction movies ever, eleven or twelve of those are robot or A.I related somehow. Plus, I’m also watching and reviewing The Ghost in the Shell Series and Movies, so I’m deep in this genre at this moment in time. However, one of those films in the sci-fi top twenty is Blade Runner, a film that is one of my favourites when it comes down to artificial intelligence and how that might evolve in the future. So, it was nice to see Philip K. Dick start writing about A.I, and watching those early seeds grow and eventually become more in the book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, 1968 the novel Blade Runner is based on.
“No? Why not? Maybe we’re seeing it now, the end of human beings, the beginning of the new society.”
I enjoyed how Philip K. Dick drops subtle hints that some of the characters are not human. Tasso is constantly asking Hendricks for a cigarette! Not uncommon, but the repetition becomes almost computer-like, and I thought that was well written. I also found the moment when one of the teddy bears attacks Hendricks was horrifying and visually satisfying.
“They were very near. The David bent down suddenly, dropping its teddy bear. The bear raced across the ground. Automatically, Hendricks’ fingers tightened around the trigger. The bear was gone, dissolved into mist. The two Tasso Types moved on, expressionless, walking side by side, through the gray ash.”
Earlier I mentioned the three most important things that I will take away from this story. However, the next line manages to incorporate all of those things.
“As the Tassos reached for him, a last ironic thought drifted through Hendricks’ mind. He felt a little better, thinking about it. The bomb. Made by the Second Variety to destroy the other varieties. Made for that end alone.”
The crawlers are simply a weapon that has served this war, just like they are supposed to do? However, the human soldiers on this planet have a choice, and they still look at life as a battlefield. Tasso manages to outsmart Hendricks and talks him into giving up the location of one of the last ships that can take one of them to the moon base. I would have admired Major Hendricks more if he said this war had to end on Earth and gave up his own life, but he can’t give up. Regardless of his right to choose, he is stuck in fight mode, even finding comfort in knowing that it will never end. The new variety of robots are no more significant than a gun or a knife, and humanity destroyed this planet and any hopes they had for the future.
I suppose it is easy to feel some genuine concern for these characters, but Earth was pretty much doomed anyway, and Philip K. Dick is constantly reminding us of this throughout the story. I thought the four different variations of robots were unique. I have read it three times now, and it still gives you something new to think about each time. Even though it did seem pretty straightforward, the twist of four varieties did catch me out. I did enjoy Beyond the Door a lot more. If only for bringing a different story to my world, but I can’t see a director wanting to make a film about a cuckoo clock! Speaking of films, I do actually remember watching Screamers, and maybe thats why i feel like i know this story already. I can see why this is a classic and understand why artificial intelligence is so popular. I just hope, when we do get out the first sentient robot, we aren’t bored of it already because of all the movies, tv shows and books we have consumed already. However, in reality, our fascination with artificial intelligence is as strong as ever.
Thank you for visiting today. Have you read Second Variety by Philip K. Dick? What did you think of the story or this review? Please let me know in the comments below.