Electric Dreams Episode 10 The Father Thing

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Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

Episode 10 The Father Thing

Written by Michael Dinner, based upon the short story ‘The Father-Thing’

Directed by Michael Dinner

Starring Brian Bolland, Shannon Brown, Dominic Capone, Mireille Enos, Greg Kinnear

Plot: Charles Walton’s family is under attack… His father has been replaced by an alien duplicate as part of a vanguard for an alien invasion.

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The Short Story: As with Foster, You’re Dead (adapted for Electric Dreams under the title Safe and Sound), The Father-Thing deals with a child’s point-of-view. It tackles a theme popular in the 1950s—the replacement of people close to you with duplicates. This, often expressed as a reaction to the Communist witch-hunt of the time (a frequent topic for Dick’s short stories), features as a central theme in movie like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (four film adaptations based on Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers) and the 1938 John W. Campbell novella Who Goes There? (adapted as The Thing From Another World, 1951, and John Carpenter’s The Thing, 1981, and the source for the 2011 prequel version of The Thing). What Dick does in this short story is to ignore the world-shattering event of an alien invasion through stealth in which humans are gradually replaced, instead focusing on the personal story as it impacts upon one family, and (even closer) one child.

Thing05Charles Walton is part of a typical 1950s family, of two parents—June, a housewife and mother, and Ted, an office drone. Sent to fetch his father for dinner, Charles hesitates as he is unsure which of the two identical men he has seen in the garage he should bring back. The problem is averted when Ted comes to the dinner table himself, just the one of him… Charles is deeply affected by this, however, as it was ‘the other one’ that has come in and made itself part of the family.

Of course, it is the eight year old who can tell something isn’t right, and naturally he’s not believed. Charles flees from the figure he has begun to think of as ‘the father-thing’, attempting to hide in his room. When the thing that looks like Ted pursues him, Charles escapes to the garage, where—hidden inside a burn barrel— he finds ‘the remains of his father, his real father. Bits the father-thing had no use for. Bits it had discarded.’

cover4This is chilling stuff, as close to horror or Ray Bradbury as Dick probably ever came in his writing. Of course, the question arises in the readers mind as to whether young Charles Walton is a reliable narrator—should we take his impression that his father has been replaced by an invading alien at face value? Or is it an expression of some form of mental illness? Often in Dick not everything is as it seems on the surface, but most modern readers who know the author’s work are probably safe in assuming that this 1954 story (published in the December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction) will take a straight-forward approach to its themes.

Dick had a very personal inspiration for this story. Writing in 1976, he noted: ‘I always had the impression, when I was very small, that my father was two people, one good, one bad. The good father goes away and the bad father replaces him. I guess many kids have this feeling. What if it were so? This story is another instance of a normal feeling, which is in fact incorrect, somehow becoming correct … with the added misery that one cannot communicate it to others. Fortunately, there are other kids to tell it to. Kids understand: they are wiser than adults… hmmm, I almost said, “Wiser than humans”.’

Thing04Charles turns to an older kid, 14-year-old bully Tony Peretti. They return to the garage, and the snakeskin-like remains convince Peretti that Waltons’ tale of seeing two Teds, and that one had replaced the other, must be true. Observing his parents through the window, both boys see Mrs. Walton leave to call neighbours in search of Charles, while the father-thing seemingly wilts, no longer having to keep up appearances as ‘Ted’ as if somebody had turned off its power.

Together, Charles and Peretti recruit a third boy, Bobby Daniels, to help them locate the external power source that seems to motivate the father-thing. They eventually located a small metallic insect-like creature burrowing under a concrete slab. As the boys struggle against the creature’s apparent psychic force field, they are stopped from destroying it with their BB gun by the intervention of the father-thing, who drags Charles inside the garage.

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When Peretti turns his BB gun on the father-thing, Charles manages to escape, hiding in the bamboo field nearby where he discovers a cocoon-like fungoid creature, almost human-shaped: a mother-thing! As in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, pods containing the alien replacements for other individuals are hidden awaiting their maturation. This one is beginning to resemble June Walton, Charles’ mother. Of course, the next thing he discovers is his own nascent replacement, the Charles-thing.

Both the father-thing and its progeny go into convulsions, a result of Peretti and Daniels pouring kerosene into the tunnel inhabited by the metallic insect controller. The firey death of the bug also kills the creatures it controlled. As they prepare to burn the fungoid-like bodies, it seems likely that a wider invasion is yet to be thwarted.

One of Dick’s most anthologised stories, The Father-thing approaches a standard tale with a creepy and atmospheric edge. It plays upon teenage paranoia, the fear that as you don’t relate to your parents (the generation gap, as it was termed in the 1950s and 1960s), then maybe they aren’t actually related to you at all. Perhaps they’re not even human. It’s an old trope put to good use by Dick in a period before it was all but worn out by repetition.

The story puts together a patchwork group of heroes: an eight year old, the six years older Peretti, and the young black kid, Daniels, who’s about nine. They know one another through neighbourhood interactions and school, but they’re not friends. Charles even thinks that the bully Peretti may have beaten him up at one point, as he had most kids in school.

The paranoia of alien invasion is clearly what Dick intended, but there is a real syndrome called ‘prosopagnosia’ in which people can fail to recognise the faces of those they know, even relatives. Kids don’t recognise their own parents, while parents can fail to recognise their own children. The neurological disorder, commonly called ‘face blindness’, was properly diagnosed and named in 1947 (although there are records of earlier examples), but it didn’t really become widely known until the late-1980s into the 1990s, long after Dick’s time.

Of course, Dick’s two most prominent themes are embedded in The Father-thing. The question of what is ‘human’ is apparent in the new life-form that replaces Charles’ father—if a ‘thing’ looks, sounds, and acts like the human ‘Ted’, is it just as human? Secondly, there is the question of what is ‘reality’. Is an alien invasion underway? Was Ted the first to be impersonated, or just the latest in a long line of thousands. There is also, in a sense, a reading in which the children have created their own counterfeit reality—maybe the whole thing is nothing but a childhood game, filtered through the imagination of Charles Walton, while Ted and June are simply long-suffering parents with a wildly imaginative kid to cater for…

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The Television Episode: This final episode of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the source story with a heavy dose of Stranger Things injected into it. As the ‘body snatchers’ theme is so old and worn out through repetition, this instalment—for all its much-needed fidelity to the original story—might come across to those not well versed in Dick as derivative and old hat. That’s a problem inherent in the source material that the show all but ignores.

Thing09The episode is cast well, building up a good father-son relationship between Greg Kinnear’s ‘Father’ and Charlie, ably played by Jack Gore. They are connected through a love of baseball; they talk about it on a camping trip and Jack is trying out for the school team. Unusually in these kind of family-based dramas, the role of the mother (well played by the often under-rated Mireille Enos) is sidelined. An attempt to add adult drama themes into the story—the parents are on the verge of separating—falls flat, and feels like an addition made to the story simply to bring it up to length. There is little made of the idea that the new father-thing might be a more caring better family man than the original (an idea explored earlier in the series in Human Is). This soapy element is possibly another Spielberg echo, lifted this time from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

What’s lacking, perhaps, is the ambiguity of Dick’s story, the possibility that as we’re seeing things through Charlie’s eyes, perhaps he’s mistaken about what’s going on, or imagining things. Instead, we get a straightforward body-snatchers-alien-invasion tale, albeit fronted by Mr. Nice Greg Kinnear. The invasion is simply represented through a series of meteor shower like events.

Thing03It’s derivative, not helped by the fact that much of the show looks like it has taken a leaf straight out of the Stranger Things playbook (itself derivative of 1980s Spielberg). The kids tool around on their bikes with a degree of autonomy modern children generally don’t have. Their investigation into what’s going on verges on the tone of a caper movie, very different from the paranoia that opens and closes the episode. This uncertainty in tone doesn’t help an instalment that has very little to add to the original source story. Oh, and once again there’s a throwaway PKD reference when one of the school teachers (Terry Kinney) is revealed to be one ‘Phil Dick’. #RESIST

Verdict: Oddly, unlike the best of the series (Autofac), The Father Thing is faithful to the source story but fails to build it into something worthwhile.

