Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is an anthology sci-fi series developed by Ronald D. Moore and Michael Dinner for Channel 4 and Amazon Prime Video. Each episode of the series is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (PKD), the legendary sci-fi writer.
Over the course of several weeks, I will review all episodes of Electric Dreams and the short stories they’re derived from.
Episode 2, “Autofac,” was written by Travis Beacham based on the short story “Autofac,” and was directed by Peter Horton. It stars Juno Temple, Janelle Monáe, David Lyons, Nick Eversman, Jay Paulson, and Maximiliano Hernández.
Summary of the Short Story
A worldwide nuclear conflict has driven humanity to near extinction. After the war, the few survivors left have organized themselves in small isolated settlements. An automated factory system (the Autofac), created before the war, delivers food and other needed provisions to these settlements, but consumes vast amounts of the Earth’s resources. No one has informed the Autofac that the war is over and its services are no longer needed. Until the Autofac shuts down, civilization cannot rebuild itself.
Three men, Perine, Morrison, and O’Neill, attempt to stop one of the Autofac trucks to make its delivery but fail. Unable to stop the truck, the men then try to convince the Autofac that one of its products is defective, thus triggering some sort of customer service response. They grab a carton of milk, and after drinking it they act visibly dissatisfied. The deliver truck notices and requests the men to state the nature of the defect. One of them says: “the product is thoroughly pizzled,” hoping to confuse the Autofac. And it works. A factory representative will be sent out to collect more data.
The factory representative that arrives on the settlement the next day is an advanced AI, though clearly not human. The settlement’s inhabitants try to convince the representative that the Autofac’s services are no longer required – or better yet, no longer wanted, but, sadly, they don’t succeed. The representative doesn’t seem very responsive to their requests. Its sole purpose is to collect more data regarding the stated defect and doesn’t seem willing to budge on any other issue. Eventually the humans around it give up arguing and attack the representative. Before long, a collection of repair droids snatch the damaged representative from the people’s hands and a second, identical representative enters the room. He scolds the humans for wasting invaluable materials – materials that are greatly lacking. This gives O’Neill an idea.
The next day, O’Neill and Morrison set out to a few of the Autofac locations, hoping to determine what material do these factories need the most. What is in high demands? They determine it’s tungsten. Over the next few days the settlements scavenge every little bit of tungsten they can, taking apart anything they need to get it, and set it up in pile exactly at the intersecting networks between two factories. They hope to get the factories fight over it – and they succeed! Mine carts and other droids start attacking each other to get the precious tungsten. Neither factory succeeds, as they’re both equally matched. When the men get home, they find a message from the Autofac notifying that all shipments will be suspended until further notice.
Over the next year the fight between the various factories escalates, each seeking to destroy each other. Humans have become unburdened by Autofac, which means they can no longer rely on it for deliveries. This has thrown the settlements into a state of semi-barbarism. Humanity is free, but to progress it needs industrialization; not automated but controlled. A group led by O’Neill has gone out to examine the factories and determine if any of them can be salvaged or re-purposed. Since the factories have started attacking each other with missiles (possibly nuclear), not much is left.
When the group descends to the bottom level of one such underground factory, they see that nothing is left. At first. At the very bottom, they hear a noise coming from below them. It’s another section of the factory! Autofac has survived by going even deeper underground – and it’s sending something to surface through a concealed network of tubes. They follow it to find out where it leads.
At the other end of the tube, the group realizes that Autofac is sending nanobots all over the world, and these nanobots are building miniature versions of the factory. Some of the nanobots are even being sent into space. Autofac is still alive and operational.
Summary of the TV episode
Autofac premiered on March 5th, 2018 as episode 8 on Channel 4. It is episode 2 in the Amazon Video release.
5 years after a global nuclear war, a group of human survivors have carved out a living environment in a small settlement. They’d like to expand, but the Autofac (a full automated factory) won’t let them. The Autofac was useful during and immediately after the war, but now the settlement’s inhabitants no longer need it. Instead, they’d like to get rid of the massive pollution it generates.
