My Year in Re-Reading After 40: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Court Merrigan Revisits Philip K. Dick’s Sci-Fi Classic
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It’s time to have some fun! While I greatly enjoyed Iris Murdoch’s magnum opus The Sea, The Sea, it would be an exaggeration to say that the book entertained, exactly. Edified, perhaps. Enlightened. But “entertained” comes on too strong. So I am counting on Philip K. Dick to do me a solid and put the “wheee!” back in “reading.”
Yes, I know the movie and the book barely resemble one another. (Any more than the sure-to-be mediocre movie sequel will resemble the greatness of original. But I digress.) And while Blade Runner is maybe my favorite film of all time — I own like two DVDs these days, and one of them is the Blade Runner: The Final Cut — for whatever reason, I’ve only read the book that inspired it all once, some years ago. Worse yet, it was a pirated ebook (sorry, estate of Phillip K. Dick) that I read on my original white Kindle, replete with typographical errors, weird squiggles, and non-existent paragraph breaks. Worse still, I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in one sitting while working pretty hard on a bottle of bourbon in a hotel room in a strange town several time zones away from home. Thus my comprehension levels were not, shall we say, quite where they ought to have been.
What I remember is a story that reproduced, amplified, and exploded all those old noir tropes. Grizzled PI? Check. But with lasers. Vicious villains? Check. But they’re androids. Criminal androids, people. A femme fatale? Check. But she’s also an android.
Perhaps a bigger fan of sci-fi and fantasy than myself doesn’t end up so mesmerized by such a glossy and grim reworking of the old tropes. But they catapulted me into a world where everything old was new again, and I could once again be thrilled with a PI chasing the bad guys down dark city streets.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t really recall much of the book’s substance. Now, as I discussed last month, that’s also the case with, well, almost every other book, I’ve ever read, but those were owing to the normal tug and pull of memory and forgetting. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has persisted in memory in grim defiance of the obliterating effects of alcohol, which makes me wonder, slightly, if I’m not confusing the movie and the book.
After all, how many books do you think you could keep concentrating on through an ever-thickening bourbon haze, and actually finish? I’d wager 1 in 20. 1 in 50, maybe. (Hey, this sounds like a great scientific experiment. Someone about 15 years younger than me should try it out.) About halfway through a bottle of Jim Beam alone in a hotel room, SportsCenter or whatever dumb movie is playing on TBS start sounding like great options, right after you order in some Domino’s. Reading is freakin’ hard when you’re in that state, and I’m not even talking about the part where the words get blurry.
My original idea was to attempt to recreate that original reading with a fifth of Jim Beam, but wisdom precludes that possibility. You don’t make it to forty without learning that the hangovers hurt a lot more than they used to, and that with small humans in the house that depend on you, you simple aren’t allowed to be surly and hungover for a whole day following your little fiesta.
Instead, I’m going to plop down in my favorite reading chair with a glass of homebrewed hard cider. Maybe I’ll have two. If I get lucky — by which I mean, if none of the small humans in the house require care or maintenance and if I can manage to stay awake long enough — I’ll finish in one sitting again.
Besides wanting to re-read the book that inspired the fantastical movie, I’m curious to see if it’s even possible to enjoy a book sober that you loved while drinking. Also, this time I’ve got an actual paper copy, with real pages and correct typography and everything.
What I really hope is that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? proves to be as hypnotic on a re-read as it was the first time around. Because in this installment I’ve talked far too much about bourbon and reading on bourbon, and said virtually nothing about the book itself. Time to get that rectified.
I said it once already but damn, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? really is nothing, nothing at all, like the movie. Though inextricably intertwined, the two are different enough that we’re not only talking about two different media, but two different stories with entirely different aims. Blade Runner, for all its gritty darkness, exists to entertain, while perhaps doing a bit of philosophizing along the way,
featuring the most fatale-ist of femme fatales.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on the other hand, serves an entirely different purpose. Philip K. Dick’s oddly lumpy prose weaves a fictive dream strong enough to alter the qualities of your own known world. Replete with all the set pieces of pulpy science fiction — the flying cars, the laser tube, the weird religion (what the hell is Mercerism all about, anyway?) — while twisting and subverting the standard tropes of noir fiction. Read it, read it, read it.
“I love you, Rachael said. “If I entered a room and found a sofa covered with your hide I’d score very high on the Voigt-Kampff test.”
The Voigt-Kampff test, of course, is the empathy test that the Rick Deckard, android hunter (the term “blade runner” appears nowhere in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), to determine if his subjects are human or not. The test measures empathy, an emotion androids are incapable of:
“You’re reading a novel written in the old days before the war,” [Deckard said.] “The characters are visiting Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. They become hungry and enter a seafood restaurant. One of them orders lobsters, and the chef drops the lobster into the tub of boiling water while the characters watch.”
“Oh god,” Rachael said. “That’s awful! Did they really do that? It’s depraved! You mean a live lobster?” The gauges, however, did not respond. Formally, a correct response. But simulated.
Rachael, of course, is an android. A Nexus-6 model, to be precise. The most sophisticated android ever designed, yet still incapable of feeling the fundamentally human emotion of empathy. But, Dick asks, can you love without empathy? The book isn’t exactly sure, but it certainly hints at the possibility when Rachael claims to love Deckard, citing the example of how she’d feel seeing his flayed flesh on display.
