My mission, should I decide to accept it, is to review this Philip K. Dick novel with little or no reference to "Blade Runner", the movie it inspired. Here we go.
Bad news first - even more than most of PKD's classic work, "Electric Sheep" explains everything to you. It's full of historical data, telling you that in the future of its setting, war has left clouds of radioactive dust all over creation, endangering the mentality and reproductive health of pretty nearly every human on the planet. Most have decided to emigrate to an off-planet colony before the dust destroys their bodies and renders them unqualified. As a result, Earth has become severely underpopulated.
As an additional incentive, each new colonist receives a highly advanced android, or "andy", as a companion. So human-like are these androids that only a postmortem bone-marrow test can identify them positively, but an empathy test administered by a qualified policeman does almost as well, because androids have no empathy at all. This makes them dangerous, and they are restricted to the off-Earth colonies - if any of them get to Earth, usually by means of murder, a police bounty hunter hunts them down and "retires" them.
Empathy has also become the linchpin of a new religion called Mercerism. By means of an electronic "empathy box", most of the humans on and off Earth "join" with the ancient prophet Wilbur Mercer as he tries to escape from those who deal in death. Mercer also loved animals, so his followers demonstrate their dedication by caring for an animal of some sort. Unfortunately, radioactivity has killed off most of Earth's animals, so those who can't find or afford one resort to artificial copies, such as the electric sheep of the title.
Clear? If PKD had tried to communicate all of this by traditional fictional means, his novel would have been two or three times longer. Nevertheless, "Electric Sheep" unquestionably deserves its place among the man's greatest work, not only because of its powerful structure and emotional punch, which I'll get to in a minute, but also for one other interesting reason. Whereas in some of his other work screwball details hang around to no discernable purpose, "Electric Sheep" integrates its screwball detail into the story proper.
The novel opens on the police bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he gets ready for his day, a procedure that includes dialing the proper mood for himself on a Penfield Mood Organ. His wife Iran insists upon dialing a suicidal depression for herself, and the Deckards spend all of Chapter One arguing over this. Which is cute, but it also tells you something about Deckard's background and relationships, what he might be looking for and not getting, where he's vulnerable and where he could use some maturing. All of this echoes down the rest of his day - "Electric Sheep" is one of those comparatively few PKD novels with a restricted structure. It takes place over not much more than one 24-hour period, and it begins and ends in the same location.
That's a very good idea on PKD's part, especially for a novel with so much expository language (a big no-no according to most writing teachers). What's more, as you might guess from Deckard's occupation as a police bounty hunter, "Electric Sheep" follows the broad outlines of a police procedural - his assignment is to locate and retire six escaped andys, more than almost anyone has done in one day. The job is complicated by the fact that some of those andys have found an ally in JR Isidore, one of those disqualified from emigration because of the damage done to his intellect by the radioactive dust. He's sensitive to any overture of friendship because of his intellectual status and because, the world being underpopulated, he lives all alone in a huge apartment building slowly collapsing into "kipple", undifferentiated discards that seem to fill up empty space unless actively controlled. Any apartment dweller knows all about that, and it's one of PKD's glories that he invented a word for the stuff.
Unfortunately for Isidore, and Deckard too, it's beyond question that androids are in fact incapable of empathy, of identifying with others and comprehending their lives. They abandon each other in danger, torture animals out of curiosity, and sacrifice humans at the merest hint of trouble. (Of course, there are humans who do that, too, and there's something dangerously innocent about PKD's assumption that empathy is a universal human characteristic, but it's his book.) More to the point, although this lack of empathy makes the androids dangerous, it also makes Deckard's job all the more devastating to his conscience once he discovers that, as a human, he has feelings of empathy for the androids. Can he eliminate the android threat and still retain his own humanity? Never mind dangling from a tall building like Harrison Ford - that's a problem.
This is where the emotional wallop comes in. Some authors can divide their characters into heroes and villains without a twitch. PKD never mastered that trick, especially not here. The prophet Mercer is a fictional construct, but the author seems to have taken him very seriously. He gives Mercer one commandment and one only - "You shall kill only the killers" - but he knows perfectly well that doing so takes a lot out of good people.
Like most other PKD work, though, "Electric Sheep" closes on a note of hope - of "long-deserved peace", in fact, through that Penfield Mood Organ. And more importantly, the empathy that's been missing from an important relationship gets strengthened.
Well, that's PKD for you. He's the sort who would start out to write a crime thriller and end with his characters becoming better people for their trip through the valley of despair. Like the characters, you finish this adventure and breathe a sigh of relief.
Pros: Good story, quick read Cons: It's NOT the movie...(if you're a fan) Philip K. Dick's novel of America a few years from now is the basis of the cult classic film Blade Runner. Although the film is magnificent, the novel stands alone as a unique and quality work. The main character's primary motivation is completely overlooked in the film and it is strangely compelling with sadly tragic results. The contrast between the man that "retires" … more
"The most consistently brilliant science fiction writer in the world." --John Brunner THE INSPIRATION FOR BLADERUNNER. . . Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published in 1968. Grim and foreboding, even today it is a masterpiece ahead of its time. By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn't afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans. Emigrees to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn't want to be identified, they just blended in. Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results. "[Dick] sees all the sparkling and terrifying possibilities. . . that other authors shy away from." --Paul Williams Rolling Stone