Monday, 28 September 2009

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Philip K. Dick.

This is, of course, the novel which was later filmed by Ridley Scott as 'Bladerunner', and it is easy to see the appeal to film-makers. The post-apocalyptic squalor (characterised by Dick as a relentless build up of detritus, or 'kibble') is a dystopian cinematographer's dream. The theme of a bounty hunter who is suffering doubts about his profession was not new in 1968 when the novel was first published, but the fact that his prey are androids and that Rick Deckard is experiencing a form of empathy with them is a thought-provoking take on it. Scott's film plays this up to such an extent that debates have raged ever since about whether Deckard himself is a replicant (as the androids were called for the big screen).
Here there is no such confusion, despite the attempts of Rachel Rosen, the epitome of sophisticated android intelligence, to convince him that he might be a machine too. Deckard even has a wife and, for a painfully brief time, a real live goat, instead of the electronic sheep which causes him secret shame and drives his need to 'retire' six highly dangerous androids and reap a huge bonus.
Underlying the novel, as is often the case with Dick's work, are questions of what it is to be alive: do we embrace and therefore fully experience our existence, or do we allow fears, distractions, the opinions of others, the need to pay bills, etc; do we allow all this to dampen our sensations and lessen the quality of our lives? Not for nothing does Deckard note that 'Most androids I've known have more vitality and desire to live than my wife.' If an android is capable of independent thought, if it is capable of fearing for its own life, then how exactly is it different from human beings besides the fact that beneath its organic skin it needs electronics to animate it? It could be argued that we're all somewhat android anyway - what is it that actually makes our heart beat and pump blood around the body if not an electrical charge?
When it comes to dispatching the renegade androids there are no glorious last words from Roy Baty, as there are in the film adaptation, but this does not make the novel a lesser entity. It is the fact that in the end Baty and his friends just give in to their fate that stays with the reader. Dick is clearly fascinated with decay, with the dying of the American Dream, of Enlightenment thinking itself. For the author there is something beautiful, even inspirational about the potential failure of Rationalism. We wake up, we go to work, we come home, we sleep. Unless we question the why and the wherefore of our daily lives, Dick is telling us, we might as well be pre-programmed androids shuffling from one mindless task to the next.


  1. Liked you post and the writing style. Your education hasn't been wasted at all ))))

    I must read this novel now. I usually prefer books to movies, except for rare cases when a movie had proven itself to be much better than the book.

    Speaking of androids, a friend of mine claims that in 10-15 years from now they will take over the world. Just some food for thought ))

  2. Thanks Ostrix. Liking the look of your blog too.
    I am a fan of both books and movies and love it when they make a great film from a great book. Fight Club is a good example. Brilliant book, brilliant film. And yet they are different - different endings, different emphasis on certain aspects of Tyler's function, etc. Books are ultimately more rewarding as they always manage to stay 'yours' if you know what I mean. A film is for everybody and the vision is the director's. With a book, the characters look and move the way I imagine them, with some prompting from the author. Authors are gentler on our imaginations and allow us more freedom, I guess.