Book Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ll confess that I have only come to read this classic sci-fi novel because of the movie Bladerunner. My love for that film has been rekindled because of the sequel newly released. Those of us who have adored the movie as a classic cult piece of theatre have been waiting a long time to find out if bounty hunter Rick Deckard is really a replicant or not. In part, ahead of seeing the sequel, I wanted to read the book and find out.

Adaptations of books are taken quite differently today than they were back in the 80s. Generally, the book plot will be faithfully reproduced even if some scenes or moments are missed out. Overall, the story will be the same. Not so back then. This was a time where Kubrick could take Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ and completely remodel the whole idea (leading, I believe, to fury from Mr King). Personally, I think Kubrick produced something much better than the novel – which had irritating silly things like moving ‘bunny rabbit’ hedgerows and so on.

Much the same could be said about ‘Bladerunner’ and Dick’s original novel. Some of the characters are retained in name and partially in character and there is the loosest of connections with the idea that escaped androids have fled to a post-apocalyptic Earth and Deckard has to terminate them. After that, there’s not much left to tie the two together.

I can, however, see how Ridley Scott was attracted to the themes of the novel – including what it means to be human – and how he explored those in his beautiful version. In a sense, he creates something better than the original; yet ‘Do Androids Dream’ is also something rather special in its own right.

On the one hand, it has not aged well. Like much of Asimov’s works of around that era, the writing is stylised and borders on pulp fiction. You can see Deckard as a washed-up detective in a brown mac just placed into a possible future which, technologically, is nothing like we actually have today and makes us smile at the naivety rather than be transported into a believable future.

That said, much of Dick’s comments on war and the stupidity of what led to an envisaged aftermath, is poignant and important warning to today’s world of North Korea and Trump’s America poised to raise fists. Likewise, an element very sadly missing from the movie is the book’s running theme of Mercerism – a kind of technology-inspired binding of humans with a God-like but impotent human figure who offers no hope but simply ’empathy’.

Other themes are more complex. There’s a fixation with animals – real and electronic – which comes over just a tad too silly today, yet is imaginable. The aspect of material possession in the late 60s has been an assumed human condition for Dick in imagining a global future but he is writing pre-internet days where both connection with others and possession of knowledge and entertainment are the obsession of the day rather than the need for rare living animals – even spiders – in this future.

But Dick does succeed in playing with our heads over the issue of what is humanity and what is artificial intelligence and can we ever know the difference? Indeed, IS there a difference? With current AI on the very knife edge of tipping into being indistinguishable from human intelligence, this is a timely novel which asks many of the right questions.

Although he does this directly, I do like how Dick also asks the question indirectly of God. Writing, again, at a time when the allegiance to God was beginning to be called into question, Dick looks at what God comes after God. In an atheist age, who do you turn to and why? Dick’s answer – ‘Mercerism’ is fascinating and not far from the truth I think. We certainly live in an age of blind faith, not so much in science, but in scientists who peddle ‘truth’ when in fact they actually know very little, and offer absolutely no hope at all. Yet, people soak it all up and, somehow, feel comforted like a frightened animal being calmed by petting. Few are yet able to question this empty and blind following. Curiously, when Deckard has best reason to reject this faith, it is then he finally truly embraces it.

Both movie and book reach something of the same conclusion: Deckard is disgusted by humanity and is overwhelmed by his feelings for the very ‘things’ he is paid to destroy. He questions everything but in the end receives no answers. In this respect at least, Philip K. Dick predicted the future well.

View all my reviews

Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out over summer – don’t miss them!

Sign up for Ken’s new writing project – ‘The Pukur’ – at Patreon.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com

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