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Getting my feet wet: 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' by Phillip K. Dick

BooksKristina PinoComment

There's too much "classic" sci-fi and otherwise widely-acclaimed literature I haven't read, simply because my parents nourished my reading by picking up whatever books had those little award seals on them. While I've probably watched most of the movie adaptations that stem from such works, this is the first time I've actually read a novel by Phillip K. Dick. Considering how my tastes have changed over time, it's just as well. I don't think I would have appreciated Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? back when I was in high school.

(Please note - Sheep is from 1968 so this article is not entirely spoiler-free.)

Before I get into anything, I should mention that I never made the correlation between Blade Runner and Sheep until a friend gave me the book as a gift and the title Blade Runner was plastered all over it. You would think that was the actual title of the book! But then you see the little subtitle in parenthesis, practically an afterthought. This outraged me. Why would they do that? That isn't the title of the book! But eventually one realizes, that like myself, most others wouldn't pick up Sheep knowing that it's the source material that spawned the classic film Blade Runner.

Sheep takes place on post-apocalyptic Earth inhabited by the stragglers and damaged persons (due to fallout) who can't or won't emigrate to other colonies in space. Rick Deckard is a married man with an electric sheep who longs for a real animal. You see, owning and caring for an animal is a status symbol now that most of them have died out. Deckard makes his money by hunting runaway androids - humanoid synthetic beings that have escaped an off-planet colony and returned to Earth where they are banned. One day, his superior is out-smarted by one of these renegade androids, and the task falls to Deckard to carry out the rest of his job: "retire" the six remaining run-aways.

In the context of the book, retiring androids is risky business. The only measurable method Deckard and other bounty hunters have for distinguishing them from humans is an empathy test. This requires them to actually sit and chat with the suspect androids and ask them enough questions to decide whether they're human or not. Not to mention, the bounty hunters also need to make sure their subjects aren't "chickenheads," folks who have degenerated mentally due to isolation, fallout or other factors.

What makes this story compelling more than anything is the last big chunk of the book when Deckard starts wigging out. There isn't much character development for him up until he's faced with his own growing empathy for the robots. Having to retire six human-looking beings in just one 24-hour period proved to be a bit too much for him. Even though he knows they're synthetic, he feels empathy toward them. I think it also helped that the androids were acting as a group and actually, to a point, covering for each other. Early on in the book, it's pounded into your head that androids care for no other, but then here we have an organized eight (Deckard only had to deal with six of them).

The biggest problem I had with Sheep was the pacing. I'm not really holding it against Dick though, since I generally view it as a product of its time. Some situations were simply dictated to me instead of narrated in a way that I felt the gravity of the situation. The last three androids standing should have been the most difficult for Deckard to retire; and he did retire them, but I don't feel that the build-up matched with the execution. I was so excited to read those last few scenes, to see a struggle, to read about Deckard's mentality of the situation. I got none.

Instead, we got a major twist tying in with the overall religious theme of Mercerism in the story. Wilbur Mercer is something like a prophet or god who is always suffering. Humans can connect with him and other people through an "empathy box," in which they share their joy and/or suffering with each other, and particularly the suffering of Mercer. When Deckard started feeling empathy towards the androids, he used the empathy box and "fused" with Mercer, who manifested himself to Deckard at just the right time to save his life, and that led him to seek out the hill on which Mercer suffers. Deckard goes and experiences Mercer's suffering all by himself, and arrives back home convinced that he can no longer be separated by it, and that he'll keep on doing his job anyway - even if it's wrong.

In the course of the book, there are way too many changes in what would be considered established beliefs. Mercer is that one god that everyone believed in, but then Buster Friendly, the biggest celebrity and spokesperson who is on TV and radio 24/7 announced that Mercer was a sham and not a real person. But even after learning this, Mercer appears to Deckard and saves his life. No wonder the man was so confused that he decided to go out to the desert and (presumably) die. 

There's a lot to take in with the whole Mercerism bit. The whole point of that belief system is to share your joy with others that need it. Though he was a follower, Deckard never seemed to think one way or another about it except in the context of caring for an animal. Once again, the animal thing is pretty much the biggest drive Deckard had throughout

Sheep to do anything. And in the end, he even lost that. His wife, who had spent pretty much the entire book behaving even more emotion-less than androids were perceived to be, didn't change until Deckard came back from the desert thinking he'd captured a real frog. It wasn't until right then, almost the very last page of the book, that she "came back to life."

Sheep is a great book with a great story, but I feel like it should have been much longer, or separated to a main story with some companion material on the side. There was a lot of world-building, and then a bit of world-wrecking, without enough padding in between to truly understand everything that was going on. All that being said, I absolutely recommend the book to anyone that enjoys sci-fi. I also recommend the movie

Blade Runner, even though it's only loosely based on the novel. Since my copy of the book is recent (from around 2006), it actually had an extra article at the end of it talking about the making of the film. I was glad to learn more about it, and if you check out the Blu-ray release of Blade Runner, you can even watch a documentary about the making of the film.

Books-A-Million:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick - Paperback

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick - Paperback

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?