Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Phiilp K. Dick
Blade Runner remains one of my favorite science fiction movies, though the movie bears little resemblance to the book. In some regards that’s a shame. Not that I would change the movie – it’s a classic – but there are themes in the novel that would have provided the movie with a more exhilarating subtext. In the novel, Dick subtly reveals the quintessence of a post-apocalyptic world wrought by technology. There are few humans left on Earth. Most have been affected by ratio active dust and suffer from acute brain damage. Dick’s alien world unfolds simply and slowly and includes a familiar cultural landscape. It is because of this familiarly that we able adapt to his apocalyptic world so easily. We are not fully aware of the metaphors until well after the middle of the novel and even then, they remain elusive, subject to interpretation.
Dick portends our rampant fascination with “reality” TV.
A simplistic and elegant way to achieve greatness is to dial it in to your “empathy box” (6). Conversely, one can schedule a session of hopelessness. An electronic contraption that induces artificial emotional states now controls what is left of the human species. “My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression” (4). Rick Deckard’s wife, Iran, informs her husband that it would be in his best interests to dial in to his console the appropriate setting in order for them to engage in an argument over her habit of spending his money. “At his console he hesitated between dialing for a thalamic suppressant (which would abolish his mood of rage) or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument)” (4). It is a conventional domestic scene replete with a bickering couple that argues about money over their morning coffee. The incongruity of a familiar cultural norm – a bickering couple – juxtaposed with an alien technology forces us to think about what is happening on another level. We know there is a deeper meaning but we can’t be sure what it is yet. This incongruity works to create the foundation of Dick’s universe. The best science fiction presents incongruous yet plausible scenarios that enable the reader to engage in speculation – even if the significance is initially unclear.
We do not immediately see the significance of the single omniscient television personality, Buster Friendly. The idea that television remains in operation after Earth has suffered complete devastation is ironic. Again, Dick uses a familiar symbol of popular culture to embody the deeper implications of men’s actions. The lone perpetual television broadcast of Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends, offers interviews with Mars inhabitants, weather reports, gossip, and of course advertisements: “The TV set shouted, “… The custom-tailored humanoid robot – designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS, FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE – given to you on your arrival absolutely free, equipped fully, as specified by you before your departure from Earth…” (17). Dick mocks the ubiquitous control people allow mass media. It is a wry comment on the state of civilization that everything a human being could want or aspire to be is embodied in a television commercial. In Dick’s universe, humans have been seduced like Pavlov’s dogs into acceptance and reassurance by a pervasive entity. When J. R. Isadore learns for the first time that there is such a thing as a Bounty Hunter who retires androids for money, he replies, “I think you’re mistaken…Never in his life had he heard of such a thing. Buster Friendly, for instance, had never mentioned it” (148). J. R. Isadore is never fully cognizant of what is real and what is fantasy. He – like most humans – depends upon a surreal television character for information. Dick portends our rampant fascination with “reality” TV.
The concept that reality and fantasy are not distinguishable has far-reaching consequences. Radioactive fall out has rendered nearly every animal and insect extinct. Animals on Earth are now electric – perfect replicas of the real thing and humans still pine for that sympathetic connection. The death of a real cat – in the process of being rushed to a veterinary clinic for electric animals – triggers chaos. No one is able to determine that the cat is real until after its death. Though the scene is at once funny and sad – we don’t think that much about it until later. I wrote in the margin of my book, why the dead cat scene? But once Deckard begins to question the validity of his work as a bounty hunter, Dick’s blurry line between what is real and what is fantasy begins to solidify.
In the movie, the androids are distinctly malevolent; the filmmakers created a perfect evil verses good storyline. In the novel, we are presented with more benign entities and it allows the protagonist to question the rationale of simply killing something because it is different. Deckard kills – or retires – an android that was leading its life as a renowned opera singer. Since he loves opera, Deckard is suddenly seized with a moral dilemma. “I’ve had enough. She was a wonderful singer. The planet could have used her. How can a talent like that be a liability to our society. This is insane” (136). The ethical consideration of blithely eliminating something that is different was omitted from the movie, but comes to full fruition in Dick’s novel. Deckard’s creeping ambivalence is the capstone of the book and emphasizes the author’s subtext that man, is perhaps, the worst plague of all.
— Deborah Johnstone