Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is science fiction of the old school – from the sixties when travel to distant worlds seemed a real possibility. It’s a book full of hover cars, laser guns, space travel, androids and life on Mars; it’s post-apocalyptic in a way that typifies the Cold War period – a world destroyed by nuclear fallout, humanity exiled to space, a few degenerate humans bound to a decaying earth.
It’s interesting to look at the “prophecies” Dick’s imagination suggests: to identify how close he came to the truth, and how much they were a product of the particular fears of the time. There is a concern about the environment: animals have become so rare as to be status symbols – the poorer classes use electronic substitutes, and really the issue is technology, not the environment. Interestingly, and attempting to go beyond the obvious, Dick has America and Russia on peaceful terms. Hover cars were quite ubiquitous in fiction of this type; androids became a cipher for the genre – as in Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica: they still look like fantasy 50 years later.
Dick’s book is the well known source for another film – Blade Runner. It’s not one I’ve seen all the way through, though I did catch the end once on a late TV showing. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is quite different from what I saw then. It’s clearly a product of American popular fiction – concise and sharp, focused on action and essentially a detective story. The cop sets out to eliminate the villain, to kill the androids: we observe his inner life, recognise his troubles and register our empathy: status, income, work relationships and marital strain in a shallow, materialistic world, with a slight nod to spirituality of a science fiction kind: a new religion. In this sense the hero, Rick Deckard, stands for all those twentieth century Americans whose identity was bound up in their material possessions.
There is another focus though, on what it means to be human. The androids attempt to convince the hero that they deserve a chance to live, and in doing so Dick raises some moral issues. The scene in which the beautiful female android he has just slept with slowly picks off four of a spider’s legs is for me the most gruesome in the book. The psychopathy of android intelligence. Other sections, particularly the mental breakdown of Deckard towards the end of the book are less convincing and not as well written.
Of its kind this is of course very good. The plot zips along, it’s an easy read, good fun, a bit less sexy than a modern version might turn out to be; characters are delineated in fairly basic terms, description limited to the pretty much essential. So – there you go!