Saturday, February 15, 2014

Reading group: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

Trevor suggested this book, the novel on which the acclaimed film Blade Runner was based, speculatively set twenty-four years after the book's 1968 publication in a 1992 when the ecosystem has been destroyed by an apocalyptic war and humans have consequently begun to colonise other planets, served in the project by android slaves. Development of the androids has become so sophisticated, and the latest models so intelligent, that they can be detected only by the use of the 'Voight-Kampff' psychological test for empathy. The plot concerns Rick Deckard, a 'bounty hunter' working for the police, whose job it is to hunt down androids escaped to earth, and who is briefed to track down a particularly dangerous and intelligent group of six - six of the latest, most sophisticated 'Nexus-6' types - one of whom has already badly injured Deckard's boss, chief bounty hunter Dave Holden. In the process Rick falls in love with a Nexus-6 android, Rachael Rosen.

Our discussion about it is difficult to report, as it generated an excitement that seemed to cause the room constantly to break up into multiple simultaneous discussions, and I'm not sure that we each always understood what others were saying.

Trevor began quite clearly by saying he was nervous about our reaction to the book, since we had been so down on Kurt Vonnegut's Piano Player which had badly misfired in terms of predicting the technological future, and there are certain similarities here: for instance, while personal vehicles are airborne and people speak on vidphones (one thing Dick did get right), the notes on Deckard's quarry that he carries around with him are 'smudged' carbons. People immediately jumped in and said that in this novel it didn't matter: its chief concern was not in speculating on the concrete particulars of the technological future, but in, as Jenny said, the question of what it is to be human, most particularly what it is to be human in a situation of developing technology, and indeed what is reality. As Doug put in, it's not really about the technological future, but like all interesting science fiction it's about humanity now.

Everything in the novel is called into question or overturned: android Rachael Rosen almost passes the Voight-Kampff empathy test; she is human enough in the accepted terms for Deckard to fall in love with her. Conversely, right from the start the autonomous humanity of Deckard is questioned by his dependence on technology: he and his wife Iran begin their day programming their moods on 'mood machines'. His empathy - the quality at the heart of the state religion, Mercerism - is also under question: he is of course a killer, and in a domestic squabble his wife calls him a 'murderer', referring to 'those poor andys [androids]' And, as John said, what are the androids after all but slaves rising up against their oppressors? The book ends with some stunning revelations about the society the precepts of which people, including Deckard, have been living their lives by. The Voight-Kampff test questions are interesting: they are designed to test empathy with animals (many animals being now extinct, and animals thus valued, and pets prized as status symbols); passing the test requires the subject to feel horror at the portrayal of mistreatment of animals. Yet many of the examples of 'ill treatment' are things that in fact pass without comment in our own society - a calfskin purse, the eating of oysters, a mounted stag's head - which seems like a metafictional prod of the reader by Dick.

Trevor, beaming, was greatly relieved by our reaction and said that this was probably the best novel he had ever read, it was 'brilliant, brilliant.' Now Mark spoke up. He said that, after having really admired the film he had expected a lot of the book, but was sorely disappointed as it was so badly written. Others of us agreed that this was a fault of the book, the writing. However, Clare said that she had been so engrossed by the story and the ideas that she hadn't even noticed that it wasn't well written. For this reason, she said, she felt that it didn't matter, and she was backed up by Jenny who said she didn't think books had to be well written to be enjoyable or engrossing. Someone - Mark or Doug - said, But there was no tension: an android got killed and it was just flat, you just went on to the next thing. Jenny and Clare said they didn't think that mattered because the ideas, and the way you didn't know what was what, pushed you on. Clare did agree, however, that it was hard to care much about any of the characters, that you didn't get involved with them, and at that point she said she understood what we meant by tension - dramatic tension - and agreed after all that it was lacking. Ann said (I think; things were getting a bit excitable!) that it was a pity, because good ideas are best expressed through good prose, and I added that it wouldn't have mattered so much if the ideas were just mumbo jumbo as in Dan Brown, at which Jenny, who enjoys Dan Brown, asked me if I'd read it, and I had to say no, and she said I couldn't judge it then, and my plea that I'd tried but couldn't read it because the prose and sensibility were so bad was drowned out by the next interruption. As I say, things got excitable!

Trevor, however, could not agree that this novel was in any way badly written. Mark and I objected that it was full of prose errors: malapropisms and ineptnesses such as 'a potpourri' of arias, a 'fragrance of happiness', a facial expression described as 'turgid'. Trevor, said, But he makes up words! and John, agreeing, remembered the example, 'disemelevatored'. We conceded this (although I'd say 'disemelevatored is not as witty as it seems word-construction wise, since one doesn't 'emelevator' as one 'embarks'). However, there are ugly constructions - 'stiltedly', an 'indistinct, glimpsed darkly impression' - a tendency to use archaic pomposities such as 'thereupon', and downright grammatical errors (the pompous and erroneous misuse of pronouns: 'we' for and 'us'), and frequent use of the kind of lazy, tautologous phrase that any GCSE student would be marked down for writing: 'he said to himself,' and even, 'he inquired of himself'. There are also gaps and inconsistencies in the story (ironed out in the film): At one point another android introduces herself as Rachael Rosen, which is never explained, and one gets the impression of an author not entirely in charge of his story and failing to edit.

We were also in disagreement about the tone of the book. As an example of a howler which had me laughing out loud, I quoted the following which occurs at a point when Deckard is seriously angry with his wife: 'Damn her, he said to himself. What good does it do? She doesn't care whether we own an ostrich or not.' Others said that they had laughed too, but they had thought it intentionally funny. However, John said that he hadn't been able to decide whether it was intentional or not, and had specifically wondered as he read it, and since the overall tone of the book isn't comic (on the contrary) one wonders whether there is a lack of control over tone as well.

John now said that he thought all of the apparent carelessness was in a way deliberate, as Dick was strongly anti-academic, but Mark and I were were not convinced that, in order to stick one to the academic establishment, Dick would have purposefully made the kind of errors that, for us at any rate, reduce our sense of his authority over his story.

In the end we had to agree to differ over this matter, but all of us thought Dick's ideas were prescient and remain important.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

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