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In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

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In the near future, Substance D, aka Slow Death, or Death, is a highly addictive and dangerous drug which has 20% of the population of the United States hooked. It causes wild hallucinations and severe brain damage, where the two hemispheres of the brain compete with one another, causing paranoia, schizophrenia, and finally, death.

Bob Arctor is a user of Substance D, and lives with his addict friends Barris and Luckman in his suburban, rundown house in Anaheim, California. Together they spend their days under the influence of various drugs, taking part in a number of inane conversations and arguments, often escalating quickly due to the group’s shared paranoia. But Bob Arctor is living a double life, also working as an undercover narcotics officer, one of a network employed by the government, along with invasive and advanced surveillance techniques, in a desperate attempt to fight back in the failed war on drugs. When Arctor is required for reports at the police station, he must wear a “scramble suit”, a high-tech costume that constantly changes the wearer’s appearance, to keep his identity private, and is assigned a code name, “Fred”. All the narcotic informants must wear these, even Fred’s superior, Hank, keeping their identities protected even from one another.

“We’re all dreaming,” Arctor said. If the last to know he’s an addict is the addict, then maybe the last to know when a man means what he says is the man himself, he reflected. He wondered how much of the garbage that Donna had overheard he had seriously meant. He wondered how much of the insanity of the day–his insanity–had been real, or just induced as a contact lunacy, by the situation. Donna, always, was a pivot point of reality for him; for her this was the basic, natural question. He wished he could answer.

Since starting his most recent assignment, Fred/Arctor has become addicted to Substance D, and formed a strong bond with Donna, a cocaine addict and supplier of Substance D; Arctor had hoped to be introduced to her supplier, getting further up the supply chain in an attempt to gain a lead. At his next review Hank informs Fred that, due to the information from an unknown informant, his next assignment is Bob Arctor; Arctor essentially has to begin spying on himself. The narcotics division installs hidden surveillance equipment throughout Arctor’s house while the group are out, and Fred must analyse the footage for anything that could incriminate Arctor, while getting an external viewpoint of the life that he and his drug addict housemates lead.

The paranoia and uncertainty that affects Arctor and Fred is jarring as the effects of Substance D addiction loosens his sense of reality. He is even called in for medical analysis several times, where doctors coldly tell him of the damage that is taking apart his brain.

What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.

The New Path rehabilitation centre, and Arctor’s severe brain damage from coming off Substance D in the final few chapters of the book were difficult. It showed the damage withdrawing from the drug can hold, as Arctor is essentially a scrambled mess, barely able to perform simple tasks and utter short sentences.

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The film adaptation, directed by Richard Linklater, is pretty good. Its distinctive animated style perfectly captures the schizophrenic and paranoiac tone of the book.

It is revealed that Donna was also an undercover agent, like Arctor, and is aware that Arctor was used by the police. The intention all along was to get Arctor closer to Barris (the real target of the surveillance in Arctor’s house), to get him hooked on Substance D, to get him into NewPath, It is strongly suspected that NewPath themselves are behind the manufactures and distributors of the drug are NewPath themselves, growing little blue flowers on farmlands across the United States. It is hoped that eventually Arctor may regain his mental capacities and provide evidence against NewPath; but this is in no way a certainty.

Donna said, “I think, really, there is nothing more terrible than the sacrifice of someone or something, a living thing, without its ever knowing. If it knew. If it understood and volunteered. But” – she gestured. “He doesn’t know. He never did know. He didn’t volunteer-”

“Sure he did. It was his job.”

“He had no idea, and he hasn’t any idea now, because now he hasn’t any ideas. You know that as well as I do. And he will never again in his life, as long as he lives, have any ideas. Only reflexes. And this didn’t happen accidentally; it was supposed to happen. So we have this…bad karma on us. I feel it on my back. Like a corpse. I’m carrying a corpse – Bob Arctor’s corpse.

A Scanner Darkly isn’t Dick’s best work, and it isn’t my favourite book of his (that will remain Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) – but it is still a great read, for its message and the emotional impact. The poignancy of the author’s note at the end of the novel is traumatic, bringing you back into the reality of a world where addiction is a problem, and the repercussions are severe.

If there was any “sin”, it was that these people wanted to keep on having a good time forever, and were punished for that, but, as I say, I feel that, if so, the punishment was far too great, and I prefer to think of it only in a Greek or morally neutral way, as mere science, as deterministic impartial cause-and-effect. I loved them all. . .

