Fiction Reviews

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

(2017) Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 213pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22328-8


This anthology of Philip K. Dick SF short stories relates to the Dick stories that inspired the 2017 – 2018 Channel 4 (British Isles) television series Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams: the single season of which was originally split into two halves with the first being broadcast in the autumn (September/October) of 2017 with a gap of three months before the second half's broadcast in the spring (February/March) of 2018.

There are ten of Dick's short stories each inspiring ten individual programmes in the Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams series. Now Dick fans will know – but many newcomers to Dick's shorts through the television series will not – that nearly all of Dick's SF shorts were originally published within a five-volume series by the specialist SF/F small press, Underwood-Miller in 1987 in N. America.  These volumes have subsequently been reprinted a number of times, but confusingly with changed titles and sometimes borrowing a title formerly given to another volume in the collection. (I have a bit of an explanation here.)  What this means is that if you are tempted by this television to seek out these volumes you need to check the contents carefully less you accidentally buy a differently titled collection of shorts you already have.  (Also, the ones collectors want, to ensure they've captured nearly all of Dick's SF shorts, are the ones with the 'notes' section at the books' ends. This does not apply to this bespoke collection of Dick shorts as this collection only relates to the Electric Dreams television series.)  It's annoying, but that's life. (I am in two minds as to whether or not Phil Dick would have welcomed, or be amused by, the confusion or not.)

Now, back to this bespoke collection.

Before I get onto the stories themselves, because this collection comes into being through the television series, a review would not do it justice if confined to the stories themselves and so it also includes thoughts on the respective television episode springing from each story.  This is all the more relevant as each story in this collection has a two-page introduction from the respective episode's screenstory writer or director.  Consequently, I am not only providing a teaser for each story but a few lines of comment on the television episode that sprang from it. Because of this I have had to wait until after the last episode was broadcast before I could complete this review, even though Gollancz sent SF² Concatenation  this collection a few months prior to the broadcast of the series' first episode.

The other thing to note is that I have reviewed the stories in the order in which they appear in the collection and not in the broadcast order of the episodes of the television series. Though I have included for you within the teaser reviews the order of broadcast.  It also perhaps is worthwhile noting that the order in which they appear in the collection is also unrelated to the order in which the stories were originally published.   Having said that, all the stories here were published in a short three-year window: 1953 to 1955. Keep that in mind; it means that the stories are all well over half a century old and also a snapshot of only a small part of Dick's writing career!

And now the stories:-

'Exhibit Piece' (1954). In a future where humanity has re-built the world following a nuclear war, but in which the US has become a totalitarian state, historian George Miller chaffs at his controlling managers of the job he loves.  As a historian, part of his duties involves curating a life-sized exhibit of a 20th century US suburban, residential street scene. Then he hears a noise coming from the exhibit and goes in to investigate but seemingly ends up back in the 20th century.  With nuclear war still decades away, should he return?

Time travel as a trope to compare life now with that of the future (in fact it is Dick holding up a mirror to our own society), and time-travel particularly from before and after a nuclear war, is something that Dick has returned to a number of times.

This was episode five in the Electric Dreams series and re-titled as 'Real Life'. In his introduction to the story, US screenwriter Ronald D. Moore (of Star Trek: Next Gen' and Deep Space Nine note) has the honesty to say that: "very little remains of the original story in the show." He might, though, have even been more honest and say that there was nothing in the original story in the episode other than the protagonist is called George. However this Electric Dreams episode has a huge saving grace…

The television episode in essence concerns two realities. In each of these the other reality is presented as an artificial construct. The question therefore is, which 'reality' is really real? George has to decide, and the viewer does not get to know – and will find it difficult to guess – right up until the end.

Now, while 'Real Life' has no meaningful connection at all with the 'Exhibit Piece' Dick sort story that purportedly inspired it, 'Real Life' has a very Philip K. Dickian feel to it (cf. 'We Can Remember if for you Wholesale'); so much so that this Electric Dreams episode is a worthy homage to the man's writing.  I liked this episode a lot.


'The Commuter' (1953). Ed Jacobson works at a rail station when one day a man asks for a ticket to a non-existent station.  The man then vanishes.  When next day a similar incident takes place, Ed decides to investigate to discover that there was a time when the station was being considered to be built.  But does that make the station real?

This was broadcast as the third episode of the series and the story's introduction is by the five-time BAFTA winning television producer and writer Jack Thorne. Sadly, for some reason Thorne felt the need to introduce the notion that Ed Jacobson's original world had a dystopic element to it and that Miller himself influences the nature of one of the realities.  This muddying was not in the original story that focussed on the trope of parallel, near identical universes. Dick's point being that even a slight change – a single decision – can create whole communities (and presumably destroy others).


