Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Review - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In spite of having been recommended my "classic 20th Century Sci-Fi" reading list has never included any work by Philip K. Dick. I've enjoyed a number of movie adaptations based on his work, so I felt like it was high time to give him a try. Not knowing the best place to start, I chose the iconic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

While I was reading the book, my 14-year-old son noted the title and said "That sounds either very silly or very boring or both." I was about halfway through the book when he made the comment so I was able to let him know that even the "silly" concepts were presented in realistic and serious ways and that while it might not be a suspenseful edge-of-your-seat page turner there were some intriguing action sequences that involved death and destruction. My son left the conversation more educated but still not entirely convinced that this book would draw him in.

Now that I've finished reading, I'm also not sure it would draw him in. While the book has a sort of futuristic detective Noir element, it's not exactly the snarky and explosive detective novel of a Dashell Hammett and it's definitely not the sort of sensory explosion that is working so hard to pull in the short attention span of 21st century kids. At the same time, I think he, or any reader, can really get drawn in if they were to approach this book not looking at it as an suspense-adventure mystery thrill ride but as a thoughtful psychological exploration of humanity, technology and morality.

This book is approaching its 50 year anniversary and, as is often the case with futuristic sci-fi, it's starting to show its age in a few aspects. At the same time the story and the technology is presented in such a way that makes the world real and believable. Some of the futuristic high-tech ideas are great. They don't yet feel quite as prophetic as some that I've read from Bradbury, for example, but the concepts and technology still have shadows and nuances that exist in our modern world.

Even more than the technology, I found the psychological exploration of humanity and morality to be very intriguing. The book takes place on post-apocalyptic Earth. Most of humanity has emigrated to Mars or other space colonies. Those who continue to live on Earth generally either do so because they can't afford to leave, are just too stubborn to leave or are prohibited to leave because of physical or mental limitations that society doesn't wish to "infect" the new off-planet environments. The story follows a bounty hunter, Rick Deckard, who works for the L.A. police department to "retire" illegal Androids in the area. Androids are used in the various off-planet colonies as laborers and companions for the humans but some androids become a little too willfully self-aware and they break away from their assignments and flee to someplace new where they try to "pass" as human and create a new life for themselves.

Deckard's investigation and manhunt have that Noir feel of a detective unraveling a mystery and working to bring the criminals to justice. His story has suspense, action, romance, danger, intrigue and all sorts of other elements you'd expect to find in an early 1900s detective novel. There are some fun twists and turns along the way including surprise elements that turn things on their head. The action-adventure-mystery is engaging and fun even if not necessarily fast paced in the vein of a 21st century summer action movie.

What caused me the most pause were the thoughtful interactions between Deckard and the other characters or (when Deckard was "off stage") between the characters in general. This book provides a lot of opportunity for personal and societal introspection. There are are a few different commentaries going on during the book, some more overt than others.

The title alludes to an element of "future life" on post-apocalyptic Earth. Most animal life was destroyed in the same war that destroyed much of humanity. As humanity works to rebuild itself, they place a new value on life. Live animals become an amazingly valuable commodity and a symbol of social status. With the advent of better, more realistic robotic technology there is a huge business in "electric" animals that are virtually indistinguishable from live animals. Those who cannot afford to purchase a live animal often settle for purchasing an electric animal. These robotic animals are built to require much the same effort of care and nurturing as live animals. Rick Deckard owns an electric sheep. He and his wife love and care for the sheep. Their neighbors have no inkling that the sheep is electric but Deckard knows his sheep is not "real" and he feels like a second class person because of it. Throughout the book, even in the middle of his adventurous manhunt, he contemplates how to purchase a live animal. He keeps a magazine handy where he can quickly review the price and availability of any live animal. He frequently reviews the magazine...when he sees an animal, hears someone talk about an animal or sometimes just because the thought of animals happened to cross his mind. He is obsessed with getting a "real" animal so he can be more of a person. This materialistic obsession and the sense of self-worth that comes from the wealth and ownership is a problem that society deals with from generation to generation.

