Saturday, 4 February 2012

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

“Stories written before space travel.”
“How could there have been stories about space travel before-”
“The writers,” Pris said, “made it up.”

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter on a futuristic earth, destroyed by war. His bounty is for androids, escaped from colonies by killing their masters and returned to earth to live amongst humans. The latest model, the Nexus-6, are near impossible to differentiate from man but for one flaw. The androids are lacking in empathy.

PKD's vision of the future (or to be exact, 1992, which we've managed to survive) included a religion based on empathy, Mercerism. After World War Terminus, the war to end all wars, many animal species became extinct and it became a duty to own an animal and take care of it. The animals become a bit of a status symbol but unfortunately, Deckard's sheep died and he was forced to replace it with an electronic replica. Real animals don't come cheap. When San Francisco's number one bounty hunter is injured, Deckard sees this as an opportunity to earn enough to buy a new animal for himself and his depressed wife.

He was silent, then.
Or rather it was silent.

The extreme empathy towards animals is in contrast to the hatred for androids. The theme of the novel is one we have become familiar with over the years, at what point does something become alive? Considering artificial intelligence was in its infancy at the time of writing, it's a very insightful book. The androids breathe and are highly intelligent yet they are incapable of embracing Mercerism because they cannot feel empathy. They are technically sociopaths. Though a sociopathic human would be allowed to live until they committed an unforgivable crime, the android's crime is to exist without a master. Admittedly, we are told the only way they could have escaped is by murder, but this never seems like a concrete fact.

I went full circle with my feelings, very much like the story itself does. There are things that the androids do that make you sympathise with them yet others that justify what happens to them.

It is a classic science fiction read and it always feels a bit hard to criticise something that has inspired so much. However I did start reading it and think, “oh no, what's all this sci-fi gobbledegook?” I had to re-read a few parts to quite get what they were talking about. Maybe the introduction of how empathy fits into their world could have been done better but do keep reading. After the first chapter or so, it becomes unputdownable. Honest.

I did find it slightly amusing that Deckard's wife wanted to experience depression through her mood organ, although all signs point to her suffering with it anyway. I also liked the idea that there was an option to make you feel like watching TV for hours without caring what's on.

Do you think you would pass the Voight-Kampff test? Designed to detect empathy, the questions focus more on animals and the attitudes of Deckard's world where they are practically sacred. As a meat eater and leather wearer, I think I might fail. Though I do rescue spiders. Here are some of the sample scenarios:

You are given a calf-skin wallet on your birthday.

You have a little boy and he shows you his butterfly collection, including his killing jar.

You're sitting watching TV and suddenly you discover a wasp crawling on your wrist.

You are watching an old movie on TV, a movie from before the war. It shows a banquet in progress; the guests are enjoying raw oysters. The entree consists of boiled dog, stuffed with rice.

We are reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as part of my Sci-Fi: Not Just For Stormtroopers challenge so keep an eye out for other opinions popping up around the web. You can check our our February link-up for reviews too. I will also be re-watching Blade Runner and posting my thoughts on book v film.

4 comments:

  1. "oh no, what's all this sci-fi gobbledegook? That isn't what I wanted to hear :-( This has been on my shelf for a while - recommended by a friend. He also recommended Asimov's Foundation (which I hated) so I was hoping I might enjoy this and at least be able to talk positively about one of his favourites. I will give it a try at some point, if only so I understand a bit more about the evolution of science fiction.

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    1. Please don't be put off, it's only in the first few pages and then it's all very readable. I must have not worded it well because I was trying to deter people from giving up if they were thinking that way!

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  2. I had to re-read the bit about the empathy box. Took me a minute to realise what it actually was. Was an interesting concept though. It was Rachel and then Luba that made you feel sorry for the androids. Like you said it didn't last long though. You have to wonder why you would accept and android when emigrating if there is a chance it will murder you.

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  3. I learned a fun word 'gobbledegood.' HAHA made me laugh out loud actually. Witty! And then 'unputdownable?' Fun as well. I want to read this book soon. It's official! Sound like a science fiction MUST-READ!

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