Monday, February 27, 2012

Mid Winter Depression: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Have you seen Blade Runner?  I bet you have.  I bet you've probably seen the original and the Director's Cut, maybe even as a late-night double bill at some repertoire theatre.  You were probably in University and sat around in a all-night coffee shop/diner discussing whether or nor Rick Deckard is a replicant.

I did all that, but I never bothered to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  (Let's shorten that to DADoES.) I always knew that Blade Runner was based on the book and I was intrigued by the title of the book, but I never actually bothered to read it.

I borrowed DADoES from my uncle in 2002 or so.  The book moved with me twice but remained unread.   My uncle eventually stopped asking for it back.

Then, last year, in the dead of winter, I got a nasty injury and spent some time off work, hanging out in radiology clinics and physiotherapist offices.  I don't know why I grabbed DADoES to read in the waiting room, but I did.  I think it was because it was a slender book that fit nicely into my purse.

In any case, there I was, in the middle of a bad winter, sitting in garishly-lit physio offices with dingy beige walls and signs asking you to have all your paperwork ready if you suffered from a workplace injury, reading this book instead of the office Marie-Claire magazines.

I should have read Marie-Claire.

Don't get me wrong:  DADoES is a great book!  It's well-written, dramatic, engaging.  The premise is interesting, the characters are believable and the protagonist is sympathetic.  But my god is it a depressing book!

Blade Runner is a sexy movie.  The dystopia Rick Deckard lives in is a sexy one.  There are zeppelin ads and cool Asian guys selling tasty food.  Deckard says glib things and has a sexy world-worn look about him.  He doesn't own a sheep.   He doesn't want to do this one last job so he can buy a cat.  He and his wife don't adjust their moods using some kind of strange device.  He doesn't even have a wife.  And he certainly doesn't subscribe to a hokey religion that preaches empathy and shared suffering.

But the Rick Deckard in DADoES does.  DADoES Rick Deckard is a tired man, doing a job he doesn't like.  He lives on a dead planet where nothing lives or grows.  There is nothing sexy about DADoES.  It's all misery, all the time.

And there are piles of dead owls.

I have not been able to think about owls the same way since I read this book.  Basically, the inhabitants of Planet Earth realize that the nuclear fallout has gotten bad when they start finding dead owls everywhere.  Seriously, people, imagine waking up one morning and finding dead owls everywhere.  And then the same thing happens the next day and the day after that and the day after that until there aren't any owls left to die.

Rick Deckard lived that.  And he lives in the aftermath of the nuclear fallout where nothing lives or grows and everyone who can has moved on to the colonies.  He, along with everyone on the planet, subscribes to a strange religion that involves tuning in to some communal consciousness and caring for pets.  Everyone on Earth strives to own a pet.  If they can't afford a real pet, they get an electric i.e., artificial, pet.

Rick Deckard has problems retiring androids.  He's not sure that they aren't alive.  He doesn't like doing this work.  He takes this one last job, though, because one of the androids he needs to retire almost killed his friend.  He's also hoping to use the cash to buy an awesome real animal.

The androids, meanwhile, come up with devious ways of getting away from him.  They even construct a separate police headquarters, with re-routed phones, to make Deckard think he's gone insane.   It appears that the androids really want to live. 

In the end, Deckard retires the androids.  He decides to do it because it becomes obvious to him that they don't value life and can't empathize with anyone or anything.  It's a realization that both he and the "chicken brain" -- who had befriended the androids -- discover when they see how they behave towards the animals.

It's incredibly sad and incredibly depressing.   You finish the book and feel awful.  You feel this hopelessness.  You feel hopeless for the planet and for the future of humanity.  And you feel very, very sad.

After reading this book, you will not spend hours in an all-night cafe discussing whether Deckard was an android with your friends.  You will not talk about your favourite parts of the book at parties with people who also quote The Princess Bride.  All you will do is wonder why you don't see owls in the daytime.

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