Feb 12, 2012

Favourite monkey #2

  • wherein the shelf monkey continues to peruse his vast library for those works of fiction that have tickled his funny bone, goosed his cochlea, frightened his liver, or in some way achieved some sort of response from some area of his anatomy.
  • i.e. the monkey's favourite books this far in his short life. 
  • and what excites the monkey today? A good old-fashioned mind-job.
Today's intriguing instalment: 

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

"The whole experience of empathy is a swindle."
Plot synopsis (from the Official Philip K. Dick website):
By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn't afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans.
Emigrees to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn't want to be identified, they just blended in.
Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results.
When did the shelf monkey first read this? I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (hereinafter DADES?) when I was twelve, the year that the book was commonly known under its cinematic adaptation title Blade Runner. Being a huge Harrison Ford fan at the time — still am, although I wish he would take some chances, hook up with Tarantino or Soderbergh, c'mon, man, try something — but being unable to watch the R-rated film due to a mixture of my age and my parents' just crazy unwillingness to sneak me in to the theatre, I had to make do with the book.

What were the first impressions? DADES? hit me like a tonne of proverbial bricks. My sci-fi knowledge up to that point was confined to the adventures of Tom Swift and John Christopher's Tripod trilogy. Being introduced so young to the thematic complexities of P.K. Dick probably warped me.

How many times has the shelf monkey read this? Estimation? Somewheres in the teens. Possibly even twenty.

Has it withstood the perils of time and maturity? In the name of Mercer, yes.

New thoughts:  Is it at all strange to claim a work that raises immense levels of despair and existential angst in the reader as a favourite? It feels wrong somehow. 'Favourites' should induce joy and wonderment, not dread, fear, and self-loathing. Nevertheless, there you have it. Id est, quid id est.

DADES? is one of those novels that reveals more and more every time you read it, exposing new pleasures and forgotten plot points. The movie version keeps pushing the novel to the side in my head, and while it is a superb film, it really isn't the novel. Aside from a few themes and character names, it's barely recognizable from its literary origins.

Like the movie, DADES? concerns identity, and the increasing loss of it in society. In this instance, a society wherein most of the able-bodied people have fled the planet after World War Terminus, and the citizens who remain are slowly succumbing to the radioactive dust which coats the planet. It is a world where entropy rules, one where every person and thing is turning to the wondrously awful concept of "kipple:"
"Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match, or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you leave any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more."
While the world yields itself to its kipplization, its citizenry makes do with a variety of mood-altering conveniences. There's the Penfield mood organ — a clear comment on the increasing use of medicines to alleviate states of emotional being — a device wherein the user may dial an appropriate mood to get through the day. Rick Deckard gets through the day by dialing for "a creative and fresh attitude towards his job," and he is horrified when he discovers his wife Iran has dialed herself a six-hour self-accusatory depression. As she explains, explaining one of the novel's leading themes:
"I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialed it. So although I heard the emptiness [in the surrounding apartments] intellectually, I couldn't feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting — don't you see? I guess you don't. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness: then called it 'absence of appropriate affect.' So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair. So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that's a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who's smart has emigrated, don't you think?"
As Deckard works to hunt down and kill the androids that have infiltrated Earth, he undergoes an existential crisis as he begins to empathize with them. In this future, empathy is in short supply, which is a main reason for the rise of Mercerism, a religion that uses a virtual reality linkup with the user to increase their empathy through a metaphorical trek up an endless mountain alongside a very old man. As you trek, stones are hurled from unseen enemies, often leaving the Mercerite bruised and cut, allowing them to become more in tune with the feelings of other. The lack of empathy is a major reason why humanity is seemingly on its last legs, with officials claiming that "Mercerism reduced crime by making citizens more concerned about the plight of their neighbors." This is also why it is considered the height of one's existence to own at least one true animal (most animals being extinct, and people making do with electronic facsimiles). I have in my literary life had few emotional responses as strong as my pity toward Deckard as he uses his bounty money to purchase a real goat; the joy he has, the utter belief that this will make him a better person, is as pathetic and heart-rending a moment as any I've read.

The empathy shortage is also a reason why androids fit in so well. Deckard's investigation leads him to a bizarre subworld of his city where is seems androids have taken over the neighbourhoods, with their own police force. As his quest continues he becomes increasingly depressed, unable to determine the real difference between man and machine.

DADES? is not perfect; there are some plot points that still don't make sense to me, especially Deckard's sudden realization that the Russian policeman he is sitting with is an android. Deckard also obsesses over how hard these new androids will be to track and kill, yet they appear remarkably easy prey.

For me, such moments do not matter. DADES? gets to me like few novels ever have; perhaps it is a flaw in my mindset, an error in my programming, but sometimes I just need to feel bad. Like Iran, sometimes I need to remind myself of the misery of the world, to force myself to accept feelings I don't enjoy. Some may achieve this by reading Kafka, or the plays of Chekov. For me, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the cure for my happiness.

Verdict: still a favourite monkey

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