Some authors just seem to have a talent for writing stories that Hollywood falls in love with. One of those authors is Phillip K. Dick who has many stories made into movies. One of those stories that can be forgotten in the rush of films made based on Dick’s books in the last decade or so is “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” which then inspired the movie “Blade Runner.” I thought I would take a trip back in time and read the novel to not only reacquaint myself with a seminal work from a great science fiction author but to also try to reconnect with a book that I loved when I was younger.
The world has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland with almost all life, other than human who are unfortunate enough to not be able to escape the planet, wiped out. Animals are almost non-existent and owning an animal of any type is a great status symbol. So much so that many people have android animals to maintain the illusion that they can afford a real one. Human androids are a part of everyday life as well in the off-world colonies where they serve as servants. Many of these androids escape to earth although an android pretending to be a human is illegal and subject to termination. That is where Rick Deckard fits in society. He is a bounty hunter tasked with hunting down and eliminating those androids.
Deckert used to own a real sheep but it died and he could not afford another real animal so he replaced it with an android. He feels like less of a man without an animal of his own to take care of. His fortunes seem to take a turn when the lead bounty hunter in his district is hospitalized and he is able to take on more jobs and purchase another real animal. There is a new generation of androids out there, though, and the confrontation with them will lead Deckert to question exactly what it is to be human.
One of the reasons why this novel is a classic of science fiction is that it explores universal themes in an original way. The world in the novel is very different from our own but it is similar in many ways as well. The ideas of keeping a pet as a status symbol and the drive to have a real animal serve as a commentary on materialism as well as provide an avenue to look at what it is that makes us human. When Deckert’s sheep dies, he feels like less of a man because he does not have an animal to take care of as well as the mourning of the loss due to the loss of social status that could result from it. What exactly, Dick seems to be asking, makes a man who he is? Is it the ability to love and nurture another or is it the perception of one’s neighbors? Humanity, societal status, and morality are all on the table here.
Judged only on its technical merits, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is not a great novel but then that would miss the entire point of the book. The book does not draw its merit from the construction of the story but for the way in which it explores humanity. Sure, there are definite holes in the story and there are times in which the actual storyline seems a little clunky or as if Dick glossed over points but, again, that is not the real point of the story. The point of the story is to make the reader think and it does that in spades. When it comes to making the reader reflect on the themes of the story and reflect on those themes in relation to real life, the novel is a great success. Reading this novel again was a validation of a great book that contributed to my love of the written word when I was younger. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” may not be a great novel but it is a great way to view reality through the filter of fiction.