Thursday, 15 January 2004

Philip K. Dick: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

Edition: Del Rey, 1984
Review number: 1212

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is of course best known as the source of the film Bladerunner. It is really only one strand of the plot which was used in the screenplay, however; there is much more in even this short a novel. (The sequels, by K. W. Jeter, are much more following on from the film than the book, as is clear from the use of the word "replicant" rather than "android".)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a science fiction classic in its own right, though I would not consider it Dick's greatest work (my candidate for this would be The Man in the High Castle). It is also something of a catalogue of Dick's major preoccupations (how to define humanity, mystical experience, perception and reality), and thus is one of the best first reads for a reader new to the author. (I have thought that The Man in the High Castle is better, because it has less science fiction baggage, but that makes it less typical.)

The background the novel is a future in which androids are used in human colonies on Mars and Venus, but are not permitted unlicensed on Earth. They have a tendency to escape from their menial jobs and travel to Earth pretending to be humans; each police force therefore has bounty hunters who track these escapees down. (This is an unlikely scenario, as it would surely be far easier to police the space travel, performing checks on Mars or Venus to prevent android access to ships.) Rick Deckard is a San Francisco bounty hunter, and the story is about how he tracks down a group of new androids, of a type designed to be more human than ever.

The plot in the previous paragraph is the basis for the film, but Bladerunner is far more a thriller (albeit an atmospheric one) than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The key issue in the novel is empathy for the suffering of others. It is touted as the key difference between humans and androids, and forms the basis for the tests Dekard uses to determine whether someone is human or android - they should differ in their responses to questions about cruelty to animals. The androids are also unable to take part in the dominant religious movement on Earth, Mercerism, which is about sharing the sufferings of an elderly man being pelted with stones as he climbs a hill to the extent of sharing his wounds, like Christian mystics receiving stigmata. An important part of Mercerism is the necessity to demonstrate empathy by caring for animals, which is why all the humans are desperate to own pets (real animals are rare and expensive because of radiation contamination). They are so keen to do this that those who can't afford the real thing buy robotic replicas, hence the novel's title.

Empathy is also the basis for the ethical irony behind the novel - is someone who destroys those lacking in empathy himself necessarily lacking in empathy, especially as they appear in every other way to be normal people. In this society, there are two classes of individuals excluded from empathic feelings, the androids, and the specials, those harmed by radiation who now form an underclass of vagrants and cheap labour. (A further irony is that the character in the book that readers are meant to empathise with is not Dekard but a special named J.R. Isidore.)

The greatness of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? really springs from the way that Dick creates sympathy for the androids and Isidore. (This is of course yet another irony - demonstrating the humanness of the reader via a similar test to those used to detect androids in the novel.) The novel has a melancholy air to it - everyone, readers and characters, has a pretty good idea of what is going to happen, and none of the really want it to go ahead. It is only a short book, and it is one of the absolute must reads of the science fiction genre.

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