Writing

Lessons From the Confused Writing of Beyond Lies the Wub

Three space men stare at a large, slovenly pig.

We’ve had good fun examining the beginnings of popular works. But beginnings don’t exist in a vacuum; they set up for the middle and end. So this time we’ll look at an entire short story: Beyond Lies the Wub by Philip K. Dick. Dick wrote Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was adapted into the movie Blade Runner.

The story was originally published in 1952. However, we’re not living in 1952, so some of my commentary and advice will ignore the difference in writing conventions between now and then. This story is also public domain; you can read the whole thing for free.

Let’s get started.

Provide Context in Your Opening

They had almost finished with the loading. Outside stood the Optus, his arms folded, his face sunk in gloom. Captain Franco walked leisurely down the gangplank, grinning.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “You’re getting paid for all this.”

The entire opening paragraph is dedicated to scene setting, yet I have no idea what is happening. What are they loading? What is an Optus? I guess we know they are loading a ship, since a captain walks down a gangplank.

Because the audience has no context, the beginning paragraph must be extra clear. For instance, I originally thought the “face sunk in gloom” meant it was getting dark outside. After reading it several times, I realized Dick meant the Optus has an unhappy expression. That’s important; without it, the line of dialogue is jarring.

You might notice Dick is also putting a character action at the end of the paragraph, inserting a paragraph break, and then putting in an unattributed line of dialogue by the character.* It’s clearer and cleaner to use the action as an attribution. Just put it in the same paragraph as the dialogue.

Example

“What’s the matter?” Captain Franco walked leisurely down the gangplank, grinning. “You’re getting paid for all this.”

The Optus said nothing. He turned away, collecting his robes. The Captain put his boot on the hem of the robe.

“Just a minute. Don’t go off. I’m not finished.”

“Oh?” The Optus turned with dignity. “I am going back to the village.” He looked toward the animals and birds being driven up the gangplank into the spaceship. “I must organize new hunts.”

Franco lit a cigarette. “Why not? You people can go out into the veldt and track it all down again. But when we run out halfway between Mars and Earth—”

The Optus went off, wordless.

The only conflict we have in the beginning is the Optus’s bad mood. The Optus doesn’t say why he’s in a bad mood, and then he exits the story forever. I’m serious; this is the last we see of the Optus, and I still don’t know what an Optus is.

Every paragraph in a short story counts. A common mistake is to include extraneous characters who distract from what’s important. When you’re writing a short work, identify the characters that are needed for your plot, then make everyone else fade into the background. Don’t give names or lines of dialogue to extras unless you need to; don’t invent titles like “Optus” unless it is important to the story.

At least we know they are loading animals to supply for a trip between Mars and Earth. If only that wasn’t ridiculous. Live animals are the least efficient food supply ever. Imagine if explorers crossing Earth’s oceans decided to load a herd of cattle on their boats instead of smoked and salted beef. The feed alone would take up all of their cargo capacity.

The Optus went off, wordless. Franco joined the first mate at the bottom of the gangplank.

“How’s it coming?” he said. He looked at his watch. “We got a good bargain here.”

The mate glanced at him sourly. “How do you explain that?”

“What’s the matter with you? We need it more than they do.”

“I’ll see you later, Captain.” The mate threaded his way up the plank, between the long-legged Martian go-birds, into the ship. Franco watched him disappear. He was just starting up after him, up the plank toward the port, when he saw it.

The first mate is also unhappy for unexplained reasons. The Captain’s responses suggest he did something unethical to get the animals at such a good price. That also fits the interaction with Optus, if you go back and reread it. I think Dick’s intent with these character interactions was to establish the Captain as a flawed or outright unethical person, but he’s being much too subtle. Readers would have trouble with hints like these at the best of times; add that they’re still figuring out the world, and this is impossibly opaque.

Instead, Dick should have explained exactly what Captain Franco did other than purchase animals at a good price. Did he threaten the villagers? Did he take the animals by force? Dick gave himself the perfect opportunity to elaborate in dialogue: one of the characters just needed to answer the Captain when he asked them what was bothering them. Even better, the Optus could have begged him for the stolen animals back, and the Captain could have given him a couple pennies and sent him away.

