Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book 17 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

By Philip K. Dick

Yup, believe it. Just read this for the very first time! Plenty of spoilers ahead since I assume the rest of the world has read it…

First off, I understand that Blade Runner is only very loosely based on this PKD classic. But since I’ve seen the movie, like, multiple times, and the cinematic imagery and storyline are so deeply ingrained in me, it’s almost impossible not to go in without any preconceptions or inevitable comparisons. Guess it’s rather fitting that I found a used paperback featuring Blade Runner as the cover!

In this respect, DADoES was a bit of a let-down for me, with none of the action and violence of the film version. Although everything took place over the course of a 24-hour period in which Deckard retired a total of 6 androids… mostly executed in a weirdly un-dramatic manner. There was no race against time where the rogue Nexus-6 androids seek a cure to extend their robot lives, no “lemme tell you about my mother” confrontations, nor a maker meets his doom scenario where his android creation squeezes eyes n’ brains out of skull. And lastly, no final laser tube showdown between human and machine. In fact, the ending where Deckard finishes off the remaining androids was rather anti-climactic and remarkably unexciting.

There was also a very un-sexy bedroom scene with Deckard and Rachael, a female android (unsexy because the dated descriptions and dialogue rendered it tame and rather laughable). Even Dick’s earlier work The Man In The High Castle had some excellent ass-kicking in there, so it’s not like ass-kicking was out of the realm of his stylistic milieu.

Ok, now the negative stuff is out of the say. What Blade Runner lacks in background setting, contextual details and thematic exploration, the novel provides in abundance -- PKD-style. Sometime after an unnamed nuclear war, a mysterious radioactive dust contaminates most of the planet’s surface and almost wipes out every species in the animal kingdom. With the human race at risk, a colonization program is escalated on a massive scale. As an immigration incentive, and under U.N. law:

Each emigrant automatically receives in possession an android subtype of his choice, and, by 2019, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s.

It’s this cool sci-fi background stuff that naturally makes the novel interesting. That, and how the leftover defective Earthlings live out their lives. One of the few things worth possessing is a real, live animal. Not necessarily for companionship, but because life of any kind is so rare, and a living thing, even a little toad, is worth its weight in gold. For the unfortunates who can’t afford a live animal, they fool their neighbours by acquiring an electric one that looks and behaves almost like the real thing. While the indigenous life on Earth dies a slow death, the evolution of android sentiency grows increasingly complex, thanks to the snazzy new Nexus-6 line developed by the Rosen Association.

With newfangled brainchips, a minority of rogue androids escape the oppressive colonies and gradually infiltrate all aspects of human society on Earth. Some androids even think they’re human due to implanted synthetic memories. But no matter how humanized an android becomes, they can never acquire the same right to life as human beings, or any living thing for that matter. As one android-in-hiding puts it: “… it’s a chance anyway, breaking free and coming here to Earth, where we’re not even considered animals. Where every worm and louse is considered more desirable than all of us put together.”

Apparently, the only remaining attribute that separates humans from androids is empathy, and administering the Voigt-Kampff test is standard practice in order to distinguish android from authentic human. From early on in the novel, inherent flaws in the VK empathy test are revealed, not in determining a lack of empathy in an android per se, but rather the failure to account for humans with underdeveloped empathic ability. Thus, this calls into question various moral and ethical reasoning and beliefs.

So yes, very familiar and universal themes at play here, ie. the science fiction exploration of the ethical dimensions inherent to the android concept literary device, in order to understand the persecution of a person based upon artificial distinctions such as "ethnic group" (wikipedia). Even though Deckard and all the other characters were rather flat and the lack of ass-kicking was a big letdown, Dick’s ideas and themes remain engaging and timeless.

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