As far as science fiction writing goes, authors are allotted endless latitudes to take their stories and ideas to inconceivable and unrealistic heights. At times these leeways can be so obscure that a reader can become discouraged or even aggravated at the impossibility of a plot that they give up on the work all together. In any science fiction work there is a dangerous line between the fantastic and the frustrating, the probable and the unpromising. However what makes sci-fi writing so popular is the advantage that a truly gifted author has of combining the fantastic with reality, the possible with the promising; avenues that aren’t always possible in the realm ofpure fiction. Few authors were better capable at using these advantages than Dick, both in his writing and in his life.
In the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Philip Dick uses all of the elements of science fiction to the extreme when tackling the question: What makes a human… human? Such a powerful questions requires an equally commanding setting and plot, which Dick brings out in full force. The setting is the year 1992, sometime after ‘World War Terminus’ has rendered Earth almost completely barren. Many humans have emigrated to new planets, those that remain on earth are often thought of as stupid or ‘chicken heads,’ staying on our planet out of some flawed sense of loyalty. In this future world, animals have been almost completely wiped out due to radiation affects from the war, making a live animal a prized status symbol among the elites of the remaining humans. For those that can’t afford the luxury, they have the shameful option of purchasing an ‘electric’ animal.
The plot follows Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter whose sole job is to ‘retire’ human-like androids who have escaped from slavery and return to Earth under the guise of real people. The problem for bounty hunters such as Deckard is that that these androids are completely equivalent if not superior to humans except for their lack of empathy. Deckard must spend his days isolating the androids and determining their ‘humanness’ based on tests of empathy that not everyone agrees are accurate.
It is through Deckard’s missions of finding and eliminating androids that the main philosophical questions of what it truly means to be a human are explored. How do we determine empathy? Can a machine learn to feel? And ultimately, how can we be sure that what we experience is enough to qualify us as humans from an outsiders perspective?
"Because, ultimately, the emphatic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated."
Quite possibly one of the most haunting scenes comes when Deckhard and another bounty hunter are casually debating the idea that neither one has a sure way to knowing if they are truly a human or a machine at heart. One believes that he has true feelings of love for an animal, a desire to see it happy, but is that enough to make him 'real'? The writing is quick, explosive, and evocative, leaving the reader grasping at their own perceptions of the human nature.
Overall, for a book with such complex and profound questions on life and love, I was disappointed that Dick chose to try and fit so many elements into such a short work. The book hits just over 200 pages, scarcely enough time to combine all of the fundamental philosophical musings with the unconventional plot points. I personally would have loved to see this book expanded into a work of epic proportions. Fortunately for myself, and those who feel similarly there is Blade Runner.
Blade Runner is the classic cult movie inspired by Dick’s novel, which stars Harrison Ford as Deckard. Although the movie is only based loosely around the novel, all of the main elements are captured and displayed in a way that the novel was unable to achieve. While the book touches more on the philosophical ideas, Blade Runner is able to bring to life the desolate and mortal future that isn’t quite achieved in the novel. For anyone left craving a bit more after you finish the book, I HIGHLY suggest renting the movie. It is rare that similar story mediums can stand so soundly apart in comparison and still retain a unique identity.
So where does this leave me after reading the book, watching the movie, then sitting for an hour lost in thought? It leaves me in a mental place much further and more remote from my thoughts before either work came into my life. The ideas behind Philip K Dick’s work will leave any reader questioning, haunted, and just a little bit nostalgic for the days when humanity seemed so black and white. Don’t worry if this happens you can always set your mood organ to #481: Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to one in the future.