I found this particular element interesting because it touches not only on the aspect of materialism but it also explores nuances of that concept. For example, even when Deckard's neighbors had no idea that his sheep was electric, he felt embarrassed and of less-worth. No one was judging him. The materialism was so deeply rooted that he was judging himself. This also expands into the idea of "fake" versus "real" objectification. In this instance both fake and real were virtually indistinguishable. Yet the artificial object brought less joy and in fact caused feelings of worthlessness and despair. I know this may be stretching the author's intent a bit but I see this kind of objectification a lot in modern society not just with material objects but with relationships and human interaction. With the advent of social networking some people have a sense of prestige or popularity in the number of friends, likes, retweets, subscriptions or other interactions they have on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest and others. However, these artificial "electric" relationships are no substitute for "live" interaction with real people. A person with hundreds of followers and tons of likes may still feel lonely and depressed as they sit by themselves in front of their computer on a Friday night. The artificial is not a substitute for the real in spite of trends and advances in technology.

Other moral and social comment include the idea of class or racial superiority as portrayed by the interactions between human and android. This one isn't quite as overt or heavy handed since the book does present some significant technological differences between the two but it does still open the commentary for discussions about differences between two people who are virtually indistinguishable physically but where one group discriminates or stifles another group. This commentary expands into more grey area with the discrimination of fellow humans based on physical or intellectual deficiencies. Off-planet emigration is explicitly forbidden for those who are not as physically capable (specifically for those who cannot viably reproduce) or who are not up to certain intellectual standards. While modern politics and lawmakers have tried to do away with discrimination at a high level (at least in terms of laws that explicitly discriminate) there is still definitely discrimination that goes on daily to one degree or another.

The other main social or moral commentary in the book is the one that I'm still trying to sort out in my own mind. After the war, mankind adopted a new 'religion' called Mercerism (named after its founder). It doesn't always seemed to be called a religion but that generally seems to be the idea. The practice is a combination of ideals and morals that people try to abide by as well as a physical and mental bonding with the group through a technological object. Basically the people connect (by grabbing two handles) to an "empathy box" which mentally and physically (to some extent) links them to all other humans using the machine. In the experience they are following Mercer as he walks across a desert and up a dusty, rocky hill. Mercer sometimes talks to the people as they walk. As they continue on the journey some invisible force/group/people start throwing rocks at those who are walking. Eventually the journey reaches the top of the hill where Mercer (and the walker) die or topple over the edge or otherwise transition from mortality to immortality. The whole concept was a little unclear to me but it was interesting. The idea is that everyone is pulling together and "empathizing" with Mercer and with their fellow human being. They are working together to achieve something difficult and they are feeling each other's hurts and struggles. Finally, they all feel the satisfaction of victory and then the despair of death and the transformation to immortality. Deckard questions the experience but by the end of the novel he has a sort of existential experience that makes him realize that, regardless of whether Mercer was a prophet or a fake, the idea of human empathy and of striving for something better is a worthwhile concept and that the idea is good for humanity as a whole. Again, I'm not entirely sure what I make of this thread yet but I found it intriguing.


Some of my favorite quotes:

"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."

"I can understand now how you suffer when you're depressed; I always thought you liked it and I thought you could have snapped yourself out at any time...But when you get that depressed you don't care. Apparently, because you've lost a sense of worth. It doesn't matter whether you feel better, because if you have no worth--"

"You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe."

"The silence, all at one, penetrated...In the absence of the [others] he found himself fading out, becoming strangely like the inert television set which he had just unplugged. You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all."


Overall I enjoyed this book on a few different levels. The story was engaging and fun. I didn't fully relate to any one of the characters but I did find the world and the plot intriguing and a fun read. I really enjoyed the thoughtful social and psychological concepts. I have a soft spot for fiction that puts me into a thoughtful mood. I look forward to trying some of Dick's other novels in the future.

4 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

it is a fun story....i read it a while back i believe....and it kept my was the title actually that originally drew me to the book....