Friday, May 29, 2015

Audiobook Review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick

I am rerunning this previous Audiobook review in preparation for my upcoming review of The Man in the High Castle.

Book Rating: 3 ½ or of 5 Stars
Audiobook Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars

This infamous Philip K. Dick novel is set in the near future world of 2001 (the book was published in 1968) when Earth is suffering from the effects of "World War Terminus" which has destroyed much of the planet and left many impacted by the nuclear fallout that followed the conflict.  The survivors have been encouraged to leave the planet and colonize other worlds (with Mars being the closest location), and as an incentive they are given human androids servants if they leave Earth.  However, some of these androids (“andies” as they are referred to) flee their servitude and return to Earth.  In these cases, bounty hunters that work for the police departments hunt them down and “retire” them.  In San Francisco, Dave Holden is the lead bounty hunter, but he is put in the hospital by a Nexus 6 android, a superior model with a highly advanced brain.  Holden’s backup, Rick Deckard, is brought in and is dispatched to retire the six fugitive androids in the city.  Interspersed with this story is that of Deckard’s attempts to deal with his depressed wife (who won’t use the mood organs properly to adjust her temperament) and to acquire a real animal (a sign of status in what’s left of society) to replace the electric sheep he currently owns.  We also follow the life of J.R. Isidore, a “special”/”chicken-head” whose IQ has been detrimentally impacted by radiation.  Three of the androids come to his building to escape notice and he befriends them and tells them he will protect them.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is widely recognized among genre fans as the basis for Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction film Blade Runner.  While Scott’s adaptation of the book took plenty of liberties with the source material, structurally they share many similarities.  In both, a group of superior Nexus 6 androids escapes from an off-world colony and returns to Earth.  A bounty hunter named Dave Holden (in the book and film) is incapacitated by one of the Nexus 6, and Rick Deckard is brought in to takeover the pursuit (in the book he is Holden’s backup, in the movie he is coaxed out of retirement).  Deckard then goes to the company that manufactures the androids (Rosen Industries in the book, the Tyrell Corporation in the movie) and administers the Voigt-Kampff empathy test used for detecting artificial humans on a person who works there (Rachel) as a control subject before administering it to an android.  It turns out she is an android, but did not know it (though in the book this is suggested as a ploy to throw off Deckard and to discredit the Voigt-Kampff test).  Several of the escaped Nexus 6 androids take refuge in a mostly vacant building that has only one other inhabitant (the mentally challenged Isidore in the book, the genetic designer and employee of Tyrell J.F. Sebastian in the movie).  After retiring the other fugitive androids, Deckard pursues the remaining Nexus 6 to this building where they have their last stand. 

Similar structurally, but still very different stories.  Blade Runner is much more atmospheric, moody, and action-oriented while it also offers plenty of moments of introspection and asks the viewers to question what it means to be human.  The book delves further into the philosophical side and while it questions what it means to be human it also asks what it truly means to be alive.  Are the humans in this book really living better, more meaningful lives than the androids--who have only a short life-span but who seek to find some sort of meaning to their existence?  The humans concern themselves with possessing animals (ostensibly to preserve the few remaining species, but it’s really more about social status), they control their feelings artificially with mood organs, and they fill their lives with the sham-religion of Mercerism and the daily exploits of The Buster Friendly Show.  These are interwoven into the underlying themes of the book and they help give the story its depth.

But unfortunately, these concepts don’t quite carry the book as well as you would hope.  Phillip K. Dick is very much an idea guy and his tales generally center around one or two philosophical concepts that provide the central theme, with story development really an afterthought for him.  His ideas work best in shorter form like “Minority Report” and “We Can Dream it for You Wholesale” (and you see me review of those at this link), though even those also fall a bit short of delivering a well-rounded story (they still succeed better than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep).  With a novel-length tale, Dick tends to meander and the story feels rather padded.  And he leaves too many loose ends dangling without satisfying resolution (J.R. Isadore’s story, the mock-police department run by androids, the Phil Resch character, and more).

Another drawback of this novel is that the main character Rick Deckard is not a particularly strong central figure.  It’s not that he is an unlikeable anti-hero type, it’s more that he seems like a very weak individual and you wonder how he ever succeeded as a bounty hunter in the first place.  I realize that’s part of the point, but it makes it difficult to empathize with Deckard (hmm, maybe the book is a Voigt-Kampff test on the reader?) and also results in somewhat of a difficult read.  Of course part of my issue here is that Blade Runner is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I expect the same sort of heightened experience that the film delivered instead of the slow-burn of the book.  If I was not comparing the two as much (which I find it almost impossible not to do), I might enjoy it more.  But in any case, I find this book less than satisfying even if it does deliver some interesting questions and though-provoking concepts.

That said, I still recognize it as an important work of science fiction that deals with some ground-breaking ideas and should be considered an important work in the genre.  It’s just that its accomplishments and reputation don’t always translate to a good read, similar to Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.  Science fiction fans will feel obliged to encounter Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep at some point, and I do encourage reading it, just go in with expectations tempered.  And also know that you will find better examples of Phillip K. Dick’s talent in his shorter stories like the ones mentioned above.

The audiobook version that I listened to was read by long-time audiobook veteran Scott Brick who has many genre titles to his credit.  He delivers his usual good reading, though I have to admit that I did not feel like his voice fit this book as well as when I have heard him read the works of authors like Isaac Asimov.  His monotone seems to better fit the dryer writing of Asimov's works and actually complements that author's prose.  His reading here didn’t quite seem to flow as well with Dick’s writing, though I wouldn’t say it was bad or detracted from the book.  He did a decent job, I just like him better with other authors.  Still, this is a good way to encounter this book, and if you have not read it yet I would suggest getting the audiobook version.  Note that it does go under the title Blade Runner (even though that term is exclusively from the movie) and claims to be "adapted from" Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but it is the original Philip K. Dick novel.  It is available from

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