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Amazon's new anthology series 'Electric Dreams' deftly examines familiar sci-fi ground

Amazon's new anthology series 'Electric Dreams' deftly examines familiar sci-fi ground
Geraldine Chaplin is a woman who wants to see Earth in "The Impossible Planet," an episode of Amazon's "Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams." (Christopher Raphael)

If you have burned through the latest season of Netflix's hot sci-fi anthology "Black Mirror" and are looking for more glossily rendered stories of other worlds to disturb your life, Amazon has got a series for you. "Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams" — you may note in the title a reference to Dick's novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," the basis for "Blade Runner" — adapts 10 stories from a writer already much adapted. (The films "Minority Report," "Total Recall," "A Scanner Darkly" and "The Adjustment Bureau" and the Amazon series "The Man in the High Castle" all descend from Dick works.)

There are of course many great novels and sprawling series within the science-fiction literature, going back to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and serial fictions dominate television here in the early 21st century. But there is something about the short story, with its thought-experiment nature — the working out of a particular idea about where we are and where we're going and what that new gizmo is going to do to us — that proves particularly fit for sci-fi. (Indeed, series like "The X-Files," "Doctor Who" and "Star Trek" are all essentially short story collections.) More sci-fi anthologies are even now rocketing toward Earth, reviving earlier anthologies: a new "Twilight Zone" from CBS All Access, with Jordan Peele attached, an Apple reboot of Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories."

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Like "Black Mirror," the series originated in the U.K. — at Channel 4 in each case — and features a host of recognizable actors from here and over there, including Bryan Cranston, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Geraldine Chaplin, Timothy Spall, Julia Davis, Steve Buscemi and Greg Kinnear. There are American settings and British ones.

We are anxious creatures, which our storytelling belies; we face our fears to allay or inflame them, for relief or for fun. New technologies bring new terrors — some prehistoric version of a showrunner doubtless had spine-chilling stories to tell of Science Gone Too Far, involving the wheel or fire or the obsidian arrowhead.

Anyone who has sat through a "Twilight Zone" marathon or two, or seen a season of "The X-Files," will find themselves on familiar ground. "The Father-Thing" is "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" from its head down to its tendrils; the question "Am I, modern-day game designer, dreaming I'm a futuristic female detective, or a futuristic female detective dreaming I'm a 21st-century game designer" at the nub of "Real Life" goes back, in essence, thousands of years to the old man-butterfly conundrum of Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi.

There are twist endings, inevitably — being a feature of short stories in general and science-fiction in particular — though you may be surprised that some of these surprises are even presented as surprises, so unsurprising are they.

Juno Temple, top, deals with post-apocalyptic customer service with Janelle Monáe in "Autofac," an episode of "Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams."
Juno Temple, top, deals with post-apocalyptic customer service with Janelle Monáe in "Autofac," an episode of "Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams." (Parrish Lewis)

What's of interest here, then, is how the stories have been brought to life. Are they fun to watch? Do they give you a little chill, even when you know what's coming? Those especially attached to Dick's writing will judge them by the cleverness or aptness of the adaptations, though I'm guessing most viewers will see them fresh.

Some of the stories adapted here are 60 years old, making updates unavoidable: Dick's 1955 "Foster, You're Dead!," a story about bomb shelters and consumerism, for example, has been massaged into "Safe and Sound," about terrorism and surveillance, though in each case with a teenage protagonist at odds with a skeptical parent. And even the freest adaptations — "Crazy Diamond," adapted from Dick's "Sales Pitch," by Terry Gilliam collaborator Tony Grisoni, works in Syd Barrett on vinyl, a pig-human hybrid and a plot that owes more to James M. Cain than to Dick — take names, settings and ideas from Dick's texts.

Some are set in space, some in a mostly recognizable Earthly present, some in a future that looks futuristic, some in one that looks antique. That each episode comes with different screenwriters and a different director keeps the series atmospherically unpredictable from episode to episode; it has its better moments and its lesser, but enough of the former to recommend it.

Unless your mind is very fresh to these subjects, it will not be blown, but that is not to say you won't fret over the fate of the characters, or feel their feelings, or hope for the hopeful rather than hopeless outcome. (You will get both sorts of conclusion, in more or less equal portions.) And there is still power in the old, repeated questions: What is real? Does something have a hold of my mind? What makes a human human, and what's so great about people, anyway? What will the world look like after the end of the world? That no one has managed a definitive answer keeps the quandaries fresh.

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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