At first, I wasn’t sure of my ability to do justice to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as I have little experience with sci-fi-related things. But Vel decided to take me out of my crime and mystery bubble and offer a rather thought-provoking book, which also contained some elements of the crime genre.
To be honest, the main reason I was never interested in picking up a sci-fi book was due to my own prejudiced beliefs that sci-fi stories revolve primarily around technology and robots, multiple planets and aliens, thus losing the human narrative in the story. And as I expected, I had very mixed feelings when I first started reading the book. This was due to some of the technical terms used in the beginning. But I’m glad that I pressed on, because the way the real and the fake, the rational and the irrational were presented directly related to my concerns about the way I perceived the sci-fi genre.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? tells the story of Rick Deckard, who works as a bounty hunter on post-apocalyptic Earth, following the World War Terminus, where many animals and plants are replaced by their ersatz doubles because the real ones are extinct. Deckard’s dream is to own a living animal, which serves as a status symbol in society, filled with imitations. Similar to his artificial surroundings, Deckard is hired to “retire” (kill) six escaped androids of a new type, the Nexus-6 model, which is able to convincingly pass as a live human. What first caught my attention was the characters’ dependency on mood organs, devices which the characters can program and regulate depending on the mood they wish to evoke for that particular moment. Everything follows a particular routine, even down to programming happiness, sadness, depression, etc. This loss of even the most basic and natural side of every human – feeling – is scheduled, it is not allowed to be expressed so freely.
How much can a human adapt to this artificial world until he or she loses his/her own humanity and sanity? These points are reinforced by the characters’ use of empathy boxes – devices, which help humans to sync and tap into other people’s emotions, thus dissolving any feelings of isolation and despair. By attaching themselves to an empathy box, humans sync with Wilbur Mercer, a man, who much like Sisyphus (but without the boulder), climbs a mountain, never to reach the top. Often such a trip is accompanied by a real physical pain, as empathy box users are regularly subject to attacks from an unknown evil. The problem of losing one’s own humanity in an artificial world is cemented by the sub-plot, which tells the story of John Isidore, a man, who is considered a chickenhead because he has low IQ. Despite being treated as a sub-par human, Isidore holds dear everything real and artificial. His loving nature and the way his android friends treat humans and supposedly real animals cause his fall into a stupor and utter despair. As I continued reading, I saw the irony in how seemingly real people and situations turn out to be completely fake, including Wilbur Mercer and his eternal climb to the top. Deckard’s attempts to adapt to this world of androids and electric animals and interact with them like real beings push the limits of the breaking point, i.e. the point, where one loses one’s own humanity because it decreases one’s chances of survival, as well as one’s own sanity.
As much as I liked the book, I felt that the ending lacked something, a kind of decisiveness. Although Deckard’s decision to retire (not dying, don’t worry) from bounty-hunting could be considered a drastic move, I felt that he could have done something more than finishing the day the way he started it.
Final thought: It is scary how often books written many decades ago can describe contemporary life.
Firstly, a few words on the edition. It is part of the world sci-fi series, which I really like, as it reminds me of a Bulgarian book collection of international sci-fi works called ‘Library Galaxy’ (библиотека Галактика) which my dad had when I was younger, it was my introduction to the world of sci-fi and a source of many fond memories. The introduction of the book however was disappointing, as it did little to place the novel in its time of publication, instead it spoiled many of the major plot twists and gave away the answer to ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ quite readily – something which I, as a reader, wanted to find out the hard way – by reading. So when I sent off the book to Nelly, I asked her to skip the introduction to avoid these downsides.
Humanity has done its thing, fought its fighting and naturally destroyed pretty much everything, as expected. We have gone all the way to Mars to play out the next chapter, yet we still refuse to allow our creations (the androids) to say enough is enough and ‘live’ on Earth as they please for the remainder of their short lifespans. Instead, humanity lingers on its birth-planet and struggles with its own human self. So, our main character gets a job, terminating the non-human humans.
Social status being acquired based on whether or not you look after a real animal did not surprise me as much as the Penfield Mood Organ, the device used to control the emotions of a human. And oh, does it have a wide variety of settings! From ‘agreeing with your husband’ to ‘deepest depression possible’, essentially equating ‘wanting to watch TV’ and ‘wanting to have sex’, there are thousands of ways your mood can swing at a touch of a button. Why haven’t any of the characters chosen ‘happiness’? Surely there is a setting for that, right? After some contemplation I concluded that if happiness was that easy to obtain and could be potentially eternal, it would be the equivalent of boredom. TV it is then.
The Penfield Mood Organ could have a fantastic use – the cultivation of compassion. For example, your sibling suffers from depression, and you just don’t get it, and let’s be honest, to understand depression unless experience it, so you plug your Mood Organ and suddenly you know exactly how your sibling feels and naturally wanting none of it you plug the Mood Organ out. You are still no closer to knowing how to help your sibling out of it, but at least you wouldn’t go down the horrible path of ‘snap out of it’ and ‘man up’ statements and will be compassionate towards them. Right?
In the aftermath, androids are androids and must be terminated before their natural lifespan ends because they are not capable of compassion, aren’t bothered about suitcases made of baby skin and remove the legs of the only living spider left on Earth (yet we somehow accept shooting drugged lions, skinning animals alive for shoes, coats and paint brushes, leaving dogs in the street or kennels because they need looking after and Christmas has passed, and other purely human activities). Humans are humans and still haven’t the foggiest of what to do with their human aspect, still want to rely on something other than themselves to sort their emotional state out and still look for companionship in a higher power (godly or android, never mind you that). Chickenheads are chickenheads and are still pretty much the only ones redeeming humanity.
Mercer is an actor, yet does the entirety of humanity believes in him as an ideal make Mercer transcend and become more than that one being at a point in time? A human will always have desire for something other than themselves, something to connect to and light the path forward for them. Something to provide fulfillment when being oneself is not enough. Perhaps Mercer does dream of electric sheep.
Edition Published: 2010, First Published: 1968
Language book read in: English