Immanent Self-Destruction: Analyzing “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick
Alright super nerds, here’s something I had a lot of fun doing for a science fiction class. This is a short response to Philip K. Dick’s 1953 short story, “Second Variety.” If you haven’t read it, you can read it for free here! It’s so so so worth it, and if you’ve read it in the past or know the gist via wikipedia’s summary, you’ll be able to understand my comments. Below is literally the exercise I turned in for class, so ignore the page citations etc, they won’t match the online link.
Analyzing “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick
In “Second Variety,” Philip K. Dick (PKD) asks us all to consider what is human, and if the very nature of humanity necessitates self-destruction. This is a central theme for many of Dick’s works, questioning humanity. And here, in “Second Variety,” we get to see some of Dick’s earliest and most raw thoughts on the matter of questioning our humanity. Like a lot of great short stories, there’s twists and turns and big reveals in “Second Variety,” but, PKD delivers on theme so well in the piece, it doesn’t matter if you saw all the twists coming a mile away, because the big reveal is the theme, delivered with a gut punching last line.
At the start of the story we witness a horrid, gruesome death of a Russian. He’s ripped apart by one of the robots called “Claws” the UN devised to help them win the war—despite being all but completely defeated on Earth (referenced as Terra in the story). After witnessing the gruesome death, which takes place in the desolate wasteland left behind after nuclear war which has wiped out most life on earth, we watch several UN soldiers react to once again witnessing the Claws do their work. Eric, one of the UN soldiers says, “God, those damn things give me the creeps. Sometimes I think we were better off before them.” In response, the character Leone replies, “If we hadn’t invented them, they would have,” referencing the Soviets. (62)
This is the first, but not the last mention of the need to have created the claws. The reference to real world weapons Dick is making is clear. Often the argument for nuclear proliferation is something similar. If we don’t, then they will. In asserting this at the front of the story and also later on with a completely new set of characters, Dick is establishing the question: Why do we create weapons to destroy our own kind? And as a whole, “Second Variety” offers a bleak explanation.
The Claws in the story, self-repairing and self-evolving machines with the one purpose of wiping out life, eventually evolve past the UN’s safeguards. And when the Claws exhaust their logic in trying to hunt down humans in a straight forward fashion, they turn to a method of pathos, evolving to take shapes which trick us into thinking they are human. From little boys called “Davids,” to “Wounded Soldiers,” the machines come a long way from tiny spheres. Each of their kind seeming to operate independent of the others.
The character Tasso, a machine disguised as a woman trying to help our main character, is the delivery mechanism for Dick’s theme. After we discover Tasso is a robot and has tricked our protagonist into telling her the location of the moon base—where some of the last bits of humanity have fled—we are treated to a long line of Tassos, all identical and carrying the same bomb (thoroughly affective against others of their own kind) Tasso had used to help our main character, Hendricks, earlier. The last line of the story is an answer to Dick’s question: does the very nature of humanity necessitate self-destruction?
The final line is the last thought of Major Hendricks before he dies, “They were already beginning to design weapons to use against each other.” (109)
Here, Dick implies that because these machines have become more than machine, because they were made by humans, they will carry with them the attributes which lead to our own self-destruction (through nuclear war), and eventually, total annihilation at the hands of our war-machine children.
Additional Research Citations:
"Philip K. Dick." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2013. Contemporary Authors Online, http://link.galegroup.com.mcpl.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/H1000025394/CA?u=inde80299&sid=CA&xid=870cc588. Accessed 14 Feb. 2019.
"Review of Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick." Short Story Criticism, edited by Janet Witalec, vol. 57, Gale, 2003. Literature Criticism Online, http://link.galegroup.com.mcpl.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/WKVSVX075184868/LCO?u=inde80299&sid=LCO&xid=54fd77f3. Accessed 14 Feb. 2019. Originally published in Kirkus Reviews, vol. 70, no. 18, 15 Sept. 2002, p. 1358.