Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? by Dick, P.K., 1968

Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? by Dick, P.K. - Book cover from

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Ive noticed in the past that most people have either one of two reactions about Philip K. Dick when I bring him up in conversation. Now, I'm talking about genre and non-genre readers alike here. They either say that they love him, or they ask, "who?" Without fail, after hearing the second optional answer there, I remind them that he wrote the book that Blade Runner is based on, which was called Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?" That seems to trip the universal recognition switch in their brains, but Ive personally never been able to figure out if I'm prompting their memories about PKD, or if I'm evoking a truly awesome movie. Probably that latter, but that often does not stop me from talking their ears off about PKD. And even for me, someone who is not the biggest PKD fan in the world, that mostly one-sided conversation can go on for over an hour sometimes, depending on how pliant my fellow converser is!

I would never go so far as to say that PKD is a one-trick pony. His mid-career novels clearly display a complexity and richness that easily justifies the claims that hes one of the best the genre has ever produced. And while I am personally fascinated with critical endeavors in SF, I have never been trained and am thus personally limited pretty much to doing a popular analysis. From that point of view, many of PKD's novels may cut the mustard just fine, but don't really rise to the top of the jar on their own. There are exceptions, of course. The Man in the High Castle is one of my favorite novels of all time, never mind that its also one of the best alternate history novels ever penned, and its a critic's darling. I also love A Scanner Darkly (and the recent movie that came from it), and the Valis cycle, that also includes The Divine Invasion and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Ubik, Confessions of a Crap Artist, The Game-Players of Titan, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are all on my list to be included on these pages eventually. Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? easily deserves a place on this list, whether I say so or not. Its the story of a mid-level San Francisco cop; A bounty hunter named Rick Deckard who is paid a bonus on top of his measly salary for "retiring," illegally escaped androids who have tried to blend anonymously into society. I know that most of you have at least seen the movie, so Ill try to hit the big differences from the source material, and comment on PKD's style a bit.

The reality of the novel is somewhat different from all the versions of the movie. In the book most of humanity has either been killed or driven off planet by radioactive dust that was released in a recent war. I don't think that there were ever any nuclear exchanges, but cities all stand half empty and the suburbs are a barren wasteland. The US and Russia are getting along, and regularly trade knowledge to deal with the android threat.

After the war most of the animals on the planet were killed. Now it is considered a great honor to own a live animal, and great time, attention and love go into the care of whatever you are lucky enough to own. The android companies have stepped up and will sell you an android animal, but owning one of those is considered shameful, as you are not doing your part to care for something rare and beautiful. In this world a political movement called Mercerism has taken hold of the people' hearts, but is not yet the model for government. Mercerism, the dominant social theory of the day, seems to be rooted in communism, as it preaches equal distribution of live animals. But more than that, and somewhat self contradictorily, it seems to me to be a retooling of the age old "us versus them" mentality. That is to say, Mercerism emphasizes empathy, but only practices it to a degree. People can connect to each other indirectly through paddles connected to their television sets. When one is connected to others out there, it seems to equalize one's emotions, and spreads extreme emotions among the many users who are on line. When you are linked thus with others, you are said to be fused with Mercer, who is a odd Jesus-type. Ultimately Mercerism seems to me to be a method of control of a highly stressed population, but its also probably a tool to try to repair some of the damage done to the human psyche by the war, called World War Terminus and its aftermath. Mercerism essentially emphasizes and enhances empathy. But as a contradictory side effect, it causes people to want to destroy that which cannot feel empathy. In this society that is only androids, as the real humans seem to be pretty amped up on empathy. This is where Deckard comes in. He uses a tool called the Voight-Kampff scale to measure empathetic reactions in his subjects to root out those who lack empathy for the situations he describes. Those who react incorrectly are androids, and he may retire them for a bounty.

The irony in this book is that the only places the androids were allowed were the colony worlds. They were pretty much immune to the radioactive dust, so the best good that they could have done probably was on Earth. In fact, I think its fair to say that nature was in the process of selecting them to survive in the earth environment, and was well on its way to weeding us and all other animals out of the collective gene pool. Humans seemed to be getting dumber and dumber as the years went on too, and were not even aware that androids had taken over significant roles in earth society already. For example, there was a show on called Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends that aired 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, always with the same faces. Buster Friendly was a very subtle enemy of Mercerism, and even went so far as to successfully discredit it by the end of the book. He was obviously an android, and nobody ever called him on it or tried to retire him. Instead Deckard just went for the obvious ones that the papers he had told him about. The Nexus-6 he retired were all chemists, garbage collectors and the like. Ordinary-type people who just wanted to escape slavery and live their own lives. And in this is a stellar example of two of PKD's most important motifs: The destruction of the little guy by the big system, and the eroding of reality by subjective truth. These are things that turn up time and time again in his work. PKD usually took the second motif to extremes. For example, mandatory LSD dosing during teenage years in The Unteleported Man. But in this book it is compounded by the mental damage that the fallout has done to just about everybody. In addition to subjective truth, PKD also seems to enjoy throwing characters into manufactured situations and lies. The effect of all of it is a little dizzying at times, but the only real way to get it is to read a PKD book.

I often wonder what went into PKD's consideration when he was writing a book. He must have had a pretty chaotic mind because when he picked up a topic or an issue in one of his books, he attacked it from every angle before wrapping up. This book is no exception. I think that PKD's books probably confuse some. I had to read it a few times before I had this level of understanding, and I still cant even communicate to you in my own words what PKD is all about. I think its safe to say that he is an institution unto himself, and that is probably why all the critics seem to love him. But whatever they say, many of his books have lots of popular appeal, and this is definitely one of them. Four-and-a-half out of five stars.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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