Tuesday, December 1, 2009

SciFi for Beginners: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Posted by Simcha 5:39 PM, under | 4 comments

A couple of months ago I had decided that I needed to become more familiar with science fiction, since I run a scifi and fantasy website. In order to do this, I would start by reading one science fiction book a month. The first book I read was Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein; a really odd book that took me a while to recover from. This month I chose to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip Dick. I picked this book because it had an interesting title and I've never read a book about androids before which seems like something I should do if I want to be a real science fiction reader.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was first published in 1968 and in the early editions the story takes place in the futuristic year, 1992. Later editions of this book change the year to 2021. The protagonist, Rick Deckerd, is a bounty hunter of androids in a post-apocalyptic future where most of Earth has been evacuated due to the radioactive dust from the last World War. Almost all animals have died, due to the toxic dust, and the people who have chosen to remain on Earth-either for work purposes or because they have been rejected for emigration- suffer from various diseases.

In order to encourage people to move to Mars and other off-world colonies the U.N offeres every new emigrant their own android slave. As the demand for androids increases over the years, new and more sophisticated androids are created until eventually they are so advanced that they can even pass as humans. Some of these more developed androids manage to kill their masters and escape to Earth, where androids are illegal. Rick's job is to hunt down these androids and "retire" them.

The story opens as Rick is woken up in the morning by his mood organ, a machine that allows the user to select the mood they would like to experience, and almost immediately gets into an argument with his wife in which she accuses him of being a murderer. Rick defends himself by stating that he has never killed a human in his life. Despite their physical similarities to humans and their superior intellect, androids are considered the lowest form of life and Rick has no qualms in killing them. But as Rick sets off to hunt down a group of renegade androids that have escaped from Mars he experiences various incidents which cause him to begin doubting his own feelings towards androids and his suitability for his current job.

The title of the book is based on the fact that in this world
, a person's social status is affected by their ownership of a real animal. Since all animals are now scarce, and many are already extinct, animals are seen as particularly precious and owning one gives a person status. In addition, since empathy is the key difference between humans and androids, caring for an animal also proves that the pet-owner is empathetic and therefore human. People that can't afford a real animal can buy an electric one instead, which is the unfortunate position that Rick is in. He desperately want's to replace his electric sheep with a real one and hopes that after he captures all of the androids he will finally be able to afford the real thing.

Meanwhile, J.R Isidore, who lives by himself in an abandoned building, discovers that someone new has moved into the apartment below him. Due to brain damage as a result of the toxic dust, Isidore is forced to remain on Earth where he works for electric-animal repair company. Excited by the prospect of having a neighbor, he goes over with the gift of margarine, to make their acquaintance. Isidore soon discovers that his new neighbor is on the run from the authorities, along with three of her friends, and he quickly extends an offer of assistance to them. But these people are different then anyone Isidore knows, they are colder and crueler, and perhaps they aren't even people...

I'm of two of minds about this book. On the one hand, it was a fast-paced, easy to read book that had me fully engrossed from the beginning until the end. It was like watching an action movie. On the other hand, I was disappointed because I was expecting some kind of great climactic event or an interesting and surprising revelation that would tie everything together, but there was neither. The book just ends. I had enjoyed reading the book in expectancy that it was building up to something dramatic, but it really doesn't.

There are also a number of inconsistencies throughout the book as well as many things that go unexplained. Why is there no mention of children in the book, are there none on Earth? What purpose is there for the mood organ and why was it created?
J.R Isidore is referred to as a Chickenhead, because of his low-level of intelligence, but what's the meaning behind this term? These questions, and many others, are never addressed, which was another thing that disappointed me.

After finishing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep I felt like I must have missed some deep and hidden message in the book, so I turned to Wikipedia for help, but it didn't have much to add. The book apparently questions what it is that makes a person human, rather then an android, which is not a question that has ever really troubled me.

Despite my criticisms, I still enjoyed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as an easy-to-read scifi- book and I think I would like to try more books by Philip K. Dick. I also intend to watch Blade Runner, which is based on this book, to see how it compares. If you are interested in getting into some light science fiction, without any confusing scientific terms and descriptions (which is what always throws me off), this book would be a good place to start.


Good review. I haven't read 'Androids' yet but I did find Stranger in a Strange land extremely dated and the writing a little flat, I require more of an emotional connection.
(And we won't even mentioned just how much he ruffled my feminist sensibilities :0)

However Blade Runner is one of my all time favourite films. It is emotional engaging and there are some stellar performances. The version I saw originally in the 1980s, and the one that got me hooked, was the narrated version but the Director's Cut is supposed to be the best.

ps You need to correct the typo in the publication date (1968 not 1986!)

Oh, I LOVED Do Androids dream of electric sheep.
I guess, in a weird way "what makes humans different from androids" IS a question I have asked myself over and over again. I mean, could be not just be robots controlled by someone else. And when we do have next to human robots, or if, what is it that will make them so different from us?
It's a question seen over and over again in sci fi (just think Battlestar Galactica), and it's one I have trouble with. I guess I therefore probably related to this book quite a bit more than you did.
I haven't read it in a long time, but I do remember being very satisfied with the end, feeling as if things were nicely closed off. Maybe I misremember, though.
I look forward to more of your reviews of sci fi in the future!

Whoops! Thanks for the correction Esther. If you do read the book I'd be interested in hearing what you think about it. I've been reading really good things about Blade Runner so I think I'll try to watch it sometime soon.

Brizmus, I'm very new to scifi and so I'm not familiar with the issues that are discussed regarding robots but I just can't imagine that there is any possibility of robots being created that are similar enough to humans to be confused with them and so focusing on this issue does not seem particularly meaningful to me.

Androids ends with (*spoiler alert*) Rick driving to Oregon, climbing a hill where he gets hit by a rock in a Mercer like manner, finding a toad and then going home where he discovers that the toad is mechanical, after which he goes to bed and his wife orders mechanical flies for the toad. I had expected that there would be some kind of revelation or surprise regarding Dave, which would explain why Rick has been unable to meet with him or even that Rick would turn out to be an android himself. And what happens to Isidore? And I'm sure Rick could have taken action against Rachel or the company she belonged to for her murder of his goat, rather then just giving up.

I guess I just felt that there were too many loose threads remaining in the end.

I recently read and reviewed this book as well.

I don't think so much a question of what makes us human as opposed to android but rather what makes us human period.

To this end Dick introduces two elements into the story. There's the androids of course. Rick seriously questions the morality of retiring them at one point in the book. Even with his talent for the job he is almost unable to detect an one. The newer models are gifted, in some ways he even admires them.

Then there is Isidore who is quite human but still regarded as something less than a full human being because of his limited IQ and faulty genes. People and androids alike seem to think this justifies abusing him.

So we have a cop who values organic life beyond all else yet is willing to kill androids he is barely able to distinguish from ordinary humans. We have a man who is clearly human but still not regarded as one and we have artificial beings without rights but eerily similar to the genuine article.

What quality, if any, is it that defines one as a human and not the other?

Maybe the end of the novel shows us a glimpse of what Rick and his wife decided about the difference between organic and artificial life.

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