Book Review – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick
For some reason, I never thought a great deal of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? until now, more than ten years after I first read it. There was always something perplexing, even troubling, about the book as a whole. I didn’t like or understand the stuff about Mercerism, and I felt the action scenes in the book to be inferior to those in the film Blade Runner, which was famously based on this strange little book. But now, on perhaps my fourth overall reading in ten years, I’ve changed my mind.
The first thing that struck me about Androids this time was its simplicity of structure. At a little over two hundred pages, and with all the events taking place on the same day, PKD employs two main viewpoint characters and two only: Rick Deckard and J.R. Isidore. This austerity seems especially stark when compared to the book of PKD’s I mostly recently read before this: the unruly Doctor Bloodmoney. The second notable thing about Androids is the high-brow, even scholarly tone adopted herein, which sets it apart from most of this authors other books. SF critic and writer Stanislaw Lem once labelled this novel ‘a counterfeit coin,’ feeling that it paled in comparison with Ubik. I used to think I knew what Lem meant by this, but now I’m not so sure. What I see here is an enjoyable, fast-moving police thriller that economically (even effortlessly) meditates on the nature of the real in a more immediate way than in, say, the slower paced The Man in the High Castle.
In the aftermath of World War Terminus, Earth is a shambles. Most of the survivors have emigrated to the Martian colonies, and most of those who survive are ‘specials’ or ‘chickenheads’ whose genetic code has been scrambled by the radiation. J.R. Isidore is one of these. I should point out here that PKD has basically exported Isidore from the earlier (but then unpublished) Confessions of a Crap Artist. There and here, he is an idiot savant with a good heart. Here he works for a Vet Clinic that specialises in repairing false animals. Strangely, and only barely logically, almost all of the Earth’s animals are extinct. Those that remain are highly sought after, status symbols in themselves. Sidney’s catalogue lists the prices and availability of all creatures great and small, many of whom are thought to be no more.
It is for this reason that Rick Deckard and his wife Iran have an electric sheep on their balcony. The electric sheep is far cheaper than a real one, but Rick Deckard longs for the real thing. In the first chapter, we learn that that won’t be possible unless two things happen. One, he will need to retire a vast number of ‘andys’ (Blade Runner‘s replicants), and Two, another bounty hunter, Dave Holden, will need to be out of the way. Both of these things come to pass in chapter two, which helps to cast a little light onto the economical (but very effective) plotting at work in this novel.
What follows for the bulk of the narrative is Rick Deckard’s work day, a day in which he must try to do the unthinkable and ‘retire’ all six remaining Nexus 6 andys. A few of the scenes, such as the one where Deckard interviews Rachel Rosen and identifies her as an andy, are familiar from Blade Runner, but others, including perhaps the best in the whole novel, were omitted from the film. The scene I refer to is one where Deckard is arrested and taken to a fake police station, complete with a fake police chief but, crucially, a human officer who isn’t in on the plot. That officer, Phil Resch, comes to question his own humanity when pressured. Nowhere in PKD’s novels does he express the ‘What is Human?’ question as succintly as he does here.
It’s not all quite as good as this, however. It’s difficult not to read Androids alongside Blade Runner, as much as I try. The showdown between Deckard and Roy Baty is extremely anticlimatic and short-lived here. More interesting is the scene prior to this when the androids trap the spider J.R. has found and begin to snip its legs off. J.R. gets upset and flushes the spider down the sink, before Mercer appears and gives him a new spider (or is it the same one?) I say ‘appears’ because that’s exactly what Mercer, an old man climbing up a hill in some hazily-defined simulation, does. Is Mercer God? If so, why is he trying to help Deckard (as he does when Pris is about to set upon him) and why is he being denounced as a fraud by Buster Friendly and his Friendly Friends? PKD has no answer here. Ultimately, he’s less concerned with the thriller aspect than the philosophical implications, and that becomes all too apparent here at the plot’s crescendo.
And then it ends. By the final pages, Deckard seems to have sunk into some existensial gloom from which he might never recover. His brand new goat has been thrown off of the balcony (by Rachel Rosen, for reasons unknown), he’s indebted to the goat dealer and he’s not far off being a murderer, in his own mind at least. Forlorn, he flies in his hovercar up to the Oregon border where he finds a toad. Thinking it’s his lucky day, he takes it home to Iran only to discover that the toad is a fake. And that’s the real end of the novel. But what does it all mean? Maybe I do know what Lem was on about after all in terms of Androids being a counterfeit coin. There’s a sense of PKD, for want of a better term, ‘faking it’ here (although what ‘it’ is isn’t clear). Where Ubik seems genuinely mystical, Androids, in the end, is just a tired dead-end. There would be more along these lines from PKD in the years between this novel and his next book of real worth, A Scanner Darkly.