Emily, Conrad, and Perine – three rebellious inhabitants of the settlement – capture a delivery droid and use its CPU to connect with the Autofac’s systems. They file a customer service complain (“the product is pizzled”) and receive a notification that a representative will arrive soon to speak with them. When the rest of the settlement’s inhabitants hear of this, they’re not happy. They’re worried the Autofac will send battle droids instead – but at this point they can’t do anything to change the situation.
The representative arrives, and the inhabitants of the settlement soon discover that it is a highly advanced, human-looking android which goes by the name Alice. In private, Conrad, and Perine try to convince Alice that Autofac must shut down its operations because it’s no longer needed. As the android reveals, however, the Autofac is fully aware that the war has ended, and that the humans are not using their products. Still, it refuses to shut down. When the negotiations fail, Emily attacks the android with a taser and renders it incapacitated. The team decides to go with Plan B, which is to alter the android’s programming, infiltrate the Autofac’s facilities, and nuke it to pieces.
Alice’s program turns out to be far more complicated than Emily expected – it’s like the android is actually ‘thinking.’ It would take Emily years to figure out how to change it. Instead, she coerces Alice to cooperate by threatening to erase her ‘brain.’ The android agrees, and all four of them (Alice, Emily, Conrad, and Perine) fly to the factory. They encounter no resistance on the way in, but once inside they have to separate to plant the nukes. Conrad and Perine go each their separate ways, while Emily sticks with Alice.
Unfortunately, Conrad and Perine never make their designated targets. They’re intercepted and killed by the factory’s security measure – another highly sophisticated defense android capable of camouflage.
Alice leads Emily into a room full of pods containing humanoid creatures. Initially confused, Emily takes her crowbar and breaks the glass in one of the pods. Inside is a human looking creature identical to her – an android with her likeness. She accuses Alice and Autofac of planning to replace the human race, but Alice disagrees. They’re not planning to replace it. They already have. All humans went extinct after the war and Autofac soon realized it needs consumers to justify its existence. So when they all died, Autofac created them the only way it knew how. Emily protests, but is knocked out by Alice.
Emily comes to and finds herself tied up and hooked to a computer. Alice tells her that the Autofac has produced thousands of such ‘artificial’ communities spread around the world, happily cooperating with the factory. Emily’s rebellion is but a statistical aberration, soon to be corrected. Going through Emily’s program, Alice pinpoints what she thinks is causing the aberration, but find’s that something’s not right. It’s not a computer error. Soon she realizes that it is a virus intentionally put there, and is quickly spreading through the Autofac’s system. Alice tries to stop it, but she can’t. She turns towards Emily.
Smirking, Emily reveals she has known for quite a while that she is not human, and this was her plan all along. She believes that even though she’s artificial, there’s something really human in her and all her friends. They’re humanity’s true second chance. Once Autofac is destroyed, Emily returns to her settlement looking happy.
PKD has stated the following regarding the conception of Autofac:
“What I had in mind in writing it (. . . ) 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.”
This is a central theme in both the short story, and its TV adaptation written by Travis Beacham.
One of the most endearing qualities of PKD’s short story is its economy of exposition. In the nearly 9000 words that span the story, we never get any details regarding how or why the war started, how long did it last, how it ended, how did the settlements survive, etc. And it must have been tempting for PDK to expand on the fascinating world he had created, but that would only detracted from the focus of the plot. What background info we get is enough. Enough to focus on what matters, the Autofac.
So, what is the Autofac?
On the most superficial level, the Autofac serves as a commentary on the detrimental effects of unchecked consumerism (a common theme in PKD’s writing). This is true of both the short story and TV episode. Nearly every reviewer of the episode (everyone I read, anyway) has been quick to point out the irony in the fact that the Autofac resembles quite closely one of the companies that produced the show (Amazon). While I think that’s an oversimplified generalization, the Autofac does represent one possible extrapolation of our current culture. Or PKD’s 1950s culture. An AI that’s programmed to sustain humanity’s consumption needs, and that continues to sustain its operations ad absurdum.