. . . These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The “enemy” was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.

If you are unfamiliar with Philip K. Dick then you may not know that he had an amphetamine habit in the 1970s. It didn’t last long and I don’t believe he was as heavy a user as some of the characters in this book, but he did once state in an interview, “Everything in A Scanner Darkly I actually saw.” Some of the aspects of drug culture are brilliantly realised and truthful. I have no doubt Dick saw some extraordinarily dark times.

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In the theatrical adaptation Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, Robert Downey Jr. plays Barris and Woody Harrelson plays Luckman.

Note: When I finished reading A Scanner Darkly last week I immediately sought out the film adaptation. I really enjoyed it; a much more faithful adaptation that we might be use to seeing, in terms of plot anyway. There were no jarring changes; one reveal towards the end, which wasn’t actually detailed in the book, made a lot of sense but was a nice twist. Check it out, alongside the book.

the man in the high castle

Imagine a world where the Axis won the Second World War. Imagine America divided up between the Nazi occupied Eastern states and the Japanese ruled Western states, and a central buffer zone between the two. If that interests you, then The Man in the High Castle is worth checking out.

Philip K. Dick won a Hugo award for The Man in the High Castle, published in 1962, and while a little more grounded than his usual science-fiction works (there is nothing as out there as precognition or androids), it is considered a career highpoint. Themes include fate and free will, power, politics and prejudice, the value of cultures and authenticity.

On the history and following aftermath of the war, Dick reveals exposition through offhand comments, brief thoughts and throwaway statements. There isn’t necessarily an info-dump to tell us exactly what life is like under the Reich rule, but enough to inform the reader that it’s a truly evil place. It is never explicitly stated what the Nazi’s did in Africa, but what is implied is horrifying.

And then, he thought about Africa, and the Nazi experiment there. And his own blood stopped in his veins, hesitated, at last went on.

Dick does make clear, however, that compared to the fascist Nazi rule, the Japanese governing is relatively benign in comparison. Even Frank Frink, a Jew at the constant risk of extradition by the Nazis, would not be prepared to escape to the South US, for it seems they have a whole load of other issues down there.

What about the South? His body recoiled. Ugh. Not that. As a white man he would have plenty of place, in fact more than he had here in the Pacific States of America. But . . . he did not want that kind of place.

There are a number of plots which integrate with each other, bringing various characters together to interact and indirectly help each other. But the general focus is on the ‘little guy’, everyday characters who are struggling to cope in their varying positions in life, within this new totalitarian fascist society.

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Robert Childan is an American antique dealer, seemingly conflicted in this new society. At times he seems to praise the Japanese, at others he comes across unashamedly racist. He admires the Reich rule of technological advances and getting things done (genocide!), and shows general disdain for the Japanese.

And anyhow, the flights to Mars had distracted world attention from the difficulty in Africa. So it all came back to what he had told his fellow store owners; what the Nazis have which we lack is—nobility. Admire them for their love of work or their efficiency… but it’s the dream that stirs one. Space flights first to the moon, then to Mars; if that isn’t the oldest yearning of mankind, our finest hope for glory. Now, the Japanese on the other hand. I know them pretty well; I do business with them, after all, day in and day out. They are—let’s face it—Orientals. Yellow people. We whites have to bow to them because they hold the power. But we watch Germany; we see what can be done where whites have conquered, and it’s quite different.

What’s more, he seemingly laps up the anti-semitic propaganda the Nazi’s put forward, presumably about their exaggerated facial features and their reputation as despicable, almost supernatural levels of deceit.

I don’t know why I didn’t recognize the racial characteristics when I saw him. Evidently I’m easily deceived.

He decided, I’m simply not capable of deceit and that renders me helpless. Without law, I’d be at their mercy. He could have convinced me of anything. It’s a form of hypnosis. They can control an entire society.

Yet when he is invited to a business clients house, a young Japanese couple Paul and Betty, he is conflicted. He appears in awe of them.  His speech patterns have even started to mimic his Japanese rulers. There is an awkward conversation where inevitably politics does end up in conversation, despite Childan’s attempt to keep it away, at the dinner table. Betty, not wanting to cause a scene, does not berate Childan’s racism, but calmly expresses her beliefs.

Betty said in a low voice, “Personally, I do not believe any hysterical talk of ‘world inundation’ by any people, Slavic or Chinese or Japanese.” She regarded Robert placidly. She was in complete control of herself, not carried away; but she intended to express her feeling. A spot of color, deep red, had appeared in each of her cheeks.

