By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans. Emigrees to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn’t want to be identified, they just blended in. Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results.
It’s hard to find the right words to truly show my appreciation for this book. I read Ubik back in February as my introduction to Philip K. Dick, and now I’ve delved into Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. In two words? Absolutely stunning.
What makes us human? What is the clear dividing line between man and machine?
In a future Earth thrust into what could only be a full out atomic war, the fallout has forced most of the survivors off the planet. Those who are left deal with worries of the effects of the radioactivity, to not become so warped as to be labeled a “special” and ostracized by the rest of society. A new religion, Mercerism, has taken hold. Empathy boxes are used to fuse with Mercer, to feel his pain on his continuous journey up the hill and through the tomb world. Caring for the animals still left becomes a vital part of the postwar culture. And if you can’t afford a real animal, well… There’s always the electric counterpart.
But among the humans left behind lurk androids, almost impossible to tell apart from the living save for testing, the Voigt-Kampff scale of empathy the most reliable test to date. You see, androids do not have the capability to show empathy as humans do. No group survival instinct. Practically predatory. And it’s Rick Deckard’s job to “retire” the rogue androids roaming the San Francisco Bay area. Specifically, six androids of the most advanced model to date, the Nexus-6.
Is empathy the true dividing line? Yet, there are humans that suffer from mental illnesses that cause “flattening of affect”. In layman’s terms, a reduction of the range and intensity of emotion. One of the symptoms of schizophrenia, as an example. Personality disorders can hinder the expression of empathy as well, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And then there are those who ruthlessly kill without regard to anyone but themselves. Are they, then, human or android? Who can possibly tell?
And does wiping the androids out make us just like them?
I at first expected much more action and fighting when it came to retiring the androids. But as in Ubik, we get mind games, trying to discern what is reality and what is fantasy. Especially in the context of Mercer, which I cannot get into more without spoiling parts of the story.
PKD discusses these philosophical questions, among others, throughout the novel. Deckard himself must come to terms with the implications of what the answers may mean. You will not finish this book without seriously mulling over the topics he brings up. Over forty years have passed since the publication of this novel and still it holds up strongly to this day, even with the dated mentions of the Soviet Union. A difficult feat to accomplish in this genre.
With the exception of Rick Deckard, character development did take a back seat to the world building and the aforementioned questions that were posed as food for thought. But this, to me, was not a negative aspect. The plot was well paced and highly interesting. If it weren’t for school work and other activities, I would have read this start to finish in a day.
There was one small detail in the story that astonished me most of all. I came across the most startlingly accurate descriptions of what major depression is like. Words that I’ve always tried to express but could not in such an easily understood, eloquent, and effective way. This quote, in particular, hit me like a sack of bricks. Deckard speaking to his wife Iran:
“Maybe it could be depression, like you get. I can understand now how you suffer when you’re depressed; I always thought you liked it and I thought you could have snapped yourself out any time, if not alone, then by means of the mood organ [device that can change emotions with the dial of a number]. But when you get that depressed you don’t care. Apathy, because you’ve lost a sense of worth. It doesn’t matter whether you feel better, because if you have no worth–“
In conclusion, be prepared to think deeply when it comes to reading this book. Perhaps that is expected with Philip K. Dick’s work. I suppose I’ll have to taste test more off the platter to find out.