Human Is, by Philip K Dick, is one of my favourite short stories. I re-read it recently as part of the Electric Dreams anthology, with prefaces by the writers who adapted various short stories for TV. It examines McCarthy style witch hunts, authoritarian states and what it means to be human.
Jill Herrick is trapped in a loveless marriage with the inhumanly cold Lester, a cruel and emotionless scientist. He threatens to to dissect their nephew Gus’ pet cat, and wants her to turn the boy over to government custody. He leaves to produce toxins on Rexor 4 and she resolves to end the marriage when he gets back. But upon his return, Lester is a different man.
He thanks their robot servant, appreciates Jill’s cooking, plays with little Gus. He slacks off at work and becomes both attentive and romantic. Jill’s brother Frank eventually arrests him, but they need Jill’s testimony for execution. On the way to the holding facility, Frank explains that the ‘real’ Lester is in a Rexorian tank and that they should be able to restore him, ending the ‘nightmare’ she’s been living under.
At the facility, the Director asks Jill to detail the changes she has noticed in Lester. Contemplating the prospect of a lifetime with her actual husband, Jill smiles and says, “That’s odd… I haven’t noticed any change.”
The story ends with the couple walking arm in arm in a rich spring evening, with Jill asking for Lester’s real name.
The Electric Dreams adaptation of Human Is has received mixed reviews, but I loved it. Adapted by Jessica Mecklenburg, it was billed as being the most similar to it’s source material – which is probably why reviews were mixed. While P.K. Dick has inspired so much sci-fi, his actual stories and novels tend to be slower paced and suffused with melancholy.
In the adaptation, housewife Jill is transformed into strategic director Vera – a good move with the work of an author who could envision time travel, mind control and AI powered drones, but not a woman with a professional job. Her husband is a cold, brutal, highly decorated Colonel named Silas, who is conducting missions to loot resources from an alien race. Their marriage, a result of a state mandated procreation agreement, is miserable, and the episode portrays Vera’s loneliness and despair beautifully.
As in the story, Silas returns from Rexor 4 a different man. It is desperately sad that Vera is almost immediately suspicious – because he makes her tea. The sort of common courtesy you’d expect from a colleague or housemate practically reduces her to tears.
When the state becomes suspicious and drags him out of bed in the middle of the night, it results in a kangaroo court that they assume will only have one outcome. When Vera claims that Silas has not been taken by a Rexorian, her own adjunct, Yaro, tearfully testifies against her. This was a masterful scene that can be interpreted in several ways. The first is that Yaro is saddened by the necessity, but feels her duty is to denounce her beloved mentor. The second could simply be an ambitious underling seeking promotion. The third could be one of unrequited love; to Yaro, the betrayal was not that Vera had gone against the state; the betrayal was that Vera loved her husband.
The trial ends with Silas offering to sacrifice himself for Vera, and Vera giving an impassioned speech that his willingness to do so proves he isn’t a Rexorian. Like the book, the episode concludes with Vera asking Silas what his real name is.
In the End
I love to summarise this as the story where a woman has her husband replaced by an alien… and prefers the alien. But it’s more than that; a touching, poignant look at the nature of humanity, and the value of appreciating simple joys in life. The new Lester is excited by coffee, enjoys building a toy for a child, luxuriates in a spring evening. The new Silas seeks out black market strawberries for his wife, and half the joy for him is her enjoyment. In the adaptation, Vera realises her new, alien husband would literally die for her; her human husband wouldn’t even take her calls. It’s hard to blame either iteration for choosing kindness and joy over duty to a cold and unfeeling State.
“The quality of kindness, to me, distinguishes us from rocks and sticks and metal, and will forever, whatever shape we take, wherever we go, whatever we become. For me, ”Human Is“ is my credo. May it be yours.” – Philip K Dick