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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick, Del Rey, 1996, 244 pp. (originally published in 1968)
Philip K. Dick was a fascinating, prolific writer who had a troubled life and died just before his fame began to build (see my column on his life for more details). Since his death, all of his books have been reprinted and his early non-science-fiction published for the first time. He never wrote sequels, and most of his books carried his trademark theme: reality is fluid, not dependable, subject to manipulations by the powerful, and so forth (Now Wait for Last Year, a story of a conflict between humans and aliens, is a good example). Many of his books are also essentially religious in nature -- Galactic Pot Healer tells a haunting story of good and evil and humans caught in the machinations of superior beings -- and Dick claimed that he received a divine revelation (see VALIS). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep has become one of Dick's most famous works, partly due to the slow-starting but enduring success of Blade Runner, a loose adaptation of the book. I've always enjoyed The Man in the High Castle (winner of the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel) the best of all of Dick's books, with this book as a close second.
San Francisco in 2021 is a sad place to live; World War Terminus has left radioactive dust all over the planet, and most people have emigrated to live on off-world colonies. Those left behind face the chance of losing their right to procreate due to genetic abnormalities. Another threat is the return of rogue androids from the colonies; although the book never explains why androids want to come back to Earth so urgently (unlike the movie, which offers a compelling explanation), something has to be done about their presence. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter living in San Francisco, and his job is to find any androids on the loose and "retire" them. The book opens with an argument between Deckard and his wife one morning, as they bicker about how they should set their mood that day with their mood organs. The first chapter also has a conversation between Deckard and his neighbour about their respective animals; most animals are extinct, but his neighbour owns a rare Percheron horse. Deckard's own sheep has died recently and he had it replaced by an electric version rather than let on to anyone. With these two items, Dick has already established the pervasive mood of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: reality, appearance, perception, paranoia about all of the above, and the desperate struggle to get by on Earth.
The second chapter establishes the other central character of the book: John Isidore. While Isidore doesn't receive the same attention as Deckard, he is the subject of a number of viewpoint chapters. Isidore is a "special," one of those humans who has been affected mentally and physically by the degenerating environment of Earth. He lives on his own in a deserted conapt, working as best he can at a job as a delivery driver; his workplace, the Van Ness Pet Hospital, poses as a real veterinarian outfit in order to avoid embarrassing the owners of fake animals. This chapter gives some background material on the world of this future, as well as on Mercerism. Mercer is a strange media/spiritual figure, and no one knows his true origin; a device called the empathy box will connect anyone with Mercer if you grab the two handles of it. Mercer as an old man is trying to climb a hill; rocks, thrown at Mercer by shadowy people off to the side of this pseudo-reality, sometimes cause damage in real life to the users of the empathy box. Buster Friendly, introduced later, is a broad satire of the talk show host, and Buster is out to undermine Mercerism in some way, making the practice seem even more important.
Because android technology is very advanced, Deckard's job as a bounty hunter becomes an existential one, a series of decisions about other people's human-ness based on available information. He has only one reliable test: the Voigt-Kampff, which measures involuntary reactions to questions about empathy, the quality that androids lack. Of course, Deckard doesn't always have time to do the test! Dick puts two of his fundamental concerns, reality and ethics, to good use in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in this precise way. In fact, the storyline of escaped androids and bounty hunters at first seems like a clothes hanger to hold much more interesting speculation, but Dick generates most of the uncertainty and dread through the story. Every twist and turn makes Deckard less sure of where he stands and what he should do next. In the meantime, some of the androids that he is hunting have found shelter with Isidore, taking advantage of Isidore's confusion about real and artificial lifeforms.
The heart of the novel is perhaps Mercerism. The empathy box brings you to oneness with Wilbur Mercer, but you can do nothing for Mercer, except to feel empathy for his plight, and walk with him in his path. The androids are damned because they feel no empathy. This is made abundantly clear in the brilliant scene where the remaining three androids mutilate a spider while listening to Buster Friendly's exposé of Mercer. "Mercerism is a swindle!" (210) proclaims Friendly, and the androids agree, as they snip the legs from the spider's body, one by one. Later, Mercer incarnate visits Deckard, to help him kill the androids. Does this mean that Deckard's mission becomes a religious crusade? Perhaps, but if he feels for the androids he kills, then he is human. But this makes him less trustworthy for the job. Lack of empathy damns, but having the moral dimension of empathy does not mean your actions are correct either: "As Mercer said, I am required to do wrong. Everything I've done has been wrong from the start" (225-226). The question of non-interference versus compassion that dominates much discussion in science fiction (such as Star Trek's Prime Directive or the similar issues in Tepper's Raising the Stones) seems crude in comparison to this distinction, and its qualifications. The Prime Directive satisfies the human need to be assured that our actions are correct. Dick shows us damnation, and then shows us that skirting a course clear of it is never easy. And not always possible.
Movie Note: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a rare science fiction novel in that it has an adaptation in movie form, Blade Runner; even rarer, in that Blade Runner is actually a strong movie in its own right, adapting the best bits of the book and creating interesting situations of its own. The movie makes potent use of the atmospherics of the source material, discarding the majority of the plot. While reading the book this time just after watching the movie, I occasionally did come across passages that were closer than expected. For example: "Rick said, 'A humanoid robot is like any other machine; it can fluctuate between being a benefit and a hazard very rapidly. As a benefit it's not our problem'" (40). This is quoted directly in the movie during the first meeting between Deckard and Rachael, the same scene as in the book. See my review of Blade Runner for more details about the adaptation.
Sequel Note: Dick himself never wrote sequels, but following the success of the movie adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as Blade Runner, several sequels were written by K.W. Jeter (Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human and Blade Runner: Replicant Night, both published by Bantam Spectra). These two books are sequels to the movie rather than the book. For example: the events of The Edge of Human take place soon after the movie ends; Deckard is hiding out up north, keeping watch over the cryogenically preserved body of Rachael, awakening her only one day a month. Sarah Tyrell, the human model of the Rachael series, arrives to give Deckard a new job: track down the sixth replicant, the one mentioned by Bryant in the movie, but never killed (the sixth replicant was written out of the movie for budget reasons, but Bryant's scene where he mentions the six replicants had already been shot). I wish Jeter had constructed a new type of story for Deckard; as it stands, it seems like a rehash of the movie. Unfortunately, Replicant Night has this same sense of similarity; the action even begins on the set of a movie being shot about Deckard's life. Dave Holden delivers a talking briefcase, around which the plot centres, and he happens to get killed in the recreation of the Leon interrogation scene at the beginning of the movie. Jeter brings in some new material about an interstellar spaceship, but it's too little too late.
First posted: October 14, 1997; Last modified: January 22, 2004
Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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