‘Autofac’ is a short story written by Philip K Dick in 1955 which can be found in Gollancz’s Minority Report: Volume Four of the Collected Short Stories along with the short story that inspired the Tom Cruise film.
‘Autofac’ is the story of a group of survivors living outside of Kansas City in a post-apocalyptical setting. On a daily basis an automated delivery truck delivers consumer goods to their doorstep. These goods come from an automated factory deep underground which has been operating under its own steam for years since the nuclear holocaust killed most of mankind.
Mutant creatures roam the wasteland while the humans try to scratch an existence and become self-sufficient without the autofac’s help which is in actual fact using up the Earth’s natural resources at an alarming rate. In some sense I guess the story, which covers about twenty pages, could be seen as an allegory for Western consumerism.
The band of survivors try to communicate with the autofac to get it to shut down. When this fails they instead figure out that the thing that’s in shortest supply, the resource that all the autofacs spread across America are looking for, is tungsten. So they stockpile it and place it equidistant from two of the factories. As a result they trigger a war between the factories. Consumer goods production is halted in favour of the factories creating weaponry to fight each other.
The war escalates until, it seems, the autofac is destroyed. The humans get into the factory to investigate only to find that at the lowest level, undamaged from the war between the machines, some production is still ongoing. They discover that the factory is producing and emitting pods into the atmosphere. These pods containing miniaturised machines that build their own mini-autofacs and so ultimately will self-replicate.
The technology in the short story is rather dumb, running as it does on fixed routines, and unusually for Philip K Dick the story does not feature any human-like AI.
The television adaptation shown recently as part of the Sony Pictures Television/Channel 4 produced anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams is a rather different kettle of fish. While it keeps the main premise – that automated factories need to be switched off – the emphasis is more on the pollution they are causing and as the story plays out we find that writer Travis Beacham has been reading more PKD stuff than just the short story.
The main character, Emily, excellently played by Juno Temple, is plagued by odd flashbacks and is a whizz at hacking into the drone programming unit they scavenged from a drone they shot down. They use it to log a customer services call echoing the ‘pizzled’ complaint of the original written version. A customer rep turns up and, unlike the short story in which the robot is not particularly bright or human-like, she is a full-blown simulcra. She’s called Alice and she’s played by Janelle Monae who has recently been in Hidden Figures and Moonlight.
Anyone familiar with PKD’s canon of work will know that simulcra feature a lot more than the classic replicants featured in Blade Runner. Simulcra are PKD’s go-to androids usually indistinguishable from humans.
In this version the simulcra is quite robotic and obviously artificial. Emily zaps it in the head with a taser and then tries to hack it’s programming. Instead she manages to persuade it to let three humans into the autofac to plant conveniently scavenged low-yield nuclear warheads to blow it up. She kisses her librarian boyfriend goodbye and hops onto the big drone with her buddies feeling that this might be a one-way trip.
Inside the autofac, which looks like a giant Amazon warehouse, the team split up and it gets a little sci-fi generic for a bit. One of the chaps is stalked by a Predator-like robot and gets his head chopped off. Meanwhile Emily finds out she is a simulcra and the customer services rep plugs her into the autofac mainframe and fiddles about with an interface lifted out of Minority Report. There’s some burbling about anomalies and how the autofac has created simulcra installations after mankind was wiped out which reminded me a lot of the architect’s ramblings out of The Matrix films.
Ha ha! But this was the plan all along. Emily knew she was a simulcra and has planted some malware into her artificial brain to bring down the autofac Independence Day-stylee. It’s actually quite a nice twist and a great nod to PKD’s other work and underlying theme – if AI is so perfect to be indistinguishable from human does that make it human?
This was the second of the batch of episodes we didn’t get to see on Channel 4 last year, with ‘Father Thing‘ being the first, and I have so far been pleasantly surprised.