Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is arguably the most famous book written by the renowned science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, which is mainly due to the book being the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi film masterpiece Blade Runner (1982). It’s only fitting that I review this book after reviewing Heart of Darkness (1899), which inspired the film Apocalypse Now, and The Hellbound Heart (1986), which inspired the horror film Hellraiser, as in all three cases I felt the movie adaptation was better than the book.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is set in a dystopic future where Earth is in crumbled ruin and most of its inhabitants have emigrated to a colony on mars along with their android servants. The story takes place on Earth and follows Rick Deckard, a police bounty hunter whose job is to ‘retire’ escaped androids from Mars that are attempting to lead human existences on Earth. The androids he has to kill in the book are fitted with a new AI system called Nexus-6, which makes them almost indistinguishable from humans and apparently very dangerous. The only way to tell an android from a human is to administer a Voight-Kampff test, which tests for empathy levels in the subject; empathy being a human quality that androids are incapable of expressing. While this sounds very similar to Blade Runner so far, the two texts are extremely different in their execution of the subject matter. The book lacks the noire, cyberpunk aesthetic of the movie and also the tension and tight pacing. Instead it has a rushed and thinly drawn out story, peopled with transparent characters and androids that are somehow less transparent than the human characters.
Character development is nearly absent in the novel and we never find anything to really hang onto with any of its characters. Considering the theme of the novel is empathy, it is its greatest downfall that the author inspires none of it for any of its characters. This is further embellished by the constant perspective shifts to a character called J.R Isidore, who is a timid resident in an abandoned apartment complex. His inclusion seemed largely unnecessary and was obviously used solely as a plot device for later in the story, where we get to witness him interacting with the androids Deckard has to retire. This could’ve been done without him, and so I conclude that this character was nothing but filler. The other problem with the book is the relative ease that Deckard retires all the androids: of the six, he only kills four himself, and it takes him no longer than a sentence or two to end each of them. He kills the last three androids in rapid succession and there was never any hint of danger to his life. These androids were built up to be highly capable and deceptive killing machines, and yet by the end of the story you’re left thinking he might as well have been retiring toasters or microwaves.
Despite all the negative things I have to say about the book, it does do a decent job of dissecting the theme of reality and humanity. What makes us human? If we became so absorbed in our own technology that we could electrically manipulate our brains to experience any emotion, if we could interact with humanoid robots without ever knowing they are androids, and if said androids could excel in many arts that are considered to be exclusively human, then what is left? The line between organic and mechanic is especially blurred when the human existence is painted as one of autonomy and fulfilling impulses such as sex and hunger that are largely out of our control. In some ways the book suggests that it is the androids that are more free than we are, because they are not limited by our sense of empathy; after all, the main thing we empathise with in each other is despair and isolation, due to the fact that we all share the same fate – inevitable death.
Unfortunately though, all theme and no substance doesn’t make for a very engaging book. The same can be said of Brave New World.
So there you have it, throw in a couple of interesting, yet poorly developed (and seemingly tacked on) scientific inventions (such as an empathy box that allows the user to artificially program themselves to feel any human emotion), a religious undertone (everyone follows a religion called Mercerism, whose prophet is a cross between Moses and the greek legend of Sisyphus), a slew of artificial animals and a couple of real but very expensive ones, tie it all together with some good themes and you have Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. To be honest, I was left dreaming of a better book.
* * 2 stars
A Tiny Taste
He had wondered as had most people at one time or another precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted by an empathy-measuring test. Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida. For one thing, the emphatic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct; a solitary organism, such as a spider, would have no use for it; in fact it would tend to abort a spider’s ability to survive. It would make him conscious of the desire to live on the part of his prey. Hence all predators, even highly developed mammals such as cats, would starve… As long as some creature experienced joy, then the condition for all other creatures included a fragment of joy. However, if any living being suffered, then for all the rest the shadow could not be entirely cast off. A herd animal such as man would acquire a higher survival factor through this; an owl or a cobra would be destroyed. Evidently the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator.