Books

The Lasting Brilliance of ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’

Editor's Note:

Jason M. Hough is the New York Times bestselling author of the Dire Earth Cycle: The Darwin Elevator, The Exodus Towers, and The Plague Forge, as well as the novella The Dire Earth. Hough was born in Illinois but grew up on the mean streets of suburban San Diego, California. Here he revels in the lasting cultural significance of Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Like many people my age or younger, I came to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by way of the film adaptation: Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner. The film still stands today as my favorite movie, so much so I gave my son the middle name of Deckard (Rachel being high on our list of names for girls, had fate taken us in that direction). An entire book could be written about the differences between Androids Dream and its on-screen counterpart–one need look no further than the titles to begin that discussion—but what continually amazes me, however, is how the two could be so different from one another and yet, simultaneously, so similar. I love them for completely different reasons, which is fascinating to me because it’s theoretically the opposite of the goal when it comes to adapting a book to the screen.

The adaptation is the one I always point to when people are fretting over the changes being made to a much-loved book in order to adapt it to the screen. Fans always seem to want the strictest, most literal interpretation possible. I say to them, and to you, “If the goal in adaptations was to be perfectly true to the source material, we wouldn’t have Blade Runner, or Apocalypse Now. Give it a chance.” Whatever the source is, sometimes adaptations leave us with two wonderful things, however vaguely connected.

Even though I first read this novel almost 20 years after seeing the film, it already held a special place in my heart for the simple reason that it inspired the movie. And yet right from the first page PKD draws you into something wholly unexpected.

Rick Deckard’s life is fascinating on every level. A professional bounty hunter who tracks down escaped androids, living in a dystopia that rivals anything Orwell wrote, argues with his wife about why she deliberately dialed an emotional state of despair on their mood organ. The discussion he and Iran have about dialing emotions is in equal parts hilarious, sad, and terrifying.

He then heads up to the roof of his home to tend to his electric sheep. A sheep that is his most prized possession, or would be if it was real. It’s not, though, and he’s living a lie by tending it. All his neighbors have real animals, as far as he can tell. This need to own an animal in a world almost completely devoid of wildlife is an undisguised reaction to the American obsession with cars: we compare cars, lust after better cars no matter which one you already own, even form clubs around certain historic or popular vehicles. There’s even a scene later on where Deckard is shopping for a new animal, and the sales tactics are right out of a car dealership’s playbook (true in 1968, and sadly unchanged to this day). And yet, like most everything in this novel, this concept of animal ownership goes much deeper than that. It acts as a doorway into the central theme of the story, which is that of empathy. The idea that feeling empathy as a pure instinctual reaction is what separates humans from ‘andys’.

Central to Deckard’s job is the ability to test a subject for this empathic reaction, using the famous Voigt-Kampff scale. In the film, the machine used resembles a strange sort of lie detector, using a large lens to examine pupil dilation. A window to the soul, literally. The device in this book is not so dissimilar, and while the movie version doesn’t dive too deeply into exactly what is being tested, the book offers a much more thorough and interesting examination. There are even other tests mentioned, competitors to the Voight-Kampff, or progenitors of it. Yet Deckard muses that this test, like those before, will soon be obsolete as new models of andys are able to fool the technique employed. With this Dick opens yet another thematic door, pushing the idea of a Turing test to a fascinating extreme. It is one thing to build a machine that can convincingly pass as human. It’s another thing entirely to lose the ability to detect any difference at all, to enter an arms-race of sorts between those who seek to build a convincing human replica and those who wish to still be able to know who is real and who isn’t. This ultimately calls into question what it truly means to be human, a theme as old and perplexing as any.

Such issues can be difficult to discuss in a purely realistic context, especially in our modern, polarized society. Yet through fiction like this we can. Which of course is a hallmark of great science fiction, and ultimately why we love genre so.

We allow the story and characters to draw us in, perhaps not even realizing until much later what we actually read. In this way–and I find this rather humorous–the novel is rather like the mood organ it describes.

There is something of a meta-theme here too, which leaves me in absolute awe as a writer. Dick manages to explore all these things, and with surprising depth as mentioned, and yet somehow he also manages to evade the kind of clarity Deckard himself seeks so desperately in the course of his job. Nothing is cut-and-dry in this book. It’s another aspect of the film I’ve always felt Ridley Scott captured perfectly, this lack of tidy explanations for the audience to digest. A rare and wonderful thing to find in a big budget Hollywood sci-fi film (something they almost ruined with the film-noir narration of the original release, thankfully later removed). Both Scott and Dick leave us to make up our own minds. Pick any element and for each insightful and thought-provoking observation made, you can find a subtle hole that calls those very conclusions into question. The contradictory scenarios and revelations, the sheer number of dichotomies presented, all keep you as the reader in a mental and, dare I say, moral tug-of-war. Even Rick Deckard, who seeks signs of empathy in those he tracks, becomes a hero so flawed that you find it more and more difficult to feel empathy for him.

What is so brilliant about this is the way this book leaves you, months or even years after reading, in a debate with yourself. And for my money, that is the calling card of truly excellent speculative fiction.

Now then, the time has come. Dial yourself a 929 on the old Penfield Mood Organ — complete surrender to the imagination of another — and enjoy.