the science fiction
fantasy horror &
|home articles profiles interviews essays books movies competitions guidelines issues links archives contributors email|
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
Philip K. Dick
Orion paperback £6.99
review by Mike Philbin
Surely you've heard this often before... or maybe you haven't. It's a question, a simple question. And here it is. Is Philip K. Dick the modern day equivalent of William Shakespeare?
Now, I've gone totally PDK insane, yes? No. And I'll show you why. Dick's many books, the more I read them, have greater and greater resonance. Just like Shakespeare's numerous volumes.
I did hypothesise that maybe it was a symptom of me getting old. I'll be 40 years old next year. I know that doesn't make me eligible for a pension yet, but I'm no longer a spring chicken (even if I still feel like a stupid kid some times). I read this book Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? in my teens, just about the time the Blade Runner film came out. I'm not sure whether I read it at the same time, slightly before or slightly after... but I do remember that at the time I had read a couple of Dick non-runners. Maybe it was that time of my life, my troubled teens. But the classic PKD output had failed to resonate that nodule in me that deals with literary elation and critical worship. I just couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
See, it's the same with Shakespeare. We get 'exposed' to old Shaky in our teens, in our literature class and instinctively, we rebel against it, recoil from it. I did the same with PKD. It just was too hard to read, as was Shakespeare. Then I lived a little, well 20 or more years. And you can get a lot of living done in less time but to say it helped would be understating it.
Only at this late point in my life have I really started to enjoy the works of Philip K. Dick. I've read a few PKD books recently and have just been in awe. Take this book about androids. Now that I've reread it later in life I can safely say that it wipes the floor with the film version. No, wait, the film version was, no, is, my favourite film of all time, the way it contemporised genetic research those few years into the future, the way the characters were fully fleshed out, but they had nothing to do with the major thrust of the book.
Mercerism. That one pseudo-religious aspect was missing from the film and that is the aspect of the book that makes it shine like a star, makes it sing like a lark, makes it leap through hoops like... well, you get the idea.
And that 'you are an android' aspect. Why wasn't that played with in the movie more blatantly? As I read the book, and as the Nexus 6 parallel-group narrative unfurled excruciatingly, I truly believed that the entire world was filled with androids. In fact, I had this idea to write a book about just that. I was only half way through Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (DADOES) when I had this 'brainstorm' it was so obvious. It's an important part of the narrative that nobody truly knows who, or what, they are. But then Dick topped-and-tailed his android narrative so well, I plum forgot about writing my story. No great loss, because Dick's already done it. He's the master.
Is he? Well, yes. Isn't it obvious? If it isn't, I can only say this - you have not read any PKD. Just one glance through the humorous start of the DADOES book and you should be laughing your socks off at the sheer disturbing density of the humour (the opening scene when Deckard and his wife are awakened by the jolt of the mood machine - then they spend the entire first chapter arguing about which mood to download). That whole scene is so now. That's what humans are like now, 30 or 40 years later. Darling, what colour should our baby's eyes be? Darling, should I have my shins lengthened? Should one have Cuban heals built-into the foot? How about breast, ass, genital augmentation, do you have the menu there, luvvy?
But back to this 'Mercerism'... Why is it so fundamental to the life and soul of the book? Well, it's the act of faith that the book promotes, the solemn belief from the androids that they are their role, the solemn belief from Deckard that what he's doing as a job is right and proper, the belief that owning an animal somehow cleanses one of the sins of one's race, the belief that even the 'chicken heads' can make a difference. What? Chicken heads?
Yes, in the film it was the accelerated decrepitude sufferer J.F. Sebastian (they changed a lot in the film) but in the book, he's J.R. Isidore the chicken head - a sort of mongoloid sub-human who can't leave the planet because he'll never pass the aptitude test, a sort of negative entry exam, a departure pass. He's destined to remain on Earth with the kipple and the dust and the worsening radiation. It's a world that's literally crumbling under his feet. But still he tries to support the last three surviving androids who turn up in his apartment building looking for sanctuary, he is the old priest offering shelter to the war-wounded, the broken souled, the maimed of body, the injured party. He is the high priest of empathy. Empathy being the driving force behind the effectiveness of Mercerism - where the populace of the Earth conjoin psychically via the biofeedback-internet of the future.
Empathy tears through every aspect of the narrative; it's the basis for the Voigt-Kampff test which the 'Blade Runners' (as William S. Burroughs called them in his own screenplay version) use to determine whether their intended target is in fact an android. This test assesses the droid's empathic reaction to abstract mind-games involving either sex or animals. Empathy also plays a part in why these bounty hunters do what they do, their prime motivation. It's just such a deep book.
I am breathless trying even to make sense of it. Have I succeeded? Do you want to go out instantly and buy and read this book? Well, let's see.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is the story of one man and his sheep, it's an electric sheep. He can't afford a real one because he is bound to a police department and it's not every day that you get a gang of droids to retire. He subsists on basic cop pay until the day when he can earn his bonus by killing an illegal synthetic immigrant. Why are they retiring droids? Well, they're for off-world use only; you've got your standard pleasure model, your manual workers and your technicians. It's a hierarchy of artificial intelligence that mankind doesn't mind exploiting to its own ends (out in the silent darkness of space exploration) but certainly doesn't want staining our own planet. They're non-empathic, they have a minimal lifespan, they have minimal emotional vocabulary, they are 'genetic machines' - that's all, built to do a job.
But the Rosen institute's ambition is to make a droid that is indistinguishable from the real thing, what was the catchphrase in the movie? "More human than human." These guys are the real enemy in the book - again something the film doesn't really play upon. There's an interesting quote about the alien nature of the corporate mentality, "So that's how the largest manufacturer of androids operates... devious, and in a manner [Deckard] had never encountered before. A weird and convoluted new personality type."
Then there's TV chat show host Buster Friendly (another character missing from the film) and for very good reason as the film seemed terrified to even hint at dealing with Deckard's potential-android-ness. Dick used a similar world-famous media star character in such a metaphorical role in his The Game Players Of Titan novel and here it works really well to emphasise the sense of dread and paranoia.
Rachel's there, Roy Baty's there, Pris is there - it's all so very familiar to those who have watched (adored) the movie but Dick's intimate entangling of psychoanalytical threads adds a stunning resonance to the narrative. This is such a deep book - recommended reading for anyone.
Please support this
website - buy stuff
using these links:
KIPPLE = useless objects like junk mail or used match folders or bubble-gum wrappers (when nobody's around kipple reproduces itself).