Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick
The original story of Rick Deckard, android bounty hunter. How does it fair after all these years?
This one has been on my list since I saw the movie Blade Runner all those years ago.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who "retires" (kills) escaped androids from Mars. He is tasked in the book to retire six Nexus-6s. This model of android appears entirely human and can escape detection but for one telling difference - they supposedly possess no sense of empathy. The secondary plot follows John Isidore, a man of low IQ who gets involved with the fugitive androids.
The book is set on Earth in the near future (the near future of the 1960s, that is). The world has suffered through a cataclysmic nuclear third world war, called 'World War Terminus' causing the planet to be nearly unlivable. It's also had a massive effect on the wildlife and there are few animal species left alive. The rich and intelligent have moved to Mars, leaving the dregs of humanity on Earth.
It's a classic sci-fi which is now fifty years old.
If you're currently playing the new computer game Detroit Become Human, or still reeling from Westworld series 2, or would like to get a head start on human-android pc culture before the inevitable rise of the machines, then this is the book for you.
I don't think anyone can question Philip K. Dick's ability to create a functional and vivid fictional world. And in a way shows us the everyday life far better than most sci-fi books so you get a real and honest sense of the world they're in. He also introduces a new religion - Mercerism, which centres around two values, empathy towards all and working for the good of the community.
While it seems a little incongruous when you first come across it, it's all part of Philip K. Dick's larger thought experiment running through the book - what makes a human being? When confronted with androids, a human who has been manufactured, how can we separate ourselves from them? Empathy is held up as the key distinction between life and not-life. The rouge androids fight to show humans that their empathy is worthless and Rick Deckard battles to defend his empathy against the pressures of characters like Rachel and Phil Resch (more on him later).
Although the first third of the book is relatively slow as it builds the world and its politics, the rest of the book moves along at a good pace which makes it hard to put down. At no point was I bored.
I was, however, very confused...
I had a difficult time trying to understand what Philip K. Dick was trying to tell me.
If he was trying to tell me anything at all. As I said before, the key discussion in the book is empathy - a quality which separates us from machines. However, this certainty breaks down throughout the book, embodied in fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch. We're lead to believe this man may be an android. He's unrepentant about killing and even enjoys it.
A test eventually proves that he's human, which leads Rick Deckard to the somewhat awkward conclusion that it's alright to be a sociopath so long as you're empathetic about some things.
For a story which revolves around empathy, not a single one of the characters, human or otherwise, seems to have any complex emotion. Despite Deckard's frequent assertions that caring for an animal is a feature of humanity, it's clear that he doesn't so much love animals than he is obsessed with the idea of owning them.
The women of the book are all sophisticated and intelligent, but cold and often willing tools of men. I would accuse them of being flat, but most of the characters are flat, unfortunately. Of course, this could have been Philip K. Dick's suitable way of telling us there's no difference between the humans and the androids. If so, I very much believed by the end of the book that if all the characters weren't androids then the difference was immaterial.
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I give this book a solid three stars. If you don't know how I rate books, you can click here for a breakdown.
I'm glad I read it and finished it quite quickly. But, I probably wouldn't read it again. At least not for pleasure. It's definitely a book aimed more to make you think, rather than an enjoyable romp. Which is why if you're interested in this area of sci-fi, it's one of the essentials.
If you're looking for a fun and action-packed romp rather than a philosophical mind-bender - stick with the movie.
And if you'd like to see my other book reviews, click here!
Concerned that you may be a replicant?
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