Saturday, 25 October 2008

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. DIck

7 out of 10

Welcome to the futuristic, post-apocalyptic Earth of the year 1991! The planet is dying under the radioactive fallout of nuclear war and most of the human population has already emigrated to other planets. Those who remain inhabit a decaying world, where amazing technological inventions sit side by side with dilapidated buildings and run-down humans. They watch Buster Friendly’s non-stop talk-show and control emotional wellbeing through the Penfeld Mood Organ. Occasionally they fuse with others in a virtual reality journey with Mercer, a collective means of religious expression which places empathetic involvement with others at the heart of human existence.

Across this scarred Earth animals and vegetation have virtually been wiped out. Such is the destruction of the planet that owning a pet has become at once the ultimate status symbol for the wealthy, an aspirational project for everyone else, and the most important emotional investment one can make in a barren world. Those who cannot afford a living animal buy a mechanical one a hope the secret will not be discovered.

To encourage emigration from Earth, the U.N. provides everyone who emigrates with a free android: a robotic slave and companion all rolled into one. Thanks to technological developments, these new androids are nearly indistinguishable from their human counterparts., with realistic skin and eyes and limbs. The only means of identifying an android is an empathy test which the logical brain of an android cannot pass. But occasionally they rebel against their slavery and escape to Earth, to try and live out normal lives.

It is in this world which we meet Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter whose job it is to hunt down, identify, and ‘retire’ these rogue androids. And when one of a group of eight rogues attack another bounty hunter, Rick is called in to complete the job.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? fulfils almost every sci-fi stereotype I know: it is written in clunky, barren prose; littered with redundant sentences; packed with too many invented futuristic products; and populated with burly two dimensional characters with guns. In prose terms, it reads like a teenage boy wrote it in his bedroom. BUT, and here is where the imperative BUT comes in, it is also one of the most intriguing and important works I have read. Few books can contain quite so many ethical questions per column inch as this book. It is crammed full of philosophical quandaries about the nature of life, our role in the universe, what it is which makes us human. At its heart, it questions the basis of Descartes enlightenment ideal, ‘I think, therefore I am’, and investigates the ethical and spiritual dilemmas of imbuing technology with sentient thought.

It is also a book in which the search for meaning occupies the minds of many of the characters. In Mercerism, they have a religion which brings people together around human empathy, but outside of the religion, this is a world of destruction and decay. Kipple, the useless amalgamation of once useful things, is the constant enemy of human need for order and beauty.

If you’ve seen and loved the movie Blade Runner then read the book it was based upon. They may have very little else in common, but in their own ways, they are each fantastic invocations of the science fiction genre. It’s just a shame the film decided to change what is, to my mind, the best title ever. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is subtle, thought-provoking, beautiful, haunting; everything a title should be. And the book itself is one of the rare and treasured things, a work which truly makes you think. Read this book. Read it now.

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