“Small talk,” in the sense of the ability to hold forth in a protracted fashion with mere acquaintances on topics of profound inanity, is not something at which I am inherently skilled, which is why I have developed tricks and shortcuts over the years to make the inevitable process a little easier, and a little more constructive. One of my favorite small talk conversation starters is to ask what someone has read most recently. I’d say about 50% of the time I receive an answer along the lines of “uh, I don’t read. What is this, the 17th century? I’ve got better things to do.” About 40% of the time, I receive an answer like “hm, that’s a good question. I guess I read an article about other people playing a video game I like recently. Does that count? I really ought to read more.” It’s the last 10% of the time that keeps me asking the question, when the answer is more along the lines of “oh yeah, I read this great book just the other day, it was about magic lizards flying through space trying to find the enchanted sword to defeat the evil robots from a planet near Mars, and I would really highly recommend it!”
That sounds like a book recommendation to me. While I do a pretty good job of finding through various sources new nonfiction books to add to my reading list, I find it much harder to unearth new speculative fiction worth adding to the list, which is why getting a recommendation for such a book is always exciting. And as you’ve probably surmised, I received just such a recommendation in a recent conversation of this type, for books by an author called Philip Dick.
Not only was this a recommendation for a science fiction author, but an author I had not previously heard of from science fiction’s golden age. Naturally, I looked into it as soon as I finished Aristotle’s Poetics, and I found a novella called The Variable Man. The summary told me almost nothing about what the story was going to be about, so I decided to give it a try. After all, it was only about sixty pages, and since so many of the science fiction authors of that era got their start in short stories and novellas published in magazines, it seemed like a good place to start.
The Variable Man’s description included references to a post-nuclear apocalypse Earth, and a man from the past. Whatever I expected from that sparse summary, it was not what the story proved to be. The fact that the Earth set piece happened to have undergone a nuclear apocalypse (at least five of them, actually) is really something of a footnote, one of those throw-away world-building tidbits, like villius flowers, that don’t really add to the plot or the substance of the story, and exist only to create a more full-fleshed world. As for the man from the past…that’s where things got interesting.
While this is billed as a science fiction story, and is structured like a science fiction story (unlike, say, Star Wars, which is a fantasy story with science fiction set dressing/world-building elements), the man from the past is a wizard. Well, he’s not really a wizard, and he’s not billed or presented as a wizard, but his role in the story is that of a wizard. Or, well, maybe not a wizard. More like a magic talisman.
See, in the story’s world, they’ve developed computers that can make highly accurate statistical predictions about the future (a common theme in stories of the era – think all of Azimov’s stories with variations on Multivac) based on the immense reams of data fed into them. These machines, however, cannot account for the man from the past who is transported to the present. Hence, he is the variable man. Yet it’s not his historical nature that makes him a variable – it’s his magic talent.
There is some hand waving attempted to explain the “magic,” which was actually quite interesting and speaks to points I have long been making, including on this site: that something is lost when we specialize so deeply, stovepipe knowledge so severely, that we no longer can see the larger picture of how one piece of information might relate to another, or even that the other piece of information exists. I wish that Dick had explored that concept in more, and more realistic, detail, instead of invoking a sort-of deus ex machina magical artifact in the form of a handyman from the past, which has the effect of making the eventual resolution to the story seem unsatisfying and shallow.
Despite those flaws, I enjoyed the story, at least as much for the questions it left unanswered as the questions it answered. The way the story was structured, there is much that is left to the imagination, enough that it left me thinking about the story long after I had run out of text. How the world came into the situation that it was, why there seem to be so few people living on the surface of the Earth, why the antagonist (who is also one of the main viewpoint characters) is able to achieve such a level of control over military and political forces…none of it is really addressed, even in an oblique fashion. I do wish there had been another viewpoint, since most of the story is told from the perspective of either the antagonist or the titular variable man. Having such a viewpoint would have decreased some of the mystery, without robbing too many questions from the reader’s imagination.
While this was far from the best science fiction novella I’ve read, it was a quick, enjoyable read, with a well put-together story whose resolution is of one of the best types: obvious in hindsight, but unexpected in the moment. If you have an hour, I recommend you try The Variable Man.