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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

November 11, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. 1968 French title: Les androïdes rêvent-ils de moutons électriques ? 

Dick_AndroidsI’m not a SF fan in general, so I’ve never read Philip K Dick –the guy has a name to write hardboiled, not SF, if you want my opinion. And of course, I haven’t seen Blade Runner, based upon this novel. My last attempt at reading SF was War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells –I abandoned the book. My last SF film was 2001 The Space Odyssey –I fell asleep just after the first images of the spaceship. Bad, bad track record. I wanted to read Do Androids Dream on Electric Sheep? because I found the title funny and intriguing. I had no idea what it was about before reading Caroline’s review of the novel. So, where am I after my first Philip K Dick? I have finished the book and I have no intention of watching the movie. That sums it up. Now the book.

We are in the future in San Francisco, after World War Terminus. Humanity has conquered Mars, where they have settled colonies with androids as the workforce. The planet Earth is polluted with radioactive dust; WWT has almost eradicated life on Earth and living critters are the most valued properties. The biggest the animal, the richest you are. Owning a pet is synonym of social status and some have electric animals that resemble real ones. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard is one of them. He owns an electric sheep and he dreads that his neighbours suspect it is a fake animal, although they most likely will be too polite to ask.

To say ‘Is you sheep genuine?’ would be a worse breach of manners than to inquire whether a citizen’s teeth, hair or internal organs would test out authentic.

This society works in a reversed way to ours. For us, it is valuable to own the latest electronic device or a beautiful car. We swat ants or spiders without second thoughts. For Rick and his wife Iran, finding a wild spider is a source of wonder. On Earth, the radioactive dust is so thick that nobody can see the stars anymore. Also, as a consequence of the radioactive dust, humans are checked up regularly to verify that their faculties don’t deteriorate. When it happens, they become second class citizens called Specials and referred to as chikenheads.

Philip K Dick doesn’t spend a lot of pages describing this devastated world. We don’t learn much about its political regime. Countries still exist, including the USSR. We don’t know how people entertain themselves, except that their Oprah Winfrey is named Buster Friendly. They have a new religion, Mercerism and people fuse with Mercer, the guru of that cult. The fusion allows them to share feelings and emotions.

Rick is on the police force as a bounty hunter; his job is to “retire” androids that would live on Earth among humans, which is totally illegal. As technology advances, androids resemble more and more to humans and the only way to differentiate a human from an android is to pass a test named the Voigt-Kampff profile test. It is based upon the assumption that only humans feel empathy for fellow humans or for animals. The test registers tiny reflex reactions to questions involving animals or humans in situations which would make a human flinch.

At the moment, a new generation of androids has been created, the Nexus-6 and they’re harder to find among humans. Rick has now a new assignment. His colleague Dave has been injured by an android he had to retire and is in the hospital, unable to finish the job. Rick needs to finish it and has to retire six Nexus-6 androids. The task is not easy. To help him, he’s sent to the Rosen Association which creates androids for the colonies and the goal of his visit is to ensure that the Voigt-Kampff test is relevant to pick out Nexus-6 androids. At the time his assignment arrives, Rick is already questioning his life-style, his job and he’s obsessed with genuine animals. For example, he keeps the catalogue of the pet shop with him and acts about pets as men usually act about fancy cars.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not a political novel. I saw it more like an existentialist novel, although I’m not sure it is the right adjective. The central question of the book is “What is the essence of humanity?” The androids act more and more like humans and Rick starts feeling empathy for them. He questions his own humanity. What does it mean to be human? Philip K Dick bases its novel on the philosophical concept that empathy is what differentiates humans from androids. Only living beings can feel empathy and make impulsive and irrational decisions fuelled by empathy. As a coincidence, the day I finished the book, I heard a radio show on France Inter named Sur les épaules de Darwin. It was about scientific experiments on empathy and the link between scientific discoveries in that field and philosophical thinking on that very concept. They said that Marcus Aurelius and then Adam Smith and then Darwin supported this theory.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a novel about the human condition and a quest for identity. Rick wonders How am I a man? How do I remain a man? Or shall I say a Mensch? Frontiers start to blur when he interacts with Rachael. He doesn’t recognise her as an android right away. He meets with androids that are sure to be human. Rick craves for natural interactions with people. He’s not sure that it is right to retire androids any more. He thinks he’s killing them, not retiring them. He has empathy for machines and it affects his work. Doubt about his job creeps in his mind but events always bring him back on the right track. Androids are not human beings. Even sophisticated androids betray themselves in stress situations: they don’t react as humans and don’t understand the humans’ reactions around them as they are irrational. Philip K Dick seems to say: “See, humans are too complex to be copied”. Irrational is hard to imitate, to program: these humans have foolish reactions and can have feeling for machines.

