Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dreaming and Living

A review/reflection of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

It is a dangerous thing to recommend any bit of science-fiction literature to someone who is not a fan. Bad Sci-fi is deadly and can send anyone running to embrace the eventual onslaught of the robot overlords if they demand that everyone only read romance novels. Even mediocre sci-fi can turn the newbie off from the genre as it can be difficult to wrap one’s head around the notion of aliens who actually settled the Earth eons ago and we are the aliens. Thus one must be very careful when recommending any sci-fi to the general public because the side effects can be deadly (those of us who are enlightened and understand the brilliance of the genre can dive into almost any sci-fi story and find gems among the garbage, but we are enlightened).

With all of that said, it is with no hesitation that I recommend Philip K. Dick’s 1968 classic work Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to the wider public. I recommend it not so much because it creates a fantastic world that we would aspire to live in (it instead leans towards the dark, dystopian notion of the future), or because the poetic nature of the writing emulates Shakespeare and Dante (it doesn’t). Dick’s writing is fine, slightly better than average, but not brilliant. He doesn’t create a world of hope but more one of despair. I recommend it because of the questions Dick asks, questions that are very much prevalent today. Perhaps one of the central questions wonders what it mean to be human/alive.

First, I don’t recommend you watch Blade Runner as a substitute for this book. While Electric Sheep was the inspiration for Blade Runner the book goes deeper than the movie with the question of humanity and you do not have to sit through Harrison Ford’s controlled and stoic acting.

The book starts with the main character, Rick Deckard, talking to his wife and programing the settings of a “Penfield” to set her mood and attitude towards life. With this machine you can make someone happy and willing to please, or moody, or complacent, or satisfied with one’s partner’s lot in life, and on and on. You can program your mood to whatever you want.

Added to this mechanical mood-setting are androids. Although they are created in a factory and programed to serve humanity, they have free will, they have desires and wants, and look to be free from the life they were slated to live. There are androids that do not want to be servants to humans. Androids even look like humans when they are cut or killed. They eat and breath and engage in many ways as humans engage. The more recent incarnation of Battle Star Galactica (2004-2009) embraced this notion of humanity and machine and plays with the notion well throughout the series.

What does it mean to be human? On the one hand we have humans who are living a life of programed emotions and on the other we have androids who have yearnings and desires to be free. Yet Dick does not stop there. He introduces us to John Isidore, who is referred to as a “chicken-head” by others because he has a kind of mental (and maybe physical) defect due to radiation. He is not treated as fully human and yet he is someone who shows a great amount of empathy and compassion to humans, androids, and even a spider. There are other androids who though they have desires to be free do not have empathy or compassion and rip the legs off of a spider causing Isidore great distress. Without the empathy, are androids really alive?

Initially Rick Deckard does not feel compassion towards the androids and questions his humanity when he begins to. To feel for others, to have compassion might make someone less human? John Isidore has compassion for all from the begining. Who is fully human?

What does it mean to be human? It is more than just being flesh and blood. It is more than having desires. It is more than empathy and compassion. It is all and more or perhaps not. This is what makes Dick’s writing so good – he does not answer the question. He suggests, he intimates, he leads the reader to different conclusions, and then lets the reader decide. If nothing else such a question should lead us to think of our own lives, of our own relationships, and of the values that are pushed in our society. The desires that we are fed may not add to our humanity but instead may detract (like being able to program our mood).

The reader should know that this is not all that Electric Sheep is about. There is the question of religion and faith, of being alive and seeming alive, and I am sure other notions to consider. I encourage people to read this book and throughout to ask themselves what it means to live, to be alive, and to be human.

1 comment:

Anthony Malone said...

So I need to take some credit for pushing the book at Jonathan. I knew what the result would be. Some of the best darn Sci Fi ever because the Sci Fi is the background to the nagging questions of life.