Waxing Press

Book Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

book reviews, tastemakingIan Wissman

Philip K. Dick has this magical economy in his prose where language is a total non-barrier to entering his otherwise insane worlds populated with insane ideas. It’s like, within the first sentence, you’re clued into what’s going on somehow, as if you were there all along, tapped into V.A.L.I.S. along with PKD himself. I think this is how he’s able to speak truth about high-concept issues in a way that’s broadly appealing. That same magic touch is on full display here in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Part of the economy comes at its own costs—characterization is thrown way out the window as Deckard is as much a cipher as I’ve ever come across in my literary sojourns. And while there are certain passages about the state of Isidore’s vacant apartment building and the whole concept of kipple, there’s really not much of a view into what the world itself looks like, almost making the film adaptation, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, as much a companion piece as a different take on the characters. Somehow both the text and the film inform each other in ways that expand the experience rather than differentiate it.

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Perhaps that’s what’s so attractive about PKD and translating him to film? The worlds and characters are sketches with heady concepts plastered all over, made accessible to massive audiences while somehow still gripping attention without much in the way of character. You might argue that the plot thread about Deckard’s affinity and reverence for animals is characterizing, however, it’s a synecdoche for humanity at large in the novel rather than a unique trait: Only when something’s gone does humanity venerate it. It’s also simply a plot device employed to draw a distinction between the human and the cybernetic. Also, the plot of android/human interrelations again extends as a symptom of human empathy and emotion. Rachael doesn’t love Deckard because she’s innately incapable—it’s through the human projection of emotion that she can manipulate him into believing an android can love. It’s an act on her part to spare her companion Nexus-6s. The illusion is shattered, of course, when she performs a heinous act on Deckard. However, again, the plot of a love interest is subservient to PKD’s larger concerns and ideas about what makes humans human and what makes androids … not.

Of course, the issue and concerns of artificial intelligence persists today, approaching five decades since this book first hit shelves. Currently, AI is seen as a threat to the human workforce as automation rises and manufacturing easily replaces the error-prone human with a flawless and faster machine. But what I think PKD maybe missed was that the AI that threatens our world might not be a manifest human form that we interact with, but “conscious” algorithms that disrupt and destroy human systems as we become more and more reliant on machines and computers to operate free of human interference. The robot uprising won’t be corporeal but code.

Because of his piercing perception and futuristic thinking, PKD's relevance continues to swell as the years go on. We need more writers today like him.