“Second Variety” is a science fiction short story by the American author Philip K. Dick. It first appeared in the May 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction magazine. It is one of the best known short stories by the author and has been collected into many anthologies, including two entitled Second Variety (1989 & 1991). The story was the basis for the movie Screamers (1995).
A lone Russian soldier approaches the bunker of UN forces forward command. He is attacked and killed by a herd of small metallic robots called the claws. Examining his remains, an American soldier finds a message from Russian forward command urgently requesting a conference. The officer in charge, Major Hendricks, contacts Moon Base to discuss the message, and is told to dispatch an officer as requested. Rather than sending a junior officer into a possible trap, Hendricks decides to go himself.
To get to the Russian post, Hendricks must walk through ruins crawling with claws. The war, started six years ago by the Soviet Union, has devastated most of Terra. The UN/American side, losing badly, moved government and production to the moon, leaving only troops and scattered survivors behind. Then the claws were invented, and their introduction a year ago turned the tide. The claws are indiscriminate killers, programmed to attack anything alive. Even UN troops are susceptible unless protected by “radiation tabs” – wearable devices used to emit neutralizing radiation. Produced in unmanned underground factories, claws continually and automatically improve their own designs, and new models appear regularly.
Approaching the location given by the Russians, Hendricks is met by two soldiers and a woman. The Russians state that their forward command was wiped out and they are the only survivors. They were away visiting the woman, a camp follower, when the bunker was attacked. Many Russian posts have been subverted recently by a new humanoid type of claw. Posing as a wounded soldier, one would trick its way into the bunker. It would then proceed to let in an army of identical Wounded Soldiers. After dispatching the messenger to the UN post, the Russian forward command itself fell victim to a different variety of humanoid claw. It appears that, left to their own devices, the claws have evolved into more effective forms for getting into bunkers. Even worse, the new models are not deterred by radiation tabs.
The Russian survivors have identified the humanoid models based on stamping they found on the remains of the two types. One was stamped I-V, and the other, III-V; First and Third Varieties. What does the Second Variety look like, and can they survive long enough to warn the UN forces?
“Second Variety” is one of the longer and more fully developed short stories by Philip K. Dick. It skillfully balances action and social commentary, and the well-constructed plot is tailor-made for film adaptation (and deserving of a bigger-budget remake). Written in the Cold War era, the story may appear at first somewhat anachronistic. One quickly realizes, however, that the setting makes little difference to the plot or the central theme.
In Dick’s stories, identities are frequently confused and the question of who or what is human is often raised. In “Second Variety,” lives depend on the survivors’ ability to judge, based solely on behavior, who is human and who is not. The problems faced by the characters all reflect our real-life difficulties in evaluating people. The price of trusting the wrong person can be high – and yet the cost of not trusting may be even higher. It is that dilemma which makes this story timeless.
Gracie A. 26 June 2014