Book name: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Author: Philip K Dick
Format: ebook, print, audiobook
Genre: Science fiction
Publication Date: 1968
Star Rating: 5/5
Philip K Dick’s fiction lives on. Forty years after his early death, in 1982, both the novels he wrote and films based on them continue to fascinate and disturb in equal measure.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? made into Bladerunner. However, the book has a unique identity quite separate from the blockbuster movie in terms of both plot and character.
World War Terminus has left everything covered in dust, decimated the human and animal populations, and spurred a mass exodus to Mars. That pill is sweetened with the promise of ‘an android for every settler’.
Most animals have died. Birds are extinct. Any creature badly affected by radiation struggles to survive. Electric alternatives abound, and are increasingly realistic. But they are still ruinously expensive.
Whole apartment blocks are abandoned, and some have only one or two people living in them. We are warned that things are much worse in the suburbs.
Everything on society is collapsing, so the people who do remain on Earth respond as best they can. They turn to Mercer, a Christ-like figure, or TV’s leading presenter Buster Friendly, who provides a 24/7 cheerful distraction from reality.
There are also empathy boxes, which seek to overcome the paralysing loneliness by creating artificial emotions. Rick’s wife spends almost all her time either deeply depressed or using her empathy box.
People (as androids), animals (in their electric versions) and even emotions are now generated artificially with the real thing simply dying out. This is a frightening vision of what our lives could so easily become.
Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter in a future San Francisco that barely resembles the city we know and love today. His job is to track down and ‘retire’ androids. This sounds simple, but androids are so realistically human that it is very difficult to distinguish them from people.
Life on Earth is pretty awful. For ‘special’ JR Isidore this means doing a low-level driving job and being ridiculed by those who haven’t had their faculties destroyed by radioactivity.
Even Rick struggles to help his wife Iran with her depression and to feel that his life has any purpose. His greatest consolation is his electric sheep. However, he longs for a real animal and resents the neighbour who owns a real horse.
Conditions on the Mars colony aren’t as comfortable there as the authorities would have us believe, however. Humans are sneaking back and, perhaps worse, so are the androids. Rick’s challenge is how to tell them apart.
A group of androids far more technologically advanced than anything Earth has seen before kills their human owners and comes to Earth in search of freedom, hoping to blend in here.
Rick is sent to kill these androids after another bounty hunter is almost killed in the line of duty. There are various tests he can use, and he is helped by an android owned by the Rosen Association, a giant corporation responsible for creating the most advanced androids of all.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? features Philip K Dick’s signature mix of action and detail. It’s easy to see how movies such as Bladerunner and Minority Report have been developed out of his writing.
However, there is so much low-key detail and vision in his books, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? included, that reading them is a reflective experience.
One of the most disturbing elements of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (up against some fairly stiff competition) is the blurring of identity between human and android.
This is a world where experts struggle to tell if someone is real or artificial. Rick’s colleague can’t tell if he himself is human or not. Many androids think they are human. Initially, doubt is even thrown on whether Rick is human or not.
Empathy is how we distinguish the false from the real. Whether via the complex test Rick administers or from dealing with someone day to day and noting their lack of empathy, this is how we can tell the difference.
However, people suffering from some mental health issues can be wrongly identified as androids and retired incorrectly. Philip K Dick raises some interesting ethical questions about how society then, and now, treats someone with mental health challenges.
This was an aspect of the book I found particularly fascinating because it really forced the reader to address what it is to be human and whether our responses to other people are fair and adequate.
There is so much that is thought-provoking in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? even half a century after its publication.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested reading in my review of Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield.
Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick.
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