“Second Variety” was published in Space Science Fiction in May 1953. Originally it was in the second volume of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, but it has been moved to the third volume (now known as Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick). It can be found on pp. 373–410) in that Second Variety version. As one of his more popular stories, it has been anthologized in several places.
Two UN remnant soldiers see a Russian remnant soldier climbing a hill. They are about to engage him in combat but he is killed by automated robotic soldiers (claws). They inspect the body and find that the Russian was carrying a message in an aluminum container. The solider was a runner attempting to deliver a message to the forward command of the local UN forces. They requested a meeting at the decision level. Major Hendricks, who has been cooped up in the bunker for too long, decides to go to the meet.
Hendricks is bothered by the claws, despite wearing a protective wristband that identifies him as a UN soldier, but takes comfort that they are allowing them—finally—to win the war. Hendricks considers the history of the war. The Soviet Union began it with a massive nuclear strike. Washington retaliated and the leadership moved to the Moon. The Americans kept production going on Earth, but this was prevented by a Soviet invasion. Most production also moved to the moon. After the first couple years of the war, the only human population that remained on Earth were isolated pockets of survivors and soldiers. The Soviets were near winning when the UN developed the claws, which were automatically produced in underground factories. Hendricks believes that the meeting may be to arrange surrender terms. The claws have effectively won the war.
Hendricks meets a boy—named David—holding a teddy bear. The boy explains that he lives in the ruins and comes out to look for things to eat. Hendricks cannot believe that he is still alive but travels with him. Hendricks tries offering David food, but he refuses, creating a suspicious that David is a mutant. Later Hendricks sees two Russian soldiers with a woman. The soldiers shoot David. While Hendricks things he will be killed next and that the meeting was a trap, the soldiers show him that David was a robot. The soldiers are the sole survivor of an attack on the Russian forward command. One soldier was a Polish conscript named Rudi Maxer. The other was an Austrian Klaus Epstein. The woman, Tasso, is a prostitute that Rudi and Klaus were visiting during the attack on the forward base. Rudi explains that the Russian have known for a week that the claws have been creating their own upgraded versions that use pathetic figures like the starving boy (third variety) or a wounded soldier (first variety) to sneak into bunkers. They also stopped differentiating between UN and Soviet forces.
With most of the Soviet bunkers compromised, their only hope is to inform the UN forces. Hendricks tells them that the Moon base (only rumored about in the Soviet military) should still be safe. It is highly vulnerable. The machines need to get only one inside and it will let the others in. That evening Hendricks learns about Tasso, who is Russian and came to the front when she was sixteen to begin working as a prostitute. Klaus enters restraining Rudi with his gun. Klaus tells Hendrick and Tasso that Rudi is the second variety. Hendricks and Tasso point out, in horror and disgust, that Rudi was not a machine.
The three survivors make their way to the UN base. Tasso points out that the different varieties seem to not communicate and were made in different factories. When they approach the base, Hendricks tries to communicate with the people inside, demanding that they come out. He talks to two different people. When they come out of the bunker and Hendricks’ insistence, they prove to be two copies of the David model of claw. The three are attacked by a larger number of claws. During the battle, Tasso uses a bomb, destroying many of the claws. She also shoots and destroyed Klaus who is revealed to be a claw, presumably the second variety.
After the battle, Tasso and Hendricks conclude that their only hope is to escape to the moon base. Hendricks knows about a secret rocket cruiser hidden in the area that is designed to travel to the Moon base in the case of an emergency. After a lengthy search, they find the ship, which has room for only one person. Since Hendricks is injured Tasso must go first and return with help. Hendricks provides Tasso information about the location of the Moon base and she departs on the cruiser. After she leaves, Hendricks begins his wait, either for help from the Moon base or death from the claws. He comes across the body of Klaus. Taking a closer look he finds that Klaus was actually labelled as the fourth version (IV—V). The identity of the second variety is confirmed when he is attacked by claws, including two “Tasso” models. His final thoughts are that the Tasso model he travelled with used a bomb designed to kill claws. When the last humans are eradicated, the claws will begin to fight each other.