Nobusuke Tagomi is a Japanese businessman working in the Pacific States of America (P.S.A) and to the reader he may be the most relatable and likeable character in the book. It is through his chapters we witness a politics of a secret meeting between the Abwehr (the German military intelligence, represented by Agent Baynes) and the Japanese Imperial Army. Upon listening to potential replacements to the recently deceased Herr Bohrmann as leader of the Reich, his reaction is how we might all feel in such a situation;

Mr Tagomi felt ill as he listened . . . thought, I think I am going mad . . . I have to get out of here; I am having an attack.

There is evil! It’s actual, like cement.

In his own small way, towards the end of the book he makes a stand against the Nazi’s, an act which ends up freeing Frank Frink. Frank, after the war, had planned to join a resistance to violently expel the successful axis forces from America. But as the years passed, he learnt to accept the P.S.A and Japanese rule. However, he cannot live without fear. He is a Jew, and his narratives often remind the reader of the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

It horrified him, this thought: the ancient gigantic cannibal near-man flourishing now, ruling the world once more. We spent a million years escaping him, Frink thought, and now he’s back. And not merely as the adversary … but as the master.

His unexplained incarceration, his inevitable containment and death in the concentration camps back in Germany, only to be unbelievably and inexplicably released.

I’m an American,” Frank Frink said.

“You’re a Jew,” the cop said.

Frank is a passive character throughout the book, and this sums it up. He accepts his release without question. He goes on. Like many of the characters in the book, they can have no idea what is happening around them, and what will happen in the future. They just go on.

I want to comprehend. I have to. But he knew he never would.

Just be glad, he thought. And keep moving.

Julianna Frink is Frank’s ex-wife, and is a seemingly unstable, drifting, attractive individual. She begins dating a young Italian named Joe Cinnadella, who is actually a Nazi assassin sent to assassinate the writer of the book-within-a-book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book that describes what would have happened if the British Empire and the USA had beaten the Axis in the Second World War. It is banned across most of the world apart from the P.S.A, yet most characters have at least heard of it and read some of it. Julianna becomes obsessed with it. She is an incredibly hard character to pin down, in fact I found her a little annoying and damaged through most of the book. However, she experiences a moment of enlightenment at the end of the book which identifies her as probably the strongest character in the book.

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As is present in much of Dick’s work, there is also the idea of another version of reality. What is real and what is not. In Ubik, we struggle to make sense of who is dead in half-life and who is alive. In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, the confusion of who is human and who is android, and of course the bizarre visions that come with the religion Mercerism. The revelations at the end of The Man In The High Castle were difficult for me to comprehend. Julia’s confrontation with The Grasshopper Lies Heavy writer Hawthorne Abensden and his wife Caroline at the ‘High Castle’ leads to the revelation that Abensden used the I Ching to transcribe its answers into the book in its entirety. When Juliana asks the Oracle why it wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, The Oracle responds with the Chung Fu hexagram, meaning “Inner Truth”. Initially, I thought it meant that the Allies had won as their cultures and jewellry (Robert Childan’s American Artistic Handcrafts, Inc., Edfrank Jewellery, and the Wyndam-Matson Corporation) were still relevant and had survived the war where the people had been oppressed into this totalitarian regime. But, I think the I Ching’s message goes deeper. Perhaps this is just another world, another version of reality, and somewhere else, there is a better world. Or the characters are realising that their world is not ‘real’, and the world these characters is fake, or fictional. There is another, or other, real world(s) – perhaps ours – where the Allies won. A better place perhaps. There is no set in stone answer to what it means.

The uncertainty and open endedness of the book is perfect. As the reader we are unsure what comes next for most of these characters. As has always been. Agent Baynes, who has completed his mission, contemplates how much of a difference his actions have made, or will make. He may have made the world a better place, but that is not in his hands.

He thought, But there is no reason to be optimistic. Probably the Japanese can do nothing to change the course of German internal politics. The Goebbels Government is in power, and probably will stand. After it is consolidated, it will turn once more to the notion of Dandelion. And another major section of the planet will be destroyed, with its population, for a deranged, fanatic ideal.

Nevertheless, Mr. Baynes thought, the crucial point lies not in the present, not in either my death or the death of the two SD men; it lies—hypothetically—in the future. What has happened here is justified, or not justified, by what happens later. Can we perhaps save the lives of millions, all Japan in fact?

