Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sleep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Originally published by Doubleday, 1968. Approx. 242 pages.

What is real? This seems to be the core question that permeates through the work of Philip K. Dick. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, possibly his most widely recognized work (due in large part to it being the "inspiration" for Blade Runner), Dick gleefully uses this theme to tie the reader's brain in all types of knots. For every question, two more arise, and in the end, it is nearly impossible to discern what is real, or what is better than real, or not quite real. 

In the aftermath of World War Terminus, the Earth is, quite literally, a radioactive dustball. Most of the "normal" humans have emigrated to a Mars colony, and, somewhere along the way, androids were perfected as tools to help assist them. Technology in building androids became extremely advanced, yielding "andys" that are nearly indistinguishable from humans. There are differences of course; for example, due to their inability at cell reproduction, andys can expect to live around four years, and they of course cannot bear children. Copulation with an android is forbidden, and andys are prohibited on Earth. Androids recognized on Earth are subjected to being "retired", which is a nice way of saying killed by a bounty hunter. Our protagonist, Richard Deckard, is one such bounty hunter.

Now, how is it that Deckard (and other bounty hunters) can single out the androids that they are hunting? The main technique is via administration of a test called the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test. See, it turns out that as near-human androids may be, empathy is the one human emotion that they do not possess (yet). Then again, in another classic PKD twist, how much empathic capability does the average Earthbound human possess? There is a communal pseudo-religion known as Mercerism, wherein participants "plug-in" to participate in an empathy pool with other devotees. Also, the qualities of empathy are also demonstrated through the caring for and maintenance of animals (since most animals were rendered extinct in Terminus). And yet, the caring for animals becomes social competition, each person strives to have the rarest and most desirable animal, with market price fluctuations updated in the "Sydney's" guide. So, is Dick stating that our outward displays of empathy are actually hollow, conceited attempts at self-validation? Could be.

Of course, for those that cannot afford a real animal, and are too embarrassed to be known not to have one, there are companies which create electric critters. Like the andys, these are virtually indistinguishable from their live counterparts. It's actually pretty funny that this practice is allowed on Earth, since androids are outlawed there. Deckard himself has an electric sheep, a replacement for a live one that died due to his carelessness. It's actually a pretty solid metaphor for the whole story (reinforced when a woman realizes it is easier to get an electric facsimile for a cat that had gotten sick and died), that humankind destroys life in its charge, attempts to recreate the life squandered, and subsequently rejects the creation itself. Lord, what fools these mortals be.

On the surface, Androids is a philosophical, post-apocalyptic detective yarn. Deckard is charged with hunting down six renegade androids that killed some people on Mars and stole a ship back to Earth. Actually, there were more, but Deckard's superior retired some before he himself was injured by one. Making matters worse is that these androids are part of a new series type, the Nexus-6. Nexus-6 androids have not been tested against the Voigt-Kampff test yet, and with their enhanced "brain" functions and response times, might be able to put forward enough of a empathic response to beat current testing. Or is it that they are possessing of empathic capabilities? And, if the empathy tests cannot be trusted anymore, is there a risk of a human being accidentally blasted instead of an android?

Other intriguing characters round out the story as well. Part of the narrative focuses on John Isidore, who is what is termed a "special", or, in a pejorative sense, a "chickenhead". These are humans that are displaying effects of the fallout on Earth, and are therefore deemed unsuitable for emigration. Like the andys, Isidore is an outcast among humans. Is it any surprise then, that he finds his sole semblance of communal belonging in their company. Isidore's tragic role shows again how hypocritical the advanced, empathic humans are by nature.

Finally, there is the tale of the beautiful android Rachael Rosen. There is palpable sexual tension between her and Deckard from the very beginning (even though he is married and human/andy relations are verboten), and she is stuck in a moral quandry; between disgust for those who would seek to kill her simply for who she was and for a desire to continue her own brief life, even though she knows deep down that her soul is simply a poor imitation of life (to quote the name of one of my favorite movies). Over the course of the novel, she at turns reaches out to and screws over Deckard. But can you really blame her?

