Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Philip K. Dick - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

On his way to work Rick Deckard, as Lord knew how many other people, stopped briefly to skulk about one of San Francisco’s larger pet shops, along animal row.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a Science Fiction classic, the inspiration for Blade Runner, and sports one of the best written blurbs I’ve ever read. The good ideas don’t stop on the back cover. The book tackles several interesting themes and presents a whole host of unique, and well integrated, ideas. Despite all this, Do Androids… fails to live up to its reputation.

The book’s cornerstones are the androids and the concept of empathy. As more and more realistic androids are built, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish them from humans. On almost all levels, intellectual, emotional, etc, they conform perfectly to the norm. The humans still on earth are terrified by this. What if, one day, there is an android so advanced that no test, no matter how intricate, can separate them from people? How will they be hunted down, kept separate and subjugated? More importantly – for the reader, if not for the police organizations of future earth – how can we justify hunting down and killing something that is the same as us save for its manner of birth?

Ironically for a book so focused on empathy, where Do Androids… falls short is the prose’s ability to convey emotion. Put simply, the text conveys none at all; everything is conveyed in the same listless monotone. Let’s imagine a standard metal song, beginning with an acoustic intro. After a minute or two of the introduction, the electric guitar comes in and the feel of the song completely changes. We go from atmospheric and quiet to loud and aggressive. Do Androids… is the equivalent of the entire song played by the acoustic. Yes, the notes are the same, but the feeling’s totally changed; it’s no longer dynamic in the slightest.

This fundamental lack of vibrancy, of change, in the text hampers it in many ways. Fight scenes and climaxes are both stripped of their power:

“Why won’t my laser tube fire?” [The Android] said, switching on and off the miniaturized triggering and aiming device which he held in the palm of his hand.

“A sine wave,” Rick said. “That phases out laser emanation and spreads the beam into ordinary light.”

“Then I’ll have to break your pencil neck.” The android dropped the device and, with a snarl, grabbed with both hands for Rick’s throat.

As the android’s hands sank into his throat, Rick fired his regulation issue old-style pistol from its shoulder holster; the .38 magnum slug struck the android in the head and its brain box burst. The Nexus-6 unit which operated it blew into pieces, a raging, mad wind which carried throughout the car. Bits of it, like the radioactive dust itself, whirled down on Rick. The retired remains of the android rocked back, collided with the car door, bounced off, and struck heavily against him; he found himself struggling to shove the twitching remnants of the android away.

The above is supposed to be a thrilling moment, a betrayal, an abrupt ambush-like action scene, and yet the explanatory dialogue dulls the effect entirely. Deckard’s reaction to having a gun pointed at him is to explain the precise mechanics preventing his skull from decorating the car door. In addition, the entire affair is over before it can begin. When, after the lackluster opening ripostes are exchanged, the fight begins in earnest, there’s barely a paragraph of the android’s execution; there isn’t time for even the most involved of readers to detect even the faintest whiff of danger before said danger’s dispatched, a process matched only in speed by the writing’s desire to meander about explaining the cranial anatomy of androids. In this manner, almost all of the book’s climaxes are disposed of, after pages of buildup, as a vague flash in the rear view mirror and with the faintest feeling of that’s it?

Worse, the reader is prevented from ever identifying with Deckard at all, not just when he’s in mortal danger. Deckard’s relationships never draw us in, we never get to develop our own feelings for any of the character’s, and we don’t truly get to share Deckard’s, leaving us with just the shallow knowledge of his physical and verbal response to those around him. As a result, the conflicts of interests, and what should have been the validation of all the novel’s themes, falls almost wholly flat.

Furthermore, moving past the prose, there’re instances where things seem to be done in order to augment a certain theme, or just for convenience, when it’s hard to think of a rational reason for them to be done that way. For instance, there are several companies that make androids. Everyone who goes to Mars – and everyone who isn’t dirt poor goes – gets a free android. So, if the demand is on Mars (it is, in fact, illegal to be an android running around on earth), and the companies are rich enough to go (they’re described as, essentially, swimming in money), why the hell are they still on earth? In addition, partway through the novel, Deckard stumbles onto a nest of androids. In the middle of the nest is a single human. The man’s existence eventually leads to a thematic coup de grace, but I’m unable to think of a single reason for him to be there at all.

Amazingly enough, almost none of these flaws exist when the point of view switches over to John Isidore, a mentally crippled “Chickenhead.” Contrary to in Deckard’s sections (where any semblance of emotion is subtle-ized itself right out of existence), Isidore’s moods are painted in broad brushes. The effect can occasionally be comic, but amidst the overacting the character gained my sympathy in a way that no one else in the book came even close to matching. I guess I’m a bigger fan of melodrama than I am of blank stares.

Perhaps a part of my liking for Isidore comes from his job as an ambulance driver for an electric animal company. The obsession with animals was by far my favorite aspect of Dick’s work; it showcases the changes to earth perfectly. The most interesting portion of the entire novel comes from a discussion of the merits of real and mechanical cats.

Approaching the question raised between humans and androids in a totally different way, Dick makes us look a bit closer at our own empathy. The majority of the technology is of a similar vein, seamlessly integrated and fascinating. Perhaps chief among them is the Penfield Mood Organ, a device that dictates your mood upon the dials you push. All of these devices are treated so irreverently by the characters that it often takes several seconds to realize that we don’t (yet) have real world equivalents, and all of them are thematically charged to an impressive degree.

Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a novel that I failed to connect with on any meaningful level. That being said, it’s not a novel that I could advise someone to not read. The book has enough interesting ideas that I can easily see why it’s considered such a classic…it’s just a pity that those ideas are so let down by the prose.

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