Sunday, August 01, 2010

Book Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick

Del Rey/Random House, Ballantine Books, New York, 1968 (copyright 1975), 244 pages.

Many of you may be confused by this quirky title, but perhaps mentioning that this book was turned into the cult classic film Blade Runner will help. Surprisingly, the film version of the famous sci-fi writer Dick's work is unusually good as movies-based-on-books go. It actually was better in one or two aspects, but was not as good in others.

So now, let's get down to the actual book itself, shall we?

Set in futuristic Los Angeles, bounty hunter Rick Deckard's job is to hunt and kill "andys"--androids, which are, in effect, a form of human clone. The backdrop is a somewhat dystopian world, set after World War Terminus, where earth is a serious health hazard to live on; instead of weather forecasts, fallout forecasts are given. Deckard himself must wear a lead "codpiece" to protect a certain part of his anatomy from radioactive sterilization. This means that most humans now live on off-world colonies, and the government expends energy in attempting to entice citizens to leave earth.

Some are not allowed to leave, however, like the "chickenheads" (i.e., those with even slight mental issues) such as J.R. Isidore. The government, which we could easily call big government run amok, screens people for "chickenheads" and "andys" to keep them in check, or, to "retire" (i.e., kill) them, respectively.

Deckard's daily routine is to find and kill the androids (who masquerade as normal humans) and thus collect the bounty. With normal detective work being the precursor, the final factor in deciding the identity of a subject (as they are physically identical to humans) is the Voigt-Kampff test. Other tests are used, such as the Boneli test, but Deckard and his department use the VK test, which measures empathetic response to emotionally-stimulating questions. If the Voigt-Kampff instruments read no response or even a limited or late response, then the subject is deemed an android and must be retired/killed. "Retired"--a white-washed word, rather realistic, isn't it? All fascinating concepts. Cloning such as this doesn't exactly convince me yet, but still....

Other fascinating concepts are the "electric sheep" (animals are so rare they are almost all mechanical stand-ins now, and everyone has some sort of pet, and they are only real if the owner has shelled out a massive sum to purchase them, then the animal is usually accompanied with emotional attachment of massive proportions.) and the "Penfield" (basically a machine where you dial a certain number and it gives you a neurological impulse that creates something like an emotion for you to feel). Rather interesting ideas, no? I don't think I buy the Penfield idea, but it works for science fiction of this sort at least.

The ongoing plot of this rather short novel (which, although with many good sci-fi concepts to chew on, felt a bit too quick for me in some parts) revolves around a party of murderous androids, their parent company the Rosen Association (the genetic design firm for the androids, if you will), Deckard who hunts them, and Isidore, who befriends them.

I loved the dystopian, almost apocalyptic feel to the book, and Dick must have quite the mind for science fiction (this is my first time trying him out). However, I think I had more issues with the book than I had likes. Why?

Unlike the film, Deckard has no problem wasting androids, and later, apparently has no problem cheating on his wife in order to take a fellow bounty hunter's advice to take an android to bed with him before killing them. While he ends up not killing the one he has sex with, it still was a moral mess. One, the man was married. Two, he wasn't married to the andy (whom he said he'd leave his wife for if he could at one point). Three, almost disturbingly, the android model strikes Deckard as almost child-like in body (while not exactly literal, anything even reminiscent of pedophilia or child sex revolts me). The problem began when Deckard was physically/sexually attracted to one of the androids he had to retire. Big deal, welcome to the male race, pal. But to respond in such a way? And on top of it, to go back home to your wife a few hours later and act like nothing happened? Not a nice move, kemosabe.

Coupled with above material, Dick infused his novel with this strange religion called Mercerism (where the faithful attain oneness with Mercer via an almost virtually-hallucinogenic machine called a fusion box, something the androids cannot do). Dick never definitively states whether or not the religion is real; at one point it appears to be so. Rather confusing and muddled; perhaps that is Dick's way, as it seems to be.

So, my readers know this very well; two things that will always get bad marks from me are sex, and false spirituality. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? thus gets an official thumbs down. You had some strong ideas, Mr. Dick, very strong, but you spoiled them all by yourself.

Stay tuned for my review of the film Blade Runner. In the end, it missed some of the strongest aspects of the book, but also was better in the end, believe it or not. (Did you like Rachael and Deckard in the film? In the book, they both suck!)



guitargirl said...

Interesting. I had never even heard of this book until you mentioned it. Sounds weird. But that reminds me: I'm on a forum and somehow or another they all started teasing me one time and calling me an android (long story) which was pretty fun because I'd play along and pretend to be a robot, and then one of my friends said "I wonder if she dreams of electric sheep?" and I never really got it. I guess now I do. ;)

Anyways, thanks for your comment on my blog! ;) I love that song.

olde.fashioned said...

Good review! I'll be looking forward even more to your Blade Runner one, as I can more fully appreciate it having seen the movie myself. ;-)

Vivacious said...

Hi there! It's Sara aka friend of Lauren... :)

I agree with most, if not all, of your observations regarding the book. I read it recently and was confused by the Mercerism, and didn't fully understand the obsession with the electric animals. Maybe it was to answer/relate back to the title of the book? The sexual content was awfully unnecessary, though.

Great review!!