Friday, August 21, 2009

Book: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner)

I'm not sure why this took me so long to read -- a whole week -- even though it's fascinating and very short. I blame Buffy. And my own forgetfulness -- I left it in the bedroom so it didn't follow me around as most of my books do.

Anyway -- I was curious as to how the book compared to the movie. I watched Blade Runner about 10 years ago and thought it was amazing, albeit a little confusing. I was told that it altered the original story quite a bit, so I've always wanted to read the original story. This is also my first Philip K. Dick, an author I've heard a lot about.

I don't read a lot of science fiction. I usually find it kind of cold and hard and mostly about technology and how humans relate in this new technology. Some people find this fascinating, I know. I'm not really one of them. However, I did enjoy this book, although I have to say I still found the writing style a little spare and cold for my tastes. I was also confused by much of the dialogue and the character's reactions to things. I chalked this up to the bizarre post-apocalyptic stress the characters were under.

Set in 2025 (I think), in San Francisco, Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter. He 'retires' rogue androids. After the last war, most of the human population 'emigrated' to Mars, while the people left on Earth are forced to watch the world crumble around them, overcome by 'kipple' (clutter and the detritus of an abandoned society). I was very curious about the dual human populations -- the one on Mars, where apparently humans and androids live in conjunction (having an android was a major lure to get people to emigrate), and the one on the devastated, dying Earth. After the war, many people were adversely affected by the radioactive dust leftover from the war. No one seems to know where this dust came from, but it turned lots of people into 'chickenheads' (brain-damaged). I was curious why the other humans stayed, the non-chickenheads, like Rick. He says at one point, musing about why he didn't emigrate to Mars, "...but I can't emigrate. Because of my job." But I wonder why not? Was there a time limit on when you could emigrate, and if you didn't do it by then, you were left to rot on Earth?

So, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize that the underlying theme of the book is what makes humans human, and how close are we to becoming robots (androids)? In this post-apocalyptic world, the most valued human trait is empathy, and the most valued material possession is an animal. Androids do not possess the trait of empathy. Since the androids are becoming more intelligent and more difficult to discern, a number of empathy tests have been developed to identify them. (what I didn't get was why the androids allowed these tests to be administered in the first place, since they were relatively foolproof, measuring body reactions). A point was made that certain humans, usually those afflicted with schizophrenia, did not possess empathy any longer, and therefore could be mistaken for an android. I thought that was an interesting thought. It made me wonder about other humans whom we think of not possessing empathy -- perhaps unrepentant serial killers, or people with certain severe personality disorders. Would they be 'retired' as androids?

As Rick continues down his list of andys to retire, he gets more and more confused by what the 'right' thing is to do. He wants the money he gets when he retires the andys (so he can buy an animal) but he is also starting to feel empathy for the androids, who, apparently, just want to live their 'lives'. One particular android, Luba Luft, is an opera singer. Rick loves opera, and feels a twinge at retiring one of the best singers on Earth. He wonders a bit about the rightness and wrongness of this, but ultimately decides that since she is an android, and since she killed a human to leave Mars, she must be retired, no debate needed.

There are so many really fascinating themes in the book. The religion of Mercerism was strange and confusing and kind of perplexing to me... kind of merging Christianity and the myth of Sisyphus. The 'empathy box' where people 'merged' with Mercer was kind of horrifying, actually. I didn't understand it and I didn't like it one single bit. The other horrifying technology was the Penfield Mood Organ. You could use the mood organ to dial an emotion (wasn't that a Morrissey song? Oh wait, that's Dial A Cliche). While I found this disgusting and repulsive, I thought some of the moods which you could dial to be hilarious: "awareness of the manifold possibilities of the future," or "pleased acknowledgement of husband's superior wisdom in all matters," or my favorite, "the desire to watch television, no matter what's on it." I also loved that Rick's wife, Iran, found it prudent and right to dial a good long spell of despair every so often, in order to feel the sorrow of the world. I'm not sure why I found the mood organ so disturbing. Something about completely losing touch with actual emotions, and letting a box create an emotion for you. I prize my own private emotions very much and the thought of turning them over to a box is horrifying. Since I saw the movie, I was confused at first about whether Rick was a human or android, and the mood organ made this even more confusing. If you were human, why would you need to dial an emotion? I suppose this was Philip Dick's point...

