****This Commentary contains major spoilers. I could not make the points that I wanted without giving away significant plot developments.****
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is another book that I first read when I was much younger and that I have recently revisited. This work earned recognition as a result of the film version Blade Runner. Though I thought that the film was extraordinary, it differs enormously from the book in plot, theme and characterization. Some fans of the movie may strongly dislike this book. Those who did not like the film could potentially find a lot to like about the novel. This is a strange and oddly structured tale that likely could not work as a faithful film adaption.
This is a novel of great philosophical and metaphysical depth and complexity. Having read Dick extensively, including his latter, aesthetically weaker but philosophically straightforward works, allowed me to interpret much of this book relatively easily. In Dick’s latter books such as VALIS, the author laid out a similar belief system as is presented here, but does so unambiguously and less allegorically. In those later books, he also specifically spelled out many of his theological and philosophical influences that are apparent here.
Written in 1968, the story takes place in the “future” world of 1992. A nuclear war has transpired. The conflict was obviously limited as there is no apparent direct physical destruction. However, radioactive dust has spread over the Earth killing an enormous proportion of humanity as well as most plants and animals. Many of the survivors have immigrated to outer space colonies. Civilization has not collapsed and technology has not disappeared, however. Earth’s remaining population inhabits the partially empty cities living with shortages but enjoying the benefits of an advanced society.
Humanity is building increasingly sophisticated androids to use as slave labor on the colony worlds. The androids occasionally rebel and return to Earth. Rick Deckard is a San Francisco based bounty hunter who is tasked at tracking down and killing escaped androids. When eight dangerous fugitive androids are reported to have arrived in the San Francisco area, Deckard is assigned the job of destroying the group. Two additional characters are introduced: Rachael Rosen, a “legal” android herself who initially offers to assist Deckard, and John Isidore, a “Special”, meaning he is a human who has been mentally damaged by radiation contamination. Isidore encounters the escaped androids and befriends them.
There is a parallel and interwoven plot. It involves a conflict that is ancient and cosmic. Dick clearly sees two forces at work in the Universe. The first is malevolent and relates to death, nihilism, chaos and cruelty. It is generated in part by human isolation. In multiple passages Dick equates it with the silence of an empty and dead world. At one point while in his apartment, Isidore observes,
“Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it—the silence—meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won.”
This dark force manifests itself in many cruel acts committed by both the humans and the androids. It is epitomized by the inane and mocking media personality of Buster Friendly, whose crass comedy television and radio programs are constantly broadcast throughout the Earth and the colonies. The androids too, though complex and not entirely unsympathetic, are characterized by a total lack of empathy, are mostly cruel, and are ultimately on the side of chaos and meaninglessness.
There is another force in Dick’s universe. It is a power related to kindness, perseverance, art and, most particularly, empathy. It is exemplified by a religion practiced by humans known as Mercerism. Adherents of the creed employ a device known as an Empathy Box. Users of these boxes are simultaneously linked in a kind of group vision. The vision includes an old man, Wilbur Mercer, who is continually ascending a barren hill in a desert. As Mercer climbs, he is constantly confronted by unseen tormenters who assault him with rocks. This experience engenders a feeling of compassion and group comfort for those using the box. The true origins of these visions remain a mystery. Mercerism also values empathy toward animals. Due to radiation poisoning, live animals are rare and expensive. Followers of the belief system go to great lengths and expense to own and care for all sorts of animals including goats, sheep, rabbits as well as insects and other creatures. Isidore, the moral center of the story, represents this benevolent force as he shows empathy and kindness toward all people, animals and androids, including those who are very cruel to him. At times he exhibits the ability to bring animals back from the dead.
Decker, on the other hand, sits on the cusp of these two forces. He is a follower of Mercerism, yet he realizes that both he and society as a whole are acting cruelly and in violation of the religion’s precepts by killing the androids. Throughout the book, he agonizes over what he is doing. He ranges from an incredibly empathetic person to a terribly malevolent one. Dick avoids thousands of years of cliché and does not create a linear transformation from the morally vacant to the morally redeemed for Decker. Instead he continually jumps back and forth. Ultimately, his character is complex and marvelously crafted.
Though its source remains murky, it is shown that the benevolent force of empathy ultimately cannot be defeated. When Buster Friendly seems to have successfully discredited Mercerism to the world, and Isidore is traumatized into madness by an act of cruelty committed by the androids, all of the good in the universe seems lost. However, the specter of Wilber Mercer, who moments earlier had been “proven” not to exist, descends into the “Tomb World” and rescues Isidore. Later, even the in the face of bitter disappointment and disillusionment for several characters, empathetic feelings and actions assert themselves in various unexpected and unpredictable ways.
Dick mines various theologies and philosophies to build a complex metaphysical worldview. Mercer’s ascent is obviously Christ-like. The dualism of the two forces reflects tendencies towards Manichaeism. There are multiple references to the Universe and life not being real that reminded me of Hindu belief systems. From his later writings, I know that Dick was interested in certain Gnostic beliefs. A simplified version of one such set of beliefs is that the creator of the Universe got something very wrong when fashioning the world. This manifests itself in several instances when Mercer appears in visions to both Decker and Isidore and hints that the Universe is flawed and cursed. At times we cannot help but act contrary to the empathetic way. He tells Decker,
“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”
There is a lot more going on here both in terms of character and philosophy than I have touched upon, including all that I picked up and likely a lot that I did not. Some ruminations include the nature of consciousness, the allegorical meaning of religion and criticism of consumerism, to name just a few other points explored here. There are also numerous additional characters, including several of the escaped androids, which are interesting in their own right.
Though I am far from accepting Dick’s view of creation, I love this book. I must point out, however, that it is not for everyone. It is a strange story that is an odd mix of the deadly serious and the absurd. Structurally the book is unconventional. The plot takes unsettling and abrupt turns. It has two climaxes, one conventional and one spiritual, both of which occur well before the book’s end. To some extent, the ending lacks a sense of closure. Readers should not expect anything like the film. For all of its oddities, this is an imaginative science fiction and metaphysical romp with real aesthetic value. If one is interested in such things, this is a must read.