What does life mean when you are living on a dead world? How do you remain human when most of what surrounds you is artificial? Questions of authenticity and what it is to be human haunt Philip K. Dick’s dead and sparsely populated vision of Earth in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”
While best known as the source material for the classic movie “Blade Runner” and the recent sequel, the novel is its own unique story. It describes a post-apocalyptic Earth where a radioactive atmosphere caused mass emigrations to colonies on other planets. Most who live on Earth are not there by choice — they do not have the means, nor do they pass genetic or intelligence thresholds that would permit them to live “off-world.” Status in this world is exemplified in the quest of the protagonist, Rick Deckard, to own a real, live animal. Most animals are extinct and rare specimens are coveted. When we first meet Deckard he is making do with a robotic sheep he passes off to his neighbors as real.
In order to get enough money to buy a rare living animal Deckard takes on a dangerous assignment at work. As a bounty hunter in San Francisco he hunts renegade androids and “retires” them (permanently). The androids are virtually indistinguishable from humans, yet are the disposable labor that has made human colonization of space possible. Deckard’s new mission is to retire six advanced-model androids who went rogue and fled a colony on Mars while leaving a bloody trail behind them. Through this mission Deckard meets an android who thinks she’s human, discovers a network of androids that have covertly infiltrated society, has multiple near-death experiences and tries to save his marriage.
Deckard’s wife is deeply unhappy and he feels unable to help. Her unhappiness reflects a general emotional disconnect that plagues this society: one reason owning a live animal is valued is that it’s a signifier of the capacity for empathy. A popular religion requires the use of “empathy boxes” and people regularly select their state of mind using a “penfield mood organ.” In one darkly comic scene, Deckard’s wife selects a “six-hour self-accusatory depression” because she wants her feelings to actually reflect her situation.
The androids’ plight parallels humans’ emotional struggles. Androids have the emotional development of children, but in adult bodies. Much like young children they have not fully learned empathy, and it’s an empathy test that discerns androids from humans. If this is what makes some of them so dangerous, what does that say about the emotionally disconnected humans? After interactions that challenge his assumptions about the androids, Deckard learns he is developing empathy for them, complicating his mission.
It’s difficult to not compare this novel to the movies it inspired. I’m a big fan of both films, but I was happily surprised to discover the book is a different animal. The neo-noir of the films is in the book, but mixed with absurdist humor and a richer, stranger world. It’s a propulsive and entertaining story that also makes you question what we’re doing to our world, ourselves and what it means.