Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

I had never read this sci-fi classic, so I thought this year (of the insanely high reading target) was a good year to remedy that.

I’ve also never seen Blade Runner – the film which is based on this book – and now that I have read the book, I’ll be interested to see the film to see how it compares.

The outline is this: at some point in the distant future, after Earth and society has been all but destroyed by war and disease (‘dust’ in this world, which settles on everything and causes illness, sterility, and genetic abnormalities), most of humanity have emigrated to Mars or other nearby colonies. The only ones who haven’t are the outlaws and outsiders; the ‘specials’ – those who are considered slightly less than actually human due to their genetic damage, disfigurement, disability or simply low IQ, and who are deemed undesirable to help propagate and protect the purity of the species – and those whose jobs demand that they stay.

Our protagonist is in the latter group. A bounty hunter called Rick Deckard, his job is to track down and ‘retire’ the increasingly human-like androids who escape from the colonies by killing their human owners in order to attempt to integrate unnoticed on Earth. The narrative joins Rick on the biggest, most difficult assignment of his career – can he catch the androids? Who is human, who isn’t? How can we tell?

It’s a great story. I’m pretty sure (please do correct me if I’m wrong) that Philip K was one of the first to use the ‘dystopian future, world destroyed by war’ devices which has become something of a subgenre all its own, and he has created a deliciously disturbing and alien world. Humans now have ‘mood machines’ – dial a number and program your own emotions – and a new religion which promotes an empathetic (empathic?) link with an archetype man, linking all living things in a cycle of life, struggle, death and triumph.

The story provokes some pretty fundamental questions (questions modern sci fi is still exploring, with no sign of any actual answers) about the line between man and machine – if we can program our emotions, and integrate machinery into our bodies – and if we can build organic matter into artificially intelligent bodies, and have that intelligence be self-learning and always developing – and if the damage we do to each other and our world so damages our species that society begins demoting certain categories of human from humanity… then what makes a human being a human being?

I didn’t really get the ending – it felt a bit sudden – so if anyone has any clever insight on this please do let me know in the comments… but basically, I loved this story and will definitely read it again. It’s looking pretty good for a 49 year old… it could have been written today, to be honest.

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