Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dial me a 481.

The Premise: Planet Earth is in bad shape after World War Terminus, and life as we know is has changed dramatically in this future. Most of the human population has emigrated to Mars and android companions are a staple of life for those colonists. But for those left behind on Earth, the only precious things left to enjoy are animals (living if you're wealthy and lucky enough, electric if you aren't), mood dialers, and empathy boxes. Aside from the radioactive dust which is slowly but surely overtaking habitable land, rogue androids ("andys") threaten the fragile peace on Earth after returning from the colonies. Bounty hunters exist to stop these androids, and Rick Decard is called to "retire" (aka kill) 6 andys after another bounty hunter is injured while pursuing a target. What follows is Rick's hunt for these androids through a dystopian society and his slowly evolving understanding of what it means to be human in a world where the line is more blurred than he had initially thought. 
**May Contain Spoilers**

The World Building: It would be impossible to discuss this book without first pointing out some of the fundamental technologies and concepts found within it. Below are what I found to be the most pertinent pieces to understanding the book:
  • Mood dialers: quite literally, machines that you dial to achieve certain moods. For example, dialing a 481 will make you feel "Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future; a new hope." These are commonplace in the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. 
  • Empathy box: a machine shaped like a box that has two handles. Once you grasp the two handles, your consciousness merges with everybody else's consciousnesses and you are able to experience each others' emotions simultaneously. Using the empathy box allows you to empathize with others--and in this world, when you experience a particularly strong emotion, it is almost understood that you will share it through the empathy box.
  • Mercenism: the dominant "religion" in the world of DADoES. This religion is centered around a man named Wilbur Mercer, and it portrays his never-ending climb up a mountain while being discouraged and hit by small rocks thrown by onlookers. This religion is shared with others through the empathy boxes, and so everybody partakes in this spiritual climb over and over again. Injuries shared with Mercer through the empathy box, however, manifest physically.
  • Voigt-Kampff Altered Scale Test: the most current psychoanalytical test that is used to differentiate androids from humans. It works on the premise that androids are unable to feel empathy while humans are able to do so. 
  • "Special" aka "chickenhead:" a term used for people who are deemed unworthy of emigrating to Mars based on their low intelligence and altered genetics. They have been altered by the radioactive dust left on Earth and are generally treated with disdain and are often ignored.
  • (Electric) animals: the new sign of status on Earth is whether or not you have a pet, and whether or not that pet is real or electric. Those who are wealthy can afford to have real animals and those who are less wealthy have electric ones, although it is incredibly rude to ask your neighbors if theirs is real or not. At the beginning of the novel, Rick and his wife have an electric sheep (which is a replacement for a real sheep they once had).
  • Nexus 6: The newest model of androids manufactured by the Rosen Association that have seemingly been turning rogue at a much higher rate than previous model of androids. It is also believed that some of these andys may be able to pass the Voigt-Kampff test. All of andys that Rick is hunting are Nexus 6's.

The Players: Bounty hunter Rick Decard is the main character in this book, and in the beginning, he is a typical guy trying to make a living on a dying planet. He has a wife named Iran and an electric sheep because his real one died of tetanus. Rick wants a real animal very badly, and it is mostly for this goal that he continues his work as a bounty hunter. For him, at least initially, the line between android and human is clearly drawn with the Voigt-Kampff Altered Scale Test, and his job is a means to an end. Throughout the book, however, Rick evolves as a person and begins to question his actions. Rick becomes involved with a legal Nexus 6 (officially sanctioned property) named Rachel Rosen, whom the Rosen Association attempts to pass as a human on Earth. Rachel is a brilliant young woman (android), and her interactions with Rick make him further question his ability to retire andys due to his emotions. She turns out to be manipulative and empathy-less, since she is an android after all, but she irrevocably changes the way Rick sees his job as a bounty hunter and his views on all androids. 

Three important rogue Nexus 6's are named Roy Baty, Irmgard Baty, and Pris Stratton, all of whom have presumably killed their human owners on Mars and have escaped to Earth. Though they are seemingly human, they lack the empathy of humans and are the last three targets for Rick to retire on his mission. The Batys and Pris befriend a chickenhead named John Isidore, whose simplistic yet loyal mind creates complications for Rick towards the end of the story.