While Philip K. Dick’s stories are not commonly read and even less frequently analyzed, “Second Variety” is one of those that has been commonly anthologized and is known to most Philip K. Dick fans and scholars. Of the story, Dick said: “My grant theme—who is human and who only appears (masquerades) as human? —emerges most fully. Unless we can individually and collectively be certain of the answer to this question, we face what is, in my view, the most serious problem possible.” (414) It is not the best or the most development of Dick’s stories on this theme, but it is one of the most brutal and memorable. I think what makes is so memorable is its brutal honesty about the logic of war.
The suggestion on almost every page of “Second Variety” is the massive indifferent of the institutions to human life. This was the logic that went into the design of the “claws” and why they turned out so catastrophically. In this way, “Second Variety” may be science-fiction’s answer to Paths of Glory. Both deromanticize war by showing its bureaucratic logic and systematic indifference. One reason reader may not feel too bad about the ending, which foreshadows the end of humanity through the infiltration of the Lunar base, the last refuge of humanity, is that the only real humanity left is on the surface of the Earth. Tragically, it is this humanity that the claws are able to exploit. The three varieties—the wounded soldier, the attractive women, the starving boy (David)—all take advantage of the humanity that remains in the abused, abandoned, and long-suffering soldiers on Earth. The soldiers need to be used to get at the officers in the bunker, because we imagine their hearts are much harder. Both “Second Variety” and Paths of Glory emphasize the complete horror and misery of military life in an era of total war. Other early Dick stories, even ones dealing with horrifying things, have space for moments of joy and even humor. None of that in “Second Variety.” This makes it one of his most honest accountings of war. Hendricks recounts: “They remaining troops stayed behind as best they could; a few thousand here, a platoon there. No one knew exactly where they were; they stayed where they could, moving around at night, hiding in ruins, in sewers, cellars, with the rats and snakes.” (377) This is the end logic of war for Dick.
Identity plays a subtle but striking role in the story. Hendricks fights for the UN troops but identifies himself as American. The two Russian soldiers he meets are actually conscripts from Poland and Austria (well Klaus turns out to be the fourth variety). While the world is divided into two sides in an endless war, there remains a great diversity of local identities. This an important reminder from the age of total wars, when numerous nations and colonies were drawn into war efforts spanning the entire globe. The conflicts among the rulers are often not carried on at the level of individual solders, many of whom are conscripts.
“Second Variety” does not undo the contribution of Asimov’s laws, rather suggesting a competing set of laws. As I remember the Asimov robot stories they seemed to usually suggest static programming, neglecting the tendency toward automation. I will try to develop a full list over time, but let me start with the first two laws. Number one: “garbage in garbage out.” In other words, if you create a robot that has the job of killing, killing is what it will do even if it develops beyond its original capacities. The purpose of a robot’s design shapes its application. Number two is closely related. “Robotic systems will tend toward greater automation.” This does not mean that it can ever develop total autonomy from its initial programming (Law One will always apply), but it does mean that the application of that programming may change in unexpected ways. In this case the unseen consequence of the programming was its ability to redesign and upgrade, developed as a solution to the real problem of little manpower. “Found out that your claws were beginning to make up new designs on their own. New types of their own. Better types. Down in your underground factories behind our lines. You let them stamp themselves, repair themselves. Made them more and more intricate. It’s your fault this happened.” (385) Well, that is two laws. If I can ever get to a complete set, I will write it up as an essay.
As a final point, this story was adapted into what I heard was a fairly faithful film. It is called Screamers and had pretty poor reviews. I did not see it. Maybe someone out there can comment on the film’s themes.
Wikipedia entry for “Second Variety.”
The film adaptation, Screamers.
David Simon discussing Paths of Glory and the institutional logic of war.
Audiobook version of “Second Variety”