After the vague conversation with the first mate, the Captain sees “it.” Dick ends the paragraph with a dramatically italicized pronoun instead of a description because he wants to provoke curiosity in readers. This technique has its upsides and downsides, which I’ll get to in a bit.

Use the Perspective That Fits Your Story

“My God!” He stood staring, his hands on his hips. Peterson was walking along the path, his face red, leading it by a string.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” he said, tugging at the string. Franco walked toward him.

“What is it?”

The wub stood sagging, its great body settling slowly. It was sitting down, its eyes half shut. A few flies buzzed about its flank, and it switched its tail.

It sat. There was silence.

“It’s a wub,” Peterson said. “I got it from a native for fifty cents. He said it was a very unusual animal. Very respected.”

“This?” Franco poked the great sloping side of the wub. “It’s a pig! A huge dirty pig!”

“Yes sir, it’s a pig. The natives call it a wub.”

“A huge pig. It must weigh four hundred pounds.” Franco grabbed a tuft of the rough hair. The wub gasped. Its eyes opened, small and moist. Then its great mouth twitched. A tear rolled down the wub’s cheek and splashed on the floor.

“Maybe it’s good to eat,” Peterson said nervously.

“We’ll soon find out,” Franco said.

Dick is using a strange perspective. It’s technically omniscient, but he’s not harnessing it to its full potential. He rarely narrates anything you could not witness if you were watching a television show. The story has no exposition and very few thoughts. Those elements provide the advantages that prose has over film. Carefully chosen exposition makes it much easier to open a story, particularly a short story that has to get moving quickly. Thoughts are a powerful way of fleshing out characters. Don’t give these writing modes up easily.

On the plus side, Dick is great at showing rather than telling. When he describes the wub he doesn’t outright say that it’s obese, ugly, or dirty. Instead he says it’s sagging and has flies buzzing around. The characters take actions that are expressive, from stepping on someone’s robes to poking the wub’s side.

Dick does use one trick out of reach of filmmakers – he hides that the wub is a giant pig. This allows him to give it’s introduction more mystery and flavor. This wouldn’t work if he was in the Captain’s head. The risk of that technique is that it can feel like hype. Treating the appearance of this animal as unusual means that when you reveal what it looks like, it better be unusual. The reveal worked for me, but other readers might be unsatisfied.

Unfortunately, Dick continues the trend of being as confusing as possible by calling the creature “the wub” in narration before Peterson says that’s what it’s called. Because of the story’s title, readers might infer “it” is the wub, but writers should never count on that.

Create Fresh Characters

The ship takes off with the wub on board, and Captain Franco asks his men to fetch it so he can examine it again.

[Captain Franco speaking] “Now, as to its taste. That’s the real question. I doubt if there’s much point in fattening it up any more. It seems fat enough to me already. Where’s the cook? I want him here. I want to find out—”

The wub stopped lapping and looked up at the Captain.

“Really, Captain,” the wub said. “I suggest we talk of other matters.”

The room was silent.

“What was that?” Franco said. “Just now.”

“The wub, sir,” Peterson said. “It spoke.”

They all looked at the wub.

“What did it say? What did it say?”

“It suggested we talk about other things.”

Franco walked toward the wub. He went all around it, examining it from every side. Then he came back over and stood with the men.

“I wonder if there’s a native inside it,” he said thoughtfully.

“Maybe we should open it up and have a look.”

“Oh, goodness!” the wub cried. “Is that all you people can think of, killing and cutting?”

The wub talks! The wub talks? It had plenty of time to talk when they were discussing taking it on board the ship as a food source. Why is it only talking now? It’s intriguing that the wub speaks in what is clearly human vernacular. No doubt Dick chose that for its contrast with the creature’s outward appearance.

Unfortunately, Dick has some wordcraft habits that could cause confusion. He has several lines of dialogue without any indication of who is speaking them. My guess is that they represent the general reaction of the crew. In that case, it’s better to use an attribution such as “one of the men said,” or even “someone said.” That way readers know the line isn’t a statement from an important character.

Dick is also alternating references to Captain Franco. He mentions the title and name together just once in the opening paragraph and then uses one or the other but rarely both. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone thought they were different characters.

Next, the Captain and his men have just enough time to conclude no one is inside the wub when the cook arrives.

