Part of my new Year’s Resolution involves reading classics that have slipped past my radar, especially ones listed on NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books. Coming in at a respectable #21 on the list, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has long been in my To-Be-Read pile, yet never dusted off and actually read.
Since there is no way I can read every book I want – nor every great author – in my lifetime, I aim to at least read their most renowned or pivotal work. I have been exposed to Philip K. Dick in short form through manybooks.net, but I’m glad I’ve finally made time to read his most famous work.
One of the first things that surprised me about the book was the fact that there actually was an electric sheep. I had assumed the title was simply a play on words due to the prominence of androids in the story (I’ve seen Blade Runner). However, the main character, Rick Deckard, stresses about his electric sheep throughout the novel. His bounty hunting is a way for him to earn enough money to buy a live animal so he can dispense with the synthetic copy.
After World War Terminus, dust and radiation blanketed the Earth – prompting mass emigration of the survivors to other planets. Humanoid-androids are offered as incentives to colonial emigrants. The humans left behind in the mostly empty cities fear the radioactive dust may make them ‘specials’ – genetically damaged and considered less than human.
Deckard works for the Police Department, hunting down humanoid androids that have fled servitude in the colonies to hide among the humans on Earth. Special empathy tests determine whether someone is human or not, but are the tests accurate? Can some types of humans fail the test and be ‘retired’ in error? Things become more complicated when J.R. Isidore, a ‘special’ driver for an android-animal repair shop, encounters runaway androids; an encounter that sets him on a course where he will cross paths with Rick Deckard.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. It kept me thinking, guessing what would happen next, wondering how the characters would handle their moral dilemmas. In the tradition of truly great science fiction, it kept me asking hard questions. What does the evolution of technology mean for human beings? What does it mean to be human?
However, the ending was a huge disappointment to me. My expectations were almost certainly colored by my memory of the movie version, Blade Runner; a movie that bears little resemblance to the actual novel. The entire novel seemed to be leading up to a confrontation, but the ending felt hollow. Perhaps that was the intent. Perhaps Dick wanted to put the reader in the same frame of mind as the characters throughout the book, but it left me dissatisfied.
I’m still glad I read the book. I recommend it as a science fiction classic, but with one caveat: Reader Beware.
You may not like the ending.