Friday, August 27, 2010

Philip K Dick's "The Variable Man" (novella, war, free): A mechanical genius against a machine worshiper

One of the illustration accompanying the publication in Space Science Fiction, US edition, September 1953, of short story The Variable Man by Philip K Dick
If it were not for the mostly silly later half, I would have put it among the best of PKD. But first half is very good.

Story summary.

It's mostly a contrast of two men:
  1. Security Commissioner Reinhart, a warmonger in a position of power around mid twenty-second century. This is an era where few people understand machines, though the world is full of them; too much specialization. Reinhart practically worships "SRB computer" - a machine that can analyze very complex situations & make statistical predictions of likely near future outcomes.
  2. Thomas Cole, a mechanical genius from early twentieth century who has been transported to Reinhart's world because of an official's carelessness with a time machine. His presence in this future time has made SRB computer go bonkers - he's a variable about whom machine knows nothing. It was predicting Terra's victory if it raided Proxima Centauri; now it's refusing to say anything. To take this variable from the past (hence title) off the machine's considerations - to fix the machine, so to say - Reinhart wants Cole killed!
Lot of chase, & running around - lone man winning against massive government machinary. Happy ending - Reinhart will be ousted, & Cole will show these men how to win without going to war.

See also.

  1. Robert Heinlein's "Misfit": Another story about a mechanical genius.
  2. Murray F Yaco's "No Moving Parts" (download) & "Unspecialist" (download): Not very closely related to this, but something is similar, if I recall correctly: a mechanical genius or something, in a world too set in its fixed ways of doing things. Former is funny too.

Fact sheet.

First published: Space Science Fiction (British edition), July 1953. (Wikipedia says it was "sold by Philip K. Dick before he had an agent", but doesn't give date of this self publication.)
Download full text from Project Gutenberg, Manybooks, Feedbooks.
Download audio from LibriVox.
Rating: A.
Related: Stories of Philip K Dick.


Larry said...

Cool, just downloaded it! :D