Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Signal Watch Reads: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick, 1968, audiobook)
The last time I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I was about 15 and had a fairly hard time keeping up with a narrative that wasn't an easily digestible Isaac Asimov plot and which didn't work with a Bradbury-esque flow to carry me over the rough patches. I didn't know anything about Philip K. Dick other than that he was the name of the guy who wrote the book upon which they'd based Blade Runner, at the time one my new favorite movies (and, of course, still a favorite). But, I had heard the novel and movie were different.
I really don't know why I decided it was time to read the book again other than that, like most books I read 25+ years ago, my memories of the details were fuzzy. I mostly remembered feeling that - as screwed as the Rick Deckard of the film had been, the Deckard of DADoES? was in a far more precarious state. I recalled a "fake" police station, Roy Batty seemed less a threat, and the world of the novel existed in a state of decay that went well beyond even the night-time drizzling menace of the film.
It's not that I had a hard time understanding the story from an A to B to C to D perspective, but Dick's books always seem to be doing what science-fiction can do intensely well, and that's act as allegory for some more universal story or truth or as a thought experiment to explore those ideas. I'm sure I got it in that "I read what was on the page" sort of way, but there was no way for me to really relate. Add in my trouble reconciling the differences between the book and movie and expecting the themes and plot to better dovetail, and it was a recipe for forgetting a lot of what was interesting or special about the book as repeated Blade Runner viewings had quashed a lot of what I might have remembered.
Upon a re-read, I'd argue you need to see the two narratives as separate and attempting different stories with different meaning. There are certainly resonant thematic issues, but in making many of the changes Ridley Scott and Co. went with, Blade Runner is far more a product of expectations of films (no matter which cut we're discussing), of roles within films, and the limited running time of a movie and what can be in that story.
Our Rick Deckard is a married police officer, a bounty hunter in a world living in the fallout of a limited thermonuclear exchange which took place long enough ago it seems it was before Deckard's memory. Fallout reports are part of watching the local weather, and most non-human life on the planet has gone extinct, making living animals a highly sought after commodity and status symbol, everything from squirrels to horses cared for like prized possessions. And, of course, if you're on a cop's salary, you can't afford all that, so you buy yourself a simulacrum - maybe an electric cat or sheep to keep the neighbors from guessing.
Meanwhile, the cities are decaying, even as what seems to be a shrinking human population huddles in the city centers, not quite aware they're on a bad trend. Those in the know are trying to convince humans to leave Earth for colonies on Mars and elsewhere to escape the radiation and fallout as it seems to be making idiots of portions of the population and degrading their health. The government is so supportive of the extraction of humans from Earth, each immigrant receives an Android, a lifelike human robot able to perform functions for them, act as servants, etc...
Androids aren't supposed to live on Earth, but every once in a while something goes wrong and Androids do come to Earth, usually leaving a path of bodies in their wake.
Meanwhile, humanity remaining on Earth under a cloud of radioactive ash have become be-numbed, setting their moods with a home appliance and finding religion in another device which ostensibly enables them to establish a sort of psychic contact with everyone using the device, sharing feelings and experiences through a common messianic figure, Wilbur Mercer, who performs a Sisyphean task, trying to climb a mountain as he is pelted with stones, only to succeed and fall and try again.
Deckard is given the task of tracking eight Androids and "retiring" them. He visits the Rosen company that manufactures the new Nexus-6 type androids, and realized the company is trying to obfuscate the search, and he also meets Rachael Rosen - a Nexus-6 floor model of sorts.
Meanwhile, John Isidore, a "special", his DNA scrambled by the radioactivity and unable to immigrate, is a secondary protagonist in the novel (his counterpart in the movie significantly different, JF Sebastian) comes across his own Nexus-6 and feels he's met someone who could be his friend.
The Androids don't share the same motives as their film counterparts, and the part of Eldon Tyrell is of far greater importance in the film than the book.
What stands out most starkly is that the novel's interest is tied to the nature of the Androids as synthetic beings, explores their inability to do more than feign human behaviors and responses. The empathy test we know from the film makes infinitely more sense in the novel as a test of not just biologic responses, but of whether or not the being across the table is capable of understanding the lives and pain of other beings. While the movie plays with the idea, it has to commit to a greater level of humanity and empathy within its Androids.
Dick explores the idea in a multitude levels - why would humans want to keep an animal? can an Android feel loss when another Android is retired, or merely become aware they're next? Do they feel betrayed? Love? Anger? Do humans? What are we getting from the empathy boxes and why are we tuning out our emotions with devices? Why do we turn on those we no longer see as human?
It's a fascinating book, and as much as I like Blade Runner as a film, it would be interesting to see the book translated more directly sometime. It certainly feels all the more relevant today, especially in an era where we have the empathy box via social media, and rather than one-ness, we see social media as a way to tear and bite at one another.
Reading Dick is almost always an exhausting experience, and this book didn't strike me differently in that regard - especially with a few plot twists and turns that all have relevance and work in the context of the novel, but which aren't anything you'd recognize from the movie. He doesn't make anything easy, from his nightmare vision of the future to his perspective on our possible grace as beings and what we choose to be instead, 9 times out of 10. And if it means much at all in either case.
The book was read by Simon Vance, who reads a lot of other detective stories I read via Audible, and he's no less competent here.