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Saturday, May 22, 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.


  1. i have learned more in this blog.
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  2. I read somewhere that Ridley Scott was inspired to make his gloomy, rain-dripping, Asian-jabbering futuristico movie set based on a trip to Vancouver. Because it actually does look like that up here, except for on the six days a year the sun shines, and there's no zigguratty-looking tower building looming over everything. Yet.

    But I wanted to make sure my memory was correct; that my mind was not building an imaginary half-remembrance into a warped view of reality. Not that anything like that has EVER happened in my life, of course. Except for those thoughts about my father in the darkened bedroom. So I searched through teh Googleverse to find corroborating evidence.

    Alas, there was something about an opera in Vancouver with a "Blade Runner" theme. (I would advise everyone NOT to click that link, though, because it features a nearly naked woman with a large snake wrapped around her. And you might be exposed to some opera music. Ech.)

    There was also something about "Operation Blade Runner," where the valiant Agents of Justice from Canuckrainia and the USA! USA! USA! were arresting a Vancouver gang that used helicopters to fly "B.C. Bud" marijuana across the U.S. border and bring back guns and money. (What did the famous conservative Spanish economist David Ricardo say about countries following their "competitive advantage" of exporting what each society produces best?) Who knew that Canucks were such drug fiends, eh? I thought they were just hopeless beer-drunks like Australians.

    Anyway, I couldn't find a "Blade Runner" -- Vancouver connection. Sorry.

    I'm also sorry for posting the first comment under so many of Teh Gen'l's sermons and homilies by other people who preach here. It's just that I've been working a lot of midnight shifts recently, and these slack-ass Canadians don't force us workers to be busy EVERY moment like American employers do. (You American workers have it SO good, getting to toil at 125% of your maximum effort all the time. Those of you who still have jobs, I mean.) So I am frantically flipping through the blogs to stay awake.

    (Insert buzz-voice from "The Fly" movie here:)

    "Pleeeeeeeze Heeeeeeeeelp Meeeeeeee!"

  3. My paperback copy of Do also a 1969 printing. The back cover is gone however, and the pages are yellow. Other than that, it is still just fine. It's one of those books that I could never toss out -- and it is re-read every decade or so...

    Thank Jeebus there are books like that. It stands as a stark reminder of the rare talent and brilliance that humanity is capable of, in a world full of shameless hustlers, political hacks, and the willfully ignorant masses.

  4. Carl Jung wrote an amazing essay titled "Answer to Job" where he (mixing the creative with the analytical) suggested that the incarnation of Jesus (the "man-god") arose because Yahweh was faced with his "inhumanity" in the incident with Job (it is important to remember that Jung saw the unconscious at work in myth: though what for some true believers describ as "historical" may be factually wrong, to the unconscious these metaphors and myths are psychologically true). To wit: why didn't Yahweh reflect on his omniscience and understand that the "puny human" (Job) was worthy of more than being a pawn in a wager with his closely kept angel/counsel, Satan? Yahweh, enraged at one point during the confrontation ("who darkens counsel here?"--duh, it was Yahweh) is guessed by Jung to have a "light bulb" moment: why did Yahweh lack empathy? It is at that moment that Yahweh decides (again, according to Jung's creative construction) to become a human (born as the man-god), so that he can know something that he didn't know before, mainly suffering, and from that knowledge stop being such an amoral and destructive monster.

    Buddha is reported to have said "All life is suffering therefore be compassionate in all things." Yahweh (the idea of an ineffable source of all, as experienced in the public's consciousness/unconscious) had to make a change, because little old Job was morally superior to god, i.e. he had empathy, something that god did not possess. Yahweh was a lot of rules and anger and threats: hardly the behaviors of a self-aware deity.

    Blade Runner faced this question in a new way, but it is a fundamentally timeless and universal equation: the latent "self" that lacks empathy will, by hook or by crook, at last face that realization, and by facing it become whole, in a process that is part of the macro society, as well as the micro self. Tat tvam asi: thou art that.

    Shit, I do go on.


  5. I read the original book a million years ago..and the movie is very different, but as I re watch the movie lately, what strikes me is that the movie seems different than it used to be as well.
    For instance, I could have sworn, there used to be a bit of dialog, after Deckard kills the snake girl, where he says something...or narrates something to the effect of .."...I just shot a beutiful women in the do you think I feel?". Also, and I am positive about this one, there used to be a narration sequence at the end, where Deckard is flying away in his car with Rachel (the replicant) where he talks about having seen her records, and how she doesn't have an "expiration" date. The movie has been re-made and re-cut so many times through the years...does anybody else remember these missing bits of dialog?

  6. I believe the original ending (Ford and Sean Young's characters flying away together) was a studio-directed addition, so as to bring an upbeat feel to the delightful, popcorn romp that the rest of the film is--happy movies sell more tickets.

    Some other bits of bric a brac about the film can be found here and here and then it's off to Googletopia for reams more...


  7. The original release of Blade Runner, indeed had a narration. The movie had tested poorly,and the studio also tacked on the narration, dragging a screaming and yelling Harrison Ford who thought it really a bad idea. Ford was right. The movie is much better without it.

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  9. Maybe it was just me, but I thought the point of both the book and the movie was to question what it means to be human. Deckard begins to wonder whether he is a replicant as well. When memory (and history) can be faked, you cannot know if you are 30 or 3.

  10. Thanks for the links MJS. I never took the trouble to research it myself, but in reading the different changes that have been made I can recall seeing almost all of them.
    One of the things I remember from seeing it before the directors cut, was how the soundtrack almost seemed to skip in the background...and how very dark ...and kind of grainy..the whole movie was. I think it actually added to the mood ..but was completely unintentional. Just the result of a pre digitized vhs copies being played over and over again. It made it a great movie to watch late at night.
    I can remember seeing it when it first came out, and thinking that Scott must be a real xenophobe and this world was his nightmare scenario. Which is something I dont think PKD had in mind at all. Now it just seems kind of like what Kubric did with 'The Shining". A different masterpiece created from ..another masterpiece.

  11. I just finished reading "The Android's Dream" by John Scalzi. I picked it up because of the title, and the opening sentences:
    "Dirk Moeller didn't know if he could really fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out."
    The story revolves around the search for specific type of sheep named "The Android's Dream" which must be found to save the earth. (No one in the book knows where the name came from.) It is quite amusing in its take on what makes us human.

  12. There was a 70s novel by Alan Nourse called "The Bladerunner" which may also have been the source of the movie title.

    Also it's not true that all of PKD's books were science fiction. He published at least one non-sf book during his lifetime ("Confessions of a Crap Artist") and wrote 10-12 more, several of which have been published posthumously.


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.