Author: Philip K Dick
Genre: Dystopic Science Fiction
Philip K Dick’s post-apocalyptic world is a result of World War Terminus, a nuclear war that makes Earth inhabitable for most life forms. The radioactive atmosphere is detrimental to human health and causes many animal species to go extinct. Most of humankind, who score well on the IQ test and have not yet lost the ability to procreate (the “regulars”), are incentivised to emigrate to other planet colonies. The incentive is Androids — humanoid robots — designed to serve humans on these colonies. The “specials”, humans who cannot procreate and have a low IQ, form a sub-class of humans left on Earth to perish in their own time.
Mercerism is a spiritual/religious belief that has gained force on Earth. Its practices and beliefs are centered around empathy, a trait also purported to distinguish humans, especially from androids being designed to increasingly resemble humans. Mercerism’s tenet to honour all organic life in addition to the endangered status of the few animals left makes possession of a real animal, even an insect, a symbol of luxury and ethical living in this dystopic world.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? covers a day in the life and deliberations of a bounty hunter with the San Francisco Police Department. His job requires him to “retire” rogue “andys” (androids) — ones that have killed their human owners in colonies and escaped servitude to live on Earth. Deckard receives an order to retire six Nexus-6 androids that day. Although a dangerous task, he agrees in the hope of replacing his electric sheep with a real animal with his bounty money.
However, this latest subtype of androids has a high IQ and closely resembles that of humans, so much so that the Voigt-Kampff test used for identification is not entirely dependable. Lines are blurred between androids and humans due to technological advancement and the rising existential questions: what makes him human — his work, his morals or his biological birth and instincts; does feeling empathy or sexual attraction for an android retract from his human-ness; is the purpose of his life to raise a real animal at all costs? This blurring hinders Deckard’s work and causes him to spiral in the last two chapters.
Dick sews the world-building deftly within the story. He does not bury his readers under a deluge of information. He balances between telling and showing his fictional world and its workings. For example, Mercerism is introduced in Chapter 2: the reason why John Isidore practices “fusion with Mercer” is followed by his account of experiencing it. Mercerism’s origin, other humans’ reasons for believing in Mercerism, androids’ thoughts on it, and how it has organised life on Earth — surface throughout the book to enhance the storyline.
Dick employs the third-person-voice to offer a rich and multifaceted narrative that is not mentally fatiguing. The narrative voice that often gives Deckard’s thoughts space stretches to accommodate John K. Isidore’s, a “special,” sub-plot. He exists on the geographical and the social hierarchy’s outskirts. His thoughts and deeds, coloured by his lived experience, supplement Deckard’s, though often in contrast (he attempts to protect three androids that Deckard is after). The narrative even stages the voice, fears and dreams of the androids, further adding to Deckard’s dilemmas.
At the same time, this layered voice gives readers a fair bit of distance from the text’s philosophical ruminations. The third-person-voice helps readers in engaging with Deckard’s questions and concerns without being overwhelmed. I enjoyed the brief grazing with Deckard’s uncertainty as the possibility of him being an android gets real.
This science fiction book palatably packages action and suspense with existential questions, which are informed by the presence of androids that dream of freedom in a post-apocalyptic Earth. It has no technobabble and is less than 250 pages long. Only its attacks on the foundations of our identity make it a daunting read.
I heartily recommend this book.