I’m not a Dickhead. This is the first Philip K Dick novel I’ve ever read (and quite possibly the last). I thought I would give it a go, as it’s the book on which Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is based, and I was interested to see how they would compare.
I have a strange relationship with the film Blade Runner, as I was first introduced to it in a darkened lecture theatre, rather than seeing it at the cinema. There was a brief introduction by the lecturer, in which he told us that the movie was an example of postmodern cinema, and he kept pausing throughout, to discuss elements of Film Noir pastiche and so on. So you see, I have never been able to relate to it as an ordinary, passive viewer, only as a student frantically scribbling notes on an A4 pad.
I can see what my lecturer meant. If I ever had to explain postmodernism to someone who has been in a coma for the past twenty years, then I’d make them watch Blade Runner first. Though, postmodernism is so ubiquitous a term nowadays, I imagine that everyone else has a handle on it. Do I like the film? Not especially, but I am sort of obsessed with it. I enjoy it as visual spectacle and think the cityscapes are particularly wonderful (can you believe they are just little cardboard models?). In terms of plot, dialogue, and so forth, it is quite superficial, but to misquote Leon in the movie, it’s like an itch I can’t scratch. It even crops up in a story I wrote, as a perpetual source of torment – an essay that the story’s heroine can never finish.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is very different in atmosphere to the movie Blade Runner, although the main plot elements are there. The novel is a product of the late 1960s, first published in 1968 to be precise, and seems very influenced by the drug culture of the time and Philip K Dick’s own prodigious drug intake. The ‘Mood Organ’ which allows Deckard to dial an emotion (like taking uppers and downers), the shifting sense of reality, the paranoia, the eastern mysticism of the Mercer cult and the novel’s shallow philosophical musings reek of pot smoke, dirty Afghan coats and patchouli oil. In fact, they put me in mind of a bloke called ‘Simon the Hippy’ in my halls of residence, who used to get stoned and talk boring bollocks at me.
Perhaps the anti-Vietnam war protests and political assassinations of the era feed into it too. Although Dick has said that he was preoccupied with Nazi Germany at the time of writing. Rick Deckard struggles with his task of killing an android he feels empathy for, leading him to question the human/android distinction, and wonder if it doesn’t “violate his own identity” to do so. Add to this, Deckard’s constant fears that the Voigt-Kampff test, used to identify an android, may not be accurate and might lead him to accidentally kill a human.
Like the movie Blade Runner, these philosophical themes, such as ‘what makes us human?’ are not dealt with in any meaningful way, they are mere conundrums for the brain, or frustratingly unscratchable itches. But for me, reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was very much like being forced to discuss the meaning of life with Simon the Hippy.