Sci fi meets counterculture (4 stars)
A great book of the “psychedelic science fiction” of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s the sci fi of censorial experiences, of questioning reality, conspiracy theories, the nature of identity and dystopic worlds. It was loosely adapted to cinema in Blade Runner, as well as several other works from Philip K. Dick, like Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report.
Fans of Blade Runner may find a lot of differences in the tone of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? While the movie focuses on the life struggle of the replicants, androids that are practically identical to human beings, the book is centered in more metaphysical themes like religion and emotional control. Director Ridley Scott said he didn’t even read the original book.
In the first scene we are introduced to a bizarre technology, a Penfield Mood Organ, a device that allows people to type emotion to be felt, like joy, resignation or sadness. Even with such a technology, bounty hunter Rick Deckard can’t communicate with his wife. A recurring theme in Philip K. Dick: the dependency in a technology that does not solve a much bigger problem.
Empathy is a central theme in the book. What differentiates humans from androids is the capacity to feel compassion towards the suffering of others. The theme also pops up in the bizarre mercerism religion, in which people connect themselves via a “empathy box” to feel as one the suffering of William Mercer, a Jesus Christ-esque martyr of the digital age.
Empathy also appears in the book towards animals. Real animals are expensive and someone’s social status is measured by the rarity of their pets. Deckard spends a small fortune on a goat. The cheaper option was to buy the synthetic variety, even if that fact needed to by hidden from the neighbors.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Is a much more ambiguous and complex journey than the film it inspired. The emphasis are in the ideas, not in the narrative flow. Philip K. Dick himself considered said he was more of a fictional philosopher than a writer. A rewarding book of ideas if you read it on it’s own terms.