Anyone working their way through the cyberpunk genre should at least stop by Blade Runner (a movie) but many don’t know that the movie is really set from a book by Philip K. Dick and that book is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Although I am a huge proponent of knowing the masters and understanding a genre, Do Androids Dream doesn’t necessarily fall into cyberpunk canon as much as Blade Runner does for understanding the subject matter; although it is quite good science fiction and people will love it for its dystopian view of the future of Earth.
The book is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth where any human able to escape from the nuclear wasteland left behind by the final world war has done so. The main plot follows the protagonist of the novel, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who preys on rogue androids. Those people left on Earth live in constant fear that they might be discovered to be androids themselves and to avoid this they show that they have empathy—as androids lack this particular human insight. As this is central to the theme of the novel, the book explores in strange detail what it is to be human.
Deckard is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” six escaped androids—they are the latest and most advanced model so they’re much more capable of passing as human. Obviously they have noticeable emotional frailties when pressed (due to their lack of empathy) but for the most part they pass as human.
While the book follows Deckard and another minor character who harbors the fugitives; the plot isn’t really the salient reason to read the novel over watching the movie Blade Runner. Instead, the book introduces a number of interesting what-is-it-to-be-human and fun cultural what-ifs about the ruined Earth. I’ll go over them here as they’re not spoilers to the content of the book, but these are a few gems that you’ll be treated to if you read for them.
The book introduces a culture of people who are so terrified of being outed as non-human (even if they are human themselves) that everyone keeps pets. After all, an android would not exhibit enough empathy to keep a living animal in good health; therefore humans with pets were actual humans.
There’s one problem with this behavior for the remaining humans, however: during World War Terminus radiation and fallout led to the extinction of almost every organism on the planet. Animals do not exist in any given abundance. As a result, sophisticated replicant animals exist that are entirely robotic but mimic their given animal to the last detail and people keep them and tend to them as if they’re real living animals. As a result fake vets began to crop up to repair ailing robot animals and retain the illusion that the animals were the real thing.
In the book it’s described that so few actual vets still exist that one woman who had an actual living pet called a robot vet to help her dying pet—and the technicians had to stand by and watch it die not knowing anything about any actual veterinary practice.
Humans left on the wasted-Earth are also connected in a fashion that seems like an extension of the sort of collective unconscious that the Internet brings for us today. From the comfort of home, people can gather by tuning into the same “channel” that allows participants to achieve the same brain state and thus experience the same thing (and each other experiencing it) at the same time. This technology led to an interesting cultural revolution called Mercerism, which people experienced as a collective-religious experience.
The channel that people joined played the same thing over and over. An old man trying to ascend a steep hill, covered in rocks and gravel, and as he walked he was accosted by unseen aggressors who threw things at him. Everyone who tuned into the “channel” experienced the same struggle and frustration as the man tried to climb the hill as well as the reaction of every other mind connected. It also meant that the entire collective shared in his triumph when he reached the top.
All of these elements combine to seek definitions about humanity and how androids (who appear to lack empathy) differ from the humans left on Earth (some of whom perhaps definitely don’t have empathy.) Deckard himself must struggle with the idea that he’s killing someone when he “retires” an android, although they’re not human, they certainly look and act human.
The book Do Androids Dream and the movie Blade Runner are fundamentally different and one is certainly not a substitute for the other. The questions asked in Do Androids Dream feel a great deal more profound than those answered in Blade Runner, but anyone who wants a good education in science fiction and the cyberpunk genre should probably set aside time to experience both.