Brian J. Robb

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Electric Dreams Episode 9 Safe and Sound

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Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

Episode 9 Safe and Sound

Written by Kalen Egan, based on the short story ‘Foster, You’re Dead’

Directed by Alan Taylor

Starring Annalise Basso, Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Connor Paolo

Plot: As his family is unable or unwilling to buy an up-to-date bomb shelter, Mike Foster faces social isolation…

The Short Story: Unusually for Philip K. Dick, the main character in Foster, You’re Dead is a child of school age. Mike Foster’s 1971 school, however, is teaching classes focused on surviving the almost-guaranteed forthcoming nuclear apocalypse. Survival techniques, strategies, and methods are the focus of education. Craft classes focus on making baskets to carry goods and creating useable knives from waste materials. There’s also a class that solely teaches ‘digging’, as in techniques for establishing an underground survival space where nuclear fall-out can be avoided. Young Mike Foster despairs of these teachings, as he is convinced that come the day the bomb drops, neither he nor anyone else will survive to use their poorly made knives or to indulge in practical uses for their laboured ‘digging’ techniques.

Safe09The Foster family, to the amazement of his classmates and teachers, don’t even own a nuclear fall-out shelter. Foster is not registered for Civic Defence, his family do not contribute to the NATS (essentially national defence), and he doesn’t even have a permit for the school’s communal shelter. All this because is father is something described by one fellow pupil as ‘anti-P’. The entire community, apart from the Fosters it seems, are on a wartime footing, even if the ‘war’ is simply an extension of the then ‘cold’ war that Dick himself experienced in the mid-1950s extrapolated 20-odd years into the future.

Not unconnected to this ‘forever war’ situation is the growth of ultra-consumerism that even extends to ‘this years’ model’ of fall-out shelter. The ‘gleaming showrooms of General Electronics’ display the latest must-have products in all their utilitarian glory, including the new ‘1972 Bomb-Proof Radiation-Sealed Sub-Surface Shelter’ that boasts a range of ‘star-studded features’ all of which come under an attractive ‘e-z payment plan’. For only $20,000 ‘a family would be safe, even comfortable, during the most severe H-bomb and bacterial-spray attack’.

Foster’s father regards all this as simple scaremongering in order to sell unnecessary consumer goods to keep the economy expanding. As Mike notes: ‘He says they sold people as many cars and washing machines and television sets as they could use.’ Here Dick is describing the rampant consumerism that was first coming to notice in the 1950s American age of ‘plenty’. He’d been inspired by a notion put forward by the then President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dick wrote in 1976: ‘One day I saw a newspaper headline reporting that the President suggested that if Americans had to buy their bomb shelters, rather than being provided with them by the government, they’d take better care of them, an idea which made me furious.’

It may have been a notion that infuriated Dick, but it was one that sparked an idea for a short story. ‘Logically,’ he suggested, expanding upon the theme, ‘each of us should own a submarine, a jet fighter, and so forth. [With ‘Foster, You’re Dead’] I just wanted to show how cruel the authorities can be when it comes to human life, how they can think in terms of dollars, not people.’

In a prescient piece of writing, given the recent ‘war on terror’ and the rise of the constant alert status in reaction to ‘terrorism’, Dick has young Foster point out his father’s view of this wartime consumerism: ‘as long as people are afraid, they’ll keep paying.’ While he understands that idea, Mike Foster nonetheless longs for the perceived safety of a shelter, something his father refuses to buy. Young Foster experiences great anxiety because if there is an attack (and drills are a regular part of Foster’s experience), he has no ‘safe place’ to go to. Even the publicly available shelters require a fee of 50c, something he doesn’t always have available to him.

Safe08Mike’s father, Bob, a ‘wooden furniture’ salesman, exhibits all manner of what might be thought of by his contemporaries as eccentricities. He carries a pocket watch, which causes Mike to note ‘he was surely the only man who still carries a watch’. He’s ‘anti-P’, standing against the ‘preparedness’ that everyone else in town has (literally) bought into. The shelter salesman Mike encounters thinks to himself that the Foster family are ‘coasters’, refusing to pay into the local and national defence (the NATS), but ‘sliding along, safe’ without contributing the 30 per cent of their income as everyone else does.

Dick was tackling something that seems ultra-modern, very 21st century: the domestication of war. Fear over terrorism, the possibility of an attack on a town, city, or community out of the blue requires constant readiness, ‘preparedness’ for every eventuality. That all costs money, and requires the community to subscribe to defence, either personally, individually, or collectively through greater state spending on armaments. The fear of attack, sometime manufactured or exaggerated by the state, encourages the population to spend, either on personal safety or for distraction: buy your way out of fear for momentary relief.

Against his better judgement, Bob Foster gives in to the pressure from young Mike and his wife, Ruth, and has a shelter installed, on the easy payment plan, hoping that sales of furniture over the forthcoming Christmas period will be lucrative. This brings new respect from the neighbourhood, and joy to Mike who is determined to be the first to enter and experience the new shelter. Having the brand new model brings Mike new respect from his peers at school, who’d previously derided him and his ‘anti-P’ family. His conformity, including his new school shelter permit, makes him (in the words of his teacher) ‘just like everyone else’.

Inevitably, as soon as the shelter is installed, the enemy develop a new weapon, bore pellets, specifically designed to burrow down to where shelters are located and explode. The only answer is new expenditure, the purchase of a ‘bore pellet grill’ to keep them trapped on the surface. Bob Foster feels it is a personal plot against him, but reinforces Dick’s anti-consumerism point: ‘[It’s] the perfect sales pitch. If you don’t buy, they’ll kill you! Buy or die!’

Mike takes to spending time after school in the shelter, even sleeping overnight sometimes down below, where he feels safe. One day, however, he discovers the shelter gone, ripped out of the ground, leaving nothing but a dark, gaping hole where safety had previously been guaranteed. Poor sales in the furniture store forced Bob Foster to return the shelter: they can no longer afford the payments. Running away, Mike takes up residence in the shelter on display in the store he frequently visited. Thrown out physically by two salesmen, Mike wanders among the Christmas crowds, only to be reminded that even the public shelters require payment for their use.

Safe10Originally published in Star Science Fiction Stories #3 in 1955 (edited by Frederick Pohl), ‘Foster, You’re Dead’ is a snappy projection of fear-induced consumerism. Planned obsolescence and ever-newer models are obvious points of criticism, but it is the fact that these items (shelters, gas masks, subscriptions to the NATS collective defence) must be bought to ensure continued life. It’s best put in the wonderful slogan: Buy or die. It is a simple fusion of war and fear with economic necessity and end stage capitalism that is even more relevant now in the second decade of the 21st century than it was in the mid-1950s. It is a simple example, even given the 1950s trappings of Dick’s future, of his prescience, his ability to take contemporary trends and imagine how things might go—in this case, he was (unfortunately) spot on.

While Bob Foster stands against this exploitation, unwilling to participate in what he sees as a con on the people, his son falls victim to the propaganda imposed through the education system. Dick is also making a comment here about the values taught to children in schools: in this case, they are almost entirely based around the skills needed to ‘survive’ a nuclear strike. The peer pressure of those around the Fosters, to take part in the expected Civic Defence responsibilities, overwhelms Mike in a way it doesn’t (apart from temporarily) Bob. The young man has no defences against the society in which he grew up. The older Bob grew up before these priorities became mandatory, so can remember a different way of life even if it is over a decade in the past. It is worth considering how the so called ‘millennial’ generation will fare, having grown up in a world of mobile communications, instant knowledge access through the internet, fake news, and constant fear over the threat of ‘terrorism’. Security, for Mike, only comes in a shelter, even if it is installed in a showroom.

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The Television Episode: For Electric Dreams, Mike Foster undergoes a gender switch and becomes the slightly older (but still teenage) Foster Lee (Annalise Basso), while Bob Foster becomes her rebellious mother, Irene (Maura Tierney). Rather than follow the original Philip K. Dick story (as Autofac did so wonderfully), Safe and Sound takes little from Foster, You’re Dead, almost losing the commercial consumerism angle entirely and focusing instead on the dilemma posed when a population must give up privacy and freedom in return for ‘security’.

Safe02America is divided into those in the West, who live free from state scrutiny in ‘bubbles’, and those in the East, who live in fear of terrorism but who willingly give up personal privacy for guaranteed safety. Foster and her mother have won the right to spend a year in Chicago, one of the Eastern cities. She is enrolled in Runciter High School (an entirely pointless nod to Dick’s novel Ubik and its central character Glen Runciter), and discovers that she is like an unsophisticated ‘country’ girl coming to the glamorous ‘big city’. Like Mike in the original story, Foster is an outsider, shunned by her contemporaries because the beliefs of her parent mean she opts out of scoiety’s ‘norms’. Instead of bomb shelters, Safe and Sound updates the story to the age of social media and the ‘forever war’ against terrorism, real or implied.

Safe06In order to fully participate in school (and in this society in general), Foster needs to have a ‘Dex’, an always-on electronic link that allows access to information and services, but also surveils the population at large 24 hours a day. In acquiring her Dex, Foster discovers that everything is transactional and a refusal of sexual contact with her supplier causes the wider school community to turn on her. As a commentary on current high school social life in the age of social media, this is a decent updating of Dick’s work, but Safe and Sound doesn’t really adapt Foster, You’re Dead.