At the beginning, I saw Rick as another Montag, the hero of Farenheit 451. Both are married men with questionable jobs. Both meet a woman who unsettles their vision of life and of themselves. Both start questioning the rightfulness of their profession. This new acquaintance happens at a moment in their life where they were ready for a change. When Montag rejects the society he lives in and joins the resistance against it, Rick has a more personal quest about his place on earth. Montag chooses to fight against institutions; it makes sense. Rick struggles against himself to fight his angst and life seems absurd. I couldn’t help thinking about Malraux, Camus and Gary. I don’t have enough education to elaborate that thought but that’s where the book led me to. It is set in an imaginary reality but Rick’s quest is ours.

When I closed down the book, I thought “I didn’t like it”. I would have stuck to that opinion if I didn’t have the rule to write about all the books I read. Writing the billet helped me see how interesting and complex this novel is. It is not easy and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I didn’t enjoy myself. I’d rather read Camus to think about that kind of concept. Or Romain Gary.

For another review, discover Brian’s here.

  1. November 11, 2013 at 2:04 am

    Great commentary Emma.

    Indeed this is full of philosophy and philosophical ideas. I would say existentialist in that Dick certainly was searching for the meaning behind it all.

    Thanks for the link to my post.

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    • November 11, 2013 at 9:38 pm

      Hi Brian,

      It is full of philosophy but I lack knowledge to really attach his thoughts to the right current. You didn’t see the same things in the book and your review is really interesting and convincing.

      I had the feeling that Rick finds his life quite absurd.

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  2. November 11, 2013 at 3:17 am

    Why won’t you see the film? It’s fantastic and makes my favourite film list. Every so often I re-watch it. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that the film is better as it captures the visuals of the futuristic world. The book sounds quite different from the film, actually.
    Re: your comment that his name sounds more hard-boiled than sci-fi, I have read Humpty Dumpty in Oakland which was excellent noir.

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    • November 11, 2013 at 9:40 pm

      I was truly bored by the book, so watching the film isn’t exactly on my To Do list. I’m not tempted. The book is interesting in its content and the message it conveys but I found the vessel to convey the said message quite tedious.

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  3. leroyhunter
    November 11, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I’d agree with Guy that the film is a classic and worth seeing. It visualises the future (from the perspective of the 1980s) but it’s a “sci-fi of ideas” just as you describe the book.

    Interesting that the billet created (forced?) an appreciation that you didn’t instinctively feel. There has to be some spark with a book for it to really hit home, but the absence of “spark” doesn’t mean it was a worthless experience either.

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    • November 11, 2013 at 9:49 pm

      Well 2001 Space Odyssey is a classic too. It’s not a shield against boredom.

      That’s one of the rewards of blogging. If my appreciation of the book only consisted in stars on Goodreads, the rating would be low. Writing a billet forces me out of my immediate response to the book. It puts it into perspective. This is why I think it is important to write billets about books I didn’t like. Trying to find out why I didn’t like this novel or another is as interesting as praising one I loved.
      It’s a good book, sure but I really have trouble finding interest in hovercars, kipple, a decaying Earth and all the android business. (apart from the philosophical questioning about humanity)

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      • leroyhunter
        November 12, 2013 at 4:55 pm

        2001 is boring!
        *faints, hits head, rushed to casualty*

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        • November 13, 2013 at 8:38 pm

          Not sure I understand the last part of your comment.

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          • November 13, 2013 at 11:10 pm

            He was so shocked by your views on 2001 he passed out and is now in hospital. I have to admit, it’s among my favourite films.

            Don’t watch the original Solaris. If you don’t like that either I suspect he’ll have a massive coronary and that’ll be the end of him.

            I would say that while I don’t see any particular reason to think you’d like Blade Runner I wouldn’t judge it on the basis of the book. They’ve very little in common and it would be easy to love one and not like the other at all.

            I don’t recommend it because it’s still very much SF, but it’s much more action SF than philosophical SF which is where the book is.

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            • November 13, 2013 at 11:21 pm

              Thanks for the useful explanation. Much appreciated.

