To keep my geek cred, I recently read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the Philip K. Dick classic that inspired the Ridley Scott classic, Blade Runner. It was a mixed, but interesting experience, and I’m still working out how exactly I feel about it. But any book that leaves you thinking about it long after it’s done, earns its keep in my opinion.
This is a review that’s going to assume I’m the last person in the world to have finally read Do Androids and will not shy from spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Disclosure: I had already seen Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut twice, and while I’m no fangirl, it certainly made an impression. No one can say Ridley Scott’s vision isn’t, well, totally visionary, and his slant on the story definitely shaped how I read Philip K. Dick’s novel.
Disclosure: This was my absolute first experience reading PKD. Once I realized that the book was vastly different than the film based on it, I was completely without an anchor of expectation.
So it is no surprise that my response at the end was: “Huhn.”
Michael, who was sitting nearby, asked for clarification. “Weird ending,” I replied. He offered this gem: “If you enjoy that feeling, please read more Philip K. Dick!”
I’m not quite sold on that prospect…yet. On the one hand, reading PKD was a roller coaster. During the first third of the book, I was repeatedly disappointed that the book wasn’t more noirish, more like Blade Runner in its genre and imagery. And yet, as the book continued, I saw the genius of Scott to use the film noir genre to structure the story for the screen. Because Deckard does get pulled into a world of corruption of a sort–his ability to retire androids is corrupted by his interaction with them. Heck, Rachel’s more of a femme fatale in the book than in the movie. But the atmosphere just isn’t noir, and the literary stylings certainly aren’t.
Once I got past that, I fell deep into the mindf**k that is the doppleganger police station. Suddenly I was all in, completely grabbed by the story and under PKD’s powers. If the rest of the novel had been that mind-blowingly exciting, I would have become a PKD fangirl right there. But it doesn’t maintain it, dialing it back down in the action before a finale that’s about defining and seeing God.
Hence “weird ending.” PKD is not the procurer of clear answers. He’s a questions man. I’m not sure I expected so many hanging questions at the end, so I felt less than satisfied. But the more I’ve considered the book, the more those questions have rattled around in my skull, the more my respect for the novel has grown.
The first of these: What is PKD saying about the blurred distinction between simulation and real? He opens with the ways that humans have given up authenticity, namely through dialing up desired emotions on the mood organ. Like machines, they can just code a number to elicit the feeling they want or need, perhaps the desire to watch TV no matter what’s on or the feeling of hopefulness. Are the emotions real if not created by an authentic experiential stimuli, if they are just simulated by the mood organ? They feel real enough to the characters. It seems pretty clear that PKD sees the mood organ emotions as simulated and thus inauthentic. The scenes in which Deckard or his wife discuss their day’s emotional choices are pathetic to the point of laughable. On this point, PKD is clearly anti-simulation.
And like all great sci-fi, the stuff of fiction here is merely a reflection of fact. Most people manipulate their emotions throughout a day, we’re just less exact in our methods. We might drink a beverage with either stimulating or relaxing effects. We might listen to a particular music to amplify or nullify a mood. We might watch a sitcom to alleviate the despair of a bad day or a Nick Sparks movie to get a good cry out. And that’s just the normal over-the-counter stuff. 1 in 5 Americans take some sort of psychiatric medication, antidepressants being the most prevalent.
The second way PKD explores the simulation/real issue is through the value of electric versus real animals. Deckard owns an electric sheep, a replacement for a real sheep that died. He covets his neighbor’s real horse. His electric sheep, although no one knows its a fake but Deckard and his wife, is a shameful aspect of his life. He spends entirely too much time, in my opinion, obsessing over the value of real animals. Of course, the world he lives in is a wasteland. Real animals are scarce. Owning a real one is not only a sign of wealth, it’s a sign of empathy. More on that in subsequent post about the human/inhuman dichotomy.
But here the fake animals are not so clearly lesser. Repeatedly electric animals are mistaken for real, even by extremely empathetic humans. Both Deckard and Isidore make this mistake, accepting either real animals as fake or electric animals as real. Each of them find an animal that makes him feel spiritually blessed. In one case, it seems the animal is a real one, and its mutilation at the hands of the androids is what shows them to be inhuman. In the other case, the animal turns out to be false, but it still led to what appears to be an authentic spiritual epiphany. This part of the simulacra-real question is left much more ambiguous. Certainly there is a despair over the wasteland Earth has become, and the value of real animals is a reflection of that. However, Deckard’s desire to own a real animal is pathetic. Once he gets one, it’s dead within 24 hours. The mockery of human being’s desire to own animals could ironically emphasize humanity’s role in the extinction of so many animals. Their continued efforts to control and “protect” animals is an insult to nature. Human beings might be better off simply accepting electric sheep and letting nature rebuild itself as best it can.
The android version of this question is much less ambiguous, probably because it has more to do with empathy and spirituality than a simple real/fake distinction. I’ll explore this and Mercerism in upcoming posts.