Thursday, December 3, 2015

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre:Soft Science Fiction
Series: Standalone
Pages: 210

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The novel that inspired the classic film Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is surprisingly different from it’s movie adaptation , but no less powerful or effective as a story.  Since Blade Runner took off and became a cult classic film, it has inspired many people to pick up the source material that was written by Philip K. Dick.  I put myself in the former category as I saw the film before I read the book.

In the book, what I found was a vastly different story from the movie, especially regarding the thematic content.  These differences might be off-putting to fans of the film, but Dick’s story has some great individual strengths that can be appreciated as long as the reader is able to separate the book from the film.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a thematically rich story, but it can be difficult to empathize with some of the characters, which can be dry in their characterizations at times.  The strong thematic content and their deeper implications largely off-sets this though.  Dick’s book is ultimately a book that questions what does it mean to be human?  In regards to exploring that question the book is largely unsurpassed in the science fiction genre.

Philip K. Dick’s novel is set in 1992 (keep in mind the book was written in 1968) and it takes place after the devastating and apocalyptic World War Terminus.  Earth has been left in a dire radioactive state, buildings are largely abandoned, and most animals are rare exotic commodities, as the radiation has made most species extinct. As a result of Earth’s dire state, most humans have migrated to other human inhabited planets.

Human technological advancement has led to the creation of androids, which are intelligent robots.  Androids are only kept on off-world colonies, and they are used as for vigorous tasks of labor.  Androids look, talk, and act like humans to the point where most humans cannot tell them apart from other humans.  Off-world androids have short life-spans (usually around 4 years) and they have a predisposition to make escape attempts and try to return to Earth.

The plot follows a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard over the span of day as he looks to retire (kill) six escaped Nexus-6 androids, the most advanced and dangerous android models.  Additionally the book focuses on J.R. Isidore a chickenhead (mentally retarded person), who befriends some of the escaped androids and tries to help them while they are on Earth.

(For those who haven’t seen Blade Runner, there are spoilers for that movie below).

Blade Runner is a film the embraces the actions of humans more than humans themselves.  The end result of the film is the climactic epiphany by Roy, the one that complicates the androids intentions, and for that matter what the true nature of being human is.  This is the part of Blade Runner that fans of the movie have always loved, the part where a strong argument is made that the androids embody more human characteristics than the humans.  Does this make androids more human than humans?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep though doesn’t really argue in favor of the androids.  Rather the opposite is argued: any human (even a mentally challenged one) is more humane than an android.  Dick’s novel still has humane acting androids, but his intention though is make readers wary of the dangers presented by a genuine lack of empathy.

The bottom line is, it is absolutely necessary to kill androids in Dick’s novel, where as the movie leaves viewers questioning whether or not androids should be killed.  Dick prefers genuine empathy over the pre-programmed emotional responses from androids.  The new Nexus-6 androids that Deckard must hunt down in the novel are so advanced that the standard (fictionalized) empathy test, called the Voight-Kampff test, takes many hours for Deckard to figure out whether or not the Nexus-6 androids are not human.

Authenticity as it relates to empathy is so important to Dick that he uses this as Deckard’s justification to kill the incredibly humane Nexus-6 androids.  To Dick it doesn’t matter how closely the androids act like humans, because their emotions are not real. In it’s own right, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is just as morally complicated as Blade Runner, but in a different way.

Although it’s set in 1992, and a lot of the technology in the book is still far off, there is still an air of warning about the dangers of creating artificial humans.  Deckard suffers from post traumatic stress disorder like symptoms because he has to kill androids for a living.  The similarities between the androids and humans are what causes this problem for Deckard, and it makes it seem to Deckard that he is losing is humanity.  The warning being artificial humans may cause people to forget what being human is all about.

Deckard and Isidore are likeable protagonists and Pris and Roy are likeable antagonists.  The conflict between these two opposing groups feels morally complicated because all of the characters have likeable traits.  On a personal level, the characterizations can start to feel dry in the novel, despite the emotions attached with the thematic ideas and conflicts. I would expect to be feeling genuine emotion for the characters personalities and decisions, and at times I do, but it’s not as much emotion as I would expect to feel given the circumstances the novel is set in.

The novel at times suffers from the very simple style of prose Dick uses, which seems to feel out of place with the heavier thematic implications.  Despite some short comings, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a contemplative novel, and it’s philosophical questioning of humanity will be appreciated by readers who are looking for thought provoking reading.

Score: 9.0

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