Ah, now this is more familiar sci-fi territory for me after last month’s Zoo City. The future (compared to when it was written anyway), colonies on Mars, androids, laser guns. For February’s Not Just For Stormtroopers reading challenge it was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.
Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war and the only people left are those too poor, too stubborn or too ‘special’ to join the colonies out on Mars. Rick Deckard, being a bounty hunter for the San Francisco police, is possibly a little of the first and some of the second. He lives in an apartment with his wife, an electric sheep on the roof and hunts rogue androids for a living, receiving a $1000 for each one he ‘retires’ to supplement his meagre salary.
It’s a melancholic story. The Earth is effectively dead because of the radioactive fallout, most species of animals are extinct and those that are left are so rare that it is considered a civic duty to keep a pet. If you can’t afford a real one, or yours should die, electric versions are available to save face. It’s a depressing place but your trusty Penfield Mood Organ can solve that with a quick dial to any mood you could want. The fact that police departments have bounty hunters on their books and people need a device to alter their mood tells you what kind of place it is.
Deckard himself is a melancholy character, he wonders if he should have left his wife when he had the chance and obsesses about buying a real animal to replace his electric sheep. His chance comes when the senior bounty hunter is injured by a new type of android and he is tasked with retiring it and the other six in the group. In the process and through the androids and humans he meets he starts questioning himself and whether or not he is a good bounty hunter.
Empathy is a running theme. The androids can not feel empathy for anything, even amongst themselves and this is what gives them away in the test Deckard uses on them. When Deckard tests himself he finds he is capable of empathising with the androids yet he seems detached from his wife and the empathy-based religion, Mercerism, that humans have embraced after the war. As a reader I could feel myself empathising with the androids, especially Pris, who at first seems so scared and vulnerable when discovered by J. R. Isodore that while I was sure she was an android I almost hoped she wasn’t. It isn’t until the scene with the spider that you realise how cold and unfeeling the androids actually are and any sympathy for them dies away. JR is possibly the most empathic character in the story. On the surface a ‘chickenhead’, a human rendered special by the radioactive dust and deemed unsuitable for emigration he is still useful enough to be a driver for one of the electric animal ‘vet’ companies. He finds Pris living in his apartment block and takes pity on her, wanting to look after her. Once he learns the truth about her and the other androids he feels he should protect them all, until they take his spider from him and he lets Deckard do his job. He is the most human out of all of them and he was the one I found myself rooting for as his hopes and fears were the most simple and most honest somehow. He finds a group of friends and wants to look after them, it doesn’t matter to him if they are real people or not.
This is one of those books that managed to suck me in and want to keep reading long past the time I should have closed the book and got on with something else and one I found myself thinking about after I did. How different is Deckard from the androids he hunts really? Does it matter that Mercerism is a fake? How many other public figures are actually androids? It’s a deep and troubling story that has stayed with me for days after I finished reading it.
I’ve managed to get this far without mentioning that this is the book Blade Runner was based on. I’m sure I watched the film when I was younger but I remember very little about it. It is now on order from Amazon so it will be interesting to see how they compare.
Rating – For the effect and the trains of thought it has prompted in me, it couldn’t be much else really – 5/5