Short Story Reviews: Philip K. Dick’s “The Infinites” (1953) and James Causey’s “Competition” (1955)

The following reviews are the 23rd and 24th installments of my series searching for SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them. Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. Many are far from the best. And that is okay. I relish the act of literary archaeology.

I’ve paired two 1950s stories, by Philip K. Dick and the far lesser known James Causey, that explore the inability to understand the universe outside our Earth. Explorers find themselves at each others throats caught up in paranoid delusions of grandeur.

Previously: George R. R. Martin’s “The Second Kind of Loneliness” (1972) and Tom Godwin’s “The Nothing Equation” (1957)

Up Next: TBD

3.5/5 (Good)

Philip K. Dick’s “The Infinites” first appeared in Planet Stories, ed. Jack O’Sullivan (May 1953). You can read it online here.

A preliminary note: I dislike writing about Philip K. Dick. As I mentioned in my 2021 review of “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” (1974) for this series, “I find it far more enjoyable and liberating to write about lesser-known authors.” Or at least those whose works and lives are less encyclopedically covered by fans and academics alike. There are and will be far superior takes on this story. I don’t have the will or focus. And that’s okay. I rather focus my obsessive eye on others. To be clear, I love Philip K. Dick. Along with C. J. Cherryh, Frank Herbert, and Stanislaw Lem, he was one of the authors of my early twenties–right before I started this website.

A few observations on “The Infinites” (1953)….

This early career tale reflects a deep ambivalence (and outright confusion?) towards future space travel–and pokes fun at narratives of “evolved” human supermen like A. E. van Vogt’s Slan (1941). In this future, “tiny prospecting ships” with small crews thread their way through the “rubble-strewn periphery of the system, avoiding meteor swarms, clouds of hull-eating bacteria, space pirates, peanut-sized empires on remote artificial planetoids” (54). Space thrives with life: “There’s no place where bacteria particles don’t drift” (54) a crewmate lectures another. The three-human crew of the X-43y encounters an asteroid that should have some form of life on its surface: “absolute sterile, without growth or cover of any kind” (55). It sounds like all the parts of a pulp adventure. But PKD’s narrative lurches into a shambolic danse macabre of a direction.

A radiation blast emanates from its surface. Silvia’s hamsters sent down to the surface return “cataleptic, stretched out, perfectly rigid. Every one of them is immobile” (55). Eller and Blake attempt to move the ship but all three are caught up in the staggering shafts of light that explode behind their eyes. When they come around, they begin to notice distinct differences from their original brain readings (56). Soon their hair and nails fall out, their skulls elongate, and their vision fades. Silvia hides down below so the others cannot see her. Blake suggests that their other sense are increasing. He proclaims “We’re evolved […] men of the future” (60). Evolution isn’t accidental. Blake believes it is “teleological, with a goal, not determined by chance” (60). He hatches a plan to force his new knowledge on Earth!

With rapidly failing motor functions and eyesight, Eller and Silvia plot to prevent Blake’s return to Earth. They identify the extreme allure that the prospect of power holds over the primitives back home “whether they want us to or not” (62). The resolve to fight the urge. But Blake hasn’t been idle and he designs a new weapon! Remember the hamsters? They received the radiation first. And they too want power but they could care less about their one-time human captors!

“The Infinites” muddies the waters on the nature of space travel and the nature of technological progress. As with James Causey’s story below, the knowledge our astronauts accidentally stumbled upon perpetuates delusions of conquest and control. While stumbling around as their bodies crumble, all three feel the urge to return to Earth as new supermen. Two defeat their own desires. And the third turns on his fellow crewmen. But the evolutionary process is not unique to man–and it might even be surpassed by a creature as lowly as a hamster.

This is a solid early story worth tracking down for fans of my review series theme and Philip K. Dick completists.

3/5 (Average)

James Causey’s “Competition” first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (May 1955). You can read it online here.

Here’s a bit about the author. James O. Causey (1924-2003) published thirteen science fiction short stories between 1943-1969. According to what little I’ve found about him online, he served in WWII and also published detective stories and crime novels–including one adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965).

