Time for another read in my project to get better acquainted with the science fiction classics. This book is part of Gollancz' SF Mastworks series, a collection in which Dick seems to be a bit overrepresented with fourteen out of a total of seventy-three titles. The 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is generally considered one of Dick's best books and the title intrigued me, so when I came across this copy on my last visit to the book store I couldn't resist. It's the first book by Philip K. Dick I have read so I didn't quite know what to expect. It is not a happy read but it does contain a number of thought-provoking ideas. I can see why this book is mentioned as being on of the highlights of 1960s science fiction.
In 1992 the world has been thoroughly destroyed by nuclear warfare. Life on Earth has become scarce, many species are now extinct. In response to this crises a large part of the remaining population has opted for life in one of the colonies elsewhere in the solar system. Not everybody has left of course. Those deemed to be too damaged by radiation are excluded from emigration and there are a number of less affected people who have elected to stay. To entice people to emigrate to the new colonies androids are made available to them for free. The androids used to be quite primitive but recently have progressed to the point where they are very hard to distinguish from normal people. Androids have no rights whatsoever, they are property. Once in a while one rebels, kills it's owner, runs away and makes it back to earth. It is the job of men such as Rick Deckard to protect the general public and 'retire' these renegades.
The book makes the reader ask themselves what quality, if any, is unique to a human being. The sophisticated androids Deckard is hunting are very hard to recognize. He is very good at picking up the subtle signs but he still needs the aid of a test based on empathy and involuntary reactions of the human body to be certain. Ironically, given the nature of the questions there is a good chance you and I would fail it. His experiences with the latest model of android are making Deckard question the morality or retiring these beings. In a world were life hangs on by a thread, where owning a real live animal is a status symbol, killing is the ultimate crime.
The novel captures the psychological pressure on Deckard very well. With his ability to detect androids pushed to the limit and the accuracy of his test in question, he gets slightly paranoid halfway through the book. Dick cleverly puts Deckard and the reader off balance on at least two occasions by making us guess if a character is an android or not. To contrast the near-humanity of androids Dick introduces the minor story line of John R. Isidore, a man who is so severely affected by radiation that he does not pass the IQ test required to be allowed to emigrate. He is special, or, in less flattering terms, a chickenhead. Barely regarded as a human, he is very much abused by the few people around him and almost smart enough to realize it. The way society treats the alien but hard to recognize androids and the obviously human but looked down upon Isidore is another stab at our own humanity.
In a way Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is very much a novel of it's time. It explores ideas, moral issues and consequences of advances in technology but does not really excel at character development. If you're used to more recent science fiction it may be hard to care for any of the characters. They serve a function in the novel, illustrate a point, but it is hard to really identify with them. What makes this book special is the way Dick uses that emotional distance in the book, Deckard suspects he may not be in prime psychological health. His lack of emotion when killing androids is very much part of the way the author makes the reader question his humanity.
I guess it comes down to whether you can appreciate Dick's point without easy to identify with characters to hold on to. He managed to drag me in to the story by creating a very paranoid atmosphere early on in the book and it didn't let me go. That may not work for everybody though. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a pretty quick read, in a way Dick makes his point efficiently. I can see why Hollywood saw a good movie in it, although the amount of rewriting that went into producing a script for Bladerunner seems a bit excessive given the source material. This book quite convinced me to add some more of Dick's books to my to read list.
Title: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Author: Philip K. Dick
First published: 1968