Top critical review
Does Phil Dick Dream of Electric Scott?
on December 26, 2002
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Millennium, 1968)
This short novel is best known these days as the basis of Ridley Scott's finest film, Bladerunner. The two are as different as night and day, but the two are roughly recognizable in places, in the same way some people will say "you look just like your father" to an adopted son. And since it's been a few months since I committed any great literary heresies, it's high time for one: Ridley Scott took the meat of this novel and adapted it into something greater, asking some hard questions that Dick avoided (or, perhaps, never thought to ask).
For those who've been living under a rock since Bladerunner's 1982 release, the story involves Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter whose specialty is androids. Androids are no longer supposed to live on Earth; they were created as servants and workers for the mass of the populace, who migrated off earth after a nuclear war left most of the planet devastated. (Those reading the book after seeing the movie are likely to wonder where the huge population of LA comes from, given the mass exodus stage up Dick gives us. Oh, yeah, and the book is set in San Francisco.) Those hardy souls who are left Earthside try to eke out a living however they can, and everyone raises animals. There aren't enough animals to go around, though, and not everyone can afford them, so some people have android animals. Those who have android animals keep such things a grave secret, lest their neighbors shun them. (Deckard and his wife, conspicuously absent from the movie, own the electric sheep, also conspicuously absent from the movie, of the title.)
You will notice that very little of the above description matches the film version. Neither does much of the book's action. The number of androids loose on earth is larger in the book, and they go to great lengths to try and off Deckard before he offs them (no descriptions of how here, lest I ruin the book for enterprising readers), leading to some of the book's most surreal, and fun, passages. By the time the reader gets to the end, there are questions in his mind as to whether any of it's real at all, or whether it's existed nowhere but in Deckard's head. The most pressing question in my mind, though, was why Harrison Ford didn't have himself an electric sheep in the movie (and why Rachel, a teen in the book, was played by the much older Sean Young).
Had Dick's writing style been as stark and minimal as Scott's vision of the future, the book would have worked in spades. However, Dick tended towards melodrama here, and some of the books passages come off as amusingly overwritten given the subject matter therein. Definitely worth reading for Bladerunner fans, but those attempting Dick for the first time may be better off with his brilliant novel Valis. [Three and a half stars]