FAKE CAN BE JUST AS GOOD
IN THIS BLEAK FUTURE THE LACK OF EMPATHY IS MORE DISTURBING THAN THE COMPLETE ABSENCE OF IT
Philip K. Dick
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
Date: 29th March 2010 (First Published 1968)
If you have seen the film Blade Runner you may think that you know what the book it is based upon, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is all about. But you would be only partially correct in that assumption, as the film is a rather loose adaptation of the source material, focussing primarily on one aspect of the story while downplaying or completely ignoring much of the rest of the book’s ideas and themes. Anyone who reads the novel after having seen the movie first should not be surprised to discover that there are more differences than similarities; so don’t expect to stumble upon the terms Replicant or Blade Runner in the text, for example.
Readers familiar with the work of Philip K. Dick will be aware that one of the most prominent themes that pervades his writing is the question of what is real or not. So much so that the more of his stories you digest, the more you will find yourself second guessing the narrative unfolding before your eyes. Are the events and actions that transpire actually real, within the context of the story? Or is it all a dream, a hallucination, or maybe even an elaborate ruse?
With regard to Do Androids Dream… one could argue that the book asks the question differently: what is fake? And does it actually matter? The book may not provide its readers with a definitive answer, but for its characters it is a conundrum that seems to matter a great deal, though no one seems capable of elaborating on why it does.
In PKD’s nuclear war ravaged 1992 setting, the large scale extinction of numerous animal species has meant that ownership of an animal has become a status symbol. Due to the rarity and expense, few people can afford to own a real animal which has created a market for artificial animals indistinguishable from the real thing. Yet those who own the fake variety tend to be reluctant for other people to know that their pets are machines. Even the book’s main character and his wife, who own an electric sheep, go out of their way to prevent their real animal owning neighbours from finding out. But would it matter to the Barbour’s that the Deckard’s sheep was fake? Probably not; but one must keep up appearances, just in case.
This attitude contrasts markedly with that of the opponents of Mercerism, the popular pseudo-religion that allows its adherents, through the use of a device known as an Empathy Box, to enter a collective consciousness in order to re-live and experience the final journey of religious icon Wilbur Smith as he ascends a mountain. These sceptics take pleasure from any insinuation that Wilbur Mercer is a fake, and enthusiastically welcome attempts to prove it, thereby exposing the fraudulent nature of Mercerism. As for why it matters to them. No one ever says; it just does.
But for the novel’s principal protagonist, the question of whether it matters if something is fake or not is a quandary that comes to have a significant impact on his outlook on life. Long before Jack Bauer was a twinkle in Keifer Sutherland’s eye, Do Androids Dream… charted the longest twenty-four hours in the life of bounty hunter, Rick Deckard. A day that would challenge all his assumptions about the nature and ethics of his chosen vocation; to track down and “retire” rogue androids hiding on Earth.
The androids of PKD’s fictional setting (known as andys not replicants), are not mechanical in nature like their animal counterparts, but biological. They are flesh and blood beings, genetically engineered to serve as slave labour on the off-world colonies, and their presence on Earth is highly illegal. In almost every discernible way andys are indistinguishable from real humans; the two notable points of departure being superior strength and very short lifespans. So whenever Rick is tasked with “retiring” a rogue android it is actually an euphemism for killing.
Though his wife, Iran Deckard, finds his job distasteful at best, Rick maintains a clear conscience by rationalising that andys are not real people; hence what he does cannot be construed as murder. This conviction is reinforced by his confidence in the Voight-Kampf test which he administers to identify androids attempting to pass as human. Andys’ lack of empathy makes them supposedly incapable of deceiving the test which examines the empathetic response of the test subjects. In theory this prevents Rick from inadvertently executing real people. Besides which, when all is said and done the income from the bounty hunting will eventually go towards realising Iran and Rick’s shared dream of owning real flesh and blood animals of their own.
Several events during what proves to be his swan song assignment cause Rick to question his attitude towards “retiring” androids. He is called in to hunt down the remaining six members of a group of eight rogue androids believed to be hiding in San Francisco. Each of these andys is a Nexus 6 model, a new generation of android that has been developed by the Rosen Association who believe that their creations are capable defeating any of the various tests devised to identify androids. During a meeting with the hierarchy of the Rosen Association rick unexpectedly discovers that a member of the Rosen family is an android. Not only that, the person in question is unaware that she is not human. He subsequently develops a minor infatuation for her, after refraining from either exposing or retiring her. This is just the first of a number of encounters with both androids and humans alike which increase the misgivings within Rick.
Over the course of the remaining twenty-four hours Rick is confounded at discovering that some of the andys he must retire have chosen not to live in hiding. Instead they have opted to lead seemingly normal lives as humans, in plain sight; a couple working as public servants in law enforcement, while another has become something of a minor celebrity in entertainment. But it is perhaps the run ins with two of the story’s non-android characters that contribute most to stirring Rick’s change of heart. First he is almost duped into killing a human colleague; a fellow bounty hunter whose lack of feeling or remorse in his dealings with androids bothers Rick a great deal. The idea that it is necessary to be so lacking in humanity in order to be a bounty hunter doesn’t sit well with him, especially once realisation sets in that he empathises with the plight of the rogue androids.
As the story draws to its conclusion Rick has a brief encounter with the novel’s other principal protagonist, John Isidore, a mentally challenged loner who befriends three of the rogue androids. Isidore’s capacity to view the andys as real people, his willingness to shelter them, and his feeble attempts to protect them provides Rick with the final push to cement his resolve that this is to be his last job as a bounty hunter.
Once again PKD has delivered yet another thought provoking gem of a tale. Sure, it does not answer the age old philosophical questions of what it means to be human. But it should give pause for thought on the matter: If one of the requisites for possessing humanity is the capacity to have dreams and aspirations (even if those dreams amount to no more than owning a real sheep), then what if androids could dream about electric sheep? Surely then the existence and experiences of artificial lifeforms should not be considered less real than our own.
And finally, no PKD story would be complete without the disorientating twists and turns that are his trademark. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? certainly delivers on that front. There are moments that will literally cause readers to exclaim out loud: Wait a minute! What the hell’s happening? I highly recommend that you add this book to your to read list immediately. It is so much better than the movie adaptation, Blade Runner. (Which admittedly isn’t saying much.)
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.