Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is Philip K. Dick’s masterful vision of a near future world in which bounty hunters are paid to “retire” rogue androids that have escaped and infiltrated human society. While most people know this as the book that inspired the classic Sci-Fi thriller Blade Runner, there are actually a number of significant differences between the movie version and the novel. And although they both share similar themes, such as what it means to be human, there are whole sub-plots and subjects in the book that are completely missing in the film. That’s not to say that one is better than the other. In my opinion they work well as companion pieces, and I recommend reading the book whether or not you have seen the movie.
Summary: The story takes place in San Francisco in a near-future Earth that has been made almost completely uninhabitable by radioactive fallout from World War Terminus. Most of Earth’s inhabitants have left to settle on the off-world colonies of Mars and beyond as a way to avoid the genetic degradation and damage that the nuclear fallout can inflict. Those that are left behind, including those who couldn’t pass the mental and genetic tests required to help humanity recover, are left to live in empty, decayed buildings and decaying cities. Due to the devastating impact of the radiation on the natural environment, living animals are extremely scarce – and owning a real one is a sign of prestige and social status. Those who can’t afford the high price of a real animal often resort to synthetic, mechanical copies in order to keep up appearances. Besides being a way to help protect species from extinction, the act of caring for these animals also forms the basis of the main religion among those left on Earth, Mercerism. Based on the trials and suffering of the mythical Wilbur Mercer, Mercerism is based on the collective empathy of the human race towards each other. Followers of Mercerism are literally connected through “Empathy Boxes” which connect their minds to each other in order to experience the suffering of Mercer. It is this ability to empathize (both with people and animals) that Dick sees as the defining characteristic of what it means to be human.
Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter whose job it is to track down Replicants, androids so sophisticated that they are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Although they are used primarily in the off-world colonies as slave labor, they occasionally break free of their programming and try to blend in with the rest of humanity. As the novel begins, Deckard is given the task of tracking down and “retiring” a group of rogue androids who have escaped from Mars. Because this latest generation of replicants are so sophisticated, Deckard must use what is known as the Voight-Kampff test in order to tell whether someone is human or not. Based on a series of emotionally (and empathically) targeted questions, the test measures minute changes in perspiration, eye movement and heart rate. Because androids lack an innate sense of empathy, their response times are not in line with a normal human’s, although the differences are often so subtle that they can only be detected, ironically, by a machine. As Deckard begins to track down and “retire” each of the escaped replicants, he begins to question the morality of his actions. Even though the people he is killing are actually machines, the fact that they act so much like humans causes him to start having feelings of empathy towards them – and in particular a replicant named Rachel Rosen, who he falls in love with.
Review: This book is a page-turner. Part hard boiled detective novel, part meditation on religion, reality and humanity. Dick has an uncanny ability to make even the most bizarre situations seem real and powerful. And although the film version is a first rate science fiction thriller with amazing art direction and mood, the book provides a much more meaningful and nuanced examination of what it means to be human and how we treat those things that we deem worthy of empathy.
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