Thursday, February 28, 2008

The bastard son of Sarah Connor and Jack Bauer

Title: Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)
Author: Philip K. Dick
Bookmark: someone else's gas receipt, which I accidentally picked up during my last 2,000 mile drive

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter. His job is to find androids who have escaped to earth posing as humans, and "retire" them with, as the parlance goes, "extreme prejudice."
"He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand
uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into
greater entropic ruin."
J.R. Isidore is a "special." The radioactive dust that fell from the sky, bringing an end to World War Terminus and initiating a panicked emigration of humanity to colony worlds, has had a detrimental effect on him and his genes. He is not allowed to emigrate or breed, as he might contaminate the remaining clean human gene pool, and his reduced intelligence earns him the title "chickenhead," which is rather shameful, but still better than "anthead."

We get to see this world through the eyes of both men, allowing us to figure out an awful lot that neither of them know, until the final chapters when they actually meet for the first time for the briefest of exchanges.

Deckard is on the trail of eight escaped androids who made it back from Mars, where they are issued to emigrants as fieldhands and houseworkers. Two had been retired by the senior bounty hunter in the district before the third got him with a laser. He spends the entire book in a hosptial bed, and we never actually see him. Deckard's boss is pushing him to wipe out the other six in 24 hours, to keep them from getting time to escape or form a new plan. The entire book spans a little more than 24 hours, with no food or sleep for Deckard, and five separate attempts on his life (there was a sixth, but it was too half-hearted to really count)

There's also an extensive subplot revolving around the widespread religion(?) of Mercerism, which promotes empathy and concern for the well-being of all living things (are androids alive? they have blood and cells, but it's all driven by circuitry. Deckard ponders this throughout the book), mainly because there are so very few of them left. When the dust fell, it killed all the owls and toads, and wiped out most of the other animals as well. Nobody seems to know what the dust is or where it came from, but owning an animal is a huge responsibility and a huge honor. Such a big deal, in fact, that there's a wide market in false animals, just to keep up appearances. Isidore works for an animal hospital that only services the fakes. Deckard owns an electric sheep. His real sheep died after getting tetanus from the wire on a bale of hay.

Before reading this book (I've never seen the movie, though I've been meaning to see/read the story for ages), I had always assumed the subtitle was a joke based on the idea of counting sheep to go to sleep. We count real sheep, androids must count electric sheep. Makes sense. After finding out about the big deal of owning an animal and caring about other living things and androids' incapacity for empathy (it's part of the test Deckard uses to determine whether an android's an android), I realized that it was more than that: People in that world dream of owning an animal, any animal. Isidore is thrilled to find a spider in the hallway. Deckard spends the entire book whipping out his Sidney's Catalog to check the prices on the real version of any animal he sees. Androids know they can't experience empathy, even going so far as trying to discredit Mercerism to prove that it doesn't exist (this is a very weird scene, because as two andys are yammering on about how it's all a fraud, two more are torturing Isidore's spider, and by extension, Isidore). Would owning an electric sheep and caring for it as a human would a real sheep prove their empathic ability and make them human?

Only two things bother me. First, we never find out why Deckard has to go out and kill the androids (except, maybe, their casual disregard for life). It might be connected to World War Terminus, but we never find out anything about that, either, despite the undeniable formative effect it had on the culture and environment (all the men wear lead codpieces to protect their genetic materials). I want to think it does, if only because every other sci-fi story involving such a large force of mechanical "life" ultimately results in an uprising by the droid army (see: The Phantom Menace; I, Robot; Terminator trilogy and series; Battlestar Galactica), but if that's the case, why do all the colonists still have them?

Second: a really big discontinuity. He determines early on that a human employee of a large corporation is actually an android (gynoid, if you want to be technical), but she's not on his list, and she doesn't know that she's artificial. Much later, she talks about interactions with other bounty hunters as though she's always known she's an android. A small flaw, but it bugged me.

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posted by reyn at 10:52 AM


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