Philip K. Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Never in his life had he personally seen a raccoon. He knew the animal only from 3-D films shown on television. For some reason the dust had struck that species almost as hard as it had the birds - of which almost none survived, now. In an automatic response he brought out his much-thumbed Sidney's and looked up raccoon with all the sublistings. The list prices, naturally, appeared in italics; like Percheron horses, none existed on the market for sale at any figure. Sidney's catalogue simply listed the price at which the last transaction involving a raccoon had taken place. It was astronomical. 'His name is Bill,' the girl said from behind him. 'Bill the raccoon. We acquired him just last year from a subsidiary corporation.'
I'm a huge Blade Runner fan but have never read the story on which it is very, very loosely based. This is due partly to laziness and partly to a perception on my part that I do not like the sci-fi genre very much. I do, however, appreciate a good story (almost) regardless of genre.
Set in 1992 (changed to 2025 in later editions!), our hero Rick Deckard inhabits a post-apocalyptic San Francisco Bay. A nuclear war has killed off almost all the animals and many of the humans. Most of the survivors have emigrated to colonies in space. A major status symbol for the remaining humans is to own a real animal, and animals are integral to the story as a key to comprehending what it is to be human in a world where humans can dial-your-own emotion on waking in the morning before spending the day tuned in to mindless TV and religious brainwashing:
From the bedroom Iran’s voice came. 'I can’t stand TV before breakfast.'
'Dial 888,' Rick said as the set warmed. 'The desire to watch TV, no matter what's on it.'
Deckard is a bounty hunter who executes rogue androids who make it to earth and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? represents one day in his life, in pursuit of six rogue androids of the latest, most humanoid type, who have escaped from Mars.
Rick said, 'You compare favourably to Schwarzkopf.'
'Who are you?’ Her tone held cold reserve - and that other cold, which he had encountered in so many androids. Always the same: great intellect, ability to accomplish much, but also this. He deplored it. And yet, without it, he could not track them down.
The ability to empathize, we find, is basically all that separates humans from the androids built as a slave workforce for the colonies. But the search for these particular androids will test every belief that Deckard holds about what makes us human and our perceived superiority over other beings.
He shook his head, as if trying to clear it, still bewildered. 'The spider Mercer gave the chickenhead, Isidore; it probably was artificial, too. But it doesn’t matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are.'
This is such a rich book, with its elaborate religio-mythologizing and double-crossings and cul-de-sacs and pseudo-science (how do you test empathy?) and moments of quiet sadness vs. brutal violence, and I am glad that I didn't let my dislike of the genre prevent me from reading what is a classic work of sci-fi.
If you liked this... I want to read Dick's Minority Report now. And watch Blade Runner again (although now I know that the book is better). Have you seen Sean Young's Polaroids from the filming?
Rutger Hauer & Sean Young
(c) Sean Young (source)