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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

November 11, 2013 21 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.

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