Safe03Instead, it rips off the brilliant 1999 Jeff Bridges movie Arlington Road in which a man is unwittingly manipulated into perpetrating an act of terrorism. In this case, Foster is manipulated by her Dex tech helper (always whispering in her ear) into a position where she fulfils the propaganda purpose of depicting all of those from the ‘bubbles’ as ‘terrorists’ who threaten the Eastern way of life. As a result, her mother is arrested and jailed, while Foster is reprogrammed through brainwashing to become the new face of the Dex system and of the benefits of conformity. (A completely unnecessary series of final flashback simply confirm what any alert viewer should have been able to work out for themselves rather early in the episode.)

Safe07This is a decent SF story to tell, full of social commentary on the current world, and it does feature some ‘Dickian’ themes and ideas, but Foster, You’re Dead it is not. It even manages to waste great actors like Maura Tierney and Martin Donovan in nothing roles. That’s been the biggest problem with this entire series—while the episodes might riff on elements or ideas in their source stories, they are not (with the honourable exception of Autofac, by no accident the best instalment) adaptation of the Dick stories—and that’s a shame.

Safe11The Short Film: As Foster, You’re Dead is a story in the public domain, it has been free for others to attempt their own adaptation. Those dissatisfied with the Electric Dreams instalment might do better to seek out the 25 minute short film from 2013, also based on the story (linked below, available on Vimeo). Directed by Kyle Gerkin, this is a more faithful take on the material, although it suffers from being a low budget production. As the story doesn’t require spaceships or aliens, it is more suitable for this kind of limited approach to a more grounded form of psychological science fiction, a Dick speciality.

Mike Foster is well played by Jake Moss (perhaps the best performer in the short), and the world of Dick’s short story is adapted to contemporary times (now, rather than the future), with Foster’s family being out of step in an ultra-patriotic militaristic United States. Instead of nuclear fall out shelters, the object of desire is a gun, making this short also a contribution to the on-going debate over gun ownership in the US. The film hits all the major points of the story (including the out-of-control consumerism) without being a slavish adaptation, but also without going so far off the reservation as Electric Dream’s Safe and Sound does. If you can find 25 minutes in your day, it functions as a neat palate cleanser after the disappointment of Electric Dreams’ take on the same material.

Verdict: As with so many episodes in this series, the connection to the original Philip K. Dick story is so slight, they may as well not have bothered using his name…

Brian J. Robb

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Foster You’re Dead (2013, short film, 25m)

 

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Electric Dreams Episode 8 Autofac

 

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Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

Episode 8 Autofac

Written by Travis Beacham

Directed by Peter Horton

Starring Juno Temple, Janelle Monae, David Lyons, Nick Eversman

Plot: Following the end of civilisation, the survivors attempt to access an automated system that could hold the key to their salvation.

The Short Story: Autofac opens with one of Philip K. Dick’s efficient pen portraits of a trio of men that, although supposedly existing in the future post-apocalyptic world, couldn’t be more 1950s if they tried. This trio are trying to get the best of an automatic delivery system part of ‘a planet wide network of automatic factories … smoothly performing the task imposed on it five years before, in the early days of the Total Global Conflict.’ Mankind’s machines no longer serve their purpose now that humanity has been reduced following an all-out war, yet the machines carry on as if nothing has changed—can humanity overcome not the dominance of the machines (Autofac isn’t Terminator) but their stubborn resistance to changing their set programming.

Galaxy Nov56 AutofacIn a desperate attempt to open communication with the automated systems, Perine, Morrison, and visitor O’Neill waylay an automated delivery truck. When destroying its mixed drop-off of equipment and consumables simply results in a second, identical load being deposited, O’Neill tries a different tack. Pretending the supplied milk is off, he provokes the machine into querying the nature of the defect. The men respond with a nonsense answer: the goods are ‘pizzled’. This gambit garners the promise of a visit from a ‘factory representative’ that will gather ‘data’ on the product deficiency. They have made contact and are one step closer to their ultimate aim of persuading the automated factory to shut down.

The ability to contact and control the factories has been lost as a result of the war. Now that it is over, it is imperative to stop the factories from needlessly consuming resources that could be better deployed, but they can’t be stopped. People like O’Neill have proven there are not infallible, just extremely resistant to any change forced from outside. In today’s terms, it is as if an out-of-control Amazon, Google, or Apple was determined to eat everything up and ignored customers or consumers—so, exactly like today, actually…

The factory representative, when it arrives, turns out to be a proto-humanoid robot, an android. O’Neill engages the machine in debate, in an attempt (to coin a phrase) to ‘take back control’ of the situation mankind has found itself in. The machine is, of course, impervious to persuasion: ‘The machine was leaving: it’s one-track mind had completely triumphed.’ Enraged, the men attempt to physically destroy the machine, but O’Neill knows that such an approach will only cause the network to reassess and improve its defences.

The rapacious autofac system (short for ‘automatic factories’) is stripping the planet of minerals and resources in a bid to create products for which there is no longer any call or need. Humanity appears unable to stop the system. O’Neill and company finally hit upon the idea of going into competition against the machines. By identifying an autofac suffering from a particular shortage, they hope they could mine or otherwise obtain the required mineral—in this case tungsten—themselves, and thereby attract the autofac’s attention.

They succeed in sparking a conflict between rival autofacs over their heap of salvaged tungsten. As the battle intensifies, the autofacs repurpose their ‘factory representative’ androids as armed Battle Droids, ready to go to war over required minerals. As the war of the machines intensifies, the autofacs tool up for total war, redistributing assets from production of consumer consumables to an austerity wartime economy.

A year later and the aim of isolation from the autofac network has been achieved, but at a great cost (is it stretching a point to make this a Brexit metaphor, something Dick could never have foreseen?) As the machine war reaches its conclusion of mutually assured destruction, the humans explore the remains of a nearby destroyed autofac hoping to capture control of the systems to cater to their own survival needs.

As they explore they lament the total destruction of the autofac; perhaps they’ll have to fend for themselves without any salvaged equipment or reconstituted autofacs under human control. Perhaps provoking the war between the autofacs hadn’t been that bright an idea. As O’Neill laments, amid the rubble, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’

But there is a spark of life, deep beneath the melted wreck of the huge autofac. The factory is not dead after all. It lives. It survives. And it will go on. The men discover the rebuilt factory is producing ‘pellets’ that are being launched outwards. These contain nanobot replicators, intelligent mini-autofacs capable of building full size autofacs. The pellets are being distributed all over the world—the machines are returning. Not only that, but some may have achieved orbit. The autofacs are ready to move beyond Earth, out into the cosmos…

cover29Autofac is, of course, a rather crude satire on the growing consumer culture of the 1950s, the period when Dick wrote the story. The machine’s insistence on the endless ‘manufacture of consumable commodities’ was a projection of a future based upon the reality that Dick witnessed around him (but, being an under-paid pulp writer, could only participate in to a limited degree). Written in late-1954, Autofac was published in the November 1955 edition of Galaxy magazine.

Dick is also engaging with one of his thematic stand-bys—the dangers of automation that escapes human control. The autofacs are the ultimate expression of this theme, a self-maintaining, self-replicating artificial intelligence network that has outgrown its original purpose and refuses human control. Whether it is artificial intelligence, robots (‘computer says “No”!’), or human bureaucracies, systems that follow the rules and refuse any opportunity to rethink or reassess come under Dick’s criticism. There’s also a criticism of the stupidity of mankind in not only creating such an unstoppable network itself but also in attempting to destroy it with no plan for what might replace it. In ‘taking back control’ the humans are ultimately left with nothing (there’s that Brexit thing again!).

A simpler, more self-sufficient future is suggested by the ‘ruins squatters’, an apparently more ‘primitive’ strain of Total Global Conflict survivors seemingly content with what little they’ve got who are not engaged in trying to take over the autofac system to reinstate the status quo. Is Dick suggesting some kind of ‘simple life’ is an answer to many of humankind’s growing problems, not least of them being the rampant consumerism that was beginning in the 1950s and now is even more out of control and threatening the planet’s resources (just read a George Monbiot column in The Guardian for footnoted analysis of the latest 21st century bad news on this front).

Writing in 1976, Dick said of Autofac: ‘Tom Disch said of this story that it was one of the earliest ecology warnings in SF. What I had in mind in writing it, however, was the thought that if factories became fully automated, they might begin to show the instinct for survival which organic living entities have… and perhaps develop similar solutions.’

