I don’t usually read a whole lot of science fiction. It’s not that I don’t like to. Really! I love science fiction. But I tend to read fantasy a lot more, and when I’ve been reading a whole ton of that and need a break, I tend to lean more toward realistic fiction than something equally unrealistic (well, sort of… I’ll get to that later). The real problem, though, is that I’m so familiar with fantasy that I know where to start with it, and I know where to go from there, and where you’re eventually likely to end up and once you’ve ended up there, where a few other paths might take you, and so on. I can read a review or a teaser or even just a “If you liked THIS, you should read THAT!” and be pretty confident that I’m making a good call when I pick up a fantasy book. I’d say 95% accuracy. And even that 5% isn’t usually bad–I somehow avoid the bad stuff. But when I start looking for science fiction to read, I have no idea where to begin.
I was very lucky, then, that a coworker gave me a list of science fiction starters over the summer.
On it were two–maybe three? I don’t remember–books by Philip K. Dick (“I’m a huge ‘Dickhead,'” he wrote on the side–I laughed), one of which was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So I picked up a copy when I was shopping before Christmas (I had a 20% off coupon at my local indie bookstore–most valuable coupon I’ve ever had), this one specifically because it had an introduction by Roger Zelazny, and I figured I should start my project with it, since this coworker will be going back to school… hmm, I really hope today wasn’t his last day back. I still had 15 pages left when I last talked to him. And, well, it’s nice to have someone to talk to about the book you’re reading.
Anyway, let’s get on with this, shall we?
This book scared me. Not in a huddled-under-the-sheets-in-terror sort of scared, or a wow-I-am-so-horribly-creeped-out-by-that-really-creepy-thing scared, or even a general-sense-of-foreboding scared. This book scared me in a way that I first remember being scared when I was 12 and saw The Matrix, and that, in general, I don’t get from anything aside from science fiction (which is perhaps another reason I tend toward fantasy most of the time), which is: The whole thing seems so possible. Science fiction, I believe, turns into fantasy the instant it does something that makes the reader say, “No, that’s impossible.” As long as it’s reasonable to think that, maybe not now, but in 100 years, or 1000, or 5000, we could totally actually do that, then science fiction is generally terrifying.
And Philip K. Dick is awesome at it.
I also need to say this: Philip K. Dick is a manipulative bastard.
I was upset every time I had to put this book down to do anything. From the very beginning, with the introduction of the mood organ–by which people in this world can turn a dial to select a mood, from 481, “An awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future; new hope that–” (at this point the character is cut off, so we don’t know what the hope is, but there’s hope), to 594, “pleased acknowledgement of Husband’s superior wisdom in all matters,” to 888, “the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it,” even setting 3, “a setting that stimulates my cerebral cortex into wanting to dial”–I simply had to know more about this world. Moods can be scheduled (I laughed at “My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression,” we’ve all been there, right?) and adjusted and… well, it was creepy.
I was immediately intrigued by the animals. It was clear that they were very important to the people of this crazy, futuristic, post-apocalypse world. Rick, the main character, and his wife Iran have an electric sheep, and the fact that they can’t afford a real sheep is deeply embarrassing and they feel that they’re missing out on some hugely significant aspect of life by not having a real animal.
I needed to understand Rick’s job. Rick is a bounty hunter for the San Francisco Police Department, and his job is to find and kill (“retire”) androids who have made it back to Earth from the new colonization on Mars. It’s difficult, because they’re impossible to differentiate from humans without administering a test that measures their empathy–the one thing the manufacturers haven’t been able to copy. But the test is getting more difficult to do on the new model of android.
Spoilers start here!
As it turns out, androids who get back to Earth do so by killing their owner and sneaking back under a false identity. They’re not supposed to be here, and if they are, then they’re evil. And there were three points in the book that made me say, “Damn, those robots are bastards.”
First: When Rick goes to the Rosen corporation, and Eldon Rosen has him test Rachael to see if she’s an android. It was a rollercoaster: “Your test showed she is! But she’s not, really, she’s human. Oh, but did you hear what she just said? Maybe not! Test again! Hah! You were right all along, she’s an android. Go away now.” I understand that they were testing him, that much seemed obvious. At the time I read this part, I thought they were testing him to make sure he had the right instincts to hunt the rogue androids and knew how to rely on them, but having finished the book, I think, maybe, they were trying to figure out if he was good enough to bother going through all the rest of their manipulations with him. Good enough to need to be taken out of the game.
