Monday, November 21, 2011

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

I consider it inexcusable that as big of a Blade Runner fan as I am, that I’d never gotten around to reading this.  Consider it my love-hate affair with Philip K. Dick.  I love almost all his short stories, but I haven’t really liked many of his novels, or at least not very much.  I know, everyone likes The Man in the High Castle, but I wasn’t fond of it; I didn’t really like Dr. Bloodmoney, I found VALIS too strange even for me, and although I did enjoy A Scanner Darkly and thought We Can Build You was OK, I decided to move on to other things at that point.  Just saying I gave it a stab is all.  Nonetheless, I finally picked this one up and was pleasantly surprised if not entirely won over – and it’s pretty short too, so there you have it.

It’s probably not entirely reasonable to bring up points of comparison to Blade Runner, because these are pretty obviously different takes on the material.  The core of the story is the same, you’ve got Rick Deckard, bounty hunter of androids, who aren’t allowed to be on Earth; they’re used as manual labor, soldiers and sex slaves on offworld colonies, but that’s about all the book and movie have in common besides the character names and job titles.  The novel’s setting is explicitly post-apocalyptic, not just noir; there’s not really a lot of people left on Earth, and many of the ones who are left are “chickenheads”, folks who have had exposure to fallout and have suffered mental/physical impairment as a result.  Most of the best and brightest have gone offworld or died in the war.  It’s implied that the ones who stayed and are more or less of normal capacity have pretty bad emotional issues.  And you get a touch of that typical Dick surrealism in that all the men walk around wearing designer lead codpieces, although if there was really that much residual radiation that this was advisable then that probably wouldn’t be the first thing I’d want to protect anyway (although putting one on Harrison Ford might have been pretty funny, I guess they didn’t have one in the prop department or something).  Another effect is that most of the non-human life on Earth has died, so having any sort of real animal is a status symbol and harming one is deeply shocking.

The action opens on Deckard as he’s having something of an argument with his wife, who is using something called a “mood organ” to give herself periods of depression and anxiety.  I say something of an argument because they’re both using the mood-altering device to affect their mental states; Deckard at first thinks about dialing up his anger on the device but thinks better of it when his wife threatens to retaliate, so they both eventually just dial it down and he goes to work.  I get it, this bounty hunter of human-like machines is at the mercy of emotions he gets from an external source.  Kind of heavy handed, although handled in a pretty funny manner.  There’s also the issue of Mercerism, which is a quasi-religious belief system that allows the user to be with Mercer as he gets killed by an angry mob, and an ongoing and unresolved plot about a somewhat sinister media personality who appears to make more programming per day than there are hours in the day.

Deckard may be a bounty hunter but in the story the androids are actually pretty sociopathic.  They aren’t capable of emotional response to the suffering of others and that’s the basis of the test that can detect them.  However, one of the newer models, the Nexus 6, does appear to be able to have at least some regard for other androids, since one of them seduces Deckard and tries to get him to stop bounty hunting.  Which he doesn’t.  And this doesn’t seem all that bad because although the androids that he’s after haven’t exactly done anything wrong, they’re also pretty unpleasant, since they basically trick a lonely chickenhead into giving them shelter and don’t think much about tormenting the weak.  This Roy Baty isn’t a tragic character, and his desires don’t drive the plot.  He’s basically just a jerk.  In a way this is too bad, because I thought Dick might be trying to mirror human bounty hunters who have regard for biological life but kill synthetic life without remorse and question whether we have the right to judge androids as sociopaths, but in fact the androids really don't seem to be very pleasant at all.

I didn’t love this book.  It has a couple of fundamental problems in my opinion, one of which is that Dick’s real strength as an author is in mind-bending prose and weirdness, not action; so when there are action sequences they tend to fall flat as Deckard just shoots androids and kills them.  This is also a rare case in which I think that the book should have been longer, as its size makes some of the plot threads terminate abruptly.  One of the stronger scenes is when Deckard finds himself in a police station he didn’t know existed which turns out to be staffed by androids, and this plot basically just drops, and the same is true of some of the other subplots like Mercer.

However, I did like it more than I thought I would, primarily because of the dark humor and the matter-of-factness of the plot.  Dick was on his game here and creating nice point-counterpoints on what it means to be human exactly, which was his major area of expertise.  I’d say that the characters were flat, but that’s the point, I think.  Anyway, fairly short and enjoyable, so it’s worth a look.

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