              What can I say? I did fall asleep when I tried to watch 2001. At least there’s some consistency in my tastes.
              As I care about Leroy’s safety, I will refrain from watching Solaris or any other classic SF film.

              Like

    • November 14, 2013 at 4:24 am

      Emma; don’t let the book put you off the film. I haven’t read the book but it honestly sounds like they are two different beasts.

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      • November 14, 2013 at 10:21 pm

        Actually, I was off the film before reading the book. I hoped the book would make me watch the film. 🙂

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  4. November 11, 2013 at 3:58 pm

    The film and the book don’t have much in common – some of the terms and the core of the central idea but philosophically they’re worlds apart. The film is hard boiled noir set in the future. The book, well, as you found the book is dense and philosophical and existential.

    I think the scene early on with Decker’s wife and the mood organ is terribly sad.

    I don’t actually recall the book that well now, just that it’s one of Dick’s most complex and least accessible. The film brings people to it, but it’s a tough read and not one I’d personally recommend as a first Dick.

    For me part of why I write about books is because as you found here it makes me think more about them. The act of thinking what to say makes me think more about the book, takes me past my immediate reaction. It’s rewarding, though I can see why you’d rather go to Gary or Camus.

    Anyway, well done for getting through it given your lack of interest in SF and great review as ever.

    The title is wonderful isn’t it? The best he ever came up with I think.

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    • November 11, 2013 at 10:00 pm

      I agree with you about the scene with the mood organ. Nevertheless, I laughed a bit at this passage:

      ‘I’ll dial for both of us,’ Rick said, and led her back into the bedroom. There, at her console, he dialed 594; pleased acknowledgment of husband’s superior wisdom in all matters. On his own console he dialed for a creative ans fresh attitude toward his job, although this he hardly needed; such was his habitual, innate approach without recourse to Penfield artificial brain stimulation.

      Isn’t 594 the dream of all husbands?? 🙂 Personnally, my usual mood organ would be the music I put in the car when I drive to work. I tend to dress according to my mood and chose the music accordingly.

      It is a rather difficult read; sometimes I wondered where he was leading us. I think the last chapter is terribly sad as well. Poor Rick. At least his wife is there to take care of him.

      Let’s face it, I’ll never be a SF fan but it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to read the classics. As in crime fiction, there are worthy writers in this genre and it would be a pity to ignore them.

      I do love the title of this book.

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  5. November 11, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    I absolutely love the movie, makes my favourite list too. And it is different from the book. I thought the book was interesting but I didn’t really “like” it either. Not like The Drowned World which I read in summer. The writing here is uneven but in a way that has an appeal. The concepts are interesting.

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    • November 11, 2013 at 10:02 pm

      It is an interesting book but not a page turner. Sometimes I would have liked more information about the new society that emerged from WWT. But as it’s not a political novel, it doesn’t linger on these aspects.

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  6. November 12, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Wonderful review, Emma! If I hadn’t read the last paragraph, I would have assumed that you liked the book 🙂 I think that has happened to me once or twice – when I finished a book I didn’t like it that much, but when I started thinking about it and writing about it, the book showed me more things that I hadn’t seen before. I haven’t read this book, but I have seen ‘Blade Runner’ and loved it. It is one of my favourite sci-fi movies. I found your comparison between Deckard and Montag quite interesting – I hadn’t thought of that before.

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    • November 13, 2013 at 8:41 pm

      Blogging is rewarding for that. First there’s the reflexion about the book and then the exchange with others. Writing about a book enriches the experience and discussing it later helps you see it in a different light, sometimes.
      I wish that people who disagree with what I write left comments. Polite disagrement is welcome.

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      • November 14, 2013 at 7:04 am

        Yes, polite and friendly disagreement is nice – leads to some beautiful conversations and debates. I liked very much what you said about blogging leading to reflection and exchanges with other bloggers making the reading experience more rewarding. Very true.

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  7. leroyhunter
    November 14, 2013 at 11:25 am

    I was teasing – sorry Emma!
    I actually don’t much like Solaris (hope no-one else is offended by that heresy) but if you REALLY want a “classic sci-fi movie challenge” then try Stalker, also directed by Tarkovsky. 3 hours of metaphysics in Russian. Fun!

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    • November 14, 2013 at 10:24 pm

      I guessed you were saying something funny but what exactly, it eluded me.
      Hmm. I’m going to pass on that challenge unless I’m hit by a wave of sleepless nights and in desperate want of a sleeping pill.

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