Which Dystopia Are We Living in Anyways?

While Black Mirror frets about individualism taken too far, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams on Amazon returns to the terror of the collective.

Holliday Grainger and Richard Madden play a telepath and a government agent in the episode 'The Hood Maker.'

It’s a cliché to say the real world resembles a dystopian nightmare, but it’s instructive to pay attention to which dystopian nightmare catches on. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four shot back to the top of bestseller lists after Donald Trump’s election, but it’s still less trendy to deploy the term thoughtcrime than it is to drop this phrase: We’re living in Black Mirror. Perhaps that’s just because Charlie Brooker’s slickly intense Netflix anthology series has the buzz of novelty. Or perhaps it’s because it has nailed something beyond the mere conceit that the future = bad.

Watch for whether Philip K. Dick, the Cold War–era sci-fi author who’s never really left public memory, begins to reclaim space from Brooker this year. The TV show The Man in High Castle, based on Dick’s alternative history about a world in which the Axis Powers had won World War II, will present its third season in 2018. Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the most famous Dick adaptation, earned strong reviews last fall. Now comes Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, a 10-part anthology series with a rotating crew of recognizable actors (Bryan Cranston, Anna Paquin, Steve Buscemi) and established filmmakers interpreting Dick’s stories. More than one publication has hyped the show as “Amazon’s answer to Black Mirror.”

Which is a funny thing, given how many of Dick’s obsessions are in Brooker’s work: the ethics of artificial intelligence, the undermining of reality, and the paranoia that modern conveniences will fundamentally alter their creators. Formally, the two shows align by serving up stand-alone episodes that play across the genre spectrum but maintain an air of the ominous. Both, too, first ran on the U.K.’s Channel 4 and feel ineffably British—brogues galore—even if Electric Dreams is largely set in some version of Chicago and Black Mirror hopscotches the globe. Certain concepts, such as virtual-reality hardware as dots affixed to the temples, are nearly identical in both shows.

Stylistically and philosophically, though, they’re a binary set. Electric Dreams is televisually muddy next to Black Mirror’s austere confidence, but it has an emotional generosity that the Netflix series lacks, serving up plenty of happy endings with twists that are more conventional. Of greater note are the contrasts in the shows’ thematic emphases. Electric Dreams usually insists that the tyranny of the collective is the urgent concern. Black Mirror is often a fantasy of individualism taken too far. The dystopian drama most apt for 2018 might be a synthesis of the two.

Electric Dreams riffs widely, ranging from post-apocalyptic thrillers (“Autofac,” in which a manufacturing plant that eerily evokes an Amazon processing facility keeps chugalugging after civilization ends) to poetic mini-dramas touched by the mystical (“The Commuter” never explains its trippiness and is better for it). Often, Dick’s source material is rendered almost unrecognizable: “Real Life” substitutes VR games for time-travel as the mechanism by which sanity is upended; “K.A.O.” builds the “mega-nation” of “Mex-US-Can” from a short story about a man who seems to be the only person to care about a dead body in the town square; “Safe and Sound” reworks a tale of consumerism and nuclear bunkers into one of consumerism and anti-terrorism.

Even with the variety, there’s a cohesive message. Electric Dreams repeatedly envisions political hellscapes in which a complacent majority seeks and destroys nonconformists. When there is a happy ending, it is because a special individual has overthrown the system; when there is an unhappy one, it is because the system has won. Bodysnatching is also an ever-present paranoia, and time and again the twist is that who you thought was a human was actually alien, or machine, or hallucination (or, in some cases, vice versa). New technology mostly serves to yoke people to an authoritarian mass. The self is forever at risk. Though such themes are always relevant, they became tropes of dystopian fiction in midcentury—amid anxieties about totalitarianism, spies, and the humanity of the dissident.

Black Mirror, by contrast, is largely worried with how the individual might overpower the group to horrifying effect. Whereas Electric Dreams’ characters constantly struggle to retain their individuality in the face of social pressure, Black Mirror is populated with self-indulgers and sociopaths who use tech to build their own personal virtual autocracies (over digital clones via VR or over a teen via text message) and hold entire nations hostage (with hacking or hashtags). Brooker’s normal folks become supervillains, and his power dynamics are, well, more about power rather than about social difference: Victims include children, criminals, and sentient AI. When Brooker does envision fascist-seeming societies (“Nosedive,” “Fifteen Million Merits,” “White Bear”), they are policed by citizens granted a share of control—and sapped of empathy—by devices. Brief flashes of care for others are usually in service of a cruel punchline enabled by supposedly helpful machines (“Hang the DJ,” “Metalhead”).

Black Mirror’s concerns make sense in an era of incessant personal branding and lone-wolf mass shootings. But we’re now also in an era when anti-democratic tendencies have regained a foothold in Western politics, and when collective-identity anxiety—other-ism of all sorts—is more explicit again. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, aptly refurbished a previous period’s conformist nightmare for today’s, and the best episodes of the patchy Electric Dreams try something similar. “Safe and Sound” amplifies the post-9/11 security state with personal gadgetry for a disturbing twist on high-school social climbing. “The Hood Maker” ditches the digital for a steampunk tableau in which telepaths create a loose parable for present-day privacy wars. “K.A.O.” amusingly stages a near-future satire in which the doping of the masses is utterly compatible with micro-targeted capitalism.

Such stories are more attentive than Black Mirror is to the notion that people can be manipulated by institutions—an old but newly potent concern when one group of Americans wonders if a foreign state has hijacked democracy and the other wonders if the deep state has. Reassuringly (if a bit banally), Electric Dreams also insist that individual acts of bravery and compassion make a difference in the face of conspiracies and numbing tech. Old-fashioned ideals and follies, Electric Dreams tries to say, can still inform relevant sci-fi.

It’s a shame that argument, with its implication of revolutionary can-do, will be undercut by simple problems of quality. Electric Dreams has the unmistakable feel of TV for TV’s sake, hemmed by budgetary and formal constraints. Its space voyages and machine labs are of the flimsy and hokey sort, never inspiring the awe or cool stylishness that Black Mirror so effectively borrowed from movies. The dialogue, too, is often high-minded but clunky. “If sacrifice, kindness, and love is not the ultimate test of what makes somewhat human, then what is?” announces one character in “Human Is,” an episode of Electric Dreams set on a militarized, ice-age version of Earth in the year 2520. It’s a lovely thought suggesting that even a bleak future can involve moral progress—but it’d be more convincing if the show around it felt like the entertainment of the present.