That’s no human!
PKD asks what ‘Human Is’
Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams Episode 3: “Human Is”
Based on Philip K. Dick’s short story by the same name
Episode Directed by Francesca Gregorini
Episode Written by Jessica Mecklenburg
Series by Channel 4
Can be found on Amazon Video
This is the third part of my episode-by-episode review and analysis of the new Channel 4 television show Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. The episode I’m looking at this week is called “Human is,” 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:
These two renditions are, excitingly, near identical (save some minor modifications and embellishments), making for a near perfect adaptation of the short story to TV show.
The story takes place on Earth, centuries in the future. Mankind has been militaristically colonizing the stars for a significant portion of that time, which requires ever deadlier tactics. At the centre of these is Jill Herrick and her (abusive and low-key inhuman) husband, Lester. In the show, Jill is a decorated strategic officer, and Lester is a high-ranking soldier who uses battle trauma as an excuse for his abusive behavior; in the book Lester is a (rather heartless) scientist designing new poisons for the military, and Jill is a housewife (as per the 1955 publishing date).
In the show, Lester is sent on a desperate mission to Rexor IV, a planet of poorly-understood parasitic life forms (known to take over the minds of their hosts to survive, imitating them fairly accurately), rich with resources vital to replenishing the Earth’s dying oxygen and mineral supply. In the book, Lester is abruptly ordered to go to Rexor IV, an ancient world, completely dead save the last remnants of a civilization, squatting in the ruins of its height, who only recently worked out how to pass themselves off as humans — by kidnapping a model to copy.
During Lester’s time on Rexor, Jill makes up her mind that she will leave him, that she will not put up with his abuse any longer.
In both media, Lester returns as a newer, kinder man, which immediately sparks Jill’s suspicions. Reporting the change to the relevant authorities, she finds out that her husband is not the only recent case of falling prey to the Rexorians (in the show, she thinks Lester and his crew died in the fight to leave Rexor IV with the material, but Lester and one other crewman come back, both infected). Indeed, the other cases were quickly noted and exterminated by the military without trial, but because her husband is on Earth (in the book, as opposed to in space, where military law applies, rather than civilian law), or a high-ranking officer (in the show), he must stand normal trial, for which she must testify against him.
In the time leading up to the trial, she finds the new Lester to be similar to the old one, but kinder, gentler, more human. So much does she find him to her liking, that she refuses to testify that his behavior has changed (in the show, this is more manifest in her giving a moving speech using the negative stereotypes of the Rexorians as merciless and inhuman against the court as she gives evidence of his humanity), rekindling their dead marriage.
The final lines of both media are the same, in which Lester admits to not being human, but could not pronounce his Rexorian name with a human mouth, so Jill opts to just accept him as Lester, the human.
The book makes a strong point for the idea that humans are often more inhumane than other life which is by definition inhumane. The Rexorians learned everything about Earth that they could from centuries-old broadcasts and novellas and mapped their own being onto the human culture, showing how human they can be, over the hyper-analytical, abusive, twisted mind of a poison-creating, child-hating, ever-angry scientist who is unquestionably human, but invariably inhumane. Can we become so warlike and so analytical that aliens could be “better” humans, or is it that we should accept aliens as sentient beings, even if their methods are strange to us?
The show takes a few steps to obfuscate these questions and their answers (probably to pad runtime). Firstly, it more directly addresses the theme of imperialism by letting us, the viewers, into the military’s control room — letting us see the frantic, greedy, desperate moves leading to the events of the episode. Then, letting us into the courtroom to see how a society can look fair even if the outcome was decided long before the trial began (even if in this case the outcome changed, making hope for a broken system).
Rather uncomfortably, there is also the sexual undertone of the episode, made so by the Jill and Lester being middle-aged and having a sex scene in the second act to show rekindled love. This, as well as the rather gratuitious cyberpunk live porno theatre that Jill goes to in the first act to show her sexual dissatisfaction, felt awkward and slightly forced. However, these scenes did drive some plot points: the scarcity of oxygen for commoners is shown on our way to the wierd porno club, and Lester’s arrest under suspicion of having been replaced happens in the bedroom, catalyzing Jill’s suspicions of the military in favor of keeping Lester.
Next week is “Crazy Diamond,” based on the love-it-or-hate-it short story “Sales Pitch.”