The cook came in.

“You wanted me, Captain?” he said. “What’s this thing?”

“This is a wub,” Franco said. “It’s to be eaten. Will you measure
it and figure out—”

“I think we should have a talk,” the wub said. “I’d like to discuss this with you, Captain, if I might. I can see that you and I do not agree on some basic issues.”

The Captain took a long time to answer. The wub waited good-naturedly, licking the water from its jowls.

“Come into my office,” the Captain said at last. He turned and walked out of the room. The wub rose and padded after him.

Apparently the Captain has no qualms about devouring a sentient being. And the wub is being extraordinarily polite about the possibility of being eaten. Dick depicts the wub skillfully; its mannerisms stand out from the rest of the crew. He maintains the interesting contrast between its sophisticated speaking lines and slovenly appearance by narrating its animal-like behavior, such as licking water from its jowls.

This is a good demonstration of why you should avoid character stereotypes. If the wub spoke in a slow and slurred voice or its appearance was tidy, it wouldn’t be as entertaining. Novelty comes from traits the audience doesn’t expect.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s get started. You’re a wub? Is that correct?”

The wub shrugged. “I suppose so. That’s what they call us, the natives, I mean. We have our own term.”

“And you speak English? You’ve been in contact with Earthmen before?”

“No.”

“Then how do you do it?”

“Speak English? Am I speaking English? I’m not conscious of speaking anything in particular. I examined your mind—”

“My mind?”

“I studied the contents, especially the semantic warehouse,
as I refer to it—”

“I see,” the Captain said. “Telepathy. Of course.”

[The wub describes more about how its species is tolerant and peaceful.]

“So you read minds?” the Captain said. “How interesting. Anything else? I mean, what else can you do along those lines?”

“A few odds and ends,” the wub said absently, staring around the room. “A nice apartment you have here, Captain.”

We now have a good explanation for why the wub speaks with such human expression: it has a built-in universal translator. We still have no idea why it waited until it was on board to start speaking. Perhaps the wub needed time to examine the “semantic warehouse,” but that’s never stated anywhere.

Some readers will probably wonder about these “natives” the characters keep referring to. I would blame Dick for not clarifying who they are, but during this era of science fiction, everyone just assumed there were Martians living on Mars. As a result, science fiction writers of the period rarely explain the presence of Martians. If the story mentions Mars at any point, Martians are a thing. Writers can’t get away with that today, of course.

Give Characters Clear Motivation

“But to get back to the problem—”

“Quite so. You spoke of dining on me. The taste, I am told, is good. A little fatty, but tender. But how can any lasting contact be established between your people and mine if you resort to such barbaric attitudes? Eat me? Rather you should discuss questions with me, philosophy, the arts—”

The Captain stood up. “Philosophy. It might interest you to know that we will be hard put to find something to eat for the next month. An unfortunate spoilage—”

“I know.” The wub nodded. “But wouldn’t it be more in accord with your principles of democracy if we all drew straws, or something along that line? After all, democracy is to protect the minority from just such infringements. Now, if each of us casts one vote—”

Let me get this straight. The wub pretends to be a food source so it will be brought on board the ship, waits until they are in transit, and then declares itself sentient, suggesting whoever draws the short straw should get eaten instead. I guess needlessly murdering it would still be wrong, but it’s not gaining my sympathy.

Neither is the Captain. There’s been spoilage? What, does he have fresh vegetables on board too? This is a ship soaring through the extreme cold of space. Either these are absurdly inexperienced travelers, or Dick has no idea how people actually travel long distances. If food scarcity is an important factor in the plot, it deserves more explanation than this passing mention.

Regardless of his travel experience, the Captain has a point. In sections I haven’t included in these excerpts, Dick establishes that the wub likes to eat a lot. Yet here it disregards everyone else’s need to eat and insists its only purpose is to discuss philosophy and the arts. This is the most privileged pig ever.

Do I want to hear why it knows so much about what it tastes like?

The Captain walked to the door.

“Nuts to you,” he said. He opened the door. He opened his mouth.

He stood frozen, his mouth wide, his eyes staring, his fingers still on the knob.

The wub watched him. Presently it padded out of the room, edging past the Captain. It went down the hall, deep in meditation.

