For Rick Deckard an escaped humanoid robot, which had killed its master, which had been equipped with an intelligence greater than that of many human beings, which had no regard for animals, which possessed no ability to feel empathetic joy for another life form’s success or grief at its defeat — that, for him, epitomized The Killers.
(from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, page 32)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, published in 1968, is a post-apocalyptic, science fiction novel on which the movie Blade Runner (which I haven’t seen) was based. Set in 2021, Philip K. Dick imagines a world in which war has decimated the human and animal populations, most people have emigrated to Mars to escape the toxic dust, and owning an animal of any kind is a status symbol. Animals have become so rare, so coveted, and so expensive that many people purchase more affordable electric versions that are so similar their neighbors can’t tell the difference.
The novel covers a day in the life of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter with the San Francisco police who makes most of his money “retiring” androids that have escaped their lives of servitude on Mars to live among the few remaining humans on Earth. Deckard has been given the impossible task of retiring six androids in a single day, and he hopes to put the money he earns toward the purchase of a real animal to live alongside his electric sheep. The biggest difference between a human and an android (which looks like, acts like, and thinks like a human) is empathy. Deckard uses a test that gauges the level of empathy exhibited by the subject based on a series of questions, and he kills those that fail to pass it. He has no problem killing androids…until he finds himself attracted to one.
While Deckard is out hunting androids, John Isidore lives a lonely existence in an empty apartment building. He is a “chickenhead” barred from emigrating due to the effects of the toxic dust on his intelligence. His life consists of his job as a driver for an electric-animal repair shop, a television tuned to a single channel, and an empathy box that lets the user be one with the Christ-like Mercer being pelted with rocks on his grueling uphill climb and share the thoughts and feelings of other Mercerites. When a trio of androids takes up residence in the building, Isidore finally feels accepted.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was my book club’s June selection (read Serena’s review for a recap of our meeting) and a book I never would have read otherwise. It’s difficult to describe since there is so much going on. It’s a novel about a civilization in decay, but it doesn’t explain much about the war that occurred years before. The world is technologically advanced, given the human-like androids, the ability to travel to Mars, and the use of hovercars, but I wanted more details about the empathy boxes and especially the “mood organ” that lets users dial up whatever mood they want to be in that day. The parts about the religion of Mercerism are confusing and somewhat out of place, yet the story line about the bounty hunters and the androids overshadows everything else and is actually the most interesting.
I was surprised by how much I liked this book. It was very readable, and despite wanting more details and world-building, I found it hard to put down. There is one scene in a police station that had me on the edge of my seat; I was suddenly unsure of everything I thought I knew, and I like being kept on my toes like that. It made a great book club selection, as it is very thought-provoking. What does it mean to be human? Does it really boil down to empathy? When do humans cross the line into inhumanity? Despite living in a far different world than Deckard and Isidore, Dick makes it possible to understand them to a certain extent. Surely we can understand the characters’ love of animals and the desire to care for them; we see today how many people view their pets as part of the family.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reminds me why I need to read outside my comfort zone every once in awhile. I was fascinated by the various story lines, even when they confused me. I felt Deckard’s exhaustion when I thought about how the whole book takes place in one day. I was second-guessing every character (are they human or android?) and was more invested in the characters than I imagined I would be. I didn’t care for the ending so much because it felt a bit rushed and almost like Dick didn’t know where to go with the story (and with so many plot lines, I wouldn’t be surprised if he confused himself), but I appreciated how much the book made me think about humanity and how I would act in these characters’ shoes.
Disclosure: I borrowed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? from the public library.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.