Arts episodic review

The customer’s always right

When automated factories rule what’s left of the world, who needs who?

Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams Episode 2: “Autofac”
Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story “Autofac”
Episode directed by Peter Horton
Episode written by Travis Beacham
Series by Channel 4
Available on Amazon Video

This is the second part of my episode-by-episode review and analysis of the new Channel 4 television show Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. This week’s episode was called “Autofac”, based on the short story of the same name.

As usual, I encourage you to check out the show and the book before reading any further because:


Both media take us to the near future: we’ve invented completely automated factories (“Autofac”s, if you will) to satisfy our every need, and promptly blew ourselves back to the stone age with nuclear weapons. Ironically, the last thing standing are these creators of consumer goods — notably lacking in consumers. True to their purpose, however, the factories keep working, creating more basic needs in the book, and creating consumers in the show.

In the book, one of the few remaining human settlements smashed up a few shipments of milk, claiming it to be “pizzled” in order to get a representative (an android that was only humanoid due to the natural efficiency of the design) to “reason”] with. Negotiations failing, the humans resort to dirtier strategies: finding out what the factory was low on, and putting a small chunk of it on the border of two factory’s zones of control and watch the chaos ensue. The remainder of the story details the extent to which these factories, like their human counterparts before them, were willing to go to in order to continue producing virtually useless products. Rather unsettlingly, after the factories seemed destroyed, rockets were fired from each factory out to the stars. Humanity may have fallen, but its creations would colonize the stars in search of resources to supply a dead race.

The show puts a very different twist on this setting. A colony of incredibly advanced androids (designed to think that they are human) begin attacking and hacking the autofac’s delivery drones to get its attention, open a conversation, and hopefully get it to shut down. By shooting down a drone, hacking into the old customer help desk, and telling the factory that its merchandise was “pizzled,” the colony, led by Emma, the computer-savvy protagonist, capture, “reprogram” a humanoid PR robot, and make their way into the factory with the fullest intention of nuking it from the inside. The episode ends with us (and the autofac) discovering that Emma knew she was an android (she was modeled after the inventor of the autofac, after all) and had just set off a ‘logic bomb’ in the factory’s programming, allowing her to escape and live happily ever after, pretending to be human, without the autofac.

It seems that these stories share a name and setting, but differ wildly in theme, premise, and twists. In the show, the motif was to ‘unmake what we [humanity] made’ in favor of a simpler life independent of the polluting, wasteful autofacs; which, while this theme was present in the first page of the short story, was quickly superseded by the violent, war-like competitions of the autofacs. The book uses this as an allegory for the inevitability of resource wars in a consumer culture, as opposed to the Ex Machina-esque message of agency put forth by the show.


Stay tuned next week for “Human Is”!