Second: Right after the Luna Luft interview. I read the interview on my lunch break, and when my “clock back in and go work” alarm went off, I was so mad. I could tell that I was in a really important part by the fact that I was beginning to question every premise that the entire book had been built on so far. And then in the end, it was all a ruse and everything I believed was true actually was true! After I got back from lunch, I spent the entire rest of my shift thinking: Wait, is Rick an android? Is he insane? Has he been hallucinating this whole thing? Or possibly did he get stuck in a coma and somehow wake up and not know and try to keep going about his day as he had been before but years later? Are any of the people I’ve read about so far real? Was his consciousness recorded, saved, and uploaded into an android years later? What is happening? Oh… exactly what I thought was happening to begin with? Oh. Huh. Okay. Thanks for the stress, Dick.
Lastly: At the end, Rachael’s reappearance. I’ll admit, I was PISSED when she told him she loved him. I was sitting, reading, thinking, “Oh my god, fucking hell, you’ve met once before, and you’re an android, and shut up, you just have no effing cue what you’re talking about so please everyone just shut up” and then Rick said he would marry her if it was legal and I’m fuming and then about a page later Rachael reveals her master plan! Why do they always do that? And the whole thing is to get empathy, to extend his oh-so-human empathy to the androids so he won’t be able to kill any of them ever again, except of course he will. So you try one last thing and make sure he goes nuts by killing his brand-new goat. Only an android could do that, of course. Humans are too good.
I’ll admit, after the difficulty Rick had killing his first few androids and all the buildup to the Batys, I didn’t expect them to be so simple to kill. I expected another elaborate ruse. And when Mercer showed up (and we’ll talk about Mercer in a minute), I thought, this must be it, this must be the manipulation beginning. But it wasn’t. And then I realized that it wasn’t necessary at all, because while it’s simple, it won’t be easy, since Paris–another android to retire–looks identical to Rachael, the android he slept with and had feelings for. Simple, but painful. And the Batys after that, well, it’s nothing. He’s done.
So let’s talk about Wilbur Mercer. I realized early on that it’s some sort of religious experience, where everyone who holds onto their empathy box at the same time is somehow connected and shares their feelings and thoughts and pain. Through it, they understand and feel the connection that exists between all living things, which separates them from the androids and makes them part of something greater. What I want to know is how it developed. Was the empathy box made, and the videos inside it recorded, after the philosophy took hold? Or did an entire religion form basically around this one thing? Of course, I have no way of ever finding out how Mercerism came to be, but it interests me. (You know it’s a good book when you find yourself wanting to read up on the fictional history of the world of the story.) So when it was revealed that it was “fake,” that didn’t surprise me and didn’t matter. Though I thought it was really cool how the androids expected it to ruin the humans, when in fact they understood that the importance of the religion is that it goes much deeper than something as simple and basic as “real or not real.”
But Mercer’s appearance–how is that explained? It could have been a hallucination, but then how did it give him information he didn’t have? And then he fused with Mercer, right down to the rock thrown at him. And how did the toad get to him? (I did love that Iran got all the electric flies to feed Rick’s electric toad. I thought her development was great.)
I hate having questions left when I finish a book.
I love having questions left when I finish a book.
And what’s the takeaway at the end? Androids are manipulative and ruthless, while humans are empathetic and good. How do we feel about that? I know I’ve known some pretty bad humans. And even humans that, while not bad, still don’t really have much empathy. And I think, here, it’s important that the androids look just like us. Because, much like J.R. Isidore, we have no idea, when that cute new girl moves to our apartment building, that she’ll turn out to be the type of person who cuts limbs off small animals just to see what happens. So, I guess, the androids are here, among us, and they’re completely and 100% human.
Either that or Philip K. Dick was a crazy motherfucker (but a brilliant crazy motherfucker).
So, how about you? Have you read this book, or perhaps seen Blade Runner, which is based on this book? (I haven’t seen it.) Do you have thoughts or reactions? Did you even make it this far? Should I maybe try to keep it a bit shorter next time? Sorry, I do tend to go on about books, and this one was so good. Perhaps in the next year, over the course of my project, I’ll learn to be a bit more concise.
Anyway, speaking of the project! It’s time to start book 2!
Book 2 of the 50 Book Project will be…
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. I was going to choose something more realistic, but I’ve been in the middle of this crazy snowstorm, and for some reason snow puts me in a mood for magic. I’m blaming The Chronicles of Narnia. I can just picture Mr. Tumnus standing there with his furry little legs… anyway! I’ll be reading this next! You’re welcome to join me, if you’d like. It’s a bit longer, so let’s see if it takes more than three days.