10/10 Perhaps not perfect but a personal favorite
In a war-torn world, Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter; his target: androids that have illegally arrived on Earth. These androids, a new advanced variety, are so difficult to tell from humans that some question who are the “andys” and who the humans?
Philip K. Dick was a prolific writer that loved to toy with what we perceive to be real. He was known for spinning paranoid tales full of hallucinations and conspiracies, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is no exception. The questions of who might be androids, who might be human, and are the bounty hunters the real bad guys comes up throughout, sometimes answered, sometimes accompanied by other questions. And unlike the film, Bladerunner, there’s also a Jesus-like figure, Mercer, whom everyone connects within a shared virtual experience using a small, black device called an empathy box. Users feel each others’ emotions and pain as well as share in Mercer’s pain as he is assaulted with rocks while climbing a hill. It’s an experience that ties the scattered human race together using the one thing androids can’t have: empathy. Where the films explore memories, the book establishes that androids are often given false memories, but it’s empathy that they lack, that which humans hold over them. But empathy can work against humans at times, especially when bounty hunters start feeling sorry for the androids they hunt.
Most of the story ties these questions and ideas together well, but if I have one complaint, it’s with this Mercer thing, the rules of which remain vague. Users can be injured while connected, and some start having hallucinations without the box, even interacting with a physical Mercer who seems all-knowing. But there’s no explanation, made worse by a late reveal that tears down much of what we know of this Mercer. Otherwise, it’s a fast-paced story, grim in atmosphere, thick in paranoia, with no shortage of action.
Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter that becomes increasingly weary of his profession, and perhaps his marriage. He obsesses over his fake sheep, reading Sidney’s Animal and Fowl Catalog religiously to check going rates of real animals he might be able to afford if he does just this one last job. Other than that, we know very little about him. Dick doesn’t worry about backstory; it’s just not his style. Most of his characters come from nowhere and exist only as they do in the moment. He focuses on the here-and-now of the story—the motivations and struggles of the characters. It means the characters are distant from us, but it keeps the pace going. Even the world-building is kept to a minimum outside what is immediately relevant to the story. The androids, on the other hand, are given backstories, which strangely makes them more relatable than some of the human characters. And maybe that was the idea.
As for other characters, we have the impulsive, and at times creepy, androids, primarily Rachael Rosen, Pris Stratton, and Luba Luft. Unlike the film, Roy Baty plays a smaller role, not even showing up until over halfway into the book, but remains a dominating presence. Dick’s style of strong character voice works well on the androids. They use their distinct personalities and ability to emulate emotion (another difference from the film) to hide among humans who can’t tell them apart. When they break from human character, they display terrifying predatory instincts, often to the “special” human J. R. Isodore who can’t pass the IQ test to emigrate to Mars. The bounty hunter Phil Resch (Philip self-insert?) is another interesting character that comes from a mysterious second police department, making him question whether he is an android himself. Rachael, though an interesting character, doesn’t have the finality to her character that the film has; I would have liked a little more of her and the Rosen Association to cap off their story.
The book is from 1968, and it feels a bit dated in some regards. It’s not as stuffy as some literary writers from the period, Dick was a sci-fi writer after all, but the style hasn’t aged elegantly. For one, if not for the movie adaptation, I’d have little clue what sort of environments some scenes take place in; descriptions are at times scarce. When he does give them, they’re evocative and don’t overstay their welcome, but some scenes might fall prey to white-room syndrome. Characters have minimal description, which I appreciate, but we don’t learn anything about Deckard’s appearance until the end when we meet him from Isodore’s perspective. It’s an odd choice for a novel not in 1st person. Scattered throughout, there are also examples of excessive filtering, liberal use of adverbs, and other stylistic choices that are less commonplace these days (which includes some outdated views on women). It’s good writing—for its time. But it’s also an easy, enjoyable read if you can appreciate the writing of a different era.
For reference, the films are two of my favorite movies, both I recently re-watched. This is one of the few novels I’ve read multiple times. In fact, I decided to refresh myself and reread it before doing this review, finishing it in a 24-hour period (you could probably read it in a single day depending on how fast you read or how much time you devote to reading). Granted, it had been quite a few years since my last read, so I needed the refresher anyway. The ideas in here are big but fit into a tight, succinct story in a way only an experienced writer can pull off. It’s a dreary, fast-paced novel that set a new standard for sci-fi, shaping worlds to come. Without question, it’s a must-read for genre fans.