Double whammy confession time: I hadn’t previously read Philip K Dick’s classic, and I don’t much like Blade Runner. Spot the obvious problem though: I have seen Blade Runner, and it’s really hard to read the book without being influenced by it.
World War Terminus unleashed nuclear war on the world. Years later, Earth has been depopulated, humanity fleeing to colonies in space to escape the fall-out and embracing Mercerism, a new religion of empathy driven by suffering and shared awareness, designed to end all wars. After all, if you know how others feel you would never push the button.
It’s a nice idea, anyway.
The story opens one morning with SFPD bounty hunter Rick Deckard greeting the morning with almost Lego Movie enthusiasm – because that’s the emotion he programmed into his mood alarm. The opening chapter was probably my favourite part of the book (uh oh) – full of snide commentary, although I may have read it with rather different filters to the ones Dick wrote it with.
The Penfield mood organ lets you program absurdly specific mental states (the desire to watch TV regardless of what is on – although there only ever seems to be one show on). Deckard selected an optimistic, business-like attitude to get the most out of his day. He’s appalled to discover that his wife has chosen 6 hours of despair – because she has decided that artificially positive moods have cut her off from reality. The irony that she’s using artificial despair to get back in touch with it is one thing; but Deckard’s almost-fury that she would choose to embrace her depression took me aback (it becomes clear as the story progresses that she does suffer from depression – her choice of mood is her permitting herself to feel it, rather than overwriting it with false enthusiasm).
Is it commentary on psychiatric drugs or on the illusions we (feel we must) maintain in the modern world? Take your pick, but don’t dwell on it too long – the focus rapidly shifts as Deckard stomps off to check in on his pet. Owning a live animal is a status symbol in a world where most wildlife has been killed off by radioactive dust, and no amount of Penfold programming can overcome the irritation with his wife Iran or the bitterness Deckard feels as he visits his electric sheep. Android replacements don’t count (spot a plot point, anyone?) – he has one only to hide the fact that his sheep died. Whilst we’re told that post-WWT all life is sacred, his distress is clearly driven less by his inability to keep his animal alive and more by the fear that his neighbours’ will discover his secret.
He is obsessed with replacing it, constantly daydreaming about animals he can never afford. When his confidence stutters as events overtake him, he splurges bounty money on a down payment on a goat. It’s all about appearances and insecurity – the salesman sees him coming a mile off.
Both the assault on depression and the obsession with status predisposed me to dislike Deckard; I never got past that, as the two themes are revisited by the evolving narrative. By the time Deckard experiences an existential crisis and must confront his own depression, it’s too little too late – although he does at least acknowledge to Iran that he was a complete asshat to her, and now understands her better. This doesn’t then stop him having an affair.
I could have a whole rant about this aspect: an android femme fatale, sex as a means of manipulating men, the need to explore android sexuality (and just why DO androids apparently have irrepressible sex drives? The implications make me shudder), the fact that Deckard has a wife he supposedly cares about, and – probably my biggest complaint – the fact two characters who have hated each other on sight then declare they love one another. What? Sure, it seems likely that the android is lying and this is another form of her manipulation to try and dissuade him from killing androids – and I suppose we can read Deckard as desperate for affection as a form of validation – but it is presented as if we should accept their exchange at face value.
It all comes back to empathy, and Deckard doesn’t have any. In a world that reviles killing, he kills androids because it’s his job and he feels nothing for them. He rarely engages with Mercerism via the empathy box, because it doesn’t really work on him (although it leaves him – like other celebrants – with the physical wounds of Mercer’s suffering). He only comes to understand Iran after he has experienced first-hand what she goes through. He lies to himself continually, refusing to recognise the many ways in which he tries to distract himself from the fact he’s living on a dying, emptying world. And it seems clear that sexual attraction allows him to consider someone as a person.
A bit close to the bone? Or still horrifyingly relevant?
I like a central question of what it means to be human, and I like empathy as an answer. So it’s unfortunate that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is devoted to deconstructing it: none of the characters but Isidore exhibit it – instead they’re self-absorbed, lonely, vulnerable and often cruel (from Deckard’s early distaste for Iran to Sloat’s bullying of Isidore). They declare things less than human to excuse mistreating them – both androids and ‘specials’ (people who exhibit physical or mental issues are banned from procreating and emigrating – trapped on the dying Earth until they die themselves, and mocked all the while. ARGH I CAN’T EVEN) – although as a special is our second protagonist, Dick was presumably trying to show that this was awful. Isidore is certainly the most humane character we meet.
Pretty bleak, then. Humanity – what a bunch of fuckers. It’s worth pointing out that Dick never suggests androids are any better than their makers: we see them thoughtlessly inflict emotional pain, intentionally harming others, driven entirely by self-interest and – by far the most interesting and least explored aspect of the world-building – come to realise that the infiltration of Earth is already well underway, with both the Rosen Association and the most influential TV show actively working to circumvent android tests and undermine Mercerism. If they can show that empathy tests are inconclusive and the worship of empathy is a hoax, they hope to strip away the idea that androids can be enslaved and killed.
Deckard’s huge realisation is that the line between androids and humans is not as clear-cut as he has always believed, undermining his ability to guiltlessly execute them. It’s a big personal journey for him, but given it’s clear from the start that his position is pretty flawed, it was underwhelming for me as a reader. Likewise, I’m not a huge fan of books that relentlessly point out that humanity is horrid (the real world does this awfully well all by itself), so I couldn’t consider this rewarding commentary.
Generally, then, this was a read that started well and has some intriguing world-building, but fell flat for me in terms of characters and narrative. It’s often surreal, with deliberate dialogue and mannered descriptions; it was easier to engage with intellectually as satire than to relax into as storytelling. I remain fascinated if disheartened by the bleak vision of a society so disconnected from its own emotions that it artificially induces not only moods but religious experiences. There’s enough here that I’ll consider reading other novels by Philip K Dick, although I don’t hold out much hope for finding one I like unreservedly.