But like I said, those are all just the story specifics. The pertinent question is, what is real? What is real life? Take life on Earth for example. The Earth is failing as a life-sustaining entity. One one hand, you have the "normal" people. Yet normal people are dependent on their empathic pools, and mood organs with which they dial in desired emotions. They receive information from one approved government channel, and get entertainment from a comedian that somehow manages to work forty six hours a day. Then you have the specials, second-class citizens with mental inadequacies. And finally you have the androids. In all honesty, why shouldn't the andys seek out a new life on Earth? They are, for the most part, highly skilled and intelligent, often even more so than humans. On top of that, the Mars-born humans have no tangible bond to Mother Earth. So why shouldn't the andys become the new lords? Then again, their very continued survival depends on humans to "make more" of them.

It's hard to wrap your head around the inner turmoil that must rock the android mind. That's why I think it was an admirable move on Dick's part to insert the works of Edvard Munch into Androids. First, there is the well-recognized "The Scream", which fellow bounty hunter Resch guesses might well represent the internal turmoil of the andys:

 Second, we have "Puberty", which features a girl who looks both strong and fragile, representing the oxymoron that is that growth period. Also, the girl is a dead-ringer for the description of Rachael Rosen:

Powerful stuff there.

Perhaps the android experience is best encapsulated in the character that I personally felt was the most tragic in the book, despite only a page or two of time featured. That would be Groucho, the electric sheep. There is a scene where Groucho continually follows electronically-engineered impulses to go to Deckard for oats. And yet, even if Deckard have any to give, the sheep has no way to process them. How cruel is that, to have some form of instinctive impulse to seek something, and yet have no means to actually enjoy it?

Despite the overall excellent writing, and the strength of the themes tackled, there are a few things that I take issue with in Androids. First, there is the age old debate behind Androids, as well as its film adaptation(s) Blade Runner: is Deckard actually an android? Well, here's the thing; in Androids, there's no way to tell for sure. If you think there is a puzzle here that finding the right piece will solve, there isn't. It's just PKD trolling you. He intentionally has Deckard exhibiting the behaviors of both androids and humans, to keep you guessing. He intentionally keeps the time frame close, never digging deeply into Deckard's past, nor revealing his future aspirations (besides owning the best real animal possible), so that you can never quite tell what he actually is. If he is an android, he is then a kin-slayer. If he is human, he is the creature in the night a la Robert Neville in I am Legend. Either way, he is socially awkward, burdened with a difficult task, and thoroughly unhappy. But yes, there is nothing wrong with being ambiguous regarding Deckard's true nature, it is just that the ambiguity is blatantly telegraphed that I didn't like.

Second, I was not crazy about the final act of the book. This is where the structured narrative goes topsy-turvy, as Roger Zelazny warns us the Dick is fond of doing in the introduction. The whole post-fusion ambling thing, and the abrupt ending both kind of threw me. I get that maybe PKD is trying to let the audience feel the confusion and inner turmoil that Deckard is going through, but that's kind of like a movie theater jacking up the heat to let the audience know how a character feels crossing a desert. The overall effect becomes akin to watching a child take his toy soldiers out of a box, set them up carefully, start a battle, then drop a housecat on all of them, and then sweep them all back in the box. 

Those things aside, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep still fully deserves consideration as a sci-fi classic. There's a lot of thought to be evoked here, and a lot of emotion as well. If you haven't read it yet, your local library probably has a copy in their system. Even as one of the world's slowest readers, I read it in just over a day, so most could probably finish it in an extended sitting.

One final note, now that I've read the book, I can truly appreciate the visionary direction that Ridley Scott went in in making Blade Runner. He made the movie his own, while keeping a good amount of the core emotion intact. Reading the book, I believe it to be entirely filmable as is, so it would be nice to see a movie version in the future that was more true to the source.

Yes, even including the ostrich.

Here's what it is:
Philip K. Dick's sci-fi masterpiece asks hard questions about the nature, and value, of life. Both real and manufactured.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I'm not a big fan of this cover. The thermal-image sheep inset is kind of cool, the rest is vague and creepy. This cover would never sell the book, so it assumes previous reader recognition with the title/author. I recommend the original Doubleday cover if you can get it:

Cover Final Score: 


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