Monday, March 12, 2012

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968)

     I am not going to pretend that I have any level of familiarity with Philip K. Dick, other than from the adaptations of a few of his stories for the big screen.  But to assume that those are an accurate representation of Dick's work would be like assuming that Pat Robertson has an honest take on Christianity.  Borrowing from the source material to spin a different story isn't the same as the original material itself.  And so I found myself giving Dick a chance with the quite accessible Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968).
     Actually, I had the misfortune of first being exposed to the Boom! Studios graphic novel series first.  While it is entirely faithful to Dick's text, it ruins the rhythm of the writing.  If Dick has one strength in the novel, it is his pacing and rhythm.  As such, the graphic novels ruin the experience.  Worse than that, the illustrations do not feel particularly evocative of the story (though Dick is very sparse with his descriptions) and fall well short of the not-at-all-faithful big screen adaptation, Blade Runner (1982).  Rather than take three times as long reading the graphic novel series, I quickly switched over to the novel and started all over again.
     There are two interesting elements at play in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  The first – and far more interesting – is Dick's meditation on the nature of religion.  His Mercerism is easily identified as a form of Christianity (or, at the very least, borrows its imagery and central message from Christianity), but one that can be decried as a lie, one that is known to have been manufactured as a result of World War Terminus.  The linkage of humanity, the idea that empathy is the central tenet of life – these are the concepts that Mercerism brings into play, and they are meaningful in a way that expands beyond the story. 
     The other element at play is the unsteady nature of reality.  Dick crafts his world and the experiences of the inhabitants as a long, mostly coherent drug-induced fever dream.  Even setting aside the clearly dream-like shifts, there is a duality to the reality the characters experience.  There are fake animals and fake people.  The ersatz animals are still beings that engender love and require attention – and thus prove the empathy of the humans involved in caring for them – but the fake people, the androids, need to be eliminated on earth because they have no empathy.  It is an obvious double standard, but one that the androids cannot understand on the human level.  The andys are doomed to a series of self-generated betrayals and lack of greater community, making their superior intelligence (and perhaps physical abilities, as indicated by the opera singer) ultimately meaningless.  They are a people without a history and unable to form a collective purpose.  They are the ultimate argument against unrestrained individualism.
     Having written all of that, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is not as rewarding as the ideas that float around inside of it.  It isn't hard science fiction.  Instead, it seems to have a Sci-Fi setting so as to be able to let Dick range in terms of personal horrors and fears and place them amongst his musings on the nature of humanity and society.  There is something unsettling about personal greed and desire to be seen as superior to one's neighbors being shown in the terms of animal ownership and maintenance.  The idea that a woman desired could be repeated ad infinitum, and that all of them represent a very real threat to one's world may only make sense when understood as a dream, but that is one of the things that Dick's style does accomplish.  Unfortunately, he both goes to far and not far enough with that element to satisfy, and it doesn't have the impact that it should.
     This novel is not going to make me rush out and read more Dick (never mind that my list of books to read for the rest of this year's Reading Project is already overfull).  It may be because I find Blade Runner to have more to say about the human condition – though on a smaller scale than Dick attempts in his novel – or because I have encountered quite a few novels and short stories where the once novel idea has been better developed in later works, but Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep did not do much to excite me.  I had to go looking for a deeper meaning, and ignore Dick's ability to completely forget about characters and part of the story that seemed to have some importance (and not just to serve as filler) in order to enjoy the novel.  And I didn't enjoy it enough for me to want to engage in a steady diet of this kind of work.

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