'Impossible Planet' (1953). In the far future and on a far world, Norton and Andrews run a small spaceship transport when one day an old lady arrives asking for a ticket to the legendary world 'Earth', that is rumoured to exist but no-one knows where.  Norton and Andrews accept her money anyway…

The theme Dick explores here is one other writers have examined (notably including previously Isaac Asimov in his novel Pebble in the Sky (1950)). There is nothing wrong in this and here Dick is looking at the story's core conceit from the point of view of changing perceptions with time: how we see things today is likely very different to how we will in the future (or for that matter how we did in the past). Humanity may even eventually forget its original planetary heritage.

The introduction for this story comes from the screenwriter and director David Farr of episode two of the series. In the television episode Farr changed the story's ending making it a soppy, emotional experience for one of the astronauts: exactly the opposite to Dick's ending!


'The Hanging Stranger' (1953). Ed Loyce finishes his day to go out but finds a hanged man.  Who had lynched him and why?  Perplexingly, all his neighbours are nonchalant, as if there was nothing unusual about a hanged man. Was Ed going mad? Or had the world gone crazy…?

This was adapted as the tenth, and final episode of the Electric Dreams season, as ''Kill All Others' by Dee Rees.  ''Kill All Others' sees our protagonist as an overweight worker in a large factory with only two others on the shop floor and only a small management team. The factory is highly automated and, as the shop floor staff chat within the large canteen, it becomes apparent that most people have been relocated (deported?) to other countries. He himself is reluctant to take parting the automated society, he hates the intrusive 3-D advertising personally targeted at him, even within his home, and refuses to travel by driverless car going, instead, by public transport. And then there is an election with only one candidate. Suddenly, as part of the political campaign, billboards appears with the slogan 'kill all others'. Then, he sees a mob attack someone for seemingly no reason other than the victim is an (unspecified) 'other'…

While ''Kill All Others' is an entertaining story in itself, it only loosely relates to Dick's original 'The Hanging Stranger' in that both see mobs attack individuals seemingly for no good reason.  Yet while in 'The Hanging Stranger' (Possible Spoiler Alert) most other than the protagonist had literally become something else -- only looking human and as such 'The Hanging Stranger' could be a pessimistic, quasi sequel to 'The Father-Thing' – in ''Kill All Others' humans are still human but it is political conformity over individuality that is the story's focus.

This shift in the story's foundation, away from the original, takes us away from the preoccupation of perceived identity – how do we know who is really real? – that Dick returns to again and again from short stories such as 'The Father-Thing' and 'Human Is' in this collection to some of his novels such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  Instead, this is a political tale. Indeed, in his introduction Dee Rees explains that he began working on this adaptation during the 2016 US presidential election (that saw Donald Trump win) with its slogans such as 'lock her up' and 'America first'.  Now, for anyone living in the second and third decades of this century, it is clear that that election, and other phenomena such as the referendum that took Britain out of the European Union (Brexit), were pivotal, indeed for many unsettling, moments.  Indeed, as we will see below, the Trump election shaped another adaptation elsewhere in the collection.  Dee Rees makes all this clear in his introduction to the story.

Now, I am not sure whether or not I welcome this deviation from the original?  On the plus side, it does demonstrate that Dick's work continues to inspire with seeming relevance to today's circumstances nearly two-thirds of a century on from when he penned the story.  On the other hand it does completely change the point Dick was making concerning identity.  Perhaps it is because that Dick's work taps into core aspects of our nature which in turn impinge on many dimensions of our lives that makes him so relevant and which has encouraged some of those screenstory writers for this series to shoe-horn his story into their own vision.  Personally I feel that the latter, who take Dick's stories off at a tangent, are doing viewers and Dick's readers a disservice. If anyone wants, say, to adapt a Dick story as a comment on the Trump election then there are other Dick stories better suited for them to work on.

Yes, the TV episode ''Kill All Others' is an entertaining story in itself, but it only loosely relates to Dick's original 'The Hanging Stranger' and that is irritating.  Still, as with a few others in this collection, those adapting for television had the decency to change the title of their adaptation from that of the original Dick story.


'Sales Pitch' (1954). Stressed out with his daily commuting within the Solar System, Ed Morris is annoyed when his evening meal with his wife is disturbed by a knock at the door.  It is a sales robot who is selling himself and will not take 'no' for and answer…

This was broadcast as episode 4 of the television series, but re-titled as 'Crazy Diamond'. Other than a visiting sales person (a replicant in Blade Runner terms), this episode had little, if any, connection with the original story.  In his introduction, writer and director Toni Grisoni openly admits to the changes justifying them quoting Philip Dick's own disliking of the ending.  Fair enough: change the ending, but not the guts of the original story which was a comment of the rising consumerism of the mid-twentieth century. At least, as with Dee Rees above, Grisoni had the decency to change the episode's title.

