Thursday, 14 August 2014

Page Before Screen: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

"It's too bad she won't live, but then again, who does?"

Philip K. Dick is the creative genius behind countless Hollywood hits and genre-defining stories. Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau all originated from his pen. With such an impressive roster of enthralling tales, if anyone could claim to be the most influential figure in 20th century science fiction it would surely be him.

In 1968 the American writer published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the novel which would later be adapted by Ridley Scott into a masterpiece of dystopian storytelling titled Blade Runner. Dick’s novel is just as entertaining as its celluloid sibling, detailing a chaotic 48 hours in the life of bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he hunts for robots on a post-nuclear Earth.

Dick’s varying visions of future societies are always interesting speculations, and in this neo-noir classic, we are introduced to a new lexicon including ‘Andys’, ‘chicken heads’ and a religious cult called Mercerism. The main fascination derives from the extent to which the androids can call themselves human, as shown by the contrasting actions of rebel leader Roy Batty and the alluring Rachel Rosen. Whereas Rutger Hauer gives Batty a sympathetic psychosis with his ‘tears in the rain’ speech, Rosen is better drawn by Dick’s words than her interpretation on screen. Through the plot’s wicked developments she becomes the ultimate femme fatale to the exasperated Deckard, at once dangerously intelligent – cunning even – but simultaneously sexy and appealing. Her relationship with the hero is the device through which Dick masterfully draws us into the ambiguous morality of his future world, challenging us to question his proceedings at every turn.

Across the mere 210 pages, the author takes us on a thrilling meandering voyage to one ultimate question: what is human life? Typical Philip K. Dick! No other writer could be so efficiently succinct.
Nevertheless, there are certain problems with Dick’s approach and the religious symbolism, which is inescapable in his work, tends to draw attention from his brilliant narratives. It is only a minor problem but still a shame when it is so distracting.

DADES? is an increasingly topical work as advantages in artificial intelligence continue to gather pace. Perhaps in years to come we will see an empathy test become more prevalent, as is used in the book by Deckard to identify the androids from humans. But what about psychopaths; could it be possible to mistake them for robots? At every step Dick flirts at an answer but ultimately leaves this quandary open. Ultimately, the reader must make up their own mind about the extent to which empathy defines our species.

 Blade Runner is a classic beyond reproach. Scott repopulated his futuristic Los Angeles with a strong Chinatown feel and plenty of concrete temples. Beyond the gloomy scenic shots, there is an added weirdness to his characters, with Edward James Olmos playing an origami-enthusiast driver and Sebastian’s ‘friends’, an assortment of unsettling living dolls. But these cinematic variations take nothing away from DADES?.

Esoteric? Yes. Entertaining? Absolutely! As an author with more than 50 works to his name before his premature death, Dick’s quantity of output matched his quality. If you want more of his best pieces check out Ubik and A Scanner Darkly, both of which still have their surprise endings intact for fresh initiates into the Dick universe. They are freaky-deaky!


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