Philip K Dick
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
Gollancz 2007 (1968)
What can be said about this famous novel — ostensibly about a detective chasing dangerous androids — that hasn’t been said before, and better? Rather than a closely argued review, this overview will be about impressions, rather like the 2007 Gollancz cover picture which, to my chagrin, I didn’t immediately realise was a colour dot-matrix image of a sheep. A case, I suppose, of being too close to it in the first place. Anyway, I learnt my lesson, and waited a while before committing some thoughts to electronic page.
First, what this book isn’t. It’s not Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, however much I tried to accommodate the film’s images to the text, and however much I tried to second-guess the way the book’s narrative was heading. Ridley Scott’s film is claustrophobic, the post-apocalyptic cityscape teeming with multitudes on the streets (despite the empty voids of buildings lining them). The novel on the other hand employs a short dramatis personae, and you are hardly, if ever, aware of anyone much else in the polluted environment that Deckard the android hunter inhabits. And of course the Final Cut of the film implies Deckard is a replicant, whereas I think the novel comes down firmly in favour of his flawed but real humanity (though others may disagree). In many ways this is a mirror image of the theme found in Frankenstein and a reflection of the final voyage in Gulliver’s Travels: it may be possible to create or find organisms that are simulacra of perfect, noble-minded human beings, but it seems impossible to cross over the divide of Otherness.
More impressions: Dick is a wordsmith and well-read with it (so, unlikely as it may seem in a future dystopia, are his characters), and that introduces a complexity that simple analysis along the lines of “This book is about…” will simply not start to unravel meaningfully. So I try to let the images that he does implant in my brain work their insiduous magic over time: images like the android (or ‘andy’) toad in the desert, the Mercer empathy machines, the character Rachael killing Deckard’s animal purchase. Other intuitions are more shadowy: the ubiquitous figure of Mercer, resonating with Christ-like attributes — such as being a willing sacrificial victim — seems also to embody Dick’s critique of corporate business (after all ‘Mercer’ is derived from the same root as its synonym, ‘merchant’), its stranglehold over the media and its encouragement of acquiescence in a somnolent population. It all starts to sound creepily prescient for a work of fiction from the sixties.
And the question posed in the title, do androids dream of electric sheep? It depends who’s asking and who’s replying, and if there’s an awareness of the sheep being artificial. If Deckard is asking himself it’s because he doubts his status. Maybe Dick is really asking us, the readers, how independent we really are or if someone is controlling us, whether we are what we think we are or merely simulacra.
And this, I think, is one of my final impressions. To analyse Do androids dream may be like taking a creature and by dissecting it on a bench effectively end up killing it. Whether artificial or real, I’m not sure that ‘retiring’ this creation is the right way to appreciate it. That’s a cop-out, I know, but there you are.