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The 50th Anniversary of Electric Sheep
my piece from last weekend's
Irish Times on Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep...
March 2018 marks the 36th anniversary of
the death of science fiction writer Philip K Dick whose most iconic novel Do
Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was finished fifty years ago this spring. All
of Philip K Dick’s novels are back in print, there is a current Amazon TV
series (Electric Dreams) based on Dick’s writings, this Sunday Blade Runner
2049 (the sequel to Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Dick’s Electric Sheep) will
almost certainly win the Academy Award for best cinematography and there are at
least a dozen TV and movie adaptations of Dick’s works in the pipeline. Add to
that the number of knock off PKD movie and TV adaptations out there (*cough*
Black Mirror) and it’s obvious that we are living in a Philip K Dick saturated world.
This is a pretty amazing turn around for a writer who died broke and in near obscurity
(his hasty obituary in the New York Times was a scant three paragraphs long and
riddled with errors).
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was written during
the period 1966-1968, probably the two most turbulent years America has
experienced since World War II. Assassinations, riots, Vietnam, hippies, drugs,
counter-culture, scandals and the Cold War were the context for Dick to write a
book which is basically a pretty straightforward detective story set in a
nightmare future. The McGuffins are different but we’re in the same world as
Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler: missing people, a shot partner, a femme
fatale, trouble with the local cops and a bleak cynical universe from which no
hope is expected and none is given. Perhaps it’s not even that big of a
coincidence that when the movie version of Electric Sheep was filmed – as Blade
Runner – the cameras rolled on the same set where they shot the Maltese Falcon
forty years earlier.
plot of Electric Sheep is complex but basically we follow