There is also a suggestion of stagnation: the autofacs have heretofore been incapable of learning or changing. In providing everything humankind needed (prior to the war), was innovation and progress stalled? Did this cause the conflict? Dick doesn’t say, but the suggestion is there. In emerging out of it’s own Total Global Conflict, perhaps the autofacs will learn and change. In the chilling final notes of the story, they begin to export themselves off-world and into the wider universe. Are they a threat, or merely the machine continuation of life on Earth?

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The Television Episode: Now this is more like it—an episode of Electric Dreams that actually stays true to the central conceit of the Philip K. Dick story it is adapting, while also expanding it and modernising it in a respectful, yet imaginative and compatible way. Hurrah for screenwriter Travis Beacham, the only one so far in the first eight episodes of the series to have hit exactly the right balance.

The characters may be different (with their attitudes updated), but the situation is almost straight from Dick’s short story—after a destructive final war, mankind is in receipt of consumer goods deliveries (dropped from drones, rather than brought by trucks—a neat updating, given some of Amazon’s more outlandish plans) from the out-of-control autofacs that are stripping the resources of Earth to create goods no one needs. In an attempt to get the autofac’s attention, Juno Temple’s computer genius Emily Zabriskie hacks the system and makes a request to meet a service representative.

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This brings Janelle Monae’s humanoid robot to meet with the humans. This is perfect casting, a role completely in keeping with Monae’s musical and filmic persona. The arrival of Monae’s android is straight out of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind playbook, as her passenger-carrying drone descends from the night sky, a hatch opens, and her humanoid yet strangely inhuman figure is seen to walk down the ramp. It would almost have been alright if she’d said ‘Take me to your leader’.

Auto2When group leader Conrad Morrison (David Lyons) meets with her, it is clear that the humans are not going to be able to persuade the autofac system to change its ways. Instead, it is down to Emily to attempt to reprogramme Monae’s Alice (modelled after the original human head of PR for the autofac system) to use her in an audacious plan to infiltrate and destroy the autofac from the inside.

Gone from the short story is the idea of provoking a war between rival autofacs, as is the discovery of robots building new autofacs within the ruins of and old, and their ultimate launch into space. Instead, Beacham offers a completely in keeping extension of the story, drawing (perhaps too predictably) on other aspects of Dick’s work. The arrival at the autofac can’t help but recall Blade Runner (the one Dick film that all other adapatation apparently have to pay some homage to), but aspects of the question of Alice’s humanity also hark back to much of Dick’s work including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Auto7The trick Beacham successfully pulls off is to extend Dick’s metaphor for rampant consumerism. The war having actually wiped out humankind, the autofac system found itself entirely without customers. Its solution was to simply create more, convincing human androids that don’t know they are artificial. Emily and company are all ‘fake’ people, with Emily modelled after the founder of the autofac system itself. The twist built upon this twist is that Emily has discovered this (via a recovered issue of Wired magazine), and her infiltration of the autofac system is to plan a software bomb deep in its matrix, thus destroying it from the inside.

Auto8This is a great extension of the story, taking Dick’s idea of the robots building more autofacs and converting it to the concept of the autofacs creating their own human-like customers. This allows Electric Dreams to once again explore Dick’s perennial question of ‘what is human?’ once again, but from a new angle. The performances are all great, and the environments exactly conjure up Dick’s story (although as with much SF TV there is a slight over-reliance on factory interiors for the depths of the autofac). Direction by one-time actor Peter Horton is serviceable rather than flashy, but the story stands by itself helped by the actors rather than anything else.

Verdict: Easily the best of the first eight instalments, Autofac stays true to Dick’s story, concerns, and themes, yet extends beyond the source material in a sympathetic and respectful way. The highlight of the series—if only more episodes were like this one…

Brian J. Robb

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Electric Dreams Episode 7 Kill All Others

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Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

Episode 7 Kill All Others

Available at Amazon from 12 January 2018

Written by Dee Rees, based upon the short story ‘The Hanging Stranger’

Directed by Dee Rees

Starring Mel Rodriguez, Vera Farmiga, Daniel Craig Baker, Sarah Baker

Plot: TV store owner Ed Loyce discovers a human body hanging from a lamppost outside his shop… but he’s the only one who seems remotely bothered by it.

The Short Story: The first few paragraphs of The Hanging Stranger are a classic Philip K. Dick rug pull: a seemingly ordinary man heads towards his seemingly ordinary job, only to come across something utterly extraordinary—the ‘hanging man’ of the title. That’s quite a shocker, but it is not enough. Dick goes one step further into his regular paranoia when Ed Loyce is depicted as the only person in the town seemingly concerned with this new addition to the landscape.

Published in Science Fiction Adventure magazine in December 1953, The Hanging Stranger had been written in the summer of that year and it was the only one of Dick’s stories ever to appear in that magazine.

ScienceFictionAdventuresDecember1953COVER565Loyce points out the body hanging from the lamppost to his coworkers, who all seem nonplused by it, pushing Loyce towards hysteria. Fearing for his own sanity, Loyce investigates the out-of-place street ornament more closely. The man is wearing a torn, distressed suit and is a stranger to Loyce. The questions pile up in his mind: who is he? How did he end up here? Why isn’t anyone taking any notice of him?

While his staff continue to calmly sell television sets and the other shop workers go about their business, Ed Loyce goes a little mad, eventually attracting the attention of a couple of cops. Taking him downtown, the cops tell Loyce that as he was working in his basement that morning, he’d missed the ‘explanation’ and that the body was supposed to be there. They insist on taking Loyce into the station for ‘a short process’.

Loyce suddenly throws himself from the car into the traffic, running from his captors he realizes they couldn’t be cops: Pikeville’s a small town, and he knows all the cops. These guys were strangers. Serious paranoia kicks in now for Loyce as he goes on the run from ‘them’, without even knowing who ‘them’ might be…

TheHangingStranger565IllustrationHe discovers a ‘cone of darkness’ hanging above City Hall, accompanied by a ‘buzzing … like a great swarm of bees’. He perceives creatures of some sort, exiting the ‘vortex’ cloud and onto the roof of City Hall. Giant winged insects of some kind are arriving en masse in Pikeville from a ‘break in the shell of the universe’. The aliens are making their way to Earth from ‘another realm of being’. Furthermore, these insect creatures disguise themselves as men through some form of mimicry.

After an altercation with a man on a bus whom he believes to be an insect agent, Loyce realizes that whatever has happened to the population of his town, he was somehow excluded by virtue of being down below in his basement all morning. Perhaps there are others around like him who escaped the control of the invading insect hordes?

In classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers mode, Dick has Loyce return home to a scene with his wife, Joyce, where he lays out his outre tale of invasion and replication, sounding completely paranoid in the process. Rounding up his wife and twin children, Loyce intends leaving town through a long abandoned back road. When his young son Jim reveals himself to be one of the insects, a battle ensues. Loyce escapes on his own, and goes on the run once more…

cover6Arriving the next morning in the neighbouring town of Oak Grove, Ed Loyce is able to tell his remarkable story to the authorities. He outlines a theory that this incident is only the latest in a long war between men and the invading insects, dating back to ancient times, perhaps even chronicled in the Bible. The only thing he doesn’t understand is the hanging man—what was that all about? ‘Bait,’ explains the Police Commissioner of Oak Grove to Ed Loyce. A trap, to draw out the unconverted, and Ed Loyce has fallen straight into it. Later, as the Oak Grove bank vice-president emerges from a day toiling in the vaults, he notices a strange figure hanging from a telephone pole just outside the police station…

The Hanging Man is a clever tale of paranoia clearly influenced (again) by the mid-1950s political situation in terms of the fears of Communist infiltration and the disruption to life cause by the reaction to the ‘Red Menace’. The hanging man of the title recalls the lynchings of the KKK (still happening in 1950s’ America), while the pursuit of an unaffected hero figure by those taken over by the invaders (whether from another country, outer space, or another dimension) is a classic of literature and film.

It is also about the acceptance of such atrocity by those who regard the victim as being the ‘other’, whether of a different race or religion, or even just from one town over—it needn’t concern us, as they are not one of us, goes the argument. Ed Loyce stands out as he doesn’t accept this; he is outraged by the crime that appears to have been accepted by those around him. Dick satirises such complacency here in simple and clear terms.

There’s a touch of the Lovecraftian to the ‘creatures from another dimension’ aspect of the tale, but little is done to flesh them or their motives out in any way (an area that any television adaption could surely expand upon). There is some confusion between the physical replacement of certain people by the insects, the ‘mimicry’ aspect (you have to wonder if Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic was in any way influenced by this Dick short story?), and the mental control or suppression of the rest of the population. When his son turns on him in insect form, Loyce notices his wife and other son stand totally still, either unwilling or unable to intervene. It appears they have not been physically replaced, but have been somehow mentally suppressed.