The value placed on animals was heartbreaking. Many animals were extinct, so every animal, no matter how small (even a spider) was highly prized. Deckerd owned a sheep, and it was his most valued possession. It's what made you human, it's what everyone noticed about you and your life (whether you had an animal or not). Unfortunately, his original sheep died, and he was forced to replace it with an electric sheep -- nearly undetectable from a real sheep. This was clearly inferior and a source of great shame to him. He is later able to buy a goat, in a frenzied episode of having too much cash and needing to remind himself that he is, after all, human. A secondary character, a chickenhead, find a spider -- a real, live, actual wild spider. He scooped it up in a bottle (which everyone carried around, just in case they found a spider) and treasures it. What happens to the spider made me absolutely sick. Again, which I suppose is the point. If you are human, you will feel sick about what happens to the spider.

So just a few notes about the style of the book. To me, an inexperienced science-fiction reader, this was clearly written by a man. I kept thinking about how Hemingway was famous for his short, clean prose (Hemingway being a man's man, you know. Ahem.) While this writing was a little more developed, shall we say, I still felt it to be rather sparse, cold, and almost technical. Emotions were felt by humans (empathy) but they are addressed in one or two sentences. Fleeting thoughts are expressed in a word or two. This was a little disconcerting to me. I could not connect with any of the characters, and this left me feeling sort of flat (as much as I liked the book). I was also confused by some of the things that happened. I think because I'm used to reading books very quickly, and if you read this book quickly, you lose a lot of the point. Each chapter needed a little bit of analysis to figure out what was really happening, and how you felt about it. I liked it better for that -- I like a book that makes me think -- but it still left me feeling slightly disconnected.

I was also so repulsed by the Mercerism thing (the phantom rocks which can injure users of the empathy box was just creepy) that I really did not want to think about it very much. The big 'revelation' at the end of the book was interesting, but also confusing.

It did make me think a little bit about the differences between science fiction and fantasy, which are so often lumped together. Both are about 'things which don't exist'. Fantasy tends to be about beings which don't exist, and science fiction is about things which don't exist (yet). In both scenarios, the characters function in these made-up worlds and the contrast is drawn between the 'real' world and these non-existent worlds. Since I focus so much, in my real life, on emotions and connections and relationships, I think I am drawn more to fantasy since (at least in the books I choose), these things tend to be addressed more. I am not all that interested in technology, so sci-fi has left me cold.

However, since I did enjoy this book, now I wonder if I might find some other sci-fi which I'd like. Any suggestions?


Carl V. said...

I'm glad you made it through and enjoyed it. I found the book to be very fascinating, and bizarre. I always assumed that the people who didn't leave to go to Mars were either too poor to do so or had some kind of affection for Mother Earth. I do think a lot of the point of the book, and the film, was the idea that perhaps Decker could actually be an android. Have you seen the film The Imposter? It doesn't have a lot of fans but my wife and I really like it. Great cast. It is based on a PKD story and is actually something of a prequel to Bladerunner.

As for sci fi being cold...I think there are probably a lot of cold works out there, but there are also some wonderful character stories. I would highly recommend John Scalzi. If you read them in order: Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe's Tale (and check out the free online story The Sagan Diary before reading Last Colony) then I think you'd find a science fiction series that is entertaining and becomes frequently more warm as the characters are developed. There is a great romance and parenthood relationship that develops with each novel, culminating in the YA book Zoe's Tale, and it is great reading in my opinion.

The first two books of the Ender series: Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead are wonderful. Speaker is certainly the better novel and there is a lot of character study in both of them, but the emotional impact of the tale is not complete without reading Ender's Game first.

Those are two palces I would certainly start.

farmlanebooks said...

I have this one on my TBR pile. I have heard that it is a great book for those who don't normally like sci-fi. I'm so pleased to hear that you enjoyed it and may push it up the pile a bit!

Nymeth said...

One of my goals for this year is to finally read one of Philip K. Dick's novels, and this might be a good choice. It sounds like it explores lots of complex themes and ideas, and hopefully I'd like it despite the coldness.

I see your point about fantasy and science fiction, but I don't think the focus on technology more than on relationships is inherent to the genre. To be honest I haven't read that much of it, though, so I probably don't know what I'm talking about :P I second Carl's recommendations, and I'd add Ursula Le Guin's science fiction. Her focus is definitely social/human.