Going to say this right up front: This was a hard book for me to get through. If you thought the movie Blade Runner was bleak and cynical, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Here comes the book it’s based on: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
The hypocrisy of this future (originally 1992, later editions change this to 2021) is blatant on just about every level. We start with Deckard and his wife discussing what setting to dial for their mood machine—something that can literally give you whatever mood you want for as long as you want. Yet it becomes quickly apparent that it cannot truly stop depression, only mask it for a time.
After World War Terminus (which is an objectively cooler name than World War III) most animal life that isn’t dead is endangered, and are considered so precious and valued that they are bought and sold like rare collectables. They effectively put their value as an object to be possessed far above their value as a species to be protected and repopulated.
And of course, there are the androids, which have become so advanced they are indistinguishable from people except for one key element, lacking empathy. Deckard’s hunting of these androids is even more disturbing and problematic than in the film. The parallels of slavery and dehumanization are obvious, and yet the androids themselves are disturbing—as much as you empathize with their plight, you eventually see that lack of empathy in action, and can’t help but be affected by it.
One of the more unique elements of the book is a kind of virtual reality simulation that is meant to increase empathy in a person. It immerses you in a strange mishmash of religious experience, most closely comparable to Jesus heading to the crucifixion. Your experience is shared with everyone else using it simultaneously (you sense them and they sense you). This ends up playing a part in the climax as well, as a well-known celebrity is ready to reveal the truth about this religion.
Ironically, the most difficult person I found to empathize with was the lead, Rick Deckard. He’s a horrible person who rationalizes and justifies the things he’s doing because he wants to buy a goat. He empathizes with the androids, and often doubts his actions, yet it doesn’t stop him from doing what he’s doing. Even by the end, his arc is one of failed apotheosis on multiple levels.
From a structural standpoint, my experience with Phillip K. Dick’s writing style has often been a sense of “making it up as he goes along.” That’s not exactly a criticism. Many writers write by the seat of their pants rather than plot things out in detail before writing a word (or some combination of the two). Whether or not this is actually the case I have no idea, but I did hear that he wrote The Man in the High Castle with the help of I Ching divination sticks, so…
Sometimes his attention to detail feels extremely misplaced. He spends pages talking about different mood settings to dial, or how the trade in live and robot animals works, yet barely gives any time to certain emotions characters are feeling at critical points of the story.
But that’s kind of the point, I suppose. This story detaches you from your usual touchstones of normality by giving people a wildly different set of priorities. It alienates you, and you get the feeling that everyone is alienated from each other in a similar way. This truly feels like a dying world. Everyone is resigned to the notion that it’s not going to get better and are building their lives upon what’s left for as long as they can.
Another hallmark of Phillip K. Dick is his ability to mess with your head and question reality. Fans of the film often ask the question, “Is Deckard an android?” A large chunk of the book, however, takes that level of doubt into the stratosphere, with layer upon layer of deception going on. And the doubts aren’t just limited to Deckard.
As for comparing the film to the book, this falls into a very interesting niche. Some parts (such as Rachel’s empathy test) are lifted straight from the novel, while many other aspects are heavily changed or left out completely. But we still see their influence within the film, and nothing between the two feels truly out of place, either.
For example, the existence of synthetic animals and the value of living animals are alluded to in the film, but not given nearly as much weight. But after reading the book, the seemingly random appearance of a couple of ostriches in one brief scene seems to make more sense. The description of life on Earth after World War Terminus makes you understand all the abandoned buildings in some parts of the city, while other parts are always crowded.
In short, while these end up feeling like very different stories on the surface, it’s not hard to see them both existing within the same universe, maybe even crossing paths with one another without realizing it.
For previous book reviews as well as bonus links, please visit: https://www.noahchinnbooks.com/articles/off-the-shelf/