“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K Dick is one of those books that any fan of Sci-Fi should read at some point. It is also the basis for the movie Bladerunner (which has been recut and released at least 4 times).
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed the other Dick novel I read (A Scanner Darkly), but it was still a good read.
The book follows Richard Deckard, an android (or “andy”) hunter for what’s left of the San Francisco police department. Much of the human population has either died off or migrated to Mars. Most of the animal population has also died off; only the wealthy can afford pets. Those with less money can have a robotic pet, like the titular Electric Sheep. They look like normal animals and require similar upkeep, but they are still robots.
He thought, too, about his need for a real animal; within him an actual hatred once more manifested itself toward his electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about, as if it lived. The tyranny of an object, he thought. It doesn’t know I exist. Like the androids, it had no ability to appreciate the existence of another. He had never thought of this before, the similarity between an electric animal and an andy. The electric animal, he pondered, could be considered a subform of the other, a kind of vastly inferior robot. Or, conversely, the android could be regarded as a highly developed, evolved version of the ersatz animal. Both viewpoints repelled him.
Androids serve humans on Mars and are not allowed on Earth. Deckard and his colleagues hunt and destroy androids that escape to San Francisco. The trick is distinguishing them from humans. To distinguish them, they conduct a series of tests designed to measure empathy. As new androids get developed, however, they also do a better job of passing the tests. Separating them from humans becomes an even bigger challenge.
“On the test or otherwise. Everything that gives it a different quality. And then I report back and the association makes modifications of its zygote-bath DNS factors. And we then have the Nexus-7. And when that gets caught, we modify again and eventually the association has a type that can’t be distinguished.
‘Do you know of the Boneli Reflex-Arc Test?” he asked,
"We’re working on the spinal ganglia, too. Someday the Boneli test will fade into yesterday’s hoary shroud of spiritual oblivion.” She smiled innocuously—at variance with her words. At this point he could not discern her degree of seriousness. A topic of world-shaking importance yet dealt with facetiously; an android trait, possibly, he thought. No emotional awareness, no feeling-sense of the actual meaning of what she s said. Only the hollow, formal, intellectual definitions of the separate terms.
It’s a frustrating and never-ending cycle of development and destruction. Whether Dick is talking about people, androids, or animals, the same cycle persists.
“It’s not just false memory structures,” Phil Resch said. “I own an animal; not a false one but the real thing. A squirrel. I love the squirrel, Deckard; every goddamn morning I feed it and change its papers—you know, clean up its cage—and then in the evening when I get off work I let it loose in my apt and it runs all over the place. It has a wheel in its cage; ever seen a squirrel running inside a wheel? It runs and runs, the wheel spins, but the squirrel stays in the same spot. Buffy seems to like it, though.
“I guess squirrels aren’t too bright,” Rick said.
They flew on, then, in silence.
The entertainment in the society is equally as bleak. There is basically one show on TV -- a talk show. It runs for days at a time.
“I’ll sit in the hotel room,” he said, “and watch Buster Friendly on TV. His guest for the last three days has been Amanda Werner. I like her; I could watch her the rest of my life. She has breasts that smile.”
The dominant religion is Mercerism. Its followers experience it by interfacing with a virtual reality machine, and they continually walk up hill with Mercer and get pelted with rocks. The rocks leave bruises in the real world, too.
“Mercer said it was wrong but I should do it anyhow. Really weird. Sometimes it’s better to do something wrong than right.”
“It’s the curse on us,” Iran said. “That Mercer talks about.”
When folks need to adjust their emotions, they have the option of dialing in on another machine. They can choose what they want to feel for the day.
Dick explores theme of decay, struggle, and identity in this book. Answering the question of, “Who is alive?” is a continuing challenge in the book. It’s not just about which people are androids. It’s also about whether the humans are alive in a spiritual or emotional sense in the wasteland they inhabit. It’s about how they continually wrestle the challenge of decay. Despite the advances in robotics, the humans are clearly on the losing end of the battle with entropy. They fight it, yet still seem resigned to their lives as they are.
In some respects, it’s a book about how technology has simply left the Earth-bound humans behind and gone off without them. It’s not a Luddite book, but it is a dark one.
They themes make it an interesting read. The plot has the twists and turns to keep things moving. Some of the characters are fascinating. And if you are a student of science fiction, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is just one of those books you should be reading, anyway.
While I can’t say I enjoyed it, I can say that I’m glad I read it. And I do recommend reading it. If you’re looking for a happy book, though, this isn’t it.
You can find more of my book reviews here.