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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 244 pages
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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, first published in 1968, was our June book club selection, and is the basis on which the classic movie Blade Runner is based.  (Previous to reading the novel, I’ve seen the movie, and recent memories of the watching the movie kept me alert for similarities in the book)  Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, who works for little money in San Fransisco’s Police Department, and what money he does make is from bounties on the heads of escaped androids that escape Mars often by killing humans.  Society has evolved to the point at which androids are so human-like that they cannot be sniffed out except through a couple of tests administered by bounty hunters, which will puzzle the reader as to why the android would sit for such a test knowing that to fail means immediate retirement — a.k.a death.

Animals are no different, with many of the animals made extinct by the war and fallout, and residents of this desolate Earth are desperate to own an animal, even if it is an electric sheep.  As David Sedaris says in his essay “Loggerheads” in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, “As with the sea turtle, part of the thrill was the feeling of being accepted … allowed you to think that you and this creature had a special relationship …”  These humans are looking for connections in any way that they can get them, either through animal ownership — such as ownership of electric animals — or through the empathy machine that connects them with other members of society through Mercerism.

“Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet.  Because, ultimately, the emphatic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated.”  (page 51)

In Roger Zelazny’s introduction, he says, “His management of a story takes you from here to there in a God-knows-how, seemingly haphazard fashion, which, upon reflection, follows a logical line of development — but only on reflection.”  He’s correct in that the story shifts from Deckard’s story to that of J.R. Isidore, a so-called special or chickenhead who has been declared genetically unfit to emigrate to the Mars colony.  Isidore lives alone in a dilapidated apartment building filled with kipple, the detritus and radioactive dust, etc.  His condition requires readers to have a lot of patience for his ramblings, which in some cases seem like LSD trips or a schizophrenic break, but in some ways, Dick is attempting to demonstrate another aspect of loneliness and disconnect than what he’s showcased in the human-android relationship.  In addition, Dick seems to want readers to think long and hard about their faith in religion as the subject of Mercerism pervades the story as a way for humanity to connect on a deeper level through technological means.

“Here there existed no one to record his or anyone else’s degradation, and any courage or pride which might manifest itself here at the end would go unmarked: the dead stones, the dust-stricken weeds dry and dying, perceived nothing, recollected nothing, about him or themselves.”  (page 231)

Deckard is a man conflicted about his job, but only after he meets an android he finds attractive, and as with most men living on the edge and crossing over moral lines, he struggles to regain his footing and return to his real life and think little about what he’s done.  While he’s cocky about his abilities to take down androids, that bravado soon gives way to concern, doubt, and even fear.  Dick’s surreal narrative will leave readers guessing about the direction of the chase for the androids and whether Deckard will have the strength to complete his task or whether in completing that task he’ll have a complete breakdown or experience no repercussions what so ever.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is an exploration not of the future, but of ourselves and our never-ending search for connection with others — whether that is with an android, a spouse, a co-worker, a lover, or an animal.  In his convoluted and disconcerting narrative, the author seeks to upend the beliefs of his readers and challenge their moral boundaries.  Unfortunately, there are big gaps in the narrative and the background about the war that caused the destruction of Earth, the origins of Mercerism, and what exactly is going on Mars — are androids in control of Mars, turning humans into androids, or something else.  These are just some of the issues that are not explored fully in this cerebral exercise.

What the Book Club Thought:

Most of the book club liked the book a great deal, with two members liking it more than they expected to when they began reading it.  Dick is one of the member’s favorite authors.  In the discussion, we touched upon the jabs at capitalism throughout the text in that animals are bought and sold at high prices and the addiction of characters to the mood organ (on which they can preset their mood for the day) and the empathy machine, which allows humans to commune with one another and Mercer.  These machines seemed to leave humans dependent and in a fog, but there is also the surreal portions of the story that left many of us guessing as to whether a spider found by Isidore was real or imaginary and Rick’s sudden transformation into Mercer without the empathy machine after completing his job.

The ownership of androids (which are advertised as an incentive to move to Mars) was compared to that of owning slaves, as well as why bounty hunters were necessary to retire the androids — are they dangerous or just different?  I theorized that perhaps the incentive of owning an android was a ploy to get humans to Mars so they could be replaced with androids.  None of the other members seemed to agree.  One member also questioned from the beginning whether Rick was human or an android, though most of the members assumed he was human.  Other topics touched upon were that the androids were child-like and not as evolved as humans and hence why they sometimes acted with malice, and that perhaps given more time to live, they could develop empathy, thus making them harder to distinguish from humans.

