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Friday, May 21, 2010

Department of Book Reports: The Paranoid Style in American Politics: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This week we explore a book where the Apocalypse meets the paranoid. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick's novel of the future, and the literary inspiration of the movie Blade Runner, was originally published in 1968. Dick himself was a prolific writer, having written some 40 plus novels in his lifetime, and many more short stories. His books were all in the science fiction genre and he became the first sci-fi author to be included in the Library of America series. Among the many themes Dick explored, one of the most important is the question of what makes us human? What makes us real and what is fake.

And, indeed, this is what Electric Sheep is about. In spite of the many differences between the book and the movie (the phrase Blade Runner never is used by Dick, and in fact, was a borrowing by the screenwriters from William S. Burroughs), the plot outlines are similar. Rick Deckard is bounty hunter, living in a post-Apocalyptic United States, who specializes in "retiring" replicants, human synthesized androids. Six (four in the movie) replicants have escaped from the off-world and have returned to Earth. Deckard, a man who once owned a live sheep which has died of tetanus, and has replaced it with a sheep replicant, now must find the replicants and destroy them.

The test used to detect androids is called Voight-Kampff, which measures certain bodily responses to a series of questions and by which a bounty hunter can determine whether the respondent is a replicant; replicants are incapable of empathy. The new, improved Nexus androids are otherwise indistinguishable from humans. Living in a world where one doesn't know if the person next to you is "real" or "fake", and with a powerful, totalitarian government, one could easily be a bit paranoid. Deckard, at least in the book, displays his empathy. He feels empathy for his prey. In a book (and movie) as richly textured and felt as Do Androids, I could write another book explicating it's many facets. This feature is the one I most wanted to emphasize. Empathy. Not important? Perhaps you'll remember the Sotomayor hearings last year and the Republican objections to her "empathy" as being an insufficient reason to placing her on the court.

The movie Blade Runner, as I've mentioned, differs in many details from the book. But I love it. It is lush in its visuals, and the story remains complex, and the moral issues it raises remain important. The cast, the direction with an incredible film score by Vangelis, bears many repeated viewings. I see something new in it each time. There are a couple of books I can recommend: Blade Runner by Scott Bukatman (British Film Institute) is a good scholarly look at the film. Paul M.Sammon's Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (HarperCollins) is a great history of the film's production.

And I'll leave you with this. The clip is the climax of the film wherein the replicant leader, Roy Batty, saves Deckard from falling to his death. and as Batty dies, delivers his "I've seen things..." speech. And I wonder if Batty saves Deckard because, at last, he can feel some empathy? Or does Batty save Deckard so there may be someone who will remember him?

These books are available from Jackson Street Books and other fine Independent bookstores. (Our copy of Do Androids is a scarce first paperback printing and, hence, a bit pricy...but we'd be happy to get you a good reading copy).As always, books ordered here will have a freebie publishers Advance Reading Copy included as a thank you to our blogosphere friends.