The original story was both a polemic against consumerism as well as raising a concern as to our increasing technological society: you cannot say no to a machine.


'The Father-Thing' (1954). Eight year old Charles did not like having to have dinner with his father as it was not really his father…

This theme of people we know not being the people we know is another to have recurred a number of times in SF, and notably with the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) film which was in turn based on the Jack Finney novel The Body Snatchers (1955) that itself came out a year after Dick's 'The Father-Thing'.  So I kind of wonder if the story helped inspire (the novel and/or hence) the film? Indeed, if you have seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers you have caught the essence of 'The Father-Thing'.

This was broadcast as the seventh episode of Electric Dreams that kept the title of Dick's story and which was true to it.  Yes, there are embellishments in that: the story is set in the present-day (2017), so that we have the internet and social media; that the protagonist is a couple of years older (around 11 or 12 years); and that there are other plot expansions. However, these last are all very logical developments from Dick's story.  Michael Dinner (the screen story writer and episode director) has done an excellent job in adapting the story to television.


'The Hood Maker' (1955). In a post nuclear war future, society has been rebuilt and a mutation has arisen which allows a handful to be telepathic.  Only the wearing of a hood can protect people from having their thoughts read.  But the authorities do not like having people with secrets, so when someone starts making and distributing hoods, the hood maker must be found….

This episode was broadcast as the first of the television series but re-titled as 'The F-Maker'. It got the series off to a reasonably good start in that the episode was very recognisably similar to the story.  Television writer and producer Matthew Graham, in the story's introduction, notes his own misperception of the story when he first read it: a misconception I share.  The hood in Dick's story is in fact a metal band but that is only briefly mentioned once: read fast and you may miss it.  In the 'The F-Maker', Graham gives his protagonists actual hoods with which to contend.


'Foster You're Dead' (1955). In the midst of the cold war, everyone expects nuclear annihilation. Fortunately, everyone has the very latest nuclear shelter... That is everyone if  they can afford it and also next season's upgrade or new model.

This is very much an anti-cold war policy of MAD (mutually assured destruction) story with the politico-military industrial complex driving economics driving faux  economic growth with effectively built in obsolescence: this year's nuclear shelter will be ineffective against next year's bombs, so you better get rid of your old model and buy the new one.

'Foster You're Dead' was adapted as 'Safe & Sound' by Kalen Egan (an Executive Producer of the series Philip K. Dick Electric Dreams) and Travis Sentell (who used to work for the company that managed Philip K. Dick's estate) as episode nine of the television series. So we have here two of the people who were pivotal in shaping the television series.

In 'Safe & Sound' a teenager and her mother relocates from an unregulated zone to a city where protection is assured by everyone carrying (being tagged) by monitoring assistants that also provide things like internet access and a multitude of apps ('applications' that early in the 21st century folk have on their mobile [cell] phones) as well as the tags acting as security passes or electronic personal ID passports.  In this way citizens have personal connectivity between each other and the net and the services it provides, while the state has citizen monitoring.  Of course for the citizens to willingly be monitored they need to be told that there are threats.  The teen's mother (along with other social dissidents mainly – but not all – outside the city) does not buy into the propaganda of terrorists incidents which she believes are made up (nobody actually sees an incident with their own eyes).  But the state/industrial complex has to somehow instil a fear of such threats…

I have to say that this was another of the adaptations about which I had missed feelings. It clearly was far enough from 'Foster You're Dead' for it not to be claimed as a straight adaptation, albeit one that was updated by over half a century to modern times. Indeed, Travis Sentell and Kalen Egan did signal this by changing the adaptation's title.  Equally, both were honest enough in their introduction to the story within this collection, that they were writing this during the 2016 US Presidential election during which Trump was arguably promulgating fear of Mexican immigrants ('We'll build a wall…') and making dubious claims about his political rivals (for example: 'Crooked Hilary' and 'Lock her up'). All of which led to the use of the exquisitely ironic term the then candidate Trump used, 'fake news': he used it to decry the mainstream media's coverage of his campaign seemingly oblivious that he was being somewhat (ahem) creative with 'facts' himself.

So, while this is not in anyway anything near a straight adaptation of 'Foster You're Dead' it clearly covers themes that Dick addresses in his other stories.  Here, in terms of political narrative, I am thinking of stories such as 'The Mold of Yancy' (1955) and 'If There Were No Benny Cemoli' (1963).  Hang these stories' themes of constructed political narratives upon the bare bones of 'Foster You're Dead' and you get 'Safe & Sound'.