I wonder what I accomplished, he thought as he watched the land mass grow. It is up to General Tedeki, now. Whatever he can do in the Home Islands. But at least we got the information to them. We did what we could.

The Man in the High Castle is an intriguing piece of alternate history (albeit a disturbing one), with plenty of smoke and mirrors. Approach with an open mind and enjoy a fantastic science-fiction novel. The paranoia and uncertainty these characters deal with as they struggle to cope with against forces far higher than they.

A weird time in which we are alive. We can travel anywhere we want, even to other planets. And for what? To sit day after day, declining in morale and hope.

Ubik is a dazzling science fiction novel, which is as unsettling and hard to pin down as it is ambitious and visionary. When it comes to creating worlds and futures, imaginative and brave beyond belief, Dick is right up there. His writing may be somewhat lacking in comparison to the greats. He doesn’t have a distinctive style; a relatively simplistic prose that rarely leaves the reader breathless. Rather, he lets his visions and ideas do the talking, and it is these that compel the reader to continue.

Dick describes to us another fantastic manifestation of his wild imagination. In Ubik, the year is 1992 and space travel is commonplace, with humanity capable of colonising on other planets, including the moon. The protagonist is Joe Chip – an employee of the Runciter Association. They are a ‘prudence organisation’, and Joe is a tester, whose job is to measure and verify the potency of ‘intertials’ or anti-psis. These are individuals who can negate the psychic powers of individuals with psionic abilities, who are often hired to commit acts of business sabotage. Joe’s boss and employer, Glen Runciter, runs the association with help from his deceased wife, Ella. Yes – deceased. Another aspect of the future presented in Ubik is the ability to cryonically store the dead and communicate with them, albeit in a slightly limited fashion. This suspension, known as ‘half-life’, allows the dead a limited state of consciousness and the ability to speak to former loved ones, family and friends.

It touches on, but never really investigates this new culture of psychics and inertials. It’s a fascinating subject – and the fact that Dick goes down a path where they aren’t fully explained is bold. Like I said, I would have expect this great battle between Runciter Associates’ inertials and Hollis’ psis on Luna. But on Luna, the situation changes, and the narrative begins to revolve more around the method of half-life.

Personally, there was some slight disappointment that the plot didn’t go in the direction I expected to. But whose fault is that? Certainly not Dick’s. The pieces were being arranged for a battle between Hollis’ psis, and Runciter’s inertials. And we do get that – kind of. But I expected these psychic and psionic abilities to play a much more forward role, and the half-life technology to take a backseat (as interesting and imaginative as it is).

When reading a book, the majority of the time you have an idea of what type of book it is shaping out to be. A hunch of what is going on, who the main players are, where the plot is going. Ubik is different. As a reader, moments are few and far between where you feel ‘safe’. I attribute safe to understanding. Dick is a master at pulling the rug out from under you. But in Ubik, he yanks that rug chapter after chapter. You will feel battered and bruised, and thoroughly confused.

There are a multitude of characters; the nature of the narrative means some are, not underdeveloped but perhaps underused. The focus remains on Runciter and Joe Chip throughout, with a few more key players being introduced later on. Glen Runciter is a well respected, experienced businessman who is admired by his employees. After the events on Luna there seems to be a real sense of shock at the loss of this great man. But he is resourceful and cunning – the trail of breadcrumbs he leaves for Joe and the group allows them to ‘wake up’ and realise the danger and reality of their situation. And Joe Chip – a faithful employee of the Runciter Association, he is clearly talented and rated highly by his boss and friend Glen Runciter. But he is not without his faults. There is a hint of unused potential, and his poor handling of personal finances and disorganised living quarters is a cause for some ridicule and disrespect.

From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.

“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out. Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”

The Runciter Association’s main rivals are run by a man named Ray Hollis, who runs an organisation of psychics. Given a lucrative contract by the powerful businessman Stanton Mick, Runciter organises a party of 11 of his inertials, as well as Joe Chip and himself, to travel to Mick’s lunar facilities on the moon, where the anti-psis will be used to negate the telepaths ability and enforce privacy. However a trap has been set, no doubt orchestrated by Hollis to cripple his rival, and a bomb kills Runciter and leaves the rest of the employees in complete disarray. They panic and flee Luna, desperate to escape with their lives and to get the dying Runicter into ‘cold-pac’, so he can continue to advise and run the Runciter Association from half-life.

