Take any human and strip away their body, leaving only their mind – whether that be a brain in a vat or the unique neural connections re-created in a computer program. Then take away the memories, the individual quirks, the sense of self, until all you’re left with is a core – a soul, if you like. Imagine then if this soul could be copied, replicated, and then implanted or uploaded into a clone, or a synthetic being. Would this be the story of the same person, ebbing and flowing as their casing changes? Or at every step of the way, is someone new created? Or something? Who, then, of these people is real, is human?
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s body of work is littered with androids, robots and simulacra – the question of what is real and what is not lies at the heart of much of his writing. The importance of ‘reality’ is constantly interrogated – what if a town that almost existed slowly starts coming in to being? What if virtual reality becomes so good you can’t tell the difference between the digital and physical worlds? What does it matter that a person is machinery and mathematics instead of flesh and bone, if you can’t tell from interacting with them? He posits scenario after scenario, never really offering a clear-cut answer. How could he?
In his thirty-one year career, Dick published forty-four novels and around 120 short stories. The man was prolific, and so, like Agatha Christie and Stephen King, it’s not surprising that his work is fertile ground for adaptation. Since 1982 there’s been a steady drip of films and television series based on his stories, including Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), The Man in the High Castle, Minority Report (‘The Minority Report’), and Total Recall (‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’). But as of 2017, that drip has turned into a downpour; by the end of this year, eleven adaptations of his work will have found a new life on the screen. Right now we’re about halfway through the flood – Blade Runner 2049 has just hit cinemas, and five of the ten episodes of anthology television series Electric Dreams have been released.
Dick’s work is imbued with themes of paranoia, freewill, and frustration with the everyday – what makes someone human? What makes one life potentially worth more than another? Is that robot going to steal my job? They’re evergreen topics, which is why his stories have never completely dropped off the map – but why have the floodgates broken now?
The most cynical response would be: cashing in. The original Blade Runner – I’m lumping together all seven cuts of the film here – has enjoyed a strong cult following ever since it was released; people are going to watch the sequel. By this point, it doesn’t really even matter much if the film is any good – it’s already stirred up public attention, which is all you need to show to potential producers that the market is primed for more of these stories.
It may also seem like both Electric Dreams and Blade Runner 2049 are hitching a ride on the recent dystopia bandwagon – except it isn’t a bandwagon at all, and it certainly isn’t recent. It’s a wormhole stretching right back to the first time a person sat down and asked ‘what if…?’
Dystopian fiction has never really gone out of fashion; it just keeps changing format.
Dystopian fiction has never really gone out of fashion; it just keeps changing format, most recently tilting more towards screen than page. And with anthology series such as Black Mirror offering a binge-load at a time, it’s easy to think that the volume has increased when really it’s more a case of shapeshifting and savvy marketing.
As policies and political agendas wax and wane, evolve and devolve, the focus of stories change too: What would the human race be like following nuclear war? What would happen if we accepted constant surveillance? What will medical breakthroughs do to our definition of humanity?
We are fascinated with worst-case scenarios, with seeing where pushed boundaries may lead us as a society. These stories also provide a service: they alter the lens through which we see issues that are close to home, by superimposing them over an (often literally) alien scenario.
The irony and tragedy present throughout so many of Dick’s stories sometimes spills out of the pages and into the real world. Dying at the age of fifty-three, he never lived to see any of the adaptations of his work – missing out on the release of Blade Runner by a matter of months. It’s a shame, not least because it would have been interesting to see what he thought.
Electric Dreams offers writers and directors the opportunity…to strip [a story] down to basics, to its soul, and see if the spark survives in a new body.
As a writer so focused on exploring reality and its malleability, it’s strangely fitting that his own work becomes a kind of meta-example of his ideas. Having so many of Dick’s stories adapted (by so many different people) within the space of one year gives an interesting insight into good and bad adaptation. Blade Runner (and its sequel) allowed the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? universe to be expanded out, while retaining its core ideas and values. Similarly, Electric Dreams offers writers and directors the opportunity to take a story and turn it into something new – to strip it down to basics, to its soul, and see if the spark survives in a new body.