'Human Is' (1955). Jill Herrick's husband is an unthinking and uncaring person and her marriage loveless. That is until he returns having been on a trip to Rexor IV a changed man…

'Human Is' was the sixth episode in the television series. While in the Dick story the husband goes to Rexor, an unexplored world, in seek of discoveries that would make him wealthy and possibly be of use in Earth's various hostilities off-world against alien enemies, in the television episode the war sees the Earth resource depleted and poisoned. Both the husband and wife are part of the military, which also undertakes much governing of the Earth.  In the television episode, the mission to Rexor is not a civil trip by a scientist to an ancient, ruined world but a military expedition to a more primitive planet that has a resource needed to clean our world's toxic air.

On the plus side, though substantively different from the original, writer and producer, Jessica (Stranger Things) Mecklenburg has at least kept the essence of Dick's plot: the episode is recognisably inspired by the original Dick short story. (I prefer Dick's original as that has a clear focus on the SFnal conceit – mental change and identity – being examined.)


'Autofac' (1955). The supply truck and its goods came whether they wanted them or not.  The war had ended a while ago but, for the war's duration, the automated factories were left to control themselves: they made all their own decisions, without human oversight.  And though the factories kept the humans with all that they needed, the factories were scouring the Earth for raw materials and these were beginning to run out.  The factories had to be stopped, but easier said than done…

The original story explores another of Dick's favourite themes as to the problems of a society reliant on technology: you cannot say 'no' to a machine.

This was broadcast as the eighth episode of the television series.  For the most part, almost up to when they go to the Autofac itself, it is a faithful adaptation of the story.  Whereas Dick's ending was one of the relentless nature of the technology, screen writer Travis Beacham decided to add two new twists. In one sense I did not mind these as they made for an entertaining television episode (unlike, say, 'Exhibit Piece' re-titled as 'Real Life' earlier) that was not entirely out of place in the Dick universe. (There is a scene in the novel Do Androids Dream… where Deckard ends up in a police station staffed by replicants who think they are human.) But, personally speaking, I do not like people mucking about to such an extreme degree with the original work when they are doing adaptations. But maybe that's just me.


The 2017/8 Channel 4 television series' British audience viewing figures for Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams started off quite healthy for the first thee episodes ('The Hood Maker', 'Impossible Planet' and 'The Commuter') with audiences of 1.49, 1.35 and 1.5 million respectively.  These are quite good numbers in today's age with getting on for a hundred FreeView channels and more with the pay-for platforms such as Sky. Channel 4 is one of the five British, so-called 'terrestrial' broadcasters and so is one of the major channels in the UK.  Interestingly, the first three episodes were all recognisably connected to the original Dick short.  However the fourth, 'Crazy Diamond' (based on the Dick original 'Sales Pitch'), was the first episode of the series to depart significantly from the original short story.  It also was the most confusing, if not also pretentious, of the episodes in the series' first half.  Given the figures for the first three episodes are greater than some 40% compared to 'Crazy Diamond's' 0.96 million, one can only presume people started watching the episode, became confused or bored and switched channels at the first advert break.  This was a shame as the series' figures never recovered for the remainder of the season's first half.  Writer and director Toni Grisoni has questions to answer, as does the series' editor/producer: this script/screen story should never have accepted.

All of which begs the question as to why some of the writers/producers felt the need to substantively change the original Dick vision?  Such writers were not writing for a television series called Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams: in the worst cases they had expunged (or at least misunderstood) Dick.  This sort of thing is frustratingly all too common with some media types.  You see it with re-boots and cinematic adaptations of books and television: The Avengers (fthe British TV series, not the Marvel Comics) and Lost in Space films and the US 21st century re-boot of The Prisoner were almost unrecognisable from their respective British television series; conversely Oscar-winning offerings like the Jackson Lord of the Rings, Charly (1968) and Harry Potter films were faithful to their best-selling, Hugo-winning source material and they reaped the rewards in viewing figures (box office take).  So why don't studios and TV channels, let alone the writers and directors take note?  Well, the answer in interviews regularly seems to be that writers and directors wanted to put their own stamp on the source material, to bring something new to the table, or some such obsequious platitude.  Don't they get it?  If writers and directors want to do something new and original then do something new and original, otherwise they should use their skills to stick to the source material, albeit bringing the source material up-to-date such as with a present-day setting or by employing new special effects.

Having said that not all the adaptations were as bad as, say, 'Crazy Diamond', and in some cases one can easily forgive some of the less faithful adaptations' departure from the source material in the sense that they did draw on the themes Dick explored.

To sum up, while the television series is decidedly a curate's egg, these source material Dick stories within this volume are well worth visiting.  Indeed, if this series brings new readers to Dick, and the other Dick anthologies available (Gollancz have a few), then that is no bad thing.  As for the television series, there were more than enough hits, and very few outright stinkers, for me to hope that they will make another.  There are plenty more Dick short stories to bring to the small screen.

Jonathan Cowie

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