The 1956 Club & a SF short

Minority Report by Philip K Dick

I’m sure I’ve read this short story many, many years ago, but I’ve revisited it for the 1956 Club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy. It was originally published in a SF magazine (right), I have it in a 2002 Gollancz film tie-in edition, of Dick’s stories from the 1950s and 1960s entitled Minority Report, losing the ‘The’. It also includes ‘We Can Remember it for You Wholesale’ – adapted for the movie Total Recall. (NB: This was a different collection of stories to the similarly titled vol IV of Dick’s short stories available now).

The short story ‘Minority Report’ is rather different to the 2002 film directed by Spielberg, which had ground-breaking special effects, a very distinctive bleached out look, and starred Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell and Max Von Sydow. The film essentially took the story as a jumping off point. developing and adding characters, and making the plot less obtuse. But I’m meant to be talking about the original short story…

Set slightly in the future, John Anderton is the police commissioner in charge of the Precrime division. His team react to reports of future crimes generated from a team of three ‘precogs’. The perps are detained before they can commit the crime, and all is well in New York city. The last murder that got through the system was five years ago.

As the story begins, a new member on Anderton’s team arrives. Ed Witwer will take over when the ‘bald, fat and old’ Anderton retires – although that date isn’t set. Witwer states that he has ideas for how Precrime is run, Anderton is shaken and lights his pipe (reminding me of Maigret!). Still he has to give Witwer the tour, to show him the ‘monkey cage’ where the three precogs, all intellectually disabled and deformed, generate the crimes from their babble of thoughts from the future. All three must agree before the computer generates a report to be investigated. A batch of cards are generated as Anderton and Witwer are in the room, and Anderton finds one with his name on… he must be being framed for the murder it details, surely.

From thereon in, we’re into an extreme conspiracy situation, and Anderton discovers he can trust no-one, but how can he prove that the crime he is being accused of derives from a ‘minority report’ – where the three precogs didn’t agree. He escapes, helped by another agency, who tell him his wife is in on it with Witwer – are they? But in order to prove his innocence, he’ll have to return to the Precrime HQ to get the tapes from the precogs, thus running the gauntlet of being caught by any number of people who are now looking for him, and so the action continues…

Witwer is visibly shocked the first time he sees the ‘precog idiots’ – Anderton, although he still calls them by name, is used to their enslaved lives – he believes it’s for the greater good, and tells Witwer that each of the different bureaus that they trade information with has an equivalent ‘cellar of treasured monkeys.’ Remembering the different treatment of the precogs in the film, this was particularly shocking for me too.

Whilst the free will versus determinism premise of Dick’s story is absolutely fantastic, as the action took over in the second half of its 43 pages, I was rather confused between the factions playing with Anderton’s life. Reading the story, I found I wasn’t bothered whether Anderton was able to prove his innocence, I didn’t like him, nor any of the main characters. In the film, the adaptation develops the characters of Anderton and precog Agatha (Donna in the original story) whom he kidnaps, in more detail. The precogs, while differently abled, are not the deformed sub-humans of Dick’s original.

This was a challenging short story to read in many respects, from its dead-pan comment on the major theme, to the super-convoluted conspiracy. Not my favourite of Philip K Dick’s output, but I ought to (re)read much more of him. But, I find myself wanting to watch the film of Minority Report again first – not least for Samantha Morton, who featured on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last week speaking about growing up in care.

10 thoughts on “The 1956 Club & a SF short

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    SF is not my thing, but I find it interesting that the little I’ve read of it from this period so often features people bred to have low intelligence for enslavement. I think it was a reaction to the eugenics of Nazi Germany, using pop culture to warn against it…

  2. Simon T says:

    Fascinating idea – a shame it wasn’t so compelling towards the end. I haven’t read or seen it, but it is such an intriguing concept.

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