The wub can attack people with psychic powers. I think it can anyway; it’s either that or the Captain went into shock after seeing something weird in the hallway. Then the wub exits while in deep meditation. People don’t usually walk down halls while they meditate. If Dick was willing to use any thoughts or exposition, he could easily explain anomalies like these. He might narrate how the wub falls into meditation as it reaches out with its mind and then describe how the Captain feels the mind of the wub pressing against his consciousness, blocking his movements. Instead of making what’s happening clear, Dicks leaves readers to scratch their heads.

We have a scene cut there. The next scene starts as the wub and Peterson have a philosophical conversation comparing Odysseus to mythical figures from other races. I can only guess the wub learned about Odysseus by reading people’s minds. That’s an unreliable information source if there ever was one.

Then Franco and his men appear in the doorway.

Franco lowered his gun. “Come over here,” he said to Peterson. “Get up and come here.”

There was silence.

“Go ahead,” the wub said. “It doesn’t matter.”

Peterson stood up. “What for?”

“It’s an order.”

Peterson walked to the door. French caught his arm.

“What’s going on?” Peterson wrenched loose. “What’s the matter with you?”

Captain Franco moved toward the wub. The wub looked up from where it lay in the corner, pressed against the wall.

“It is interesting,” the wub said, “that you are obsessed with the idea of eating me. I wonder why.”

I would also like to know why the Captain insists on killing and eating it. We have several potential motivations but no clear winner. Dick mentions that they need a food supply but doesn’t make it sound urgent. The ship is carrying live animals and fresh vegetables; this is practically a luxury liner. If the Captain insisted that someone would starve without both the food the wub would provide and the food it would eat along the way, this problem would be more compelling. He could also be compelled by fear of the wub’s dangerous powers or by a character flaw. In stories, one strong motivation is more compelling than lots of little ones.

Also, who is French? If I searched the text of the story I might find an earlier mention of him, but I shouldn’t have to. Dick should be either introducing the characters more carefully or leaving them in the background. He needs the ship to feel like it has a crew, but in omniscient perspective, Dick doesn’t have to do that by using the names the Captain uses for them. He’s already used titles such as “first mate” and “cook” to refer to characters. By switching to names without ado, he leaves us wondering whether “French” is also the first mate or cook.

While Dick’s wordcraft is strong, he does have the occasional “there was” sentence. In this excerpt, he could have replaced “There was silence” with “Silence filled the room” or “they fell silent.” Writers also have more creative ways of implying silences. For example, the characters could pause and listen to normally quiet noises like the hum of the ship’s engine. Regardless, “there are” is usually a waste of space. More active wording will make these sentences feel stronger.

And once again, we have an unattributed line of dialogue: “It’s an order.” To fix this, Dick could have modified the action in the previous paragraph to clarify whom Peterson was talking to. “He stood up and looked at Franco.”

On top of all that, Captain Franco “lowering his gun” is the first mention of a gun in this story. Where was Chekhov’s gun when this story needed it?

“Shoot it now,” French said.

“For God’s sake!” Peterson exclaimed. Jones turned to him quickly, his eyes gray with fear.

“You didn’t see him—like a statue, standing there, his mouth open. If we hadn’t come down, he’d still be there.”

“Who? The Captain?” Peterson stared around. “But he’s all right now.”

They looked at the wub, standing in the middle of the room, its great chest rising and falling.

“Come on,” Franco said. “Out of the way.”

The men pulled aside toward the door.

“You are quite afraid, aren’t you?” the wub said. “Have I done anything to you? I am against the idea of hurting. All I have done is try to protect myself. Can you expect me to rush eagerly to my death? I am a sensible being like yourselves. I was curious to see your ship, learn about you. I suggested to the native—”

The gun jerked.

“See,” Franco said. “I thought so.”

Dick is being very ambiguous about whether the wub is a threat or whether the Captain is just a terrible person. We know the wub purposely tricked people into bringing it on board. The wub says it’s defending itself, but it paralyzed the Captain as he was leaving his office. Now that he’s actually pointing a gun at it, nothing is happening.

