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Book Club Wed May 16 2007

June Selection: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Imagine a world where most of the population has taken off for another planet, where all animals are endangered and where robot servants come to escape their human masters. This is the world in which Rick Deckard lives in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick's post-apocalyptic vision of a war-torn earth. Set in a future and desolate San Francisco, Androids follows Deckard's job as an android bounty hunter and the one day that determines the course of his life.

After World War Terminus, the earth is left mostly barren. The United Nations has encouraged people to emigrate to Mars where they'll be free from the radiation poisoning and, as an extra incentive, all emigrants receive an android servant. Most people who remain on earth are the "specials" who were deemed unfit to emigrate. Taking care of an animal is an almost noble act, bestowing a certain amount of social status among the caretakers, and animals can be bought and sold through a catalog for high prices. Those unable to afford a real animal often turn to purchasing electric animals in the hopes of keeping up their social standing.

As technology has progressed, androids have become more and more like humans, making them difficult to detect by the normal person. The current test used by bounty hunters is the Voigt-Kampff Empathy test, which doesn't detect intelligence but relies on certain reactionary measures such as blushing and pupil dilation in response to emotional questions, most of which involve harm to animals. A number of androids have returned to Earth from Mars, breaking free from the role of humans' slaves, making it necessary for android bounty hunters to search them out and "retire" them. When the foremost bounty hunter in San Francisco is done in by one of the androids he's pursuing, Rick Deckard gets his chance to go after the six remaining androids in the area, the bounty from which will enable him to get rid of his electric sheep and buy a real animal.

In an interesting juxtaposition, humans are also very much in need of the emotion and empathy lacking in the escaped androids. Emotions can be conjured up through the use of a mood organ – by dialing in a certain code the user can feel depression, satisfaction, the desire to watch television or any other emotion possible. Similarly, Mercerism has taken over as the dominant religion/philosophical belief and involves the use of an empathy box. By gripping the handles of the box, the user is pulled into the world of Wilbur Mercer, a man who lived before the war and is believed to have the power to bring animals back to life. While watching the monitor of the empathy box, the user views Mercer's Sisyphusian ascent up a hill while his adversaries hurl rocks at him. All those who are using the empathy box inhabit Mercer's mind, feeling the emotions of every other person using the box at that time as well as receiving physical injuries from the thrown rocks. Much like every other religion, whether Mercerism is based on a real man or only manages to stay alive through the power of a zealous audience is up for debate.

By retiring six androids in one day Deckard will become one of the most successful bounty hunters in history, but he finds himself struggling with his growing feelings for them. He admires the efforts of some to become to more than the slaves they were on Mars and even allows himself to get close to one working for the Rosen Association, the manufacturers of the latest and most sophisticated androids. In short, his inherently human ability to empathize is getting in his way. Through encounters with another bounty hunter who thoroughly enjoys the kill, an attempted romance with a female android and a fusion with Mercer that convinces him that sometimes he has to do what's wrong to ultimately do what's right, Deckard's life and belief system is forever changed. Whether for the better or for the worse, neither he nor us really know.

* * *

Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928, was raised in California and became one of the most prolific and influential writers in science fiction. He produced thirty-six novels and five short story collections, winning the 1962 Hugo Award and 1974 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. A number of Dick's novels have been translated into memorable films including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and, most recently, Next. Dick died in 1982 of heart failure. To learn more about the author, visit his official website at www.philipkdick.com.

 
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