Rating: 4 stars
I love Blade Runner, but I’ve never read the book it’s based on. When Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? arrived in my Willoughby Book Club box this month, I was interested to read it, but also wary in case it didn’t live up to my experience of the film.
I found the book strange at first. The characters and dialogue were sketchy for a sizeable chunk of the story, until it reached the point where Deckard was actively hunting the androids and Philip K Dick was able to concentrate more on plot and character, and less on scene setting. I liked that Deckard was married, and the way he and his wife interacted added humour to the story. Deckard seemed less hard boiled than in the film. I was surprised by Roy being married and Pris being his friend, not his girlfriend, in the book. Rachael’s story is also slightly different, with links between her and Pris that confused me at first, but made sense as the novel progressed. I reached a point where I had to make a conscious decision to put the film out of mind as I read, because the differences were distracting me from the story.
I liked the premise of the book. The idea of androids built to the specifications of the customer is a common one in science fiction. I haven’t read much science fiction, but the idea that androids might be built to such levels of perfection as to be almost indistinguishable from humans must have been pretty ground breaking in 1968. In the book, the androids are a bribe to force people to leave Earth for Mars after a war that has left Earth too radioactive to live on. All manner of extinction has happened. Animals are a status symbol, and fake robotic animals have been developed so that people can con their neighbours into thinking they’re doing better than they are. The book has a different focus to the film, with Deckard more bothered about getting enough cash together to buy a live animal to replace his fake sheep than about being a bounty hunter. His habit of developing mini obsessions with various animals is very funny.
The book’s 1992 is a believable future world in many respects, because human nature is what it is and human behaviour carries on regardless of time or circumstances. Where it fell down for me, 48 years on from publication and 25 years later than its setting, is in the way Dick doesn’t have the same grasp of the potential for how current technology might evolve over time, in comparison with Arthur C Clarke, for example. Things that jarred for me were the lack of computer technology and the old fashioned futurism of the communication technology. Notes are still kept on paper. The technological advance is in the paper being onion skin thin. Video communication is by devices that sound like something from the 1980s. I found that this made it harder for me to believe in it as a future world. But it is an odd thing to read a book where 1992 was the future when it was written but the past as I read it, I suppose.
I enjoyed the humour that came out of surreal and absurd situations. I also enjoyed the unreliability of Deckard as a character. For most of the first half of the book, it seems like you can take what he says as the truth, but then inconsistencies start creeping in, and certain occurrences make you think things aren’t quite as Deckard is seeing them. This switches back and forth, with inconsistencies replacing each other to keep you guessing about who is and isn’t an android.
I liked the child-like and trusting simplicity of J R Isidore, who is lonely and in need of friends, so decides to help the fugitive androids. I shared his feelings about the creature he finds and his reaction to how the androids treat it. I also liked the questioning of existence and its meaning by Deckard, Isidore and the androids, and their individual reactions to the exposure of the pseudo-religion Mercerism as a fake.
A couple of things made me wonder about modern day connections to the story, such as the androids being Nexus 6 models and Google calling their Android phones and tablets by Nexus names, and the Penfold mood organ having the setting 888 for the desire to watch TV no matter what’s on, 888 being the old Ceefax page for subtitles. I wondered, but I didn’t investigate. There’s probably nothing in it, but I like to think there is.
This really wasn’t the book I was expecting. It was much better. The ending in particular was perfect. I’m glad that the book was different to the film. It was different in a way that made me love it. And I really want a Penfold mood organ.