Overall Impressions: Believe it or not, I decided to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep only because I found the title to be incredibly interesting. Yes, you read that right. I judged a book based solely on its title. In this case, though, choosing to read this novel based on its catchy title and not knowing what I was getting into was a very good thing. I generally tend to stay away from novels depicting any kind of dystopian world (the muted and uncomfortable mood just isn't my thing), and the setting of DADoES is a pretty depressing one. To be honest, I didn't enjoy this book very much because I didn't like any of the characters. None of them clicked with me, although Rick was a decently fleshed out character by the end of the book (having gone through an epiphany and all that). The three Nexus 6's (Roy Baty, Irmgard Baty, and Pris Stratton) were possibly more compelling, although I was more interested in what they did rather than who they were. My favorite scene in the novel occurs when Pris captures a spider (a real one) and asks Isidore why it has so many legs. Then, being the empathy-less android that she is, Pris attempts to answer her own question by scientifically testing if the spider needs so many legs to move. I won't spoil it completely for you (because it was the best scene of the book, imho), but that was the only part of the novel that I actually felt emotion for. The rest of the time I was less interested in the plot and characters than I was in the technology of the world (mood dialers, empathy boxes) and the different concepts presented, especially the idea of Mercenism and the Voigt-Kampff test. 

I'm not a religious person, but I am quite fascinated by it. In DADoES, Mercenism plays a huge role in the every day lives of the people on Earth. Iran, Rick's wife, is obsessed with using the empathy box to connect to people around her, and Isidore borrows his morals and beliefs from this single image of a man climbing a mountain. An interesting twist in the novel, however, comes when andys "expose" Mercenism as a hoax and accuse Wilbur Mercer of being an actor hired to feed the ruse. Pretty crazy stuff, right? 

I am also a big fan of the idea of a conflict between androids and humans, and in this book, the author wastes no time separating the two species. Androids are unable to feel empathy, and thus fail the Voigt-Kampff test (it measures certain reaction times and eye movements on a scale when the subject is asked various scenario questions), while humans are able to pass it. Yet as a reader in the 21st century, we know that the line is not so clear cut. This is Rick's dilemma as he gets involved with Rachael Rosen, whose purpose, really, is to sleep with bounty hunters in order to protect the androids produced by the Rosen Association. Rick thinks about how "human" she is and about how the andys that he retired prior were actually a benefit to society (he had retired an andy who was also a famous opera singer). He himself begins to feel empathy for the androids, which is ironic because his empathy is what makes him human but it is also the thing that keeps him from doing his job. Is he still justified in retiring the andys? What makes an android a human--some inherent property measured by a psychoanalytical test or how a human being perceives them? All of these questions are ones brought up by the novel, and while they are interesting, just didn't pull me in deeply enough.

If you are a fan of books where the world is set in a dystopian future and the characters are somewhat distant but moderately complex, then Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is for you. Alternatively, if you want to read a classic of the sci-fi genre and are interested in the on-going philosophical debate over the human-ness of robots or how we identify ourselves as human, then this novel might be worth checking out. If you know that you're not a big fan of the sci-fi genre or that you're not into dystopian novels, then Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep can probably go on you "pass" list. Either way, I hope this review is able to offer you a little insight into a book with a great title (that you've probably heard somewhere in literature conversation). 


  1. I also read this book recently! Was kind of disappointed because this and Bladerunner were lauded so much. I do like dystopian books but it started blurring together in my head with Neuromancer, Brave New World, and all the other books of a similar genre. Probably very seminal when it came out but maybe I'm kind of meh about it now because it's 1) eerily becoming more accurate of how society functions today and 2) a quite familiar story in this genre, at least to us reading it now.

    1. I didn't see it on your reading list over at your blog (though I did see Divergent was on there--it's kind of decent, actually, haha)! I think I watched a youtube clip of Bladerunner and was not impressed. But it is quite old, right?

      I remember reading Brave New World in class during high school and found it to be very depressing. But I totally get your view that society is kind of messed up, and now reading these depressing things just makes it seem more depressing. I think most of my problems with the genre is that I don't really relate to any of the characters at all--whether it be the way they're written or the actions that they do. I think my favorite "dystopian" book is probably Fahrenheit 451, and only because I find the premise of burning books interesting (I think).

      I know you've got a huge list of non-fiction books on your reading list, but take some time to read some fiction too! They're good if you want to have you brain just relax and not think too much. Come to think of it, what genres of fiction do you like anyway? :D