Friday, April 15, 2016

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

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Philip K. Dick's classic novel explores what it is to be human in a world of advanced technology. 

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, his job to kill (“retire”) androids. He is given a challenging task to perform: kill six Nexus-6 androids. These are androids that are more intelligent than most humans. They have escaped from Mars, where they worked as servants to humans. To verify whether someone is an android or not, Rick Deckard must administer a test that checks for a person's empathy levels, as this is the only thing that differentiates a human from an android. Much of the novel's superb meditation on personality is seen through this prism of human empathy. In one chilling scene, one of the androids cooly snips the legs off a spider. One of the subtle lessons we learn is that technology dehumanises without us knowing it.

Meanwhile, in a run down, empty apartment building lives a “special” named John Isidore. Specials are on the lowest rung of society, derisively called chicken heads. Isidore is not highly evolved intellectually, but he is deeply empathetic, and longs for company. When he befriends the Nexus-6 androids that have escaped, his simplicity leads him to develop feelings of empathy for them, even though they are cold and manipulative. Part of John Isidore's tragedy is that real friendship with these androids is impossible.

Another main part of the plot involves Rick Deckard's desire to obtain a real animal. To own one confers status, because to own animals shows your empathetic qualities. Rick owns an electric sheep. Seeing most of the animals on planet earth have died off after a nuclear war, they are quite difficult to come by, and hence quite costly. One reason why Rick wants to make a lot of money from bounty hunting is so he can buy his own animal, a real one rather than a fake one.

It's hard to encapsulate this extraordinarily imaginative and emotionally deep novel. The themes it deals with are profoundly existential: the nature of being, our relation to the animal world, the common need for religious feeling, technology and its power to change and dehumanise us. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a visionary work of literature. While on the surface its a sci-fi story, underneath it bores into the reader's consciousness with its relentless existential and philosophical questions.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Published by Phoenix. ISBN:  9781780220383 RRP: $19.99 

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