Classic sci-fi isn’t really “my thing”, but since when has that ever stopped me? Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? comes endlessly recommended to me, and I like the philosophic allusion of its title.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? was first published back in 1968, but remains popular – largely due to the film adaptation franchise. My edition (SF Masterworks) includes an interesting introduction by Graham Sleight. In it, he poses the question that he says is at the heart of Dick’s dystopian novel: “What is a fake? And, if you can make a fake seem authentic enough, does it matter?”. He wrote that in 2009, long before the time of fake news and alternative facts, and yet it feels more apt than ever.
The story is set in a post-apocalyptic North America, where a global nuclear war has left much of Earth uninhabitable thanks to a radioactively polluted atmosphere. Most animal species have gone instinct, or are well on their way. The Powers That Be incentivise humans to move to interplanetary colonies by offering them free personal androids, robot slaves that can do all their dirty work. As the program becomes more popular, the robots become more advanced, to the point where they’re almost indistinguishable from old fashioned flesh-and-blood humans.
As the androids become more human, they start to have human desires – like getting back to Earth where they think they belong, and they can live free from the oppression of their masters. Enter men like Richard Deckhard, bounty hunters who track down these absconders and “retire” them (i.e., shoot them with laser guns).
Dick takes an interesting approach, then, to dystopian science fiction, writing Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? more in the style of detective noir fiction. Deckhard is the hard-boiled world-weary investigator, tempted by selfish motives (sex, owning his own ostrich) but keeping his cool in life-threatening situations.
Speaking of sex: I’ve got to say, even if I knew nothing else about Dick, it’s abundantly clear throughout Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? that he really hates women. Really hates them. Richard Deckhard’s wife is a sad sack, totally pitiable and more of an obstacle to the progression of the plot than anything. The android villainess is a femme fatale, drawing Deckhard away from his purpose and manipulating him with sex. The pages are peppered with really gross descriptions of their physical appearance. Yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck.
Other than that, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? isn’t a bad read. I reckon the main reason for its enduring popularity is its layers: there’s so much you can read into it! It’s a novel about the nature of humanity and identity, how we understand our reality, and the basis of morality. Much heavier stuff than I was expecting from a post-nuclear-fall-out novel about shooting robots with laser guns.
I can’t say I’m all that eager to check out the movies, though. There was the 1982 Harrison Ford-led Blade Runner, which departed significantly from the source text, and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, which clawed a lot of it back. I only made it about half-way through the trailer for the former before I got bored, so I think I’ll give it a miss. I’ll keep Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? on my shelf, though, and re-visit it next time I’m eager to ponder the philosophical underpinnings of alternative facts.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?:
- “this… book has drained what little intellectual energy I had. I’m now an even more boring individual.” – JC Christiansen
- “I do not remember the movie being this stupid.” – M Snow