What I Just Read – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a Philip K. Dick story of a post-apocalyptic Earth where owning real animals is a status symbol and the police hunt down incredibly life-like androids.  It is probably most well known as the basis for Blade Runner.

My first instinct was to say that this was an easy read, but I don’t think that’s really accurate.  Certainly it was quick, I finished it in around 8 hours, and the language isn’t particularly difficult if you have a passing knowledge of the basics of science fiction.  I hesitate to call it “easy” though, because it addresses some fairly deep philosophical and existential points, and leaves it to the reader to decide where they stand on the issues.  The book isn’t just a straightforward sci-fi action piece, but an examination of what it means to be human, and how people might react when the line between human and machine begins to blur.

My biggest worry when starting the book was that it would be primarily the same as Blade Runner.  That wouldn’t be the worst thing of course, but it would certainly take away some of the experience to know exactly what would happen.  There are definitely some overlaps, of course, and the basic plot points are the same, but the book and the movie are fairly distinct stories.  The book has much more of an examination of who Deckard and the other people around him are, while still telling the story of the escaped androids he’s hunting.  There is also a much deeper look at the society that operates, what society remains after some sort of nuclear apocalypse at any rate.  It’s a world that’s slowly falling to pieces, and many people seem to be only going through the motions while waiting patiently to die.  Deckard especially seems deeply unhappy about his life and the world around him, but doesn’t quite know why or what do do about it.  He keeps on with a job he hates thinking that if he could just get that one new thing, in this case a live animal, maybe that will be what he needs.

The book isn’t without its flaws of course.  Like many of the early sci-fi writers, Dick really has some troubles with his prose.  Much of the phrasing and dialogue is clunky and awkward, which removes you from the story at times.  The concepts and imagery is compelling, but then someone says some horrible line like “Get your crude cop’s hands away from me.”  As interesting as I found the distinctions between android and human, I found the notion of empathy overused and overly simplistic.  I think humanity is unique for more than just our empathetic feelings.  As an extension of that, his made up religion, Mercerism, seemed a bit overused and too convenient a cure all for humanity’s ills.  It didn’t seem to be developed enough to explain the importance he placed on it.  And, like the Man in the High Castle the end of the book dissolves into a meandering, nearly inarticulate philosophizing examination of the central themes.  It felt forced and confusing without adding much to the story.

Overall it’s an intriguing, but flawed look at humanity, and a fun read even if you ignore the deeper intellectual issues the book raises.  Maybe it fails to use some of the ambiguity that the movie revels in, but it also has some deeply disturbing scenes, especially near the end, that you won’t find anywhere in Blade Runner.

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