Our July book club selection is His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik.

About the Author:

Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928 and lived most of his life in California. He briefly attended the University of California, but dropped out before completing any classes. In 1952, he began writing professionally and proceeded to write numerous novels and short-story collections. He won the Hugo Award for the best novel in 1962 for The Man in the High Castle and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of the year in 1974 for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Philip K. Dick died on March 2, 1982, in Santa Ana, California, of heart failure following a stroke.

This is my 40th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

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  • Gordon

    That is a great point and I don’t think we really covered that….at least not directly. There were so many other points to discuss as it was. I do agree with many of the other club members that it would have been interesting to see some ideas/history developed more (and some things were just downright confusing). While, ultimately, I believe Deckard is human, I was surprised that it wasn’t one of the top questions people had I the discussion.

    Overall, I did enjoy the novel, and I’m glad that this first exposure to Dick was, for most, an enjoyable experience.

    • http://www.savvyverseandwit.com Serena

      I think you’re right, Gordon. For the most part, reading Dick was enjoyable. I’ve read other sci-fi before, but not his work. I think I’d be interested in his short stories.

  • http://comesitbythehearth.blogspot.com Snowball

    Dekard’s humanity has been the stuff of intense debate since the movie came out. Many, including Dir. Scott and Rutger Hauer believed he was an older replicant. Harrison Ford, however, believed he was human.

    As I read the book, it seemed to me that Dick’s point was much darker and more unsettling. “What does it really mean to be human?” In the end the replicants were forced into certain roles and wanted only autonomy over their own live. They were willing to die and kill in their attempt to gain it. Throughout the book is instance after instance of humans abdicating the very things the replicants longed for, and their was scant evidence of human mercy in them.

    So at the end I found myself wondering if the replicants were, as the slogan said, “more human than the human.”

    • http://www.savvyverseandwit.com Serena

      That’s a very good point, Snowball, and I have to say you raise some questions that were not raised in the book club at all. I had wondered about the androids and their humanity or lack thereof — but really they only lived about 2 years so in effect were like children, and if they can learn and evolve, perhaps they needed more time.

      I did notice that humans seemed very ready to give up things that we take for granted…particularly with their dependence upon the mood organ and the empathy machine. It was very unsettling.

  • http://diaryofaneccentric.wordpress.com Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    This was a great book club pick. There was so much to discuss! I didn’t love the book, but it was pretty good. I actually don’t feel like I need to see the movie, given that there are so many differences.

    • http://www.savvyverseandwit.com Serena

      It was a great book club discussion book.

  • http://www.bookingmama.net/ Julie P.

    What a unique book club selection. My group would never read something like this!

    • http://www.savvyverseandwit.com Serena

      It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there is a lot to discuss for sure.

  • http://undermyappletree.net Leslie

    P.K. Dick is one of my favorite authors. Most people don’t relate him to all those movie adaptations. Probably because a lot of them were short stories written many years ago. Maybe if he were still alive they would, but sadly he isn’t.

    It’s nice to see a book club choosing something so mind bending. I thought Deckard was human too. I’ve also seen the movie several times, both endings. I think the change was made with the release of a director’s cut.

    • http://www.savvyverseandwit.com Serena

      It was also interesting to see how they updated the date farther into the future with the re-releases of the book to 2021 since it would be extremely close to present day for us now.

      I think the change was made in the director’s cut if I remember correctly. I didn’t see as much evidence for it in the book, though. I do like his ideas, but some of them in this book were left too wide open for me to give it 4 stars.

      I do want to read more of his stuff though.

      • http://undermyappletree.net Leslie

        Try We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. This was the book the movie Total Recall was based on. I saw the first movie but not the remake. The book was better.

        • http://www.savvyverseandwit.com Serena

          I’ve seen both Total Recall movies, but I think in Dick’s case, I might like the movies better. But I’m willing to give more of his stuff a try.

  • http://bermudaonion.net bermudaonion (Kathy)

    I’ve never seen the movie but Carl has watched it many times. The book sounds intriguing. As a side note, to tell you how times have changed – when I saw the title, I immediately thought of phones.

    • http://savvyverseandwit.com Serena

      Android phones?! LOL that’s so true. 1968 is a long time ago, but at book club I also found out that many of my dad’s favorite sci-fi movies are based on Dick’s short stories and other work. LOL I clearly had no idea.