Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick is a Science Fiction classic. It has arguably started an entire sci fi genre (cyberpunk) and inspired great Japanese Anime (The Ghost in The Machine). Phillip K. Dick stands as the unknown titan of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (with Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein). As a dedicated reader of Science Fiction, I have always been just a touch embarrassed to have not read anything by Dick. So when my nephew sent the book as a Christmas present and declared that we would be reading it and discussing it together, I jumped at the chance. I had some misgivings – there is a reason I haven’t read anything by Dick, but this would be a great way to read something together with my nephew.
The book opens with a challenging chapter. The lead character and his wife are in the apartment. Dick paints a bleak picture of post-war Earth. Very little survived the nuclear apocalypse and most of humanity with the means and deemed worthy enough have moved off Earth to other planets. Except Decker. Decker is a bounty hunter who “retires” renegade androids who come to Earth. (Retirement being a euphemism for killing.) The beginning of the book portrays how programmed humans have become. They need a device to stimulate emotion and care for electronic animals to prove they are still worthy of being called human. From there the story picks up: an upgraded set of androids is now roaming what is left of California and Decker has been assigned to finish the task of retiring this elite group of six androids. We follow Decker as he learns about this upgraded version which acts even more human than before (but not quite). They are so good at acting human, Decker begins to question the righteousness of his task. Can one really say something that displays such deep emotion is not human?
The conversation were stimulated by this book were far ranging. This was the first Sci Fi book my nephew had read, so occasionally I needed to provide some literary context about the story and the book (for example we discussed Asimov three laws of robotics). I am child of the cold war and I had to explain that to my nephew. (yes I really did practice duck and cover and yes I thought a nuclear apocalypse was a real possibility). Some of the deep conversations were about the nature of intelligence and humanity. Phillip K. Dick’s book dives into the deep end of this philosophic quagmire. Decker’s test of empathy was a measure of something that a robot or AI should not be able to replicate (according to the book). Yet I know people who have less emotional sensitivity than Luba Luft (an android opera singer that Decker eventually retires with great remorse). We discussed the concept of the Turing Test – a test that true Artificial Intelligence would need to pass to indicate that it is truly thinking independently and capable of intellectual evolution. Do we need to add emotional evolution as a part of the Turing Test?
The conversations were fascinating as we made our way through the book. For that I could forgive the relentlessly dark prose. The book moved along quickly after a challenging chapter and became a page turner. However, my nephew and I were disappointed with the end.
First off, I was disappointed that Dick felt the need to demonize the androids in order to justify Decker’s action. The power of the book was the ambivalence of Decker’s actions. It felt like Dick couldn’t follow through with that conflict. Then at the end Decker is rescued by a supernatural act. Everything up to this point had been fully rational so the appeal to the supernatural felt completely out of place. Interestingly, the conversation stimulated further philosophic discussion about the gospels representation of Easter and just exactly who St. Isidore was (patron saint of technology). I also found out that Philip K. Dick was a deeply religious man.
There was a reason I had never read this story before. As I told my sister (my nephew’s mother), the story starts dark, moves to bleak and ends in despair. It is not recommend reading for those facing an existential crisis. I will concede I am shallow enough to prefer happy endings in my stories. By the end of this story, one does not doubt the doom of humanity. The only question is whether it will be destroyed by its own folly or by its apathy. For those who love cyberpunk, this is a must read. For those who are not bothered by stories that end tragically and like well written science fiction, this is a must read. For those whose prefer see a bit of hope at the end of the tunnel even if it is only the train coming late, I recommend “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” You’ll get the same philosophic discussions, see the same folly of humanity and have a good laugh at the same time.