‘Safe and Sound’ was the third in the final batch of episodes of the anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams recently shown in the UK on Channel 4 and was an adaptation of 1955’s short story ‘Foster, You-re Dead’ which spans eighteen pages of Gollancz’s The Father-Thing: Volume Three of the Collected Short Stories. The collection also features the stories ‘The Father-thing‘, ‘Sales Pitch‘ and ‘Exhibit Piece’ which were also adapted as part of this television series.
The short story features school kid Mike Foster whose family does not have a bomb shelter and does not contribute to the preparedness of their town. Mike’s dad runs a failing wooden furniture shop and can’t afford the payments. The year is 1971 and after school Mike gazes in the window of the General Electrics store at the shiny new ’72 model family bunker that’s on show.
Like ‘Autofac‘, the story is a commentary on Western consumerist culture in the shadow of a nuclear war (which by the time of ‘Autofac’ has already played out). It is an extension of the early Cold War paranoia which was around at the time PKD was writing many of his stories. It features some hi-tech household gadgets like a dining table that also washes the pots but some cute anachronisms like data tapes – which actually fit okay for 1971 but don’t really match up with PKD’s vision for other technological advances.
The Russians are developing more and more clever weapons and the whole town is mobilised to be ready for the impending war. School lessons revolve around trap making, digging for scrap and making simple weapons. Mike’s family are the only family in town that doesn’t have a bunker or contribute 30% of their income to the town’s defences.
Mike’s dad finally cracks under the pressure despite his views that the ‘buy or die’ sales pitch is just one big conspiracy by manufacturers to sell you more stuff you don’t need. He buys the ’72 model. Mike is overjoyed and loves to spend time down in the bunker after school safe and sound inside the metal womb.
However, Mike’s joy is short-lived. His dad can’t keep up the payments and the bunker is repossessed. He will have to use the public bunker for 50 cents should the war ever happen.
The television adaptation is so far removed from the source material that it is pretty much unrecognisable. As with a lot of the episodes in the Electric Dreams series it frustrates me greatly to see these superb little nuggets of sci-fi mangled and repurposed for the ‘modern era’. Why, I ask, couldn’t we have seen an alternate 1970s ‘period piece’? After all, well-observed alt-reality has been done to great effect with The Man in the High Castle.
Instead in ‘Safe and Sound’, Foster (Annalise Basso) is a small-town girl from the Midwest who moves to a futuristic Eastern city for a year with her mum (Maura Tierney who you might recognise from the Jim Carey film Liar Liar). Foster is quickly immersed in the city’s extreme focus on homeland security and anti-terrorism. You see in this alt-reality the USA is divided into the two elite coasts and ‘the bubbles’. The bubbles are set in Middle America and are supposedly the source of all the potential terrorists.
So the bad guys aren’t the Russians, they’re home-grown – it’s an angle that is probably assumed to most stoke the paranoia of modern Americans and therefore provide the most drama for modern viewers – you only have to watch the lumbering televisual dinosaur that is Homeland to see how it works. The common thread between the source text and the adaptation is the manipulation of thoughts of not being safe in your own home(land) to drive another agenda – be it commercial or political. Ring any bells?
The plot revolves around the wearable technology called a DEX (essentially a government tracking device) and so it’s as close as Electric Dreams gets to the far superior Black Mirror. The annoyingly voiced Ethan from DEX customer support (those guys again!) talks to Foster through some ear gel. He convinces her to fake a terrorist attack on her school which leaves her human rights activist mother incarcerated and gives the SIMI corporation and the government an excuse to make it mandatory for all students to wear DEXs and continue their ‘monopoly on reality’.
A messy sublayer of the storytelling has us wondering if Foster has inherited mental health issues from her father and is in fact imagining the voices in her head. A very clumsy few minutes of back story at the end of the show reveals that Foster has indeed been manipulated – just in case viewers were too dumb to figure it out.
While the television episode covered lots of interesting topics such as fake news, the role of fear and communication in politics, I found it all rather badly executed and rather patronising.
I would’ve much rather seen a faithful adaptation of the original short story. And I guess that’s what dicks me off (‘scuse pun) about the whole Electric Dreams series – being a huge fan of PKD I don’t feel that they’ve really done his work justice. It’s a bit of an embarrassment truth be told.