Saturday, July 16, 2011

Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
By Philip K. Dick

Published: 1968

Synopsis (via Goodreads): World War Terminus had left the Earth devastated. Through its ruins, bounty hunter Rick Deckard stalked, in search of the renegade replicants who were his prey. When he wasn't `retiring' them with his laser weapon, he dreamed of owning a live animal -- the ultimate status symbol in a world all but bereft of animal life. Then Rick got his chance: the assignment to kill six Nexus-6 targets, for a huge reward. But in Deckard's world things were never that simple, and his assignment quickly turned into a nightmare kaleidoscope of subterfuge and deceit -- and the threat of death for the hunter rather than the hunted...

Philip K. Dick is the perfect science fiction writer for people like me. I love science fiction as a genre, but when it gets super-sciencey describing the mechanical components of the doozer-watsit and the functionality of the howza-minx I usually have more than a little trouble visualising it in my head. Philip K. Dick, on the other hand, writes science fiction that focuses more on the characters and the events of the novel with the science taking a backseat, making it perfect for people who are new to the genre, or like me have a pathetic mind for visualising scientific doo-dads. (and remembering what they're called!)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a sophisticated and complex tale of reality, free will, identity, paranoia and reality. Set against a desolate and damaged Earth PKD questions and investigates those themes by following the protagonist Rick Deckard through an exhausting day of his life as a bounty hunter for the San Fransisco Police Department. Set with the task of hunting down and "retiring" escaped androids that have returned to Earth from the new settlements Rick goes through a bit of an existential crisis. The androids have become so well made that the only way to determine that someone is an 'it' and not a (s)he is to administer the Voight-Kampff Empathy test which has been known to misread and Rick struggles with this idea greatly, as well as the necessity of retiring androids that simply seem to be searching for a more fulfilling life.

While Rick seemed to have trouble retiring androids I really can't say I would have had the same problem. The androids lack of empathy is really quite horrible, and when combined with the fact that the story is told from a human perspective (and therefore contains a bit of bias) it's really hard to feel anything for them. In a world where animals are held with the greatest regard (since many are now extinct or endangered) and the humans fuse their emotions and empathy together through an 'empathy box' the androids selfishness and lack of empathy and regard for life stands out sharply against the humans they're trying to blend in amongst.

A prime example of this is the sub-plot surrounded John Isidore, a 'special' who is unable to emigrate to Mars because he failed the IQ test. When we first meet him in the book he's suffering from an all-consuming loneliness that not even the empathy box can help. He lives alone in an apartment block built to house over 1000 people, in a suburb almost completely deserted of human life. He's mocked endlessly at work for being a 'chickenhead' and as a means of escape he throws himself into Mercerism, the religion tied to the empathy box, where you fuse with everyone else using the box and take part in Mercer's endless climb up a hill. From the start the reader is set up to care for him and feel almost protective over this innocent and almost child-like man.

Because of the isolation of his apartment building it turns out to be the refuge of three fleeing androids and almost from the start they take advantage of Isidore and trample over his emotions. Because of their superior intellect they constantly talk down to him or as though he can't understand them and they don't bother to hide the fact that they're androids because they think he's too stupid to actually understand or ever do anything about it. In one of the most upsetting scenes in the book John finds a spider in the hallway which is incredible as wild animals are extremely rare in this dystopian world. When he takes his treasured find in to the others they wonder why it has 8 legs and "surely it could live with four," so they decide to cut off the legs and force it with a flaming match to walk on it's remaining legs. They show no concern at Isidore's distraught reaction but perhaps most disturbing of all is that they aren't particularly interested in finding out if it can walk with only four legs, in fact they seem rather bored by the whole thing, they simply do it because they can.

The androids are important to the story and it is the juxtaposition between them and the humans that paves the way for many of the themes, but at the core it is a story about Rick. He's the protagonist for a reason, his battle about killing androids is only one symptom of the greater existential crisis he's going through. He struggles to understand his wife who seems content to sit in a 6 hour depression rather than dial a button and have a synthetic emotion replace it. He envies and despises his neighbour for owning a rare and authentic pet horse. He has no trouble killing male androids, relishes it even, but shows empathy towards certain female andys. He values empathy and unity highly but avoids fusing with everyone else on the empathy box. He seems empty and constantly hunting for something to fill that void. It makes for an incredibly interesting protagonist, and also a fairly unpredictable one.

The story is a slow-burner. It starts off slow, feeding you a few words that gain importance later (Mercerism, Andy) and introducing you to the depressive lows that both John Isidore and Rick Deckard live amongst. As the day progresses the pace quickens and builds and more details emerge until suddenly you reach a crescendo of plot and character and action and... well I'll let you get there yourselves. It's a great story, quick (my edition was 194 pages) and chock full of big characters, interesting action and meaningful messages. A must-read.

My Rating: 4.5/5


  1. A wonderful and insightful review! PKD is one of my favorite authors and having seen Blade Runner first before reading this one, I ended up enjoying the movie slightly more. Your review has inspired me to pick up this novel again because clearly I missed its awesomesness the first time around. Have you read anything else by PKD?

  2. Thanks Jason! I've read a few PKD books here and there, but not nearly enough considering how much I love his writing. I read 'A Scanner Darkly' when I was about 15 and I remember a lot of it going over my head, but I still really liked it and luckily it made more sense when I read it again 2 years later!

    I'm going to rewatch the film this week since this read was for the book to film challenge, but it's been so long since I've seen it I have no idea which I'll prefer (if either)!

  3. A Scanner Darkly is my favorite PKD novel and the film adaptation was pretty darn good as well despite starring the always laconic Keanu Reeves (shudders). I have a few PKD book reviews on my blog (not nearly as extensive or well-written as yours) if you are interested in reading them. /shameless plug. I'd highly recommend reading "A Scanner Darkly" again because it is probably his most "complete" novel; that is, the convoluted narrative and powerful themes actually come to a satisfying and coherent conclusion as opposed to his other works, which tend to be haphazard in their structure. I also think you would dig "Ubik" and "Martian-Time Slip" as well.

    I would be curious to see what you make of Blade Runner since it does make some changes to the original source material. It bears worth repeating but I love your blog, so keep on writing! :)

  4. Thanks again Jason, it's always good to know someone reads and appreciates these reviews!

    I loved the film of A Scanner Darkly, mainly because they did it in that weird/odd illustration over film style and it just fit the story so perfectly!

    I'm hopefully going to rewatch Bladerunner this weekend and I'll get a review up sometime next week. Have you watched all the different cuts of it? I haven't seen the original ending, only the Final Cut that came out a few years ago, so maybe i'll try for one of the other versions this time.

  5. It sounds like I'm missing out on a great author, especially after reading the above comments. The title alone deserves my attention! As always, great review!



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