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

This is the first Philip K. Dick that I have ever read, and having finished it, I’m now sure it won’t be the last. I have never seen “Blade Runner,” so let’s get that out in the open right now. And I cannot, for that matter, understand the apparent need of book reviewers to compare the book to the movie. Not just this book, but any book. The book came first, and should, therefore be judged on its own merit. On a book review site, at least.

I can understand the need to compare a movie to the book that inspired it, but really not the other way around. The movie is an evolution of the ideas in the book, where it differs or omits information is valid to our interpretation of the filmmaker’s intentions. It doesn’t work in reverse!

I just had to get that out of my system.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Is a brief and easy read with surprising depth, in my opinion. I admit that it took me a little longer than usual to jump into this novel. I actually had to take a couple of attempts at reading the second chapter; I stumbled over it and couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what was going on. But I pressed on and suddenly the book took off! I was hooked.

I think what I loved most about this novel is the underlying question, in every moment of the text, as to what makes us human. The play between human and android is complex, and at various points in the novel I found myself empathizing with both parties; now that I’m finished the novel, I’m a little creeped out by that. The ability to empathize is significant in the novel, as it marks one of the only remaining differences between humans and the Nexus-6 android.

Yet, in the beginning, this trait appears superficial. SPOILERS AHEAD!!! When Deckard meets Rachel Rosen and Luba Luft, one has to seriously question the morality of his position. Rosen appears to be an innocent, and the fact that we are surprised that she is, in fact, an android goes to prove how similar the two “species” (if you can call them that) really are. In fact, she nearly passes the Voigt-Kampff empathy tests with a little explanation. Luba Luft is a brilliant performer, and her voice would have been a gift to human kind had she been allowed to live. These characters seem to beg the question, how important is empathy? Is that what really makes us human?

Certainly, J. R. Isodore’s position seems to have been improved because of his relationship with the androids. As a special—a human without the necessary IQ to emigrate to Mars—Isodore is alienated from a society whose acceptance he desperately craves. The illusion of acceptance, in the company of the androids he is harbouring, gives sudden meaning to his otherwise dreary existence.

And it is through Isodore’s eyes that we first see the shift in the androids. Isodore is a model of nearly perfect empathy, and I would argue that it is his limited intellectual intelligence that enables his advanced emotional intelligence. In comparison to Isodore, Deckard appears nearly android himself. There are moments in the book when we suspect him of being so—Deckard is never given an empathy test—and it is not until the final chapters of the novel that we are ever really assured that he is human. However, when Deckard is compared to Rachel Rosen, we can see the difference. The androids, with their nearly flawless intellectualism, are dreadfully cold. They are able to fear for their own existence, and it is this primitive urge to survive which makes them appear human. As Rachel Rosen says, she is capable of feeling empathy only for herself. The tidy analytical minds of androids are capable of anything except empathy, which cannot be rationalized. Deckard’s horror at discovering that he feels empathy for certain androids—which is connected to physical desire—is crude, but it goes to prove just how irrational the feeling of empathy can be.

When Pris cuts the legs off of Isodore’s spider—she claims to want to see why it has eight, if it can get by with only four—we understand just how dangerous such a purely intellectual mind could be. To the android, there is no difference between the spider and Isodore. He is a tool for their survival, and nothing more. When Buster Friendly and his Friendly-Friends reveal that Wilbur Mercer—the prophet of Mercerism, and a unifying figure for all human empathy on Earth—is a fraud, Isodore’s androids are amused by his shock and confusion. They believe this justifies their existence, that empathy itself is a fraud.

Yet it is the androids who will be confused, ultimately. Isodore tells them that Mercerism will not end because of this revelation, though he does not know why. Deckard, after a kind of psychological breakdown in the desert, comes to the same conclusion. This is because empathy, which Mercer embodies, is real. And it is the sense of community that empathy creates amongst humans that gives Mercerism its meaning.

I liked a lot of the ideas that Dick brings to the table with this novel. I liked the sliding scale between empathy and intelligence, and the implications of such an idea. And I liked, even if I don’t agree with it, the parallel comparison between Faith and science; at least, I felt that the idea was well-executed in this book. It is my discomfort with this idea that made me give Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep four stars instead of five.

I think that much of what Dick seems to be saying is true; humans have an ability to rationalize away our empathy, and this act makes us less human. What I didn’t like was the implication that empathy and religiosity are somehow inextricably linked, and that lack of Faith somehow makes us less human. People are just as able to rationalize based on religious reasons as scientific ones. It is the act of attempting to rationalize empathy that is the problem, no matter what a person’s individual motivations for doing so are.

Then again, maybe that wasn’t the point. Mercerism is really a kind of worship of empathy, rather than a religion in the sense of the word that we are accustomed to today. So maybe Dick is saying that, in order to remain true to ourselves, we must learn to recognize and embrace the things that make us human and not lose them in either religion or science.

Hmmm. Maybe I need to change that rating after all.

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12 thoughts on “SF Book Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

  1. I’ve never read the book, I confess, but I have seen the movie, and bearing in mind your comments about not judging the book by the movie, I would still say that the movie is quite different! It has many of the same features, but even seems to have different characters. The hint that Deckard is a replicant is much stronger, and at the end, we are still not sure.
    Dick had some kind of religious ‘revelation’ in 1974, which probably contributes to his emphasis on this area.
    Thanks for a great review – he really is a good writer.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I understand that Dick is one of those writers that puts a lot of himself into his books. From what I’ve read, he has a kind of personal symbolism that connects many his novels. I started reading up on it, but decided it was better not to be bogged down by a bunch of pre-conceived ideas before I knew whether or not I liked him as a writer. Now that I know I like him, I’ll might have to do some research!

      Re: the movie. I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know, but I have heard that the two are very different. The plot and main character were loosely based on Dick’s prototype, and then it kind of take on its own life. Which is fine, that is the film-maker’s right! What gets me is so many people saying one is better than the other (sadly, most like the movie more) when they appear to be different stories! I guess I’ll have to watch the movie now, to see if the comparison’s are justified 🙂

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  3. Not to judge a book by its predecessor, Blade Runner was very interesting. Sounds like common themes trouble the author. I will have to find the book and read it. Excellent review.

    1. I’ll lend you my copy. It’s only about 250 pages, and totally worth the afternoon it will take to read!

      1. Cool. I thought Blade Runner was good–the premise was interesting, and thought provoking. I am in Fernie, BC, waiting for a pizza so I’m waxing philosophical. Or maybe its the beer.

        1. Ahh, yes. Beer will do that! I think it’s a philosophical book, too. Definitely makes you think. But if you’re not in the mood for that, it’s a pretty good action book too.

    1. Thanks! I’ll have a look 🙂
      What do you recommend as a next step? I found DADOES quite accessible but I don’t want to get in over my head too early in the adventure.

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