Looking back at an established author's earliest, pre-fame works can sometimes be a mixed bag. How rough is the first draft of their career? Did they appear on the scene as fully formed geniuses? Or was practice needed before they became totally comfortable at their craft?
When three of Arthur C. Clarke's earliest novels were gathered into single omnibus (THE SPACE TRILOGY), we had a chance to visit (or revisit) his work. It allowed us to see how a young Clarke was already beginning to developing a nascent -- but distinctive -- style which he would further develop and then carry on for decades to come.
We have a similar situation with Philip K Dick's THREE EARLY NOVELS (same publisher as the Clarke collection), however while the themes of paranoia and oppression are familiar, the manner of storytelling is much more straightforward.
THE MAN WHO JAPED
The first entry was written in 1956 and feels very much like a product of that time. Read this in the early twenty-first century and it's difficult not to be reminded of other works of that era. An oppressive government, an overly morally-conscious society, and a community where trust is lacking: these are story elements that will be familiar to 1950s science-fiction readers and PKD fans.
This story does quite a lot of world-building to get its message across. Dick presents us with a future Earth ruled by a puritanical, totalitarian state. Deviation from correct behavior subjects the deviant to anything from a public verbal berating of his local community's moral leader to excommunication from his apartment building.
The protagonist, Allen Purcell, is a man in charge of a production team, one of many who create short television-like dramas called "packets". Each packet presents some moral lesson conforming to the standards and ideals of the state. He is shown to be an excellent propagandist, so talented are he and his agency that he is offered the job of overseeing all packets broadcast throughout the world.
The plot is relatively straightforward with precious little in the way of subplots or distractions. Almost certainly this is because the story's length. The book is shorter than it needs to be and that is a pity because Purcell's story and his inner dilemmas are perhaps deserving of more exploration. The book's conclusion feels slightly rushed and predictable.
3 of 5 stars
The world that PKD creates is a triumph of genetic engineering horror. His protagonist, Dr Jim Parsons, a physician from the year 2012 who is pulled from his normal timeline and abruptly deposited in the dystopic future of 2405, is dumbfounded to learn that his own profession is outlawed. The sick and disabled immediately choose death in order to keep their society and race pure. While the story has its usual science fiction gang of rebels who wish to upset the apple cart, this crowd of malcontents are aiming a little higher than the usual kill-the-leaders-and-install-a-democracy cliché. Instead, they want to unravel eight centuries of history and rid the world of even the memory of white European dominance.
The meat of the plot revolves around the various timelines and the way in which the rebels try multiple times to alter history. The mystery around why certain events cannot be changed and how the various time-streams fit together is all very clever. However, at times it can be a bit too clever which gives the book an almost clinical feel. This is a pity because the motivations, the plans and the schemes of the various characters are given a lot of time to mature during the course of the story, yet the conclusion seems more mechanical than organic in its unveiling. It's a logical puzzle to be solved, not a discovery to be made.
3 of 5 stars
VULCAN'S HAMMER (1960) is a story about a future in which a giant all-powerful computer makes all humanity's decisions. Desperate rebels are determined to overthrow their inhuman overlord. Government bureaucrats struggle with the outlaws and with their own inner demons. Individual citizens fear government psychological correction labs, which force sanity onto people at the end of a gun. Even the giant computer -- the Vulcan 3 -- has its own fears and enemies, requiring secretive plotting and scheming. As one might gather from plot summaries, there are a lot of stock science fiction concepts behind Philip K. Dick's story, but the way those pieces are put together is classic PKD.
This is perhaps the most paranoid book I've ever read, certainly the most paranoid book I've read in a good long time. Seemingly every time a character is introduced, within mere paragraphs the reader is overwhelmed with this new person's inner monologue which consists mostly of who this person thinks is out to get him, why these people are out to get him and how long he thinks he can hold out until they get him.
3 of 5 stars
Whether one should recommend perusing this collection of three novella-length stories depends more on the reader than on the content. For hard-core Philip K. Dick fans the answer is obvious: you must read it, simply to see how the great writer began. You may end up slightly frustrated given how much better the stories would have been had he given them life later in his career. However, you may gain a greater appreciation for the way in which the elements and themes in their infancy here would be more fully developed in later works.