By Philip K Dick
Reviewed by Alan Green
The Earth has been nearly destroyed by war. Most people have escaped to the off-world colonies; lured by the promise of a new life and the offer of free android slaves to keep them company and to help them tame the wilderness. Every now and again an android kills its master and runs away. They often head for the Earth in the hope that amongst the chaos of a post-apocalyptic world they will be able to pass as human. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter hired by the government to track down and kill the escaped androids.
Sound familiar? As you’ve probably noticed “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” was the inspiration for the seminal but less interestingly named “Blade Runner”. Sadly Dick died just before the film introduced his vision to a wider audience. Since then other filmmakers have drawn on his work. “We Can Remember It for you Wholesale” has been filmed as “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” has been turned into a movie which actually used his title for once. The extra interest generated by those movies has helped to cement his reputation as one of the greatest and certainly one of the most original sci-fi writers.
Philip K Dick is a fascinating author. His work changed the face of science fiction. With his dark gritty dystopias and paranoid visions of the future he helped pioneer cyberpunk. And yes, I know that being paranoid doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t out to get you.
Philip K Dick used fiction to explore philosophical ideas. His trademark was toying with our perceptions of reality. He used parallel universes, mind-altering drugs, hallucinations, doppelgangers, Gnostic mysticism, government conspiracies, androids and every other trick in the book to confuse his characters and his readers. His stories seem to be designed to make us distrust our senses and our assumptions about the world around us.
“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” is about what it means to be human. In the universe of this book humanity is defined by empathy. People believe that it is our ability to feel for another person and to feel compassion towards them that makes us human. The androids are virtually indistinguishable from us in every single way but they are unable to feel empathy.
Deckard is a professional killer. If empathy is the criterion how “human” is he? That question is further complicated by repeated hints that he might be a machine himself and by his relationship with a seductive female android.
One of the strengths of the novel is the powerful evocation of a dying world. The battle between Deckard and the androids is fought amongst the crumbling ruins of San Francisco. War has all but destroyed civilization. The Earth has become a rubbish tip. Practically everyone has left for the colonies. Those left behind are seen as the dregs of society. Many of them are “specials”, members of the mutant underclass who aren’t allowed to emigrate. Everything is slowly decaying into garbage or “kipple”. There is a terrible sense of loneliness, futility and nothingness. The emptiness of the void is slowly reclaiming the planet.
The occasional glimpses of hope only serve to underline the bleakness of Dick’s dystopian vision. Each shred of hope is destroyed by even the lightest touch. An ethic based on empathy sounds like a good idea but is it partly an ideological weapon, designed to keep the androids in their place? People find solace in their faith but who is Mercer, their media-age “god”? Everyone wants to escape to the colonies but are things really much better up there?
People who pick up “Electric Sheep” because they loved “Blade Runner” need to understand that they are actually quite different. “Blade Runner” is a great film but Ridley Scott did leave out some key aspects of the book, including some scenes that probably would have worked really well on screen. He definitely should have used the parallel police station bit and the rival bounty hunter deserves at least a cameo but oh well.
The social and philosophical background of Dick’s world didn’t make the cut. The importance of empathy and thus the official view of what it means to be a real person is upheld by a religion called Mercerism. This cyberspace era faith is built around devices called empathy boxes. They allow people to share their emotions with each other. They are joined together in a vast network, which helps people to identify with one another and with the mysterious messianic martyr-like figure of Mercer. People use Mercerism to define their humanity so perhaps inevitably it is ultimately questioned and it turns out that it is built on shifting sands.
Partly because of their philosophy and partly because of their war guilt everyone on Earth feels that it is their duty to look after an animal. Thanks to World War Terminus there aren’t many animals left so obviously they are very expensive. More and more people are trying to save money while keeping up appearances by buying a robot animal and pretending it’s real. In a nice ironic twist Rick owns an electric sheep. He is desperate to hunt down the six androids and claim the reward because he dreams of owning a real animal. Until then the bounty hunter who kills replicant humans for a living has to care for a replicant sheep.
Philip K Dick breaks up the darkness of the novel with some nice comic moments. The electric animals are used to make a serious point but they also provide a touch of humour. The same could also be said of a nifty little household gadget that allows people to dial up the mood they want to be in.
If you were hoping for Blade Runner the book you might be put off by all this talk of philosophy but don’t worry too much. “Electric Sheep” does have plenty of action and mystery. The hunt for the androids is dramatic and intense. Deckard’s conscience is tortured but circumstances force him to act like a remorseless killing machine.
Philip K Dick is one of the true geniuses of science fiction writing and “Electric Sheep” is rightly regarded as one of his masterpieces. If you want to read some of his work then it is probably the best place to start. It explores the questions that obsessed Dick throughout his life; questions that undermine our everyday view of reality and of our own identity. What does it mean to be human? What is real? Does it matter? “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”