When that bomb explodes, everything changes. Runciter is killed. Or is he? What follows is a pseudo- crazy trip through time and the past. Reality is seemingly changing radically all around the group, and it becomes clear that not all is as it seems.

A bizarre state of decay and rapid ageing is following the group everywhere. Stale cigarettes that crumble when taken out the packet. And more grotesquely, dried-up and desiccated corpses of the Luna expedition.

Bizarre, existential questions then start being asked within the group. Was Runciter killed in the explosion? Is it, in fact, the group that died, and Runciter that survived? Did anyone die…or are they all dead, communicating with each other in half-life?

At the same time, it appears Runciter is attempting to contact his former employees. Joe Chip hears him through his hotel telephone. His face appears on currency. And most importantly, Joe Chip witnesses an advertisement featuring Runciter promoting a bizarre product; Ubik. At the start of each chapter, an advertising slogan is featured, praising Ubik as some sort of wonder product that can be used for anything and everything. Yet in the narrative it is not introduced until the last act.

Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavour of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.

My hair is so dry, so unmanageable. What’s a girl to do? Simply rub in creamy Ubik hair conditioner. In just five days you’ll discover new body in your hair, new glossiness. And Ubik hairspray, used as directed, is absolutely safe.

It appears that Ubik is an agent (most consistently found in the form of a spray can) which can ‘restore the effects of aging’, and has possibly been created by those in half-life – as a way of protecting themselves from stronger, hungrier minds that can devour others in half-life to extent their own time in this bizarre limbo.

I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, then do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.

There are several theories but the strongest comes from Dick’s wife Tessa, who in her essay ‘Ubik Explained, sort of’, she wrote “Ubik is a metaphor for God. Ubik is all-powerful and all-knowing, and Ubik is everywhere. The spray can is only a form that Ubik takes to make it easy for people to understand it and use it. It is not the substance inside the can that helps them, but rather their faith in the promise that it will help them.”

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This is a difficult book to write about. Having read some Franz Kafka recently, I would describe Ubik as incredibly kafkaesque. A spiralling sense of confusion and incoherence. The unease you will feel of an impending danger or doom.

Ubik is a book I suspect the reader would benefit from reading more than once. If I didn’t have such a huge backlog I’d probably be reading it now. But it might benefit from a few months on the shelf as my subconscious tries to figure out what the hell just happened.

We are served by organic ghosts, he thought, who, speaking and writing, pass through this our new environment. Watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life world, elements of which have become for us invading but agreeable splinters of a substance that pulsates like a former heart.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, written by sci-fi maestro Philip K. Dick, was the inspiration behind the film Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1982.

Blade Runner is a favourite of mine – a futuristic noir classic, but I want to discuss the novel it was based on. The film is relatively faithful to the book in terms of overall plot but I found the tone to be vastly different.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep introduces us to Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter operating in North California on an Earth that has been ravaged by nuclear war, nearly extinct of all live animals and left behind by the majority of humanity, who have begun to colonise on Mars and beyond. Rick Deckard hunts androids who illegally pose as humans and must ‘retire’ them (as you cannot kill what is not alive).

Animals are the ultimate status symbol – well live animals anyway. To keep and own a live animal is an important societal need. World War Terminus has caused extinction in a huge percentage of animals, and now the humans who remain on earth spend their credits on live animals…or if they can’t afford them, the cheaper electric variety. In the past Deckard owned a live sheep but chose to replace it with an synthetic sheep when it died of tetanus. When he reveals this to his neighbour there is a sense of pity and awkwardness. His neighbour promises not to reveal the truth to anyone, such is the shame of owning a synthetic animal.

The androids Rick must hunt over the course of the novel are the most advanced robots ever created and their intelligence and likeness to humans is eerily close. The Nexus-6 brain module is a technical accomplishment that the creators The Rosen Association are immensely proud of. So much so that they boast their androids are near indistinguishable for humans. Deckard must hunt down and destroy six of these Nexus-6 models who have escaped their colony on Mars and are classed as fugitives.

His only method of identifying these androids is by asking the suspect a series of questions aimed to measure a person’s empathy, the Voigt-Kampff test. Various scenarios are put to the suspect to test their reactions, more specifically their empathic responses as the androids have no sense of empathy.

Meanwhile, a second strand of narration is viewed through the eyes of John Isidore, who is deemed special, derogatively called a ‘chickenhead’, and ultimately viewed as below human life as the vast amount of radioactive dust on the Earth has caused his intelligence to diminish (along with thousands of other ‘specials’). He lives alone in an empty apartment building covered in ‘kipple’ and has little outside contact outside of his job as a driver. As a special with sub-par IQ he is treated with disdain by all other humans who have not yet been genetically damaged.

