“The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” was first published in Fantasy and Science Fiction in January 1954. Page numbers come from Paycheck and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick (New York: Citadel Press), pp. 249–257.
Doctor Labyrinth is showing the narrator a matchbox containing a small button after a sudden arrival in the middle of the night. The button does not respond to Labyrinth’s prodding and he gets frustrated asking for wine. He explains that his newest invention, the Animator, will never work. He explains it is based on the Principle of Sufficient Irritation, based on a phenomenon he observed where a pebble got up to avoid the sun. Labyrinth figured that the principle could be applied properly to get other things to come alive. The narrator, curious, agrees to buy the device for five dollars, although it does not work. That night the narrator put his two muddy shoes into the Animator.
The next morning Doctor Labyrinth returns with the five dollars asking for the Animator back. The narrator brings it out but reveals that one of the shoes he put in there is missing. They begin to look for the missing show, eventually capturing it. Labyrinth is exuberant that his device finally works. Joan, the narrator’s wife, is horrified and frightened by the development and decides to stay with her family not wanting to stay along with the living shoe.
After work the narrator meets his wife and accompanies her home. At home they found that the shoe escaped and they would either need to animate a new one of recapture it. Later, Labyrinth calls and announces that scientists and investigators are coming to document the shoe and the successful Animator.
Doc Labyrinth’s two colleagues arrive to begin their investigation. One, named Porter, is excited by the successful application of the Principle of Sufficient Irritation. The other is skeptical. Without any shoe to show the narrator begins to despair. Just as Doc Labyrinth arrives, they see the shoe, along with a “female” show (one of Joan’s party shoes) moving together across the lawn. The “male” shoe dances joyfully. They move out of sight and apparently copulate, leading Labyrinth to explain that they are witnessing a profound historical and scientific event.
“The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” is Dick’s second “Doc Labyrinth” story, after “The Preserving Machine.” In both stories, Labyrinth dreams up a fantastic invention and gets other scientists to take it seriously. The result is ineffectual but is none the less is profound scientific achievement. In this story, Labyrinth has not lost his fears of the imminent decline of humanity. In a strange way, the Animator, like the Preserving Machine, promises to save human culture. But instead of saving art and music, the Animator can give permanent life to consumer goods. The suggestion of copulation between the “male” and the “female” shoe at the end promises that if—as Labyrinth predicts—humanity dies out, those consumer goods saved by the Animator will also change over succeeding generations. We cannot know what a child of the two shoes may look like, but there is no real reason to assume it would be recognizable as a shoe or functional.
The Principle of Sufficient Irritation is an interesting device. We can imagine that the shoes, unlike the button which was Labyrinth’s first experiment, would already be irritated enough to walk off on their own. Perhaps the Animator worked on them because they were already so close to the edge. It may also explain the disappearance of other clothing items. We do not often find irritation to be a springboard for action, but often it is just that. The film Office Space sees a corporate drone in a banal work. Irritation caused by mundane co-workers, a seemingly endless chain of idiot bosses, and unfulfilling work leads him to bold (if not necessary great) actions in hopes of creating a space for his own freedom. Is this not the trajectory of the animated shoe? Labyrinth wants to go farther and argue that the Principle of Sufficient Irritation is the answer to the question of abiogenesis. “Here was the origin of life. Eons ago, in the remote past, a bit of inanimate matter had become so irritated by something that it crawled away, moved by indignation. Here was my life work: to discover the perfect irritant, annoying enough to bring inanimate matter to life.” (250)
There is a subtle undercurrent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Shelley’s novel, the monster demands a wife for companionship. Here, the animated shoe (apparently sufficiently irritated), take a more direct approach and makes his own wife using the device. This creates one of the least problematic sexual relationships in Dick’s entire oeuvre.
Not a story to be taken too seriously for sure, but contains some rather interesting subtexts.