That is, unless we decide the gun jerked because of telekinesis. Judging by the context, it’s reasonable to assume the Captain jerked it as a threat. But why didn’t Dick write “Franco jerked the gun”? Featuring the actor would be clearer to readers and make the action feel stronger.

Who is Jones again? Some guy I guess.

Franco raised his gun.

“I’m going out,” Jones said, his face white and sick. “I don’t want to see it.”

“Me, too,” French said. The men straggled out, murmuring. Peterson lingered at the door.

“It was talking to me about myths,” he said. “It wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

He went outside.

Franco walked toward the wub. The wub looked up slowly. It swallowed.

“A very foolish thing,” it said. “I am sorry that you want to do it. There was a parable that your Saviour related—”

It stopped, staring at the gun.

“Can you look me in the eye and do it?” the wub said. “Can you do that?”

The Captain gazed down. “I can look you in the eye,” he said. “Back on the farm we had hogs, dirty razor-back hogs. I can do it.”

Staring down at the wub, into the gleaming, moist eyes, he pressed the trigger.

Captain Franco decides to shoot the wub, but strangely all of his men feel sickened and leave. Is this a wub power? In the last excerpt French said, “Shoot it now.” In a portion I didn’t quote, he tells Franco to shoot the wub in the brain to preserve the edible portions. Now he’s spontaneously disturbed by the killing.

Storytellers often impose their opinion on the story through the use of side characters. This is probably Dick’s way of expressing that shooting the wub is a horrible act. Unfortunately, this method can feel contrived. If readers should see this as terrible, he needs to depict it as terrible. Instead we have enough ambiguous hints to sow doubt about the wub – such as the possibility of the crew starving. While this story has been entertaining, readers may find it difficult to be emotionally invested in the outcome when neither the Captain nor the wub has earned any sympathy.

This excerpt also conveys as much motivation from the Captain as we’ll get: he’s racist against pigs. I did a quick search to see if Dick was a vegetarian, perhaps making commentary on the evils of eating meat. I didn’t find any evidence of that.

Use Context to Foreshadow Twists

In the last scene, the crewmen are sharing a delicious meal of wub. Just like the shooting scene, everyone is clearly upset about eating the wub except for Captain Franco. Jones and French leave the table.

Two more men got up and went out. The Captain drank some water and sighed.

“Well,” he said. “I must say that this was a very enjoyable meal. All the reports I had heard were quite true—the taste of wub. Very fine. But I was prevented from enjoying this pleasure in times past.”

He dabbed at his lips with his napkin and leaned back in his chair. Peterson stared dejectedly at the table.

The Captain watched him intently. He leaned over.

“Come, come,” he said. “Cheer up! Let’s discuss things.”

He smiled.

“As I was saying before I was interrupted, the role of Odysseus in the myths—”

Peterson jerked up, staring.

“To go on,” the Captain said. “Odysseus, as I understand him—”

The murder is reversed! Franco didn’t kill the wub, the wub killed Franco. This is a wonderful twist. First, Dick set up the surprise well by establishing that the wub has miscellaneous and powerful telepathic abilities. Because taking over Franco’s body is similar enough to what the wub has already done, Dick didn’t need to actually say that the wub can take over someone else’s form. Foreshadowing this ability without spelling it out will make it difficult for readers to see this twist coming. To add more intrigue, look back to the previous excerpt for the last thing the wub says before it dies. What seemed like an emotional appeal might have actually been clever manipulation.

Dick could have done one thing better when setting up his twist. He could have offered an explanation for why the wub didn’t freeze the Captain again. The wub could state that it’s tired or that it can’t freeze him forever if he’s determined. This would have kept readers from getting distracted by what looks like a big plot hole, even if it’s explained later.

By ending with Peterson, the wub’s friend, Dick seems to be endorsing this as a happy ending. I’m not entirely convinced. In particular, what the wub says after it eats its former body is super creepy: “I was prevented from enjoying this pleasure in times past.” I have this image in my head of the wub casually gnawing on other pigs nearby, until they got fed up and exiled it from their lands.

Decide What Your Story Should Accomplish

Beyond Lies the Wub lacks focus. If it had a clear takeaway, it would feel much stronger. However, what takeaway it should have depends on Dick’s purpose in writing this story. Since I can’t ask him, I’ll outline three possibilities.

