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"Second Variety" is an influential short story by Philip K. Dick first published in Space Science Fiction magazine, in May 1953. A nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the West has reduced much of the world to a barren wasteland. The war continues however among the scattered remains of humanity. The Western forces have recently developed "claws", which are autonomous self-replicating robots to fight on their side. It is one of Dick's many stories in which nuclear war has rendered the Earth's surface uninhabitable.
The short story "Jon's World" (1954) revisited the claw-infested world of "Second Variety". The story was adapted to the movie Screamers in 1995.
"Second Variety" occurs in the aftermath of an extensive nuclear war between the Soviet Union (sometimes referred to as Russia) and the United Nations. Early Soviet victories forced the North American government and production to flee to a Moon Base, leaving the majority of their troops behind. To counter the almost complete Soviet victory, U.N. technicians develop robots, nicknamed claws—the basic models are "a churning sphere of blades and metal" that ambush their unsuspecting victims "spinning, creeping, shaking themselves up suddenly from the gray ash and darting toward… [any warm body]." U.N. forces are protected from the claws by a special radiation-emitting wrist tab. Within six years, the sophisticated and independent claws have destroyed the Soviet forces, repairing and redesigning themselves in automated underground factories run without any human oversight.
The U.N. forces receive a message from the Soviets asking for a policy-level officer to go to them for a gravely urgent conference. The U.N. victory was costlier than they had expected. Major Joseph Hendricks is sent to negotiate with the Soviets. En route to the rendezvous, he meets a small boy named "David" who asks to accompany Hendricks. When they near the Soviet bunker, soldiers immediately kill the boy, revealing him to be a robot. The claws' development program has evolved to develop sophisticated robots identical to humans designed to infiltrate and kill. The three Soviets met by Major Hendricks—Klaus, Rudi and a young woman named Tasso—reveal that the entire Soviet army and command structure collapsed under the onslaught of the new robots.
From salvaged internal metal identification plates, two varieties are identified: I-V, a wounded soldier, and III-V, David. The II-V—the "second variety"—remains unknown. The different models are produced independently of each other in different factories. The Soviets also reveal that the U.N. protective tabs are ineffective against the new robots. Hendricks attempts to transmit a warning to his H.Q. bunker, but is unable to do so.
During the night, Klaus kills Rudi, mistakenly believing he is the II-V. The next morning, Hendricks and the two remaining Soviets return to the U.N. lines. When they reach the bunker, they discover it overrun: a crowd of David and Wounded Soldier model robots attack, but Tasso destroys them with a very powerful hand grenade, stating that it was designed to destroy the robots. Hendricks and Tasso flee, leaving Klaus to the old-style claws. However, Klaus survives both the claws and the bomb blast only to be shot by Tasso, sending "gears and wheels" flying. Tasso tells Hendricks that Klaus must have been the II-V robot.
Hendricks, now suffering from a wounded arm and internal injuries, hopes to escape to the Moon Base. He and Tasso search for a hidden escape rocket, which is revealed as a single-seat spacecraft. Hendricks attempts to leave, but Tasso quickly subdues him. She convinces him to let her leave and send back help. In his injured state, he has no choice but to agree. Hendricks provides Tasso with the signal code needed to find the Moon Base.
Alone and armed with Tasso's pistol, Hendricks returns to Klaus' remains and discovers from the parts that the robot was not a II-V, but a IV-V. A group of robots then attack Hendricks, including Davids, Wounded Soldiers, and several Tasso—the true II-V—models. Hendricks recognizes that he has doomed the Moon Base by sending a robot to them, and that he cannot withstand the onslaught of robots attacking him. As the Tasso models approach, Hendricks notices the bombs clipped to their belts, and recalls that the first Tasso used one to destroy other claws. At his end, Hendricks is vaguely comforted by the thought that the claws are designing, developing, and producing weapons meant for killing other claws.
Reviewing the story, critic Zack Handlen wrote, "'Second Variety' is grim, violent, and suspenseful. There’s enough characterization to keep the protagonists from being indistinguishable, but not much beyond that. While most of the twists are easy to spot once you discover the main plot—basically [an] 'Are you or aren’t you a machine' deal—they still have an impact, and Dick makes his point quite clearly. Which isn’t something you can say for much of his other work—['Second Variety'] is the most user-friendly piece of his I’ve read. There’s enough uncertainty to know it’s Dick; questions of identity keep popping up, and the good guys/bad guys line is pretty well obliterated by the end. But the plot is logical, and there is a point A to point B to point C evolution that you can follow without too much trouble."
He also remarked on the similarities between "Second Variety" and the Terminator films, writing: "When the claws/screamers start changing, their newest models take human forms for much the same reasons the T-800 was created."
"Second Variety" was first published in the May 1953 issue of Space Science Fiction magazine. It has since been republished in the following collections:
- The Variable Man (1956)
- The Best of Philip K. Dick (1977)
- Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities (1984)
- The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Volume II (1987)
- Second Variety (1989)
- Second Variety (1991)
- The Philip K. Dick Reader (1997)
- Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century (2001)
- Minority Report (2002)
- Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick (2002)
A Canadian film, based on "Second Variety", titled Screamers, was made in 1995, featuring Peter Weller. Its screen story fairly closely follows the plot of "Second Variety". Critically, it was criticized for its resemblance to Alien, for its softer, positive ending, and for its low budget, yet was praised by many Canadian film critics, and was nominated for three Genie Awards. A sequel titled Screamers: The Hunting was released in 2009.
- Self-replicating machines
- The Terminator franchise similarly features a post-nuclear war world where killer robots develop newer models that appear fully human.
- The reimagined Battlestar Galactica also features a post-nuclear world where robots develop newer models that disguise themselves as humans. A significant portion of the series' plot focuses on the human characters' efforts to identify all of the robot models which are embedded in the human population.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Second Variety title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Review at SFsite.com
- Second Variety at Project Gutenberg
- Second Variety public domain audiobook from LibriVox