‘The Electric Ant’ by Philip K Dick

This is Philip K Dick’s most frightening short story. The terror in Dick’s stories comes from their solipsism, their narrative disjunctions, the cognitive dissonance that the reader must sometimes maintain in order to follow the plot as told. In ‘The Electric Ant’, the protagonist discovers first that he is an android(!), and second that there is a tape reel running between two bobbins in his chest. The tape, which is punched with holes, is read by a gadget; when a hole in the tape it passes through the reader, an object appears in the protagonist’s perception. The tape, it transpires, is the source – or more accurately limiting factor – of everything in his world. The story follows his experiments with the tape, until the point where he cuts it entirely. 

First published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1969. Collected in The Collected Short Stories of Philip K Dick, Vol 5: We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, Orion, 1987

‘Second Variety’ by Philip K Dick

I devoured the five volumes of collected Philip K Dick short stories when they came out in 1990 or so. In the title story of Volume 2, Dick pushes a familiar kind of Second World War drama into an irradiated and automated future where nothing and no-one is quite what they seem. He plays with the familiarity of the war story genre, its gender conventions and its longueurs, to lull the reader into identifying with what to all intents and purposes seem like characters. American soldiers are fighting as part of a UN force against the Russians, aided by the ever more complex robot forces that the UN have developed from their Moon base. Major Hendricks commands a motley unit of UN troops and stragglers, and is sent to negotiate with the remains of some Russian forces. A traumatised and taciturn child refugee named David tags along for a while. As they reach their destination, the Russian unit blow the boy up. He’s a robot, and Hendricks is doubly shocked to learn that the Russians now have several types of artificial fighter: Wounded Soldiers are Variety One, Davids are Variety Three, so what is Variety Two? Balancing paranoia and the boringly prosaic, this is an archetypical Philip K Dick short story.

First published in Space Science Fiction, 1953. Collected in Second Variety: Volume 2 of the Collected Stories of Philip K Dick, Grafton, 1990