Beyond Lies the Wub as a Cautionary Tale

In a cautionary tale, the main character makes the wrong choice and is punished for it. This is my best guess as to Dick’s intent. I’ve read another of his stories, Behind the Door, with a similar fight between an asshole guy and the bird in a cuckoo clock. The bird was definitely not a villain in that one.

But if Dick wanted this to be a cautionary tale, he should have cut out the comments about their food supply, given a reason for the wub to be on the ship other than trickery, and maybe not included those creepy comments implying wubish cannibalism.

Instead the Captain’s motivating flaws needed to be clear. For instance, he could establish that Captain Franco prides himself in being at the natural top on the food chain and more civilized than the natives. When a disgusting pig shows him up in courtesy and intellect, his identity might be threatened. This motivates him to lash out violently. In a tale like this, Franco should have a chance to learn the error of his ways and find redemption. He’s given that chance at the climax of the story, but instead he chooses to shoot the wub. The rest you know.

Who is needed for this cautionary tale? Just Franco, the wub, and an unnamed background crew to apply pressure to the Captain when the wub clearly out-talks him. Even Peterson can go.

Beyond Lies the Wub as a Suspenseful Tale

Let’s say Dick meant for the wub to be the bad guy. We might have a story where a group of confident hunters take their prey on board only to find they are the ones being nefariously hunted. Suspenseful tales often contain karmic retribution; perhaps the crew commits a great sin in the beginning by needlessly stealing and slaughtering a bunch of animals.

In this case, the wub would need to be obviously unethical by the end. The Captain might be the only one who sees the wub for the menace it is. The rest of the crew might be taken in by its charming speech. Alternately, the Captain could ignore the crew’s warnings and be lured into a false sense of security until the true nature of the wub is revealed.

Ideally, the Captain would still have a fatal flaw for the wub to exploit, just a more innocent one. Perhaps he’s greedy and the wub offers him riches, or he needs validation and the wub flatters him. The Captain might even agree to the wub’s drawing-straws proposition, allowing one of his crew to be eaten instead of the wub.

If we want this tale to lean closer to horror, a couple named characters that could be killed off before the captain would be helpful. In a story this short, however, I still wouldn’t add more than two. Peterson and French can stay, but not Jones. However, if this is more of an intimate contest between the Captain and the wub, like it is now, I would go with just a background crew.

Beyond Lies the Wub as an Ethical Dilemma

You might be wondering if the story is supposed to be ambiguous about the who’s right and who’s wrong. Many great stories leave their true meaning or even what really happens open to interpretation. However, those stories usually do something this one doesn’t: they are clearly unclear.

I call this technique “sanctioning uncertainty.” If you don’t signal to your readers that you are intentionally leaving a question open, many of them will feel confused and unsatisfied. How do you tell them? Usually by having a character that feels uncertain.

This is where Peterson finally becomes useful. Instead of being the wub’s best buddy, he can feel torn between the Captain and the wub. He might be a supporting protagonist, watching the Captain struggle with his demons. Or he might be the main character himself, forced to choose at the climax between the Captain and the wub. To really emphasize the dilemma, Dick could have stopped the story right at the moment he has to choose.

However, we’ll want to keep that excellent twist. Making Peterson feel doubt after the reveal would cause the least disruption to the current plot. Right now, the story ends before we have a chance to see how Peterson reacts to the twist. Extending it would allow Dick to use his reaction to sanction uncertainty.

Before the reveal, Peterson can still feel sad about the murder of the wub and angry at the Captain. As he learns that the wub actually triumphed in this conflict, he could realize the wub has not been honest with him or other signs that perhaps the captain was actually right. The audience would need to understand his uncertainty, and the story should end before Peterson comes to a conclusion. To add power to the conclusion, Dick could give Peterson the opportunity to end the wub once and for all. Perhaps there’s a weapon hidden under the table. Peterson reaches for it and hesitates. Curtains close.