A good adaptation isn’t about regurgitating every word of a story onto a script. It’s about understanding what a story is at its heart: what its themes are, and what its goal is. If those things are maintained, then it doesn’t matter if the main story changes, the characters are different, or the ending goes in a completely different direction. Episode 2 of Electric Dreams, ‘The Impossible Planet’, does this impeccably. It’s a story about longing for home, even if home is an abstract construct. The original story is that of an elderly woman paying an unscrupulous space craft operator to take her to see Earth – a planet everyone knows doesn’t exist. It’s lean but it touches on greed, empathy, and contrasts human actions against those of a robot, exploring whether humanity can exist outside a flesh and blood body. The episode, while changing a major plot point and having an entirely different ending, holds true to the underlying idea and so it is still Dick’s story.
Similarly Episode 3, ‘The Commuter’, takes a story about a train station worker discovering a town that shouldn’t exist, and pushes it past the ending that Dick originally penned. Writer Jack Thorne imagines what would happen next and fleshes out the backstory of the protagonist. It’s different, story-wise, but still built upon the original ideas.
The remaining episodes, however, are less tethered to Dick’s underlying ideas and questions – it’s as though someone put on a blindfold, jabbed randomly at pages, and included whatever their finger landed on. Episode 1, ‘The Hood Maker’, takes a complex story about freedom of thought and the right to mental privacy and turns it into ‘Robb Stark bones a psychic and imagines fishing with his dad’.
Perhaps that is a bit harsh. But it’s strange – the only thing the script and the story have in common is the existence of telepaths (called ‘teeps’) and the fact that they are used by the police department. Beyond that, the tensions are different, the motives are different, and even the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ are flipped around. It’s important to point out that bad adaptations can still be good viewing – they can sometimes be even better stories than the original – but if they don’t house the core of the source material, it’s iffy to call the result a true adaptation. Aesthetically ‘The Hood Maker’ is great – the costumes and makeup are almost enough to justify the time spent watching it. But as the opening episode of the series, it’s a weird choice. It’s not a Philip K. Dick story; it’s a high quality knock-off.
Bad adaptations can still be good viewing – but if they don’t house the core of the source material…it’s a high-quality knock-off.
Episode 4, ‘Crazy Diamond’, is a little more complex. Steve Buscemi holds up a somewhat flimsy story about a man coerced by an android femme fatale into helping her steal vials of ‘quantum consciousness’ (the lab-made ‘spark’ of self-awareness that turns an android from a shell into a person) from the company he works at. Issues of inequality are raised throughout – both human vs. android and a (literally) ham-fisted storyline about the rights of human–pig hybrids. That’s fine – except that the original story, ‘Sales Pitch’, is about a man driven mad by incessant advertising and contains exactly zero of the themes introduced in the episode. All that remains of the ‘source material’ is the name of protagonist Ed and his wife, Sally, plus two brief nods to the robot central to the original tale. Viewers instead get a story that is essentially Blade Runner-lite. So maybe it is a Dick adaptation of sorts – just not the one it says it is.
In the original Blade Runner, the corporation that lies at the heart of the story, which creates the androids themselves, has a motto: ‘more human than human’. It’s a phrase and an idea that comes back again in Blade Runner 2049 – can something built in imitation surpass its original? And in doing so, can it render the original defined out of date, possibly even obsolete? If a Philip K. Dick story is stripped back, taken to its core, and then implanted elsewhere – can it then be more Philip K. Dick than Philip K. Dick? Or is it even a Philip K. Dick story anymore?
To read Dick is to get yourself tied up in knots about the nature of reality and authenticity.
In a 1978 speech, Dick said:
It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question ‘What is reality?’ to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’ That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.
To read Dick is to get yourself tied up in knots about the nature of reality and authenticity. It’s kind of like saying the same word over and over again until it begins to lose meaning – because you’ve started tugging at the strings that hold ideas together. As it all unravels, what you’re left with is a host of questions (and, if life were true to his books, perhaps a synthetic toad.)
For someone who spent a career interrogating the definition of reality, it’s fitting that art is imitating life in this way, so many years on. He was never really able to nail down a solid answer, but as his work twists and evolves, is adapted and re-interpreted, the questions that motivated him keep being asked.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is available now on Stan.