Philip K. Dick isn’t an author I’ve had much exposure to. I’ve read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? twice now, and I just finished The Man in the High Castle this weekend. I remember liking Androids when I first read it sometime around 2006. I read it for a Film & Literature class during my undergrad program. We paired it with the film, Blade Runner. (We also watched Edward Scissorhands, American History X, Menace II Society, Raging Bull, The Empire Strikes Back, Full Metal Jacket, and Fight Club, among others. It was a great class. I miss college.) Anyway, yes, I liked it, but nothing about it really resonated with me, and I remember thinking the Mercerism religion parts were stupid and in the way, and was glad the film totally nixed them.
I know I’ve said this in many previous reviews for books I’ve re-read within the last five or so years, but it sure is funny how time can change your perspective. I have yet to re-watch the film (which I’ve still only seen the once), but this time reading the book, it was exactly the parts I thought most useless last time that affected me the most. I’m also convinced that Dick is an author whose books are always better the second time through. His stories are so esoteric and can seem disjointed thematically when you don’t have the whole picture. It’s like he practices the pointilism version of writing. Up close, it looks like noise, but back up and you’ve got clarity.
“In the absence of the Batys and Pris he found himself fading out, becoming strangely like the inert television set which he had just unplugged. You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all. I mean, before they came here I could stand it, being alone in the building. But now it’s changed. You can’t go back, he thought. You can’t go from people to nonpeople.”
As a warning, the rest of this review probably isn’t for people who haven’t already read the book, unless you don’t mind some slight spoilers. (Or maybe not so slight . . . my spoiler-meter is admittedly not that great.) I want to get a bit more into the book than a spoiler-free review would allow.
Dick’s story tells of futuristic bounty hunter Rick Deckard, whose job is to hunt down ever more sophisticated androids (‘andys’) trying to pass as people. Most humans have emigrated to Mars and other space colonies, and radioactive dust threatens to either sterilize or alter the ones who remain. This time through, I focused on two things. The first thing was that I’d remembered the book asking the question, ‘Is Deckard an android?’, and it does, but it also answers it pretty definitively (in my opinion). He isn’t. The androids in the book are totally devoid of empathy, focused almost entirely on their own survival. This is made clear when one of the androids pulls apart and kills a spider, just to see what would happen, not recognizing the pain she’s causing another (human) character (The question of whether or not they should be allowed to survive is also asked, despite the dubious moral tactics they employ. And it’s an implied question, rather than a direct one.)
The second thing is the Mercerism — the fake religion Dick has invented, and which Rick and the others are devoted to. The religion is too weird to write about in this short space–almost anything I could say would over-simplify it and thus ruin its message–but the gist of it is that Dick is not emphasizing religion, per se. He’s emphasizing empathy and community, which are two things the devotees of Mercerism believe of the utmost importance. In fact, when the ‘fraudulent’ nature of Mercerism is revealed near the end of the novel by a couple of androids (um, spoilers?), it doesn’t even matter. Rick and the other characters still find beauty in the experience, because the truth of Mercerism has nothing to do with Mercer himself. (Much in the way that fiction uses lies to tell the truth.)
“He had an indistinct, glimpsed darkly impression: of something merciless that carried a printed list and a gun, that moved machine-like through the flat, bureaucratic job of killing. A thing without emotions, or even a face; a thing that if killed got replaced immediately by another resembling it. And so on, until everyone real and alive had been shot.”
A lot of people seem to really focus on the whole ‘Is Deckard an android?’ thing, especially after having seen the film. But I think it’s a mistake to focus on that particular phrasing, because it tempts us to go the Battlestar Galactica route (the route the movie takes), to empathize with the androids, to value all forms of life. But in the book, the question isn’t ‘Are the androids real people?’, it’s ‘What makes us real humans?’ That’s what this book is about. The passage I’ve quoted directly above, at first glance, you’d think it was Deckard, our bounty hunter, contemplating the merciless killing machine of an android he’s got to destroy. But it’s not. It’s a secondary character, Isidore (one entirely cut from the film), contemplating the idea of Deckard, the bounty hunter. And that is super, super interesting to me, the idea that by hunting these androids, Deckard becomes less human himself, because in hunting them he suppresses the very things that make him most human, his empathy and understanding.
In that light, the hunt for the androids, the ‘fake humans’, those ones who can’t feel emotions, what they’re really hunting down is the reminder that what makes us human can be lost. It doesn’t matter whether or not Rick is an android (in fact, this is why I say he’s not), because the point isn’t to shock the reader–oh, he was an android the whole time!!! What matters is that the world Deckard lives in is one that strips people of their identies: in their genetics, in their biology, and in their souls.
“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”
If you can’t tell, I really dug this novel. It rang some bells up in the old noggin that won’t stop echoing around up in there. It was weird and trippy and it had robots in it. Oh, and also an electric sheep. That bit’s pretty important, too.