Book review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

19 12 2016

I like to consider myself reasonably well-read in SF, so it’s with something akin to embarrassment that I admit that Philip K Dick is one of those authors I haven’t actually read before now, in just the same fashion that there are other ‘must-read’ authors in the genre—such as Aldiss, Ellison, Farmer, Russ and others whose names currently escape me—whose work I’ve never felt inclined to check out. In my defence I can say: so many worlds, so little time. And: better late than never. And: too many clichés spoil the post.

Does Philip K Dick require any introduction? He’s the guy whose robotic head got misplaced (and has since never been located) on a domestic flight within the US, and whose work (possibly more than that of any other SF author) has spawned many movie adaptations. He died in 1982, just a few weeks before the release of the most famous of those adaptations, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. I’ve seen Blade Runner, which was based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, several times, but I’d never read the book before now.

It’s fair to say that, though BR has many elements in common with DADoES, there’s also much that is different: most obviously, the movie doesn’t (to my recollection) feature an electric sheep, while the term ‘Blade Runner’ apparently derives not from any PKD book but from an unrelated book by Alan E Nourse. The plot of the movie also diverges substantially from that of the novel, but that, of course, can be said about almost any dramatised work of fiction. But enough of invidious (or in-video?) comparison …

doandroidsdreamofelectricsheep

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter working with the police force in San Francisco, a city ravaged several years previously by World War Terminal. Much of Earth’s former human population has emigrated to offworld colonies, or has died in the nuclear war which has turned the planet into a radioactive ruin; of those who remain, some are too stubborn to emigrate, some cannot afford it, and some are too impaired by the effects of radiation to meet the departure requirements. Deckard and his depression-prone wife Iran have more-or-less given up on the idea of leaving; Rick just wants the status of being able to afford a real live animal, the larger the better, in a society that prizes the ownership of such rare creatures. (The Deckards already own a sheep, which ‘grazes’ on the rooftop of his apartment building, but it’s robotic: a shameful detail he’s careful to conceal from his neighbours.) So when he’s offered the task of ‘retiring’ a half-dozen illegal Nexus 6 androids, at a thousand dollars per robotic head, Rick sees it as his gateway to the purchase of a Percheron like his neighbour’s. The difficulty in the task is that the Nexus 6, the most advanced android type yet developed, cannot reliably be distinguished from a human using the established biometric / psychological tests …

This is, I suppose, a post-apocalyptic novel, but it’s a form of post-apocalypsis that, by today’s standards, seems comparatively cosy. The challenges that face Deckard aren’t life-and-death (save for the prospect of getting killed by the androids he’s hunting, though for the most part the androids seem less violent than the humans, and mainly just want a chance at their own existence); rather, he’s preoccupied with the overcoming of ennui and the achievement of some sense of purpose.

The subtexts in DADoES have to do with the unreliability and subjectivity of perception: when even such primary characteristics as ’emotion’ can be reliably dialled up (on a device such as, for example, the Deckards’ ‘Penfield mood organ’), does genuine, unsynthesised emotion retain any virtue? If androids are progressively less readily distinguishable from genuine, unsynthesised humans, when does it cease being worthwhile to attempt to tell one from the other, and to insist upon exterminating all androids that make it from the offworld colonies (where they are employed as personal servants of the colonists) onto Earth? Is there value in religion (represented here by the ascetic, repetitive collective-hermitism of ‘Millerism’) or in popular entertainment (represented here by the ubiquitous, repetitive non-stop broadcasting of ‘Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends’)? What, in the end, does it mean to be human?

It’s fitting that, for a book whose title is a question, it should ask so many. As for the answers, though, we must provide them for ourselves.

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8 responses

19 12 2016
Sue Bursztynski

I’ve read The Man In The High Castle and some of his short fiction, but not, yet, this. I think Blade Runner is a classic in its own right.I’ve read a bit of Aldiss, but not for years, and you really MUST read Farmer’s Riverworld novels! Brilliant! Everyone ever born goes there after death, and lives a new life, so you never know who you’re going to run into. In a Riverworld short story, Jesus runs into a colony of Crusaders, who kill him for being Jewish. And then there’s “Sail On! Sail On! in which the world really is flat and Columbus sails off the edge…I’ve read a bit of Ellison, not Russ.

It’s good you’re catching up with the classic writers!

19 12 2016
simonpetrie

I don’t know that I’m exactly catching up with the classics; I just like reading a mixture of different styles, and sometimes that means things which were written several decades ago. It sounds as though Farmer might be worth a look, though, so I’ll see if / when I can find the time.

19 12 2016
Joachim Boaz

Not to beat the bush, but, Russ + Aldiss are must reads in my view… At the very least Russ’ We Who Are About To… (1976) and Aldiss’ Greybeard (1964) 🙂

19 12 2016
simonpetrie

I’ll do my best to check them out — thanks for the recommendations!

19 12 2016
Joachim Boaz

I wrote a review of the Russ novel — it might not be your cup of tea…. https://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/book-review-we-who-are-about-to-joanna-russ-1976/

20 12 2016
simonpetrie

I’ll give it a look, at least. (And that 1977 cover is awful …)

20 12 2016
fcbertrand

Yes, it is fitting that the novel’s title is a question. The book then becomes one potential answer to that question, which could be considered to be three: Do androids sleep? If they sleep, do they dream? If they dream, is it of electric sheep?

20 12 2016
simonpetrie

Google Assistant might know the answer(s).

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