Ahh, Philip K. Dick, the man behind some of the biggest sci-fi movies like Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, and Minority Report. When my friend told me about seeing the Blade Runner sequel, I happened to see the original book in a local Sainsbury’s one day, so I picked it up, cleared my schedule for the night and dived straight in.
And I sure as hell wasn’t disappointed.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? takes place in a dystopian Earth ruined by a nuclear war, where animals are dying, people are migrating to Mars, and androids are running amok on Earth. That’s where Rick Deckard comes in. He’s a bounty hunter whose been given the job of a lifetime, retiring six androids for a huge reward, huge enough to buy a real animal to replace his fake electric sheep and satisfy his wife. But there’s a catch: the androids that he’s hunting seem all too human, and not just on the outside.
I suppose that’s the best place for me to start with this book: how Dick treats humanity. He defines it through empathy which is something only humans can have (apparently), then puts it straight to the test. It just so happens that the androids that Deckard has been sent to kill are advanced Nexus-6 models, programmed with empathetic qualities. But does that make them, living, sentient beings? And thus, make Deckard’s killing of them murder?
The role of Rachel Rosen, the android femme fatale, might help us out here. Her motivations are hard to figure out: does she interfere with Deckard’s hunt because she really cares about her fellow androids, or is she simply programmed to be a nuisance? It’s kind of muddled and vague, but that’s the point; the reader is meant to fill in the gaps.
A secondary plot, secondary to Deckard’s in that respect, shows John Isidore’s interactions with fugitive androids who are being hunted by the main character. Prejudice is flipped from the androids to the humans, and John is mocked for being a ‘chickenhead’, a human with subpar intelligence. But his compassion in hiding the fugitives balances the more brutal side of humanity, personified by Deckard. This eventually culminates in an ending that, while unresolved and ambiguous, fits neatly into the narrative. A lot is left to imagination, and it works better that way.
The post-World War Terminus Earth is richly developed. Reality is replaced with virtual reality experiences, a sort-of religion called Mercerism, and androids stand in as chat show hosts without anyone noticing. The home of humanity is dying bit by bit, and it also shows that humanity itself may be dying, too.
Ambiguity remains for whether androids can feel emotions or not, but Dick makes one thing perfectly clear: human beings can be just as devoid of empathy as they are full of it. With complex relationships being all-present throughout the book, where humans and androids are, at times, mistaken for one another, the hunt pushes Deckard to his limits, and keeps you guessing what he’s gonna do next, and what schemes the characters have up their sleeves.
So if you want to see the inspiration behind Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, you won’t be spoiled too much if you’ve already seen the movie. You’ll see where Scott got the whole ‘Deckard is a replicant’ idea, but he takes it down different path to that of the book.
If you don’t, and just want a concise, dystopian, thought-provoking sci-fi classic, then I’ll say no more.