Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, written by Phillip K Dick in 1968, may be better known to most people as its film counterpart, Blade Runner, which was realised in 1982 just weeks after Dick’s death. Considered a staple of the modern sci-fi genre, the book delves into themes of the human ability to feel empathy, the perception of reality, and religion. In many senses, the book is more of a philosophical experience with a sci-fi backdrop.
The book was also selected as this year’s UC Book of the Year, a project which sees all commencing students and staff at the University of Canberra provided with the same book to generate conversation, discussion and engagement within the community.
I’m probably one of the few people left who still hasn’t actually seen Blade Runner, so I came into this book with little to no prior knowledge about the franchise. Ultimately I don’t think that diminished my overall enjoyment of the book. If anything, I think my experience was all the better for it, as it kept me guessing the whole way through as to what was going to happen. I could become emerged in the world created without any preconceived ideas.
Through the story of Rick Deckard, we get a glimpse into Earth after a terrible war, World War Terminus, left the planet nearly uninhabitable. A terrible dust covers the air, leaving people permanently disfigured and disabled. On Mars, a colony has been set up with the aid of Androids, or Humanoid Robot as the book puts it. These Androids seem to not like working for humans though, and after killing their owner they’ll flee back to Earth where Rick Deckard, as a bounty hunter, is then called in to ‘retire’ them.
The parts I liked to most in the book were parts where either Deckard or another character started to question the very nature of their reality. It’s through these parts that the themes of empathy and religion really shine. As they start to struggle with telling the difference between reality and delusion, that’s when we really get a glimpse into their character and start to understand them better. As strange as it might seem, Deckard seemed more real to me in the moments that seemed the most unreal. When his very reality collapses around him, I could see him clearer and what he was made of. It’s these moments that stuck out to me, that made me love the book a little more.
I also loved the religion presented in the book, Mercerism. Created by the fictional Wilber Mercer, Mercerism at its core follows the principals of empathy, and rising above all obstacles together. Unlike other fictional religions out there – I’m looking at you, Jedi – Mercerism presents a healthier philosophy to mental health. Through Mercerism, instead of burying your feelings, doubts and fears – again, Jedi – you instead are encouraged to seek out the aide and support of others. If someone comes to you, you can help them. If you have the means to brighten other’s days, you should. I can’t think of too many real life examples of a philosophy like Mercerism, without needing to enforce some Karma or punishment as incentive to follow their teachings. I can’t help but wonder what nerd culture would look like if Mercerism was more popular than Jedi.
One area the book does fall short on, though, is the writing itself. The book suffers from rampant comma abuse, runaway sentences, and confusing paragraph structures. Half of the time, I couldn’t tell what was happening, not because the plot was so dense, but because the way the information was given was so disjointed. The story would drastically change as though a plot twist had just dropped, yet it was hard to tell just what that plot twist was. If the parts with Deckard losing reality seemed the most cohesive to me, then the parts where he was perfectly lucid were the most confusing to me. I could hardly follow his train of thought in these parts. There were also times when Dick’s choice of words would cause more confusion then clarity. If anyone could tell me what “disemelevatored” means, I’d be eternally grateful.
After all this though, the real question is: Would I pass the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test? And honestly? No. I don’t think I would. I’m an evil Android and all should fear me.