When one of the fugitive androids Pris Stratton moves into an apartment below his he attempts to befriend her. She is eventually joined by Roy and Irmgard Baty, husband and wife within the group of fugitive androids. Isidore aids them due to the involvement and importance he feels when they include him in their plan to stop Deckard, despite treating him with as little respect as other humans do.
Electric Sheep
Philip K. Dick’s novel contains several interesting themes, one of which seems to be humanity’s struggle for relevance; those people who have been left behind and have to exist on this dying Earth. I want to talk briefly about Mercerism, a new religion based on the life and struggles of Wilbur Mercer. All over Earth and in the space colonies, empathy boxes are used for followers of Mercerism to connect with each other, to share their emotions together. Empathy, compassion and community spirit are the core beliefs of Mercerism, and so both joy and pain are shared collectively in a kind of hallucination that all believers can share together.

Opposing Mercerism is Buster Friendly, a talkshow android who dominates the television with his chatshows, guests and interviews. An upbeat, colourful, chatty distraction from the real world, Isidore notices that the world seems much more lonely when the television is off. This is because Buster Friendly gives an illusion of friendship but no more; after all, it is just a television show. Towards the end of the novel, Buster Friendly announces

“We may never know [who has spawned this hoax]. Nor can we fathom the peculiar purpose behind this swindle. Yes, folks, swindle. Mercerism is a swindle!”

Mercerism is based on a lie; Mercer is portrayed by a down and out actor, and the ‘hallucinations’ the users share were recorded years ago. Buster Friendly and the androids seem to relish this expose, that humans have been deceived into following a phoney. But what Buster Friendly doesn’t realise is that even if Mercerism is a ‘swindle’, the effect it has on people is real. It causes empathy, while the androids who are devoted to Friendly’s type of religion are pulling legs off spiders.

So it is true that Mercerism is fake, but does it matter who Mercer is or whether he even exists? For the likes of Rick, his wife Iran and Isidore, the ideals of Mercerism still stand because they are believed in.

The whole novel boils down to the emotion of empathy. Deckard initially feels no guilt in performing his job as a bounty hunter as he believes that androids are incapable of true human emotion and therefore do not deserve a status on par with humans. But if the androids cannot feel empathy why does Roy Baty scream in anguish when Deckard shoots his wife Irmgard through the door of their apartment?

And so the lines are blurred. Androids are capable of empathetic feeling with each other…and humans are capable of a loss of empathy. Fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch has no empathy at all. He enjoys killing androids for the sake of it, and thus can perform his job easily.

“If I test out android,” Phil Resch prattled, “you will undergo renewed faith in the human race. But since it’s not going to work out that way, I suggest you begin framing an ideology which will account for-”

If this is the case (and Deckard seems to realise that it is) then it makes his job that much harder, leading to his existential crisis towards the end of the novel. Humans are meant to feel empathy, something that androids cannot do. But they are not meant to feel empathy for androids, despite the fact that they are not mere machines but have emotions and are made from living tissue.

“These electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”

After Rick’s epiphany and fusion with Mercer, he has renewed empathy with all forms of life; he is able to see value in the androids version of a life, and even the ‘paltry’ life of a mechanical toad he found, that he had believed was real. Rick states that while he is disappointed that the toad is not real, he prefers to know it is fake rather than believing it to be a live creature. Just one day hunting these ‘androids’ has completely changed his idea of empathy and compassion and is now similar to Isidore in this respect. Does this make them both chickenheads?

Outside of the various messages which could be discussed in much greater depth, I found the Dick’s writing style through the book to be fantastically simple. We switch from tense, slow and steady scenes to fast paced dialogue and laser tube showdowns. The perspective occasionally shifts between Deckard and Isidore, two protagonists with differing views and levels of intelligence but both were fascinating to me as a reader. We are introduced to so many themes and ways of life that are now the norm in this future, but Dick manages to make them real and understandable.

To end the novel (and this post), Deckard collapses into bed exhausted at his physical and mental battle throughout the day. He dials the 670 setting into the Penfield mood enhancer; the setting for long deserved peace. Yet he doesn’t naturally feel, or feel he deserves, this mood. If our moods and emotions can be affected and manipulated by electrical currents, how different are we to the androids?