Short-story showdown: Poe vs. Dick

OK, so it isn’t much of a showdown. It’s hard to compare the two. Edgar Allan Poe was a borderline unemployable alcoholic and the father of the American Gothic literary tradition. Philip K. Dick may be the greatest sci-fi writer of all time, unappreciated for most of his life because his ideas were so visionary that it was near impossible for his potential audience to grasp what he was trying to get at.

The reason I link them is I recently polished off a collection of Poe short stories, then headed right into a Dick collection. The contrast was stark, to say the least, and I found myself appreciating them for entirely different reasons. Poe finds a universal theme and dives in neck-deep, such as the guilt and paranoia of The Tell-Tale Heart or how revenge can pervert even the most proper of people in The Cask of Amontillado. Dick, on the other hand, gets some way-out “what if?”, and then races from start to finish, often creating an action film on paper in less than 10 pages. What if a spacecraft filled with paranoid schizophrenics crash on an uninhabited planet (Shell Game)? What if the world is taken over by Luddite anarchists, and the only civilization is led by a robot (The Last of the Masters)? What happens when a guy thinks with his penis, only the object of his affection isn’t a human, but an alien (Strange Eden)?

With Poe, I did find myself disappointed on occasion. The Tell-Tale Heart is entirely too short, much shorter than I remember it being when I first read it as a kid. The kind of guilt and fear that plagues the main character needs a little time to develop, and whether it was Poe’s own limitations (alcohol and poverty), the technological limitations (no typewriter or iPad) or the word count imposed by print publications of the time, that doesn’t happen. The protagonist kills, buries the body under the house, the police show up, and he confesses, pretty much that quickly. It lasts as long as the pre-opening credit intro of a Law and Order episode. With The Balloon-Hoax, I was completely flummoxed. Yes, it was a bigger world then, and the idea of traveling across the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon was new and exciting to people of the time. But it’s not a novel (Around the World in 80 Days) or exciting story. A group of guys go to take a balloon trip in Europe, decide to try a cross-Atlantic trip and it works. There’s no suspense, no real problems to overcome, nothing of that sort. Hoax is almost the anti-Poe when it comes to suspense. Don’t get me started on Poe’s overlong and completely unnecessary whist aside in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But my biggest disappointment may be The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe’s only novel. It really left me wanting for more long-form work from him. Pym is Heart of Darkness on acid, the only chance we get to see Poe’s imagination play out in a fairly epic manner.

When it came to Dick, my only disappointment is that he didn’t write more novels. I’d have loved to see stories like Last of the Masters, To Serve the Master, etc., fleshed out. There’s a reason so many of Dick’s shorts – We’ll Remember It For You Wholesale (Total Recall), Second Variety (Screamers), The Minority Report (movie of the same name) – have ended up as films. In the short form, Dick has to sacrifice some detail and development, although rarely with detriment to the story itself. On screen, filmmakers have been given the opportunity to flesh out Dick’s bare-bones tales, showing that there is plenty there to work with.

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