Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Posted: March 8, 2018 in Book reviews, science fiction
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isbn9781473222687.jpgBy Philip K. Dick

In the future (ok it’s 1992 but it was the future when this was written, ok) and World War Terminus has devastated much of the Earth. With the atmosphere polluted by radiation mass emigration to off-world colonies has begun, with the human emigres incentivised by the presence of humanoid robots (or Andys as they’re known) to provide slave labour and satisfy humanity’s every whim. Those left behind on Earth struggle to survive, taking solace in the ability to dial moods, and to connect with the Christlike figure of Wilber Mercer via the use of empathy boxes. In this world bereft of so much flora and fauna the greatest status symbol you can possess is an animal, preferably a real one but if not an android animal will do.

In San Francisco Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter employed to hunt down and retire (a polite term for kill) andys that have gone rogue. When six highly advanced Nexus-6 andys arrive on Earth, having violently escaped Mars, Deckard is given the task of tracking them down. But few bounty hunters have ever retired six replicants in a single day, and never the Nexus-6 models, andys built by the Rosen Association that are so advanced that even Deckard’s Voight-Kampff empathy test might not pick them up…

 

As a fan of Blade Runner, it’s hard not to be interested in the source material. I had read this before, but that was many, many years ago. To be honest I didn’t much enjoy it first time around but, having picked up a copy free with the Blu-ray of Blade Runner 2049, I thought I might give it another go.

Whilst I still wouldn’t call it a great novel, I have to admit that I enjoyed it more second time around, and it made a lot more sense to me. There are many parts of the book that ended up in the film, Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test on Rachel is word for word in places, but in many other respects this is a very different beast.

For starters the term Blade Runner is never used, Deckard is merely a bounty hunter, and Replicant isn’t used either. It’s hard to imagine how the term Blade Runner first sounded, because now its iconic, but it’s hard to say that using the term replicant isn’t a huge improvement on andy!

Whilst animals—real and fake—play their part in the film, their importance isn’t highlighted as much as here, and their existence in both organic and artificial form feeds into Dick’s wider story about empathy. Deckard feels empathy towards animals, and even his robot sheep, yet he, along with everyone else, sees no contradiction in fawning over animals yet having no empathy for humanoid robots, and one of the major strands of the book is Deckard’s growing empathy towards the Nexus-6s he’s hunting.

Another change is that here Deckard is married, to a woman named Iran with whom he has a fractious relationship, although Rachel is still involved in the mix, only here she’s Rachel Rosen; there’s no Tyrell Corporation, only the Rosen Association (interesting side note, in 1975 an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker featured a killer robot built by the Tyrell Institute!)

In many ways Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a product of its time; whilst there are some female characters of note, in Deckard’s world they’re mainly secretaries rather than cops or bounty hunters, and even the female andys have feminine roles. Dick’s world building is at times really good, and at others quite laughable (men have to wear lead lined codpieces because of all of the radiation.).

The prose is variable. At times it’s quite wonderful, and at others its dreadfully clunky. There’s a palpable lack of tension at times too. Many of the Nexus-6s become quite passive when they’re about to be retired, resigned to their fate—no beating at the hands of Leon or being hunted by a deranged Rutger Hauer here—and it does tend to suck the drama out of things, but then I guess Dick was more interested in meditating on empathy than producing a thrilling detective novel.

For a story about empathy the book still feels a trifle lifeless to me, and too often it wanders off down dead ends to do with Mercerism when what you really want is for Deckard to go andy hunting, but it’s surprising how much of this does translate to the film, even down to the notion that Deckard might be an andy himself (though this strand is resolved rather than being left open as it is in the film) and a trip to a mysterious alternative police precinct existing side by side with Deckard’s is a wonderful mind-bender of a plot twist.

It’s a tad old fashioned and clunky, but this is a more interesting book than I once thought, even if its main significance is as the basis for a film I love way more than I could ever love the book.

Comments
  1. I had a similar reaction to you when I first read this book.

    Then, I read up on it some more. There’s a lot more depth to it than what most people get from their first read.

    What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be an animal? Entropy, and how overtime, we drift apart… care less… I’m just touching the surface here, but I highly encourage you to look up some of the themes. It might make you appreciate it a bit more.

    • starkers70 says:

      Oh absolutely and that’s probably why I enjoyed it ,more the second time around. I think really my issues are around Dick’s prose, it’s just very clunky, like it needed another draft, you know? But yeah it’s far deeper than I originally took it to be.

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