Have you ever lied awake at night pondering your life’s work and thought, “Are my experiences even real?” Preceding the “Matrix” by three decades, “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?,” a novel by Philip K. Dick, opened a future world in which humans and androids are barely separable.
This novel addresses issues of apathy, war and pollution, but the main epicenter from which every theme grows is: “What makes us human?” It was this question that made me want to read this book, and I was greatly surprised by the themes I found while reading. It was these surprises that elevated it to the top five of my favorite reads.
In the novel, the androids are able to mimic humans in every way, and some even possess memories that help them blend in better with their human brethren. They lack one thing from their human counterparts: emotion for other living things and the ability to empathize with another suffering creature.
To stop this, these androids are outlawed. When detected, were “retired” from service.
The novel takes place in Los Angeles, which is a nice change from New York City since everything happens there apparently, in the not-too-distant future. The main character in the novel is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who is hired by the police to hunt down these androids. You may have heard of this before. Those who are movie savvy may also know this novel as “Blade Runner.”
Dick is the mind behind such a dark and morally ambiguous story. His novel seems to have a bit of everything in it: cyber punk (before the coining of the term in the 1980s), a detective story, survival, paranoia and spiritual exploration. The aspect that is dwelled upon is really up to the reader. However, any way it is read, this novel will make your head spin at certain points.
The characters are memorable and differentiate themselves completely from one another. J.R. Isidore, for example, is a loner, sad and just trying to get off the planet to the Mars colony. Like most Philip K. Dick novels, while the main character of the story is Rick Deckard whom we do not stay with throughout the novel, the novel constantly jumps perspectives. Unlike most novels that attempt to do the same style of narration, this one does not feel contrived. The multiple storylines do come together and seamlessly connect toward the end of the novel.
But the novel is not without its faults. Every now and again, the name Mercer is brought up, and while it is a man’s name, it is almost a semi-religion. Whenever someone is feeling good or bad they place their head into a Mercer machine in order to share their feelings with others. Later in the novel, Deckard basically tries to hunt down Mercer himself, a man who he suspects is dead. The Mercer aspect is quite boggling and, in the end, really doesn’t do quite a lot. It adds slightly to how badly the breakdown in humanity is. In the end, however, it is really just confusing.
Laura Leslie, Dick’s daughter, read her father’s novels and saw things from another perspective.
“When I read [his novels], it is a different experience for me than your experience. Most of his novels include a great deal of the locale where he lived and the characters were based on people he knew. So, when I’m reading one of his novels, I connect with the familiar, which can be a distraction for me as my mind starts to connect all the personal pieces together at the expense of the entirety of the plot and character development,” said Leslie.
Dick is probably one of the most widely recognized writers in the history of science fiction, comparable to Isaac Asimov in many cases. But Dick has been overshadowed by one single action: drug use.
Beyond the drugs, Dick was a human being. Dick was also a parent, a side that the public rarely hears.
“[He was] non traditional. [He] engaged with me more as a peer or friend even when I was a young child. [He was a] wonderful letter writer. I have a three-inch binder full of letters between us. He was witty and funny and playful and enjoyed “putting me on” by telling me a whopper and gleefully waiting for me to call him on it. He loved to send funny limericks he had written,” said Leslie.
It is the human side of Dick that many people rarely see, and it’s a shame that such a genius has been written off as a druggy. It’s like writing off Einstein as “that guy who didn’t pass high school.” It’s just a single part of a larger and more complex human being. To show just a single part of a human being rather than the whole is wrong and unfair to his or her memory and family.
In the ways of Dick’s novels, I suggest you pick one up. “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” is probably one of the more user-friendly ones because, with the film “Blade Runner” based on the novel, it is easy to see what can sometimes be missed on the page. But the two aren’t even close to the same. The movie is good, but it completely strips out the paranoia and the sociological critique that the novel shoves in the readers’ minds.
For those new to this crazy scene of sci-fi, try out this novel. It will not disappoint, but it will probably make you think.