“Orpheus with Clay Feet was originally published in Escapade in 1964. Dick published this under the pseudonym Jack Dowland. It can now be found in Minority Report and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick on pp. 289–300.
Jesse Slade is working in his office. His job is to help his clients avoid military service. During consultations, Slade would identity and then exaggerate some medical or psychological problem. He is bored with life and hopes for something else. He notices a company called Muse Enterprises and enters, curious about how to escape the “military service” that is his boring life.
He meets with Mr. Manville of Muse Enterprises. He explains to Slade that their service allows uncreative people like him to go back in time to specific moments and inspire great artists and thinkers. While they will not create something new on their own, they will be responsible for the creative achievement.
Two days later he comes back and decides he wants to inspire Beethoven to write his Choral symphony. Since this was already done, Slade had to come back later with a new idea. This time he wants to inspire the science fiction writer Jack Dowland, a major figure in the golden age of science fiction. Slade will inspire his story “The Father on the Wall,” which was one of the greatest stories in the genre and launched Dowland’s science fiction career.
He uses the time-ship to go back in time to 1956, in the Nevada desert. He quickly finds Dowland’s home in the small town. A woman answers the door. She calls Dowland, who is amazed to have a fan. He has only written a few pieces and he is not very well known. Slade unsubtly begins to tell Dowland that he must shift to writing science fiction, because that is his real skill and where his brilliance will come out. Dowland is not convinced. Science fiction is a genre for teenagers. Dowland sends him on his way after a few minutes.
Back in the present, Slade learns that he failed disastrously. Instead of becoming a major science fiction writer, Dowland is known for only one minor work called “Orpheus with Clay Feet,” about a man who tried to convince him to be a science fiction writer. Manville decides to send Slade back to “uninspire” some of history’s most horrendous tyrants, such as Hitler and Stalin.
“Orpheus with Clay Feet” stands nicely alongside “Waterspider.” Both are self-reflective works. We see Dick trying to look back comically at his early career. Both stories show how precarious his early career was. In “Waterspider” Dick is overshadowed by the greats and we get a good feeling of how younger writers felt about being compared to last generation’s greats. In “Orpheus with Clay Feet,” Dick is playing with the idea of how fragile the choice to even become a science fiction writer was. As we know, Dick wanted to be a mainstream writer and often felt trapped in the science fiction genre. Jack Dowland in the story is close to what Dick could have been had he been bumped just slightly in a different direction. Also notice that in both stories, Philip K. Dick’s story is used for a filler when a “greater” author is bumped. In “Waterspider”, Poul Anderson’s “Night Flight” is replaced with “The Mold of Yancy.” Here the story we are reading is replacing the breakout work by the potentially great science fiction writer Jack Dowland.
It is a bit old hat by this point, but we have yet another example of Dick hitting us in the gut over how pointless and brutal work is. One of the bleakest parts of his vision of the future is that there is little hope that we will find more happiness in in place we spend most of our life. Much of our technology (in this case time travel) will still be used to mitigate some of the most demoralizing part of our life: work. In “Orpheus with Clay Feet” Slade is desperate for something else in his life. In this way, the story reminds us of “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale.” (Or the other way around due to the publication chronology.) Slade says: “The need to escape from his small office and the process of dealing with gold-bricking clients whom he had to face, day after day.” (290)
I cannot think of much that can add to this story, but if you have not see it watch O’rfeo