Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep – By Philip K. Dick
Most people will be aware of “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep” as a result of their familiarity with the film “Blade Runner”, directed by Ridley Scott. As a matter of fact, the Amazon “blurb” lists it as “..the inspiration for Bladerunner”.
And that’s probably an accurate description; you could certainly say that it inspired the Blade Runner movie – but no more than that. The film and the book, whilst sharing many common points, are really quite different. If you think that having watched Bladerunner means that you are on anything other than nodding terms with Dick’s book, think again.
I’m not saying that “the book is better than the film” here. Both book and film have their good points – and any book has to be trimmed and more tightly focused when converted into a film. However, despite their various similarities and occasional conjunctions, the book and the film are very different animals.
The book follows android bounty hunter Rick Decker whose job is to hunt down and “retire” runaway androids. The action takes place in a near future on an earth which has been gradually abandoned as the human race colonises Mars.
The world is not exactly post-apocalyptic, but there has been a war which has caused the extinction of many animals and elevated animal husbandry and the keeping of pets to something akin to a social obligation. People are able to control their emotions using a device known as “the Penfield Mood Organ”, which lets them dial in whatever emotional state they wish.
In parallel with this, a new and popular religion, “Mercerism”, has been adopted by many of the remaining inhabitants of Earth. This also involves a device; the “empathy box”, which allows followers of Mercer to share their emotions.
The study of Mercerism throughout the book provides a parallel for the androids as one of the key differences between androids (“Andies”) and humans is that androids do not feel empathy.
A further sub-plot of the book examines Buster Friendly, an enormously popular TV chat show host whose program runs non-stop and whose guests are pretty much famous for being famous. Buster Friendly is antagonistic towards Mercerism and it seems as if TV and religion are competing for the souls of the remainder of the Earth’s populace.
This isn’t (in my opinion at least) presented in a moralistic tone. At no time is it presented as a “good vs. bad” type of struggle. It’s simply that these are the two main competitors for the affections of the population.
In common with the film, the main plot follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he attempts to track down and “retire” several of a new design of Android. It’s set in a future version of San Francisco where many apartments are empty due to the post-war exodus to Mars. The rush to leave the planet was evidently so great that many people have even left the greater part of their belongings behind when they left and you get the impression of a world in decline, cluttered with unwanted detritus from the past and without many species of animals.
If you have seen the film, but not read the book, you’ll still enjoy the book. There’s a whole lot more to it (no criticism of the film – different media have different constraints). Having seen the film will not spoil the book for you in the slightest.
On the other hand, if you haven’t seen the film and you read the book first, you’ll still be able to enjoy the film, but you might just find yourself wondering “where’s the rest?”.
Dick paints a picture of a bleak, dystopian future and raises questions about what it means to be human (I think). It’s an amazing book and it really should be compulsory reading.
Footnote: "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and "Bladerunner" is not the only time that Philp K. Dick's work has inspired a movie which differed significantly from the original writing. If you have watched the movie, it's well worth taking the time to read Dick's short story which, once again, shares some central ideas but is really very different from the film.