Later on, Rachael tosses his goat — a real, live goat, not an android reproduction, very expensive, very rare — from the roof of Deckard’s apartment building, so perhaps she didn’t really love him all that much, after all. Or did she simply love too much? That’s only one of the delicious mysteries Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? leaves for us to ponder.
I’m not a fan of books that bludgeon us with dazzling philosophical insight, cloaked perhaps with a light drizzle of plot frosting.
It’s far, far superior when the plot bubbles the philosophy to the surface, creating seeming paradoxes and blazing insights that force us to re-evaluate what we thought we knew. Take the strange quasi-religion of Mercerism that Dick created, wherein one grips an “empathy box” to commune with a strange prophet climbing a hill like Sisyphus while rocks are hurled at you. Sort of makes sense, if you think about it. After all, what would a post-apocalyptic world need to heal? The opposite of what brought on the apocalypse in the first place: human empathy.
All this makes you wonder, are we really so different from the androids? Aren’t we just thinking boxes that seem to experience empathy? How often do we really, truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? Do we ever really connect with our fellows? Maybe we just beam signals at each other from our respective solipsistic ships, responding to elaborate stimuli in an ever-more intricate dance?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does offer a partial answer to these questions: in the end, what trips the androids up, despite their superhuman strength and intelligence, is that they can’t care about one another. Deckard knows this, and hunts them down one by one. He murders them without mercy and uses his bounty to buy a real, live goat. Which, as you know, the android that says she loves him proceeds to kill. (What a strange, magnificent plot!)
Then, the book closes not with his successful android hunt, but with a Jesus-like pilgrimage into the post-war wasteland of northern California. But unlike Jesus or the saints, Deckard attains no great insight in the desert. All he finds is a toad. Which would be a remarkable find in a world where nearly all wild species have been killed off, except the toad, too, turns out to be an android. The world snaps shut on us all in the end.
Which, I think, is just what makes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? so mesmerizing. Its self-referential circle swallows itself whole; you can’t accept the world it creates without accepting the world you’re in.
And if that sounds a touch too precious, like a Zen koan painted on a kid’s woodblock from Pottery Barn on the mantle over your great-aunt’s fireplace, I can only say that’s because I’m no Philip K. Dick. I cannot quite describe the alchemy by which he achieves his effects. This was true when I read the book while quaffing bourbon on a hard hotel chair; it’s true while I read it stone-cold sober in my favorite easy chair. Once I started, I couldn’t even drag myself over to the fridge to pour myself a hard cider.
Hoary as it seems to say it, Philip K. Dick is inviting us to consider the nature of being human. To go back to Rachael’s formally correct but simulated answer about the boiling lobster. If being human really means to empathize with the suffering of others, then how can we boil lobster alive to enjoy as a delicious, if high-maintenance, dinner?
In college I worked in a Cajun restaurant. Every year around Mardi Gras we’d get in a huge shipment of live crawdads (I don’t care if they call them “crawfish” in Louisiana; where I come from, they’re crawdads). Once I watched the chef drop vats of live crawdads into boiling water. They made a horrific squealing sound when they got dumped in. “Just the shells cooking,” the chef said. I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t a chorus of pain, but all the same, it’s not like I intervened. In fact, I don’t remember feeling even the slightest twitch of empathy.
And yet, no one who wasn’t a serial killer would toss a puppy into a boiling pot. As humans we respond to a puppy’s face, it’s big black eyes and yelps. Lobsters look like fishy bugs with no feelings. Even though recent research indicates that it’s highly likely that lobsters (and presumably crawdads) do feel pain, we eat them anyway. Meanwhile, puppies whimper and lick our hands and we give them names. Like Denis Leary once suggested, we should just line all the animals up for auditions. The otters, who swim around and do cute little human things with their hands, get a pass. The cows, who make baseball gloves and hamburgers, go to the slaughterhouse.
It all comes back to the old Buddhist dodge — even though the Buddha forbade the killing and eating of living creatures, Buddhists everywhere chow down on dead animals. As any good Buddhist will tell you, it’s okay, because someone else did the killing.
Not that I’m picking on Buddhists. We all do it, one way or another. There’d be no civilization if we didn’t. Humans are natural born killers like the tiger or great white shark. We’ve just learned to farm the messy parts out to other people and, at times, machinery.
But Philip K. Dick is over here in the corner, reminding us that to be human is to feel empathy.
Can’t set the scene much better than this:
In a giant, empty, decaying building which had once housed thousands, a single TV set hawked its wares to an uninhabited room.
Philip K. Dick is a master of the minor detail that signals we’re in a majorly different world. For example, in this scene, when Deckard finally has the femme fatale alone in a hotel room. Does he bend down to kiss her? Yes, but:
Bending, he kissed her bare shoulder.
Why her shoulder instead of her lips? I don’t know, but it works to perfection. And this is why you and I are you and I, and he’s Philip K. Dick.
I bet this is the line Rutger Hauer read over and over again, preparing for his role as Roy Baty in the film version:
Roy Baty entered, somber and large, smiling his crooked tuneless smile.
Next: An old story by a new star.