The “Science” in Science Fiction is often used to justify the genre, a totemic self-identity simultaneously fetishizing both wild creativity as well as technical expertise. This was built into it right from the get-go; early pulp magazines advertised their space operas and rocket tales as stories with both educational and inspirational merit, a new literature that did important work in a rapidly changing technological age. Given the history, the “science” most commonly encountered usually came from the physical sciences, particularly physics, reflecting the naïve reductionism that still pervades much of pop science. Similar aesthetics can be found in the narrative structure of some science fiction stories, where problems exist to be solved decisively or cleverly and generalized solutions are available, if we’re only smart enough to find it. The scientific concepts in sci-fi tend to allegorical or symbolic, even in the most obtuse technology-worshipping examples of “Hard Sci-Fi,” and the mathematical elegance of physics and engineering provides powerful metaphors for worlds built around neatly ordered quests for fundamental solutions.
Philip K. Dick did things a little differently. While he wrote about aliens and spaceships and other planets, the science in his stories was more often cribbed from biology, a “messy” field dominated by contingency and chance, where individuals and populations possess histories and context and scale influence outcomes and processes. Reductionism of biological systems to constituent chemistry and physics is not only impossible, it is nonsensical. Similarly, PKD’s worlds are irreducible, mosaics greater than the sum of their parts. The complexity of biology is, for PKD, much richer in metaphor for his particular brand of fiction. And, although “Second Variety” (Space Science Fiction, May 1953) is about robots, a post-nuclear apocalypse Earth, and a secret moon base, Dick passes over discussions of mechanics and radiation to focus on one of his favored themes, evolution.
For PKD, evolution is the central theme in much of his fiction, the tension in his stories coming from how an individual (or a society) navigates a changing landscape of selective pressures that often blur the line between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’. In “Second Variety,” nature is red in not only tooth and claw, but in the warning lights of Geiger counters. The world has been crushed under a clash of civilizations that ended in an apocalyptic checkmate, with both sides dug in for the long haul while the remaining UN command and civilian survivors fled to the moon. There’s even an explicit mention of one of the 20th Century’s greatest frauds in evolutionary thinking, real life Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko:
The three of them made their way down the side of the ridge, sliding in the soft ash. Across a flat rock a lizard scuttled. They stopped instantly, rigid.
“What was it?” Klaus muttered.
The lizard ran on, hurrying through the ash. It was exactly the same color as the ash.
“Perfect adaptation,” Klaus said. “Proves we were right. Lysenko, I mean.”
Lysenko is famous for his incredibly Neo-Lamarckian ideas about plant evolution, specifically his idea that exposure to environmental extremes before planting would provide seeds with new and inheritable increased vitality. Lysenko wanted to use hardship to breed better plants. PKD puts his humans in the hardest of hardships, an atomic wasteland populated by murderbots, eventually subverting the Lysenkoist assumptions inherent in how we humans think about and face environmental threats; in other words, and regardless of the nature of the threat, there is always the unspoken assumption that human adaptability will provide us the tools to survive, that exposed to difficulty, either atomic (as in the story) or climatic (as in the real world today), we humans will ultimately persevere. PKD’s use of a discredited model of evolution, as well as the ultimate events of the story, suggests he does not have much faith in that assumption.
The détente between the Soviets and the UN is broken by the intervention (on the American side) of self-replicating and self-improving autonomous murder machines called “claws” (a name that evokes Tennyson’s line in “In Memoriam A.H.H.”). The claws are born in hidden, fully-automated underground factories, and sent out to slaughter the enemy. And they’re apparently so good at it that the dastardly Ruskies are willing to talk peace.
As main character Maj. Hendricks quickly discovers, however, the claws have been engaging in their own R&D and seem to have decided that it’s open season on not just dirty commies but on god-fearing, red-blooded UN types as well. Turns out the new varieties of claws on the market include perfectly anthropomorphic robots which, in another Dickian hallmark, use our humanity against us, either our desire to ease suffering in others or our desire for sex. The new claws include models that look like a pathetic lost little boy and a wounded soldier, while the titular second variety of claw has been hiding out and working as a prostitute on the Russian side. Eventually, Hendricks dooms humanity when he mistakenly sends one of these newer claws to the moon.
The film version of the story is a Canadian production called Screamers (1995), a workmanlike adaption starring Dr. Peter Weller PhD that moves the action off-planet and makes a Corporate Person (the New Economic Block, or NEB) the originator of the conflict, rather than the Russians. Weller is pretty great, although I haven’t read his doctoral dissertation on Italian Renaissance Art History, so perhaps my opinion could change. His exploration of the role of humanism in expanding the scope of artist expression notwithstanding, he was in the best movie ever made (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension) and so will forever receive a pass from me, regardless of how shitty of a movie he ends up in (Star Trek Into Darkness).
Still, his oddball weirdness is wasted in “Screamers”. Early scenes with him are actually kind of interesting, letting him wryly mumble his way through ridiculous dialogue that shouldn’t work, and doesn’t, but is entertaining nonetheless. Weller’s Hendricks is introduced, inexplicably, engaging in some light numismatics at his desk.1 Questions abound: why did he bring that fucking coin with him from Earth? Did the filmmakers want to evoke the perils of Empire, but forgot to write some dialog to that effect? Is Weller’s character also working on a PhD in his spare time, while mission creep slowly obviates the original purpose of the war?
The movie follows the plot of the story reasonably well, although they decide to undermine the ending by making the robo-lady fall so deeply in love with Peter Weller that she denies her own human-killin’ programming and tries to protect Hendricks from the claws. It’s pretty cheeseball, and just goes to show how little faith filmmakers have in their source material. “Second Variety” is not a weird Dickian tangle. The themes are fairly up-front, and PKD isn’t trying to fuck with anyone here. The “twist” in the short story is telegraphed pretty hard, although I don’t think that detracts from it much. However, rather than rely on the grim narrative as presented, they gotta shoehorn some romance into the movie, not really adding anything while simultaneously subtracting from the much better reveal that (SPOILER) the claws are evolving to kill not just humans, but each other.
And that’s the problem with the movie, really. “Screamers” is a perfectly reasonable cheapo sci-fi movie, but in their rush to use the setting as a metaphor for Vietnam or the horrors of perpetual war or whatever, they missed out on Dick’s deeper argument on how humans fit into the larger biological and ecological picture. They even missed the point of the ending. In the movie, the robot lady learns to fight her robo sisters and brothers through her exposure to the smoldering passion of Peter Weller’s smooches. In the story, internecine conflict between the claws is presented as simply a part of the evolutionary process, a result of the machines becoming unquestionably alive and, presumably, facing similar resource and territorial pressures that the humans evolved under.
As a metaphor, evolution in “Second Variety” is as open-ended narratively as it is scientifically, a process bigger than the biological robots that survived their self-inflicted apocalypse, only to create an environment where their weapons were more suited to survival than they were. As a mid-90s film, “Screamers” was not really in a place to take advantage of Dick’s Cold War futurism. Facing anthropogenic environmental degradation and our own army of tax-funded flying death robots, you get the feeling that a new adaptation of “Second Variety” would nestle quite comfortably into our entertainment landscape.
If you do not feel like googling and are not an avid coin collector, you may be interested in learning that numismatics is the study or collection of currency ↩