Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Club: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

There are few instances where I watch a movie based on a book before I read the book itself, but through a combination of my total unawareness of popular culture and awesome friends, I found myself sitting in a viewing of Blade Runner last winter, totally immersed in a futuristic society that could not be more dystopian. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick is the (loose) basis of the story line of Blade Runner, and the two of them are so intrinsically linked together in my mind that a review of one while neglecting the other would be futile. What the movie does extremely well is setting the scene for the main plot: the danger of humanoid robots - in fact, so extremely humanoid that even experts have trouble telling the difference - escaping into a post-apocalyptic society where they could potentially go on a rampage since their one main distinguishing characteristic is their complete lack of empathy. Other than that, neither their physique nor their intellect or reactions give them away - except maybe for the fact that they might even be able to outsmart humans since they function much more analytically, free from all these emotions that prevent humans from making rational decisions. This bone-chilling set-up is mirrored in "Blade Runner" by a desolate metropolistic landscape where the isolation and disillusionment is palpable. 

In contrast, the writing style of "Do Androids" is perplexedly matter-of-fact; in the beginning, the android headhunter seems more disgruntled with his lower-middle class lifestyle than daunted by the prospect of facing murderous machines (though that fact does change over the course of the story). Weirdly, it works though, similarly to the magical realism John described when we discussed A Thousand Years of Solitude - the reader is drawn even faster into the story in which this sort of society is so obviously normal for its inhabitants, and is more closely confronted with the incredible facts the society deals with because it is less easy to shrug it off as fantasy. 
Furthermore, I loved two aspects of the story especially because they were completely absent from the movie and yet provided such added depth: firstly, the obsession with animals that gave the story its title (after nuclear warfare, animals are dishearteningly rare; our hero headhunter's main pride is his electric sheep which, when it breaks and gives away the fact that it was not a real live pet quickly shames him into incredible feats in order to reacquire the social capital that comes with owning a living animal), and secondly the religious aspect (members of the dystopian society all own an Empathy Box which, when utilized, reunites them mentally and physically with the struggles of Wilbur Mercer, the founder of the religion of Mercerism). Both I find introduce important questions to ponder (beyond the discussion on the importance of empathy as distinguishing human characteristic which John highlighted): what is the true value of life, both human and non-human, and is our current society paying it the respect it merits? Will we only learn to do so when it is already too late, as scarcity economics tell us is normal human behavior? And what is the role of religion, any religion, as questionable and problematic as it may be, in helping people to live through their struggles and (as an online web-comic surprisingly poignantly described) helping them "cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space and that someday you will die and and are completely powerless, helpless and insignificant in the wake of the beautiful cosmic shitstorm we call existence"?

1 comment:

  1. I'm really flattered that I got to be linked by the words "awesome friends." :D
    Also: did you (or John) think the empathy box was actually a TV for like, a split second? I did.