So, last night I finished Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. I really enjoyed this book, and feel it’s aged really well. It’s definitely a beautiful, poignant read, and Dick takes the idea of artificial life to a logical conclusion (for someone looking forward from the 1960’s).
This is a book very much concerned with authenticity, with being real. This sounds pretty familiar, but the world of DADOES? is very different than ours–devastated by a nuclear winter, there have been mass die-offs of plants and animals. People have emigrated off-planet en masse, leaving whole cities abandoned to just… crumble, quietly. People have vanished from the face of the Earth, removing most of the flora and fauna in the process. Animals have been replicated, though–electric creatures of all types are available for sale, some of them are almost impossible to tell apart from real animals. Authenticated real ones are, of course, next to impossible to find, and incredibly expensive.
We haven’t reached a singularity yet here, though–that point where computers can write and upgrade themselves, where they break free of human limits and surpass us in any way they choose. Instead, the artificial intelligence seems quite limited, and very much at the mercy of its human counterpart.
It’s actually pretty interesting to read a book like this, that features literally no reference to anything at all like the internet. Real information is precious, parceled out piecemeal in this world–in a scene where Deckard is brought to a working police station that claims overlapping jurisdiction over his, the idea that people are lying to him is not the first one that occurs to him. Instead, the idea of two police departments existing entirely parallel, never overlapping, neither aware of the other but both performing the exact same duties over the exact same area, seems plausible.
Even the test that Deckard administers to the androids–the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test–is questioned throughout the book. This supposed point of truth, the thing that decides your humanity or inhumanity, isn’t something that’s widely known, or even well-known, except to the person who’s administered it hundreds of times. For a large portion of the book, it’s even questioned whether or not it’s even real, as compared to the Boneli Reflex-Arc Test–which, though it exists in a similarly real/unreal, Schrodinger’s-Cat-y state of who-knows-what-it-is, Deckard doesn’t question at all.
Humans, too, are sort of at the mercy of their own invention. Rick Deckard and his wife Iran spend lots of time with an empathy machine, dialing in moods because they… really can’t seem to feel much of anything.
The automatons here, then, aren’t really trying to explore a technological future, are they? Instead, these machines are held up as mirrors. In a world essentially devoid of people, where someone can’t trust anything–not their feelings, not their partners, not even their own memories–what is it to be human, other than to hate the next best thing?
I think that’s what I find most interesting about this book–the disconnect, not just from culture or community, but from everything. This book is populated by people who literally cannot trust anything, who cannot tell the difference between reality and facsimile. That facsimile is reviled, but there’s never any thought put into why.
The androids are scary, but not in the way I thought they’d be. I actually found myself really feeling for them until a scene about two-thirds of the way in that serves to really drive home how different they are from even the crazy, emotionally-stunted versions of people this book features, but even though the androids are Not Human (emphasis not mine), in the end, their motivations are very human. They want to survive, to be free, to live for longer than a few short years.
I guess simply due to its rarity, being a real human, or a real animal, or a real… anything becomes something people care about… And from where I’m sitting, it sort of seems, like… What’s so great about being real?
- Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
- Author: Philip K. Dick
- Published: 1968
- Read it? Yes. Read it. Don’t expect Blade Runner, though.