The Story Overall

Now that we’ve seen this story from beginning to end, let’s look at the important components:

  • Setting: A ship going from Mars to Earth.
  • External conflict: The fight between Captain Franco and the wub.
  • Main character: Captain Franco. His decisions drive the story, and the narrative sticks with him through most of the tale.
  • Internal conflict: *crickets chirp*

The internal conflict is the main character’s inner debate, the outcome of which determines if the character grows or regresses as a person. Stories can go without internal conflicts, but they will feel less deep and meaningful. Considering that this story is about an ethical dilemma, it definitely could have benefited from an internal struggle from the Captain. The closest we get is his brief decision to listen to the wub in his office. If you squint your eyes and kind of lean to the side, you can probably piece together some fan theory about what he might have been thinking and feeling based on his actions, but Dick hasn’t established any canon on that.

While this story lacks clarity in theme or depth in Captain Franco’s character, it has many strong points. Here’s where it shined:

  • Despite the fuzzy beginning with a random character, most of the story stays right on track. The plot doesn’t wander off into tangents; Dick doesn’t digress on unnecessary topics. I had trouble cutting out parts of the story for this critique.
  • Dick rarely does anything but show sensory details you could watch on a tv show, and he’s good at it. This technique has substantial downsides, but it’s refreshing to see. Most writers err in the other direction.
  • The depiction of the wub is interesting and entertaining. Dick makes a big impression with the wub by using his skill at showing to bring the inherent contrast of the character to life.
  • Dick successfully foreshadows the twist and reveals it well.

The story’s biggest weakness, and the result of all the things I’ve criticized, is that it doesn’t have much emotional power. Dick gets away with neglecting this because the story is so entertaining, but it could have stayed entertaining while bringing out the tragedy of the Captain’s fall, the suspense of the wub’s triumph, or both. If only this tale wasn’t so confused.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Dave

    A great breakdown of a classic tale. I think maybe you missed one possibility though, “Beyond Lies the Wub as comedy”. I never read (or listened, Greg Margeurite did a great narration of it over on LibriVox) this story as horror or even a morality tale (although obviously it can be read those ways, as you point out), but more as just a silly story with an ironic twist. The captain is kind of a dick, and while the comeuppance he gets is a bit much, I feel like it’s more played for humor than any real shock or moral lesson. But that’s just my two cents. Thanks for the post!

    • Chris Winkle

      That’s a great point. It can be hard to identify the humor used in generations passed. If this was hilarious that would given it more value. However, my experience has been that a story that’s just a silly story is losing an opportunity. You can keep all the silly humor and also give it some deeper meaning – just look at the Discworld books. But the writer may not feel the need to give a silly story a stronger backbone, so that could explain why the structure is a little neglected in Beyond Lies the Wub.

    • Anna

      It’s been many years since I’ve read this classic short story. I’ve always thought of the story as humorous. A great example of ‘Turnabout is fair play’. The captain is clearly a huge bigoted jerk, and the wub is a body jumping telepathic creature, and much more clever than the captain. The story makes you wonder if the term wub means the piglike body or the entity controlling it. What exactly is the wub?

      I agree the story could use another layer or so in it. It seems somewhat flat.

  2. Horace Torys

    Not sure how much Asimov, Dick, Bradbury, et al you’ve read, but their early pieces (which are now coming into public domain) were shorts written for pulp magazines like Amazing Stories. SF in the 50s was big on gee-whiz technology, fabulous foreign worlds, and twist endings. Not so much on characterization or plot. This is a perfect example of the form by a young PKD, but with strokes of genius you pointed out, which matured in his longer, non-pulp works.

  3. qwerty

    Well, when i first read it, i tought that captain just repeated what Wub said.
    And the point of a story is that humanity tends to kill each other and ‘steal’ other civilizations’ ideologies only to label them as ‘theirs’.

  4. Essalure Lenara

    Do you plan to do more {lessons from the (adjective) writing of (story/novel)”? I love them.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yes, definitely. They’re just time consuming, so we can’t do them often. We’ll try to do another one for you soon.

  5. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    When do you think you will do another Lesson from Bad Writing? I love these posts and am hoping to see another soon.
    Also, one question: Was that Twilight vs. Fifty Shades of Grey a Lesson? Because I was wondering why it’s not listed under the Lessons from Bad Writing tag.

    • Chris Winkle

      I’m actually working on one now. It’ll take a few weeks to get published but I’ll try to rush it along on the schedule.

      I probably forgot to put that tag on Twilight/Fifty, I’ll go correct that now.

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