Four scientists arrive on the planet Epsilon. The reason for the voyage? Identify the cause of the loss of communication between the first colony ship and Earth. The geopolitical backdrop–a continuing Cold War between the Western Hemisphere and Pan-Asia–looms large. Extrapolated from the Chinese Revolution and the failure to prevent the emergence of a Communist North Korea, Causey imagines Communism spreading across Asia. The multi-racial and multi-ethnic Epsilon project appears to have been an attempt at cooperation between the powers that be. Unfortunately, the scientists discover one hundred skeletons. As they attempt to investigate the cause of their deaths, they must string on the senators back home who await their verdict. Back home the politicians describe the expedition as “Man’s last chance for survival” and the cause of the “Coming World Crisis” if the mission fails (107). That planet seems clean.

But something far more sinister starts to occur without the scientists seeing the change. Competition starts to take up their time. Greta and her crewmates become obsessed with bridge and whether or not their opponents are cheating at the game. The four scientists pair off into factions (Greta and Max vs. Armitage and Bishop) as the bridge matches become more intense. Greta starts to fixate on vulnerable parts of her opponent’s bodies: “Over supper I kept staring at Armitage’s throat” (109). And soon Armitage is dead. And maybe the nice flowers that Max brought for Greta might be the cause. But it’s far too late. And it’s not like anyone wants to do anything about it. Winning is what is important.

“Competition” is a bleak take on the classic medical mystery premise, honed by authors like Murray Leinster, that doubles as a commentary on McCarthyism and geopolitical competition. Ultimately, Causey equates the irrationality and hyperviolence caused by the spores with America’s grand patriotic narrative of purpose and triumph manifested in technological and ideological competition with the USSR that seems detached from solving the immediate problems of the day. Competition takes on a life of its own and everyone is caught in its web.

In a disturbing (unintentional?) touch, Causey humorously suggests alien space spores that encourage competition and irrational fear as a survival tactic makes just as much sense as the virulent McCarthyism of his day. Remember, in addition to the hearings and infamous speeches, the year before this story saw print Senator McCarthy (and his allies) threatened to jail the gay son of their senatorial rival Lester C. Hunt, which ultimately led to Hunt’s suicide. Space travel doesn’t provide a panacea to humanity’s problems. Rather, our exploration of space will magnify the same problems we have failed to conquer on Earth.

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13 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Philip K. Dick’s “The Infinites” (1953) and James Causey’s “Competition” (1955)

  1. Causey had an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS to his credit!? That’s impressive indeed. The show was a tremendous piece of appointment TV in them there days. I loved the promo pieces and episode bumpers with Hutch being a giant hambone

  2. “The Infinites” isn’t one of Dick’s best, but was written near the start of his career as an SF author, so I can’t be overly critical of it. He was also too productive during the period that he wrote this one, to keep producing gems. This one played in fact with some quite potent ideas, as well as a strong backdrop that you mention, but the ending meant that they fizzled out rather than exploded. It’s only the beginning though of his interest in this theme. Later in his SF, evolution becomes something that is disordered and can lead to devolution.

    • I’m firmly aware that it is not his best. Picked due to the series theme!

      That said, some of his short stories in 1953 remain amongst my favorites — “Imposter” comes to mind.

      • Yes, I know, it’s alright. I was only trying to say that the theme was quite strong, but didn’t percolate. Yes, “Imposter” was stronger and more exciting.

        • I understand. No worries. I’m only trying to reiterate that I’m not on the hunt for the best. I might read some great stories along the way but mapping the theme is really the purpose of this series.

            • Of course, if you know of better PKD short stories that would fit the series, let me know! I’ll put them on the list. So much of my PKD reading happened in my late teens and early 20s that I’m bound to have forgotten some stories that would fit and add to the discussion.

            • Yes, of course you would. One that comes to mind is “Precious Artefact”. I chose it because it’s one of my favourites among his short SF and also seems to fit the theme for your series. It concerns the devastation of Earth by belligerent Proxers, but a terraforming engineer on Mars who escaped the carnage and wants to return to Earth, is deceived by friend and foe. The deception is morally uncertain, as it seems to be just as much for his benefit as their own. It seems to ask the question, whether it would be better to know the truth or live with the illusion.

  3. Pingback: “The Valley of Echoes” by Gérard Klein – Classics of Science Fiction

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