Perhaps the true horror here is how little has actually changed in the world and in the lives of the inhabitants of Pikeville after the invasion—they seem content to continue on with life much as before, performing their economic and social duties without question. As with many of Dick’s earliest short stories, the question of motivation for the invading entities, whether from Raxor IV (Human Is) or another dimension, is never really tackled—just what is it these insect life forms want?

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The Television Episode: This is another episode of Electric Dreams where the simple and effective idea that Dick presents in the source short story is altered and stretched almost beyond recognition. The alien invasion angle has been ignored in favour of a rather tired political allegory that nonetheless resonates in Trump’s America. Instead of Ed Loyce we have Phil (Mel Rodriquez) and his wife Sarah (Sarah Baker), a pair who seem happy with the life they have. Phil is one of the few human workers retained at an almost all-robot run factory, although the tasks he perform seem both mundane and unnecessary.

Kill05The political background here is one where America has expanded into a mega-nation, taking in Canada and Mexico in the process (whatever happened to that wall?) to form MexUSCan—leading to the naff political slogan Yes-US-Can. It appears to be a prosperous one-party state in which the Candidate (Vera Farmiga) for the highest office is selected from 52 initial entrants. Farmiga’s Candidate and the media people surrounding her appear to be refugees from The Hunger Games in terms of their outlandish styling in hair and dress, supposedly to highlight class difference between the ‘elites’ and the ‘working class’ represented by Phil.

Kill04Happy-go-lucky Phil begins to question his world when he (and seemingly he alone) perceives the words ‘Kill All Others’ hidden within both the speech and visuals accompanying a broadcast featuring the Candidate. Most people either didn’t see the subversive message or are happy to ignore it, but Phil’s agitation brings him to the notice of the authorities. As a result he is brought in for testing, but is released with a monitor to keep an eye on his health.

He continues to see the message ‘Kill All Others’ on billboards, sometimes accompanied by the figure of a hanging man (gotta force in some reference to the source story somewhere). Refusing to get in line, Phil finally mounts one of the billboards and attempts to bring down the real human figure hanging there. His monitor, however, is also injecting drugs into his system, and this allows the police to bring him down. Watching the incident live on TV, his co-workers are shocked and surprised, then nonchalantly turn the channel to the sport and continue playing pool.

Kill03Kill All Others is fine as far as it goes, but it is a radically different story from the Dick original which only manages to pay the merest of lip service to the points made in the original. The gut punch of Ed Loyce becoming the ‘hanging stranger’ in the next town over is completely lost, as is the aliens-from-another-dimension angle. The only effective thing is the sense of paranoia that is gradually ramped up as Phil becomes every more aware that his thinking is different from those around him—is he an ‘other’ or are they? Even this aspect is not as impactful as it might have been. In significant ways, almost each of the episodes of Electric Dreams have been disappointments when taken in conjunction with the stories that supposedly influenced them, although as examples of standard American television science fiction they just about pass muster while falling short of Black Mirror style social and political commentary.

Verdict: While well put together, Kill All Others fails to adequately capture the chilling paranoia evident in Philip K. Dick’s source story.

Brian J. Robb

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Electric Dreams Episode 6 Human Is

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Electric Dreams Episode 6 Human Is

29 October 2017

Written by Jessica Mecklenburg

Directed by Francesca Gregorini

Starring Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, Liam Cunningham, Ruth Bradley

Plot: An unhappy wife is taken by surprise when her cruel husband returns from a trip a ‘new’ man…

The Short Story: The opening of Human Is shows that in a world where technology caters to all basic needs (food, work) that human relationships are still central. The reader is dropped in to what might be considered a mild version of an abusive relationship. Jill Herrick is looking forward to a visit form her nephew, while workaholic Lester Herrick wants nothing to do with ‘the child’ and refuses to entertain the idea. Having Gus, or any child, around the house would simply get in the way of Lester’s feverish rate of work, and that is something he cannot countenance.

Startling Stories 1955When Gus does arrive, Lester is unimpressed, seeing his childish conduct as somehow counter to ‘a realistic orientation’ to life. When his work takes Lester to a trip of several weeks duration to Rexor IV, Jill is disappointed when he simply laughs at the idea that she might accompany him. Lester leaves Jill and Gus behind, setting out to fulfil a long held professional ambition.

In Lester’s absence, Jill comes to a decision. She tells her brother, Frank, that she intends to leave Lester and will tell him so upon his return from Rexor IV. After five years of marriage, she sees her husband as ‘so inhuman… utterly cold and ruthless. He’ll never change, he’ll always be the same.’

The irony, of course, is that when Lester does return, he’s a different man, perhaps literally. He’s civil and solicitous, happy to be home. Jill has trouble with the change. He’s suddenly interested in food, regarding a meal as an experience, rather than simply an inconvenient refuelling before getting on with more work. He ignores her suggestions that he’s different somehow, even when he fails to take his work seriously, preferring instead to simply enjoy being ‘home’ on such a ‘moist’ world as Terra.

Obviously the clues that all is not well with Lester are painfully obvious to the reader, if not to Jill. She recounts the changes in her husband to Frank, who takes a curious interest in the subject. Playing with Gus and using archaic language (as if learned from a book) aren’t the only changes in this ‘new’ Lester: he’s also ‘mellow … relaxed… tolerant…’ Not at all like himself—he’s even ‘romantic’!

Human Is illoClearance Agent Frank takes Lester in to the department. Clearance Director Douglas explains that Lester’s ‘original psychic contents’ have been removed and stored, only to be replaced by ‘substitute contents’, essentially a whole new consciousness and personality. This happened on Rexor IV, and the Clearance Department are only too aware of the process. Ten previous impostors have been identified and ‘vibro-rayed’. Lester Herrick is the first to make it to Earth; the others were all caught aboard ship, out in deep space.

Under interrogation, ‘Lester’ initially attempts to keep up the pretence. Terran law, rather than military law (as in deep space) applies in this case, and ‘Lester’ cannot just be ‘fried’, as Clearance Director Douglas wishes. After all, the body is human, it is just the mind that has changed. Frank believes he can rely upon his sister to testify to the changes in Lester, so allowing the matter to proceed through court and end with the Rexorian’s termination.

Jill understands what has happened to Lester, and when it is made clear that only the mind will be ‘fried’ and the original contents retrieved from Rexor IV and replaced, meaning she’ll get the ‘old’ Lester back, does she begin to have doubts about giving evidence. At the hearing, Jill stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that any change in Lester has taken place. Jill Herrick far prefers the new version of her husband to the old, and without her testimony there is nothing Clearance can do. Jill returns home to live out her new life with ‘Lester’.

One of Dick’s most famous stories, Human Is was written in 1953 and appeared in the Winter 1955 edition of Startling Stories. Of course, given the 1950s context and the story’s focus on an imposter slipping into American life, it was clearly intended as a comment on the then-rampant McCarthyism and fear of ‘Reds under the bed’ that was haunting America. The Clearance Department is obviously modelled on the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) of Congress that would determine whether a witness was ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’. Only those ‘friendly’ to the committee were deemed to be ‘proper’ Americans—the others suffered sanction.

In reviewing the story in 1976, Dick said that being ‘human’ was not ‘what you look like, or what planet you were born on. It’s how kind you are. For me “Human Is” is my credo. May it be yours.’

It’s a simple story, with a simple sentiment, but for all that it is still a powerful message that humanity comes from conduct and actions, not some in-born quality. An alien being, perhaps slightly out of time, can be more human than an American born into the future setting of Human Is. The alien is a better ‘man’ than Lester Herrick.

Just as contemporary humans get their guidance as to how to behave from media—movies, television, novels, theatre—so, too, did the Rexorians. In the story, Director Douglas cites ‘romance novels’ as one of the alien’s main sources for duplicating human behaviour, and Lester’s newly-found ‘romantic’ nature is one of the main reasons she is happier to keep her ‘new’ husband around in preference to the old version, too caught up in his work to even notice her.

 

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The Television Episode: In terms of adaptation, Human Is is clearly the most successful instalment of Electric Dreams yet. The basic premise of the story is carried over to the television version, by Jessica Mecklenburg (Stranger Things), intact with the expected expansion of the universe in which it is set done in a sympathetic style. Where some of the earlier episodes took even the slightest inspiration from the supposed source stories (Crazy Diamond/Sales Pitch, we’re looking at you), this one keeps the focus tight on the core of Dick’s original story and whatever additions there are find their roots in the original tale too. Mecklenburg has said ‘I reimagined Jill and Lester, calling them Vera and Silas, while retaining as much of the nuance and honest emotion of Philip K Dick’s original story as possible’—a welcome fidelity to the source material that has not been evident in all the work of those adapting these tales for the series.

