Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I have wanted to read this book for a long time, and not just to understand it’s absurd title. Philip K. Dick is considered one of the most influential science fiction writers today, some 33 years after his death. The films Total Recall, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly were based on his works, and his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is perhaps most famous of all. It is the basis for Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner.

The book and the film are very different. Bounty hunters and Androids in the book are called Blade-Runners and Replicants respectively in the film. The book is character driven, it goes into a religion of empathy known as mercerism which the film completely leaves out — and for good reason. The film is visually stunning, a neo-noir (think of films inspired by the 1940s-50s detective genre) where the primary character (a bounty hunter or blade-runner) is changed from being a driven cop with a wife who becomes cynical, to a solo, hard-boiled ex-blade-runner brought back for one last assignment. From the start Harrison Ford is the classic Humphrey Bogart, whereas the character may be heading that way at the end of the book.

The book also stresses the importance of genuine animals. How in the post-apocalyptic world where everything is dying, to own a genuine animal is to posses the highest status symbol possible. Rick Deckard once owned a genuine sheep, but it died and he can’t face telling people that the sheep he has now is electric. Fake animals have been built with disease circuits installed, so when they have a mechanical fault or start to break down they manifest physical symptoms of organic disease. But still, an electric animal is worthless next to a real one. Earth is inhabited by people who either cannot leave for colonies on Mars and else ware because they failed to meet the physical or IQ standards, and are branded specials and occupy a low and poverty stricken existence, or people who chose not to leave.

To try to induce people to leave the governments around the world pledged to give every colonist an Android, to be their personal servant or slave. On Earth the Androids are strictly banned, and the bounty hunters identify and ‘retire’ any found in their jurisdictions. Rick’s jurisdiction is San Francisco, and eight of the latest and smartest Androids — the nexus-6 — are at large. The senior bounty hunter retired two before being critically injured, and his list is passed to Rick. At last, a chance to make a lot of money and buy a genuine animal! Those that have seen Blade Runner will recognise the first part of the premise.

Despite their differences both the book and film are about what is real and what is not, and about empathy. Does an electric sheep think that it is real? If it’s behaviour is the same, should it be worth less? Can you fall in love with an Android? Is dialling for ‘peace and contentment’ on the mood organ a genuine emotion if it actually makes you feel that way? As the dust and assorted trash (‘kipple’ as it is known as in the book) spreads into all parts of the earth, organic forms of life are choked while the artificial claims superiority.

Blade Runner shot copy

A motif that was not the same in the book as in the film is the four year lifespan of the Androids. Their motivation in the film is survival, to remove that limit. In the book the limit exists but is almost a banality. The Androids don’t seem to even think about it. Yet in the film it gives the basis for much of the depth, and sets up the famous climactic scene with Rutger Hauer on the rooftop in the rain. For this reason I think the film drives its point a little more forcefully, and certainly more memorably.

Blade Runner shot2

The Androids, led by Roy Batty (Rutger’s character above in the film) yearn for acceptance, perhaps the nexus-6 feels more human than Android because they are so advanced. “More human than human is our motto”, as their creator says in the film. Their victory in the book is showing mercerism to be false, that it was created by hollywood, the human capacity for empathy — the last thing that makes them ‘superior’ — is a lie.

Even with the differences between the book and the film, they complement each other as parts of Philip K. Dick’s strange universe. I felt unable to let go of the novel until finishing it, which in this case is not so hard since it is just 200 pages long. Like all science fiction, the novel tells more about the time it written rather than actually predicting what the future will be like. The influence is clearly the nuclear paranoia and space race of the 60s. Philip K. Dick was not a prophet. But unlike some of it’s contemporaries Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not imprisoned in it’s time; it is surprisingly easy to read now. For us today, separating the real from the false has never been a more vital exercise.

There I shall stop and thank you thoroughly for making it to the end of my post. With my new found sense of empathy I understand the difficulty of reading a blog that goes on and on. Or maybe you have lost interest and I am mistaken. In that case I must be an android — excuse me while I retire.





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