That being said, this is a story about survivors trying to do away with the Autofac. Humans created the Autofac so that they may live through the ongoing nuclear war that nearly wipes them out. In that respect, PKD’s comment on consumerism is rather muted. Almost like an afterthought. What stands out instead is a cautionary tale regarding the ecological effects of automation. We revert back to the author’s germinating idea, that of automated machines mirroring the traits of organic life. The characters deal with this in every paragraph of the story; their only and ultimate concern is how to overcome the factory’s automated behavior that inhibits them from leading normal lives. One challenge after another: establish a dialogue, seed conflict, perform the takeover. Sadly, it doesn’t work.
The TV episode follows closely the events of the short story. Travis Beacham did an excellent job not only in adapting the Autofac for the screen (quite a challenge in itself) but also in bringing the sci-fi elements up to date. In the 50s PKD had no Amazon to draw inspiration from. AI and computer technology were nowhere near the level of development we have today. Our technology, not to mention our relationship with technology, has evolved in great strides over the years, and I’m glad to see the team behind Electric Dreams realize that.
What makes the episode stand out, however, is where it differs from its source material – and here I refer to substantial differences, not the aforementioned ‘modernization’ of the story to bring it up-to-date for 21st century audiences. Some are obvious while a couple are a bit more subtle.
The key differences I’m referring to are:
- The main character in the episode is a woman, possibly a substitute for O’Neill in the short story.
- Though the Autofac’s services are not wanted in both versions, the settlements in the short story seem to make use of them anyway. In the episode, the Autofac’s deliveries go completely wasted.
- The Autofac in the episode is aware that the war has ended.
- The big twist in the end of the episode: the humans in the settlements are not really humans. They’re advanced androids produced by the Autofac.
As in the first episode of the series, Real Life, it seems as though the writers are trying to say something about gender. In episode 1, we had a woman experience the reality of a man and vice versa; in episode 2, we have the “woman that created Autofac” (the show emphasizes this in a somewhat ironic manner, since earlier in the episode people refer to the Autofac as the invention of “man”). Whereas in PKD’s world women generally occupy the passive role of housewives, Electric Dreams puts women at the center of the action, sometimes even reversing the stereotypes. In Autofac, before Emily leaves the settlement, it is her boyfriend the one who asks her to stay; the one who will patiently wait for her to ‘save the world’ and return home.
Changes 2,3, and 4 demonstrate a significant change in focus from one version to another. The short story focuses mostly on the human survivors and treats the Autofac as an external threat. It is entirely from the human point of view. Moreover, there’s a real cynicism to PKD’s portrayal of humanity. The human survivors spent their entire time trying to get rid of the Autofac, but once they do and its services are no longer available, most settlements revert to a sort of barbarism. They want to start over, but they can’t. They’ve become too reliant on automation.
The TV episode takes a more neutral approach, and the Autofac is much more than just an external threat. There’s less cynicism. In fact, the twist at the end of the episode levels the field entirely, erasing the divide between the two factions. It was a fantastic reveal, in my opinion, one that takes PKD’s concern with automation a noticeable step further. It asks the question: Would a robot feel the need to justify its existence?
Because the entire episode builds towards that final reveal, subsequent re-watches suffer a little bit. On my second and third watch, I struggled to get through the first 30 minutes. There’s not much in the character interactions to make you care about them, or about their lives in the community. That’s not to say they’re flat characters. They’re merely sufficient. Nevertheless, I was quite happy with the acting performances, particularly Juno Tempe who played Emily and Janelle Monae who played Alice, the android. Monae shined in her every scene. Her chilling voice and ‘quasi-human’ interpretation of Alice’s movements gives her world a sort of terrifying credibility that makes us take it seriously. Her final scenes with Emily are undoubtedly the best in the episode (even if Temple overacts a bit before the final revelation).
Autofac makes for terrific story and a great episode of TV. Certainly a breath of fresh air after that enjoyable-yet-disappointing first episode, and makes me hopeful for the other eight that are next. It’s amazing to think the core of Dick’s stories still resonate in today’s world; and that clever writers and TV producers will use them to their utmost potential.