After a shaky start, the television episode establishes a future world of the 26th century in which the replication of a human character is a better narrative fit than in Dick’s original 1950’s view of the future. Earth (or Terra) is at war with Rexor IV over an economic commodity: oxygen. This is yet another world suffering from an environmental catastrophe (the cause of which is never explicitly stated). Humans exist in a drab, airless world in concrete bunkers clinging to the side of a cliff.

Human 06Updating the sexual politics of the Dick original, Mecklenburg upgrades the wife figure to someone who has a career and distinct motivations and desires of her own. The Babadook’s Essie Davies is Vera (changed from the story’s Jill), who holds a position within the organisation that sends her husband, Silas (show producer Bryan Cranston, also changed from the story’s Lester), out on dangerous missions to Rexor IV to secure the much-needed oxygen. This welcome change gives the Jill/Vera character much more agency. The Frank equivalent (or the nearest the show has to offer) is Ruth Bradley’s Yaro, which she curiously plays almost exactly like her humanoid robot character in Channel Four’s Humans (adding an extra ‘What is human?’ kink to this PKD text).

Talking of kink, unlike in the story, Vera seems to have an outlet for the frustrations surrounding her marriage to the cold, work-obsessed Silas. In a gratuitous sequence (in that little comes of it, and it does little to illuminated Vera’s character) she visits a lower levels ‘alternative’ club/brothel called ‘The Maze’. With this outlet for her frustrations, she’s one step advanced on the Jill character in the story who has no alternative to life with Lester.

Human 09Cranston’s Silas begins as the unloving, detached, work-driven figure of Dick’s story, only to return from a mission to Rexor IV changed. Perhaps the change in Cranston’s performance is not as distinct as might be expected, but his actions speak louder, with a fresh attitude to food, his wife, and ‘romance’ in evidence when he returns. The upgrade where we are shown video of the conflict on Rexor is welcome, as is the depiction of the Rexorians as formless, sparkling clouds, perhaps pure consciousness. The revelation that a couple of Rexorians were able to infiltrate Silas’ ship brings suspicion down upon him and the fellow soldier he saved.

A ‘trial’ ensues in which Silas is accused of being a Rexorian duplicate (in this version the aliens are defined as ‘metamorphs’ rather than consciousness inhabiting the original body, although the outcome is essentially the same). His self-sacrifice to spare his wife (who refuses to confirm her suspicions of his changed nature) is used as proof that he is human. The episode follows through with the question of name pronunciation, as in the short story, indicating Vera is staying with the ‘fake’ reformed Silas.

Human 08One thing missing from both versions is any discussion of the motivation of the Rexorians—why are they stealing human identities and trying to get to Earth? The short story suggests Rexor IV is a dead or dying world, so simple survival might be a motive. In the television version, they are the subjects of a war, so might sabotage of the Terra war effort be a factor, in which case, Vera’s denial of Silas’ changed nature is put in a new light? This is, of course, speculation beyond anything either text gives either reader or viewer.

Verdict: The best adaptation of the Philip K. Dick source story yet, Human Is might even be the best episode of Electric Dreams to date.

Brian J. Robb

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Counterfeit Worlds Note: Electric Dreams will return to Channel 4 in 2018 with the final four episode of the 10-episode run. This blog will pick up covering the adaptation process when they air. The series is also due to appear on Amazon in the US during 2018.

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Electric Dreams Episode 5 Real Life

Real Life 01

Electric Dreams Episode 5 Real Life

15 October 2017

Written by Ronald D. Moore, based upon the short story ‘Exhibit Piece’

Directed by Jeremy Reiner

Starring Anna Paquin, Terence Howard, Rachelle Lefevre, Lara Pulver

Plot: George Miller, a researcher in the History Agency, escapes back to the past he is studying… or does he?

The Short Story: Once again, Exhibit Piece opens with a commuter on the way to his day job—is this co-incidental, or does whomever selected these particular stories for adaptation as episodes of Electric Dreams have something about commuting? George Miller works for the History Agency and likes to dress in period-appropriate clothing, in this case a 20th century suit featuring old-fashioned ‘buttons’ which serve to confuse the robot ‘pubtrans’ driver he encounters. His choice of attire even gets him into trouble with his boss, Controller Fleming, who wants Miller to adhere to the Government’s ‘strict rules’ for dress. Eyebrows have been raised at his failure to function as a ‘socio-political unit’ in his own society.

IF Cover Aug 1954Miller is committed to the period he is studying, the Middle Twentieth Century and enjoys adopting not only the dress, but speech patterns and affectations of the period. This, he believes, gives him genuine empathy with the people of that time, beyond a mere intellectual curiosity. His role is to research, maintain, and update museum exhibits relating to life in the long-past 20th century. Unfortunately, he lives in a carefully regulated, hierarchical society that is a stark contrast to what he sees as the individual freedom of the past.

A noise from within his exhibit attracts Miller’s attention. He believes someone has passed the security barrier and climbed into the exhibit itself. A visitor, or an academic rival, perhaps, or even one of his managers looking to find fault with his work. He enters and explores the California ranch-style bungalow that is maintained as a typical example of 20th century-style housing, with a completely dressed accurate interior.

Within he finds a family having breakfast. The woman and two boys are waiting for the husband to return from retrieving the daily newspaper from the front porch. Miller observes the scene for a moment, and is then stunned to find that the others regard him as the husband, also called ‘George Miller’. It’s one of Dick’s classic shifts in reality.

If Contente Aug 1954Miller’s entire perception of reality shifts, as he recalls working for old man Davidson at United Electronic Supply in San Francisco. He’s not only observing these strange people from another time hidden within his historical exhibit, he is becoming part of it. What was previously a 3D projected backdrop has now become an ever more convincing reality for George Miller. That begs the question, which is the ‘true’ reality; the 20th century world that Miller now seems such a natural part of, or the future world he inhabited mere moments ago?

Miller’s growing confusion drives him to see a psychiatrist named Adam Grunberg. His briefcase is missing, causing memories of the History Agency to resurface. Outlining this to the psychiatrist, Miller sounds like a crazy man—he’s essentially attempting to persuade him that this is not reality, but simply an exhibit in some far-future museum. Or is that part the delusion—to George Miller each seems as real as the other.

Miller’s delusion is rationalized as a desire for escape into the ‘world of tomorrow’, complete with robots and rocket ships, whereas from his own point of view he appears instead to have escaped into his own idealized vision of the past. The only way to resolve things appears to be to return to the exact spot where he originally entered the exhibit and see what happens…

IF Illo Aug 1954He discovers the ‘weak spot’ that allows access back to his ‘world of tomorrow’, so concludes both worlds are real. An encounter with Fleming, however, sees Miller makeup his mind to remain in the past, something his boss denounces as ‘psychotic delusions’. For Miller the past is a freer place, where the state has no control over marriage and children, as in the future. Rationalising he has found a ‘time gate’, a bridge to the past, Miller resolves to stay there.

Up to this point, either reality—or both—could be real. Director Carnap, the ultimate authority of the History Agency, resolves to demolish the exhibit, and perhaps Miller is a madman sitting among a plastic replica simply imagining the rest. Or, alternatively, he has found a doorway to the past, a time he feels more au fait with.

Then Dick delivers the kicker. Retiring to his 20th century living room and picking up the day’s paper, Miller discovers the worst news possible: a new Russian ‘cobalt bomb’ augurs the end of the world. Perhaps his knowledge of history wasn’t that accurate or in-depth, or perhaps this headline is simply a mental analogy for the destruction (of the exhibit) to come. As so often, Dick leaves the reader guessing.

No doubt, when writing this Dick was thinking of his History Agency exhibit in terms of a standard museum exhibit, but looked at from the vantage point of the 21st century, it’s perhaps better to imagine this historical recreation as some kind of interactive 3D virtual reality. That’s certainly one of the points that may have made this story attractive for adaptation. The short story is slight, but there are many ways in which it could be expanding to highlight and play-up the confusion between the two worlds, raising questions as to what is real and what is imagination.

Written in October 1953, Exhibit Piece was first published in IF magazine in August 1954. The shifting realities it depicts would become central to much of Dick’s subsequent fiction, as well as his real life following the ‘2-3-74’ experiences during which a ‘pink beam’ of information-rich light resulted in Dick apparently inhabiting two realities—that of 1974 and that of the ancient Roman empire.

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

The Television Episode: Battlestar Galactica and Outlander showrunner Ronald D. Moore adapted Philip K. Dick’s Exhibit Piece for the fifth episode of Electric Dreams, retitled Real Life. As Moore admitted in an interview with The Guardian: ‘Very little remains of this story in the show, but the heart, and perhaps more importantly the brains behind the episode originate in this tale.’ Saying ‘very little’ of the story remains is something of an understatement—apart from the idea of split time zones there is next to nothing of the adventures of George Miller left…

Real Life 08All that has been retained here is the character name and the central conceit of Exhibit Piece of the two worlds, and the open question as to which one is real. On top of that, Moore has layered two stories about Sarah (Anna Paquin), a traumatised cop in the future, and George Miller (Terence Howard), a wealthy company executive dealing with the loss of his wife and his high-tech software. The opening sets up yet another variation on the Blade Runner future (clearly indicating that the only acceptable visualisation of any Philip K. Dick tale relies on the work of Ridley Scott), first indicated by an opening close-up shot of an eye, followed by the usual neon advertising and flying cars.

Things take a segue into Total Recall/We Can Remember It For You Wholesale territory, as Sarah’s wife Kate (Rachelle Lefevre) suggests using an experimental VR technology to take a ‘vacation’ from her life, generated from within her own subconscious. Still recovering from the deaths of her team in a police massacre, Sarah certainly feels in need of an escape. Donning the mini-VR device, she slips into another world.

Here Sarah inhabits the body and the life of George Miller in near-future Chicago (but her past), completely disorientated and caught up in a gang shoot out. Slowly, Miller recalls who he is and what’s happening in his life—and he doesn’t like it one bit. It’s clear what’s coming next: in order to escape his circumstances, Miller dons a more elaborate (being earlier tech) VR headset and slips into another world.

And so we return to Sarah’s Blade Runner-esque future. But which world is real and which is VR? Both characters come to doubt their own reality, becoming aware of the life of the other. To both George and Sarah, the future seems too good to be true.

Philip K Dicks Electric Dreams: Real LifeBoth worlds share certain elements—they both have the same wife in Kate (or had, in the case of Miller); they live in what appears to be the same or very similar apartments; they frequent the same retro-diner; their lives are affected by the same villain… In the way these worlds are depicted, they are equally ‘fake’, equally televisual in that they might actually be pilot episodes of two separate on-going TV shows. There are even echoes of earlier instalment The Commuter (and at one point in dialogue someone even invokes the title of the story that inspired last week’s episode: Sales Pitch).

Unfortunately, when it comes to resolving the story, Moore tosses any ambiguity out the window. Sarah makes a choice, deciding that her life as ‘George’ is more real or more deserved than her role as a ‘lesbian super cop with a flying car’. It’s the wrong choice, as having made the decision her brain shuts down even as her friends watch her ‘unreal’ life on a screen take precedence.

Moore wraps things up with a sermon about being punished for sins, real or imaginary, which completely loses the Twilight Zone-style twist ending that Dick fell back on in 1953. Some may see this as an improvement or updating, but it undercuts what is otherwise a pretty impressive piece of television.

Verdict: Real Life may have been truer to Dick if it had retained some kind of ambiguity about the reality of either world right up to the end…

Brian J. Robb

 

 

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Electric Dreams Episode 4 Crazy Diamond

Crazy Diamond 02

Electric Dreams Episode 4 Crazy Diamond

Written by Tony Grisoni, based upon the short story ‘Sales Pitch’

Directed by Marc Munden

Starring Steve Buscemi, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Julia Davis

Plot: A man hounded by sales ads is driven to distraction; he attempts to escape in a flight to Proxima, but discovers there is no way out…

The Short Story: Like The Commuter, Philip K. Dick’s Sales Pitch opens with a weary figure making his way home ‘at the end of a long hard day at the office’. This time it is Ed Morris, an inter-planetary commuter making his way on the Ganymede-Terra line, a journey made all the more difficult due to the influx of ‘space traffic’ from Saturn and Mars. This is clearly a pulp analogue for the regular American commute, and Dick does little to realistically reflect any aspect of space travel and tele-presence clearly isn’t a thing… In almost every aspect, from the cigarette to the worry about arriving home late, so ruining dinner, this future commute is straight out of the 1950s (there’s even a ‘fifty ship smash-up’), simply transposed to interplanetary space; this is either lazy writing or intended satire…

future_science_fiction_195406The third paragraph gets to the subject of the story: ‘The ads. That was what really did it. … The ads, the whole way from Ganymede to Earth. And on Earth, the swarms of sales robots. It was too much. And they were everywhere.’ Here’s the modern relevance, the all-pervasive nature of advertising. Back when he was writing this story in 1953 (it appeared in the June 1954 issue of Future Magazine), the advertising Dick was concerned with was limited to newspapers and billboards, with television just starting to makes its inroads into the home. Now, we have targeted internet-driven personalized adverts, tailored to each of us individually. Sales Pitch, in that respect, is even more relevant today than when it was first written as the situation had got significantly worse.

Morris cannot escape the ads. As his ship gets closer to Earth, the involuntary bombardment gets worse. We’ve seen something like this before, in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, adapted from another Dick short story, in which Tom Cruise’s on-the-run cop John Anderton encounters a mall lined with interactive insistent adverts. The ads streamed at Ed Morris start out as audio only, but they are soon supplanted by visually-driven ads. As always in advertising, sex is used to sell as ‘a vast, nude girl, blonde hair disarranged, blue eyes half shut, lips parted, head tilted back in sleep-drugged ecstasy’ is used to sell, of all things, a gastro-intestinal treatment. It’s enough to put you off your driving. Of course, that kind of ad recalls those featured in Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, developed even further in Denis Villeneuve’s belated 2017 sequel.

FutureScienceFictionJune1954TOC565The ads have a physical effect on Morris, exerting ‘pressure on the audio-visual regions of his brain’, so much so that he has to shake his head to clear the after-image. Their all-pervasive nature is driving him to ‘despair’, causing ‘misery and fatigue’. Even when he gets home to Chicago, he encounters a sales robot as he approaches his own front door. This one is pitching a ‘metabolism adjuster’ for the ‘perfect endocrine balance’. He has no option but to simply push past the unwanted obstruction. He’s been so distracted by all the ads, he’s even forgotten the fact that today is his 37th birthday.

Ed Morris has had enough and explains to his wife something has to change; it’s not his far-off job or the long commute, particularly, it’s the ads, following him everywhere constantly trying to sell stuff. He wants to move off-world, to the Proxima system, a place ‘they haven’t got to yet’. His wife, Sally, is worried that such colony worlds are under-developed, that living there is like being back in the 20th century with ‘flush toilets, bathtubs, gasoline driven cars…’ The horror! That’s what Ed wants, though, to live ‘one hundred years behind the times … to do without … a simpler life’.

A knock at the door sees Ed answer to find an out-sized robot the like of which he’s never seen before, keen to sell him somthing called a ‘fasrad’. The word means nothing to Ed, and before he can do anything else, the sale robot is in the house. It proceeds to demonstrate the ‘fasrad’ to Ed and Sally Morris by smashing their coffee table, destroying Sally’s favourite lamp, and blasting a huge hole in the floor, all the while claiming a ‘fasrad’ would be ideal for such situations.

SalesPitchByPhilipK.Dick565Amid the on-going destruction, Morris realises that the robot itself is the ‘fasrad’, a ‘fully automated self-regulating android (domestic)’, just one of a range of such ‘fully automatic’ androids now on the market. The ‘fasrad’ proceeds to fix all the destruction it caused and then waits patiently in the living room for Ed Morris to purchase it. Although Morris refuses to do so, the android insists it will stay around until he realises just how indispensible it is and he makes the purchase. Unbidden, the machine makes various improvements around the house and even completes Ed’s tax return.

Escaping in his ‘commute rocket’ to Ganymede, Ed thinks he’s left the thing behind, until it joins him at Mars. ‘Apparently you don’t understand,’ it tells him. ‘My instructions are to demonstrate myself until you are satisfied. As yet, you are not wholly convinced; further demonstration is necessary.’

Further harassed by the android’s unwanted attentions, something in Ed Morris snaps. He rapidly flies away from the regulation space lanes, adjusting course for the Proxima system, intending to finally break free of the oppression he’s been suffering. In his determination, Morris pays no heed to the fact that his ship is not designed for such travel, ignoring the fasrad’s constant reminders of the danger. As the damage to the ship increases, Morris becomes ever more intent on his destination while the android warns of the danger of death.

Trapped under the exploded control console of his ship, Ed Morris stares at the twin suns of his destination, knowing he will eventually reach them and burn up in their solar atmospheres. Content to die knowing he has escaped, Morris is at peace… until the semi-destroyed remains of the ‘fasrad’ emerges and begins its sales pitch once more, trapped in a never-ending loop. A screaming Ed Morris, too, is trapped with it, at least until the end comes for both of them.

Dick goes for something of a bleak ending to reinforce his point that there is no escaping modern advertising. It was a choice he later came to regret, writing in 1978 that his audience hated Sales Pitch. ‘It is a super-downer story, and relentlessly so,’ he admitted. Given the chance to revise it, Dick suggests he would have the human and robot team up against the universe. He second guesses this revised ending, though: ‘But then I would have been criticised for a false, upbeat ending…’ The original ending probably works better now, in an ever more cynical 21st century than it did in either 1953 or even 1978 when its downbeat conclusion might not have been as acceptable. Now, however, Dick’s bleak ending fits right in to today’s entertainment and reinforces his point that there can be no escape from the technological traps that mankind has created for himself.

Dick’s mistake, perhaps, was in the creation of the ‘fasrad’. While its sales pitch (on its own behalf) is both intrusive and relentless, the ‘fasrad’ itself might actually be a useful all-purpose product, as Sally Morris seems to recognise. Both Dick and his protagonist Ed Morris are so blinded by the intrusive nature of the advertising world that they fail to see the benefits that a ‘fasrad’ might bring the average Joe. Dick was distrustful of machines, but if Morris had simply paid for the ‘fasrad’ then the sale pitch would have ended and he and his wife might have benefitted from the work the device could do. Their lives might have been improved, without the need to relocate to the ‘more primitive’ society of Proxima. Its an interesting conundrum that Dick fails to tackle—Morris’s longing for a simpler life and an escape from consumerism becomes all-consuming and drives him to radical acts that ultimately backfire.

The Radio Show: Of the first few short story titles chosen for television adaptation, Sales Pitch perhaps had more potential for expansion, especially in fleshing out the world in which Ed Morris lives. It might come as no surprise, then, to learn that Sales Pitch has been adapted previously as a radio play.

Back in the 1950s, two of Dick’s stories—The Defenders and Colony—were adapted as instalments of the science fiction radio drama anthology show X Minus One. It wasn’t until 1989, however, that Sales Pitch made it to radio, adapted as part of a series called ‘Sci Fi Radio’ (which also broadcast a version of Dick’s oft-adapted Impostor). Sales Pitch was episode #6 in a run of 26 half-hour episodes broadcast as part of NPR Playhouse between 1989 and 1990.

Sales Pitch was adapted for NPR Playhouse by Brad Shriver and directed by John O. Williams. It’s a rather straightforward but heavy-handed and unsophisticated version of the story, in which the main character spends a lot of time initially talking to himself to convey the action. The dialogue between Morris, the sales robots and androids and his wife Sally is drawn directly from the short story with little elaboration. Looking at it charitably, the NPR adaptation of Sales Pitch is at least relentlessly faithful to Dick’s original, so much so that it harkens back to those 1950s radio shows like Dimension X and X Minus One.

That’s until the ending, which is revised in the way that Dick suggested in 1978, giving the story a more positive or at least ambiguous ending. The ‘fasrad’ sends out a distress signal, and Morris even reconciles himself to being rescued. Whatever happens, he intends to live in the primitive society of Proxima. A voice over at the end ominously suggests, however, that the arrival of a working ‘fasrad’ will irrevocably change the society of Proxima and not in a way Ed Morris would appreciate. It is, arguably, a better ending than either Dick’s original or his proposed revision.

NPR’s Sales Pitch starred Rick Spiegel as Ed Morris, Charlotte Taylor as Sally, and Bryce Armstrong as the ‘fasrad’ and it can be located at various internet ‘old time radio’ sites.

Crazy Diamond 04

The Television Episode: Presented with a short story that has a lot of potential for straight adaptation and narrative expansion, writer Tony Grisoni (Red Riding, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and director Marc Munden (Utopia) go off on a complete tangent and do something utterly different.

Crazy Diamond 06What connects the Electric Dreams instalment Crazy Diamond to the Dick short story Sales Pitch? Well, in the abstract both concern a dissatisfied middle aged man who longs to flee his life to pastures new, where he can live the life he wants free of current restrictions. That’s about it. Instead, the core of the story is thrown away in a couple of lines when Ed Morris’s wife Sally (Julia Davis) refers to a dream she had that is basically the plot of Sales Pitch… because the rest of the episode simply refuses to have much to do with the central story it is supposedly adapted from.

Instead, we get a drama that riffs on themes, characters and settings from Blade Runner, as if that is the only thing the viewing public at large are familiar with when it comes to the name Philip K. Dick. That may be the case. Additionally, this episode was broadcast on the Sunday immediately following the release of the much-touted sequel Blade Runner 2049. It seems to have been swapped in the running order with the following instalment, apparently much for that reason.

This Ed Morris (Steve Buscemi) exists in a world suffering some kind of environmental collapse, where ‘artificial’ people apparently exist (although we’re not told why, what they’re for, or how they came about), and artificial personalities (or life forces of some sort) known as QCs (quantum consciousness) can be created in the Spirit Mill where Ed works. His wife, Sally, works at a Chimera Farm where the gate security is run by a female chimera named Su who is 40 per cent pig. There seems to be some kind of black market trade in the QCs and the artificial people—known as ‘Jacks’ (male) and ‘Jills’ (female)—apparently require them to extend their limited life spans. Where’s Roy Batty when you need him…?

In this world, Ed Morris is simply struggling to survive and get on with things while harbouring a fantasy of escape (just as in the short story where the character wanted to emigrate off-world to Proxima) via a boat he is tending. His plan is to sail away from the crumbling world and survive on the high seas, alone or with his wife Sally, but certainly free of the attentions of the state bureaucracy that seems to control and monitor everyone’s intake of food and disposal of waste.

That is until he meets Jill (Westworld’s Sidse Babett Knudsen), a glamorous artificial person who pays him the kind of attention his wife doesn’t. He soon begins what might be termed an ‘emotional affair’ with her, only to be drawn into a scheme she has hatched to raid the Spirit Mill lab where he works developing QCs. She’s driven both by personal need (she is ‘failing’) and by the fact that she can sell on any remaining QCs on the black market to a gang led by Michael Socha’s Noah.

Philip K. Dick's Electric DreamsThere are echoes here of the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo (1996) that go beyond even the casting of Steve Buscemi. Everything Ed tries to do, whether aligning himself with Jill or trying to turn her over to his boss, seems to backfire. His schemes and alliances all come to nothing. In the end, Sally and Jill outsmart him, escaping them selves together on his boat, while he is left in the surf with his precious Syd Barret LP. Both this and Fargo play with film noir narrative structures and characters, from the man whose life is disrupted by a femme fatale (Knudsen’s Jill is characterised by the colour red throughout, from her hair and lips to her clothes and jacket), and the cross and double-cross nature of the criminal enterprise (which even reveals Ed’s boss as another tempted by the rewards of crime against the company he’s employed by). Jill’s role as an insurance salesperson and mention of a ‘double indemnity’ policy also points to noir as a touchstone.

This is world where entropy seems to be visibly accelerating; the coastline is crumbling at a speedy rate and fresh food goes off in a matter of days if not hours. There is a hint of a subtext of reproduction here in Jill’s pretence to be undergoing IVF when she first meets Sally. As with the Blade Runner sequel, is the reproduction of real and artificial people a hidden theme in Crazy Diamond, and if so, do Sally and Jill plan to succeed where Sally and Ed previously failed? It’s an interesting angle.

Philip K. Dick's Electric DreamsAll this, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with Philip K. Dick’s story Sales Pitch. Whether the writers or producers thought the incessant intrusive advertising storyline had already been done (maybe Minority Report or Black Mirror had already stolen their thunder), it’d be interesting to hear exactly how Sales Pitch was so changed to become Crazy Diamond (and just what does that new title mean, exactly?).

The episode is entertaining enough if taken on its own separate from the source material. It uses some Dickian notions, just not the ones in Sales Pitch, and they are all too familiar from other adaptations. Something that was great about Crazy Diamond was the score by Utopia’s Cristobal Tapia de Veer, whose style is instantly recognisable.

Trivia: Security at Ed Morris’s workplace requires a song to be sung to a sensor to gain access. The song used is John Dowland’s ‘Flow My Tears,’ which also gave its title to Philip K. Dick’s novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Additionally, Ed’s boat is named the ‘John D.’.

Verdict: Crazy Diamond is not what you might expect from the source story, but it is enjoyable in its own way, if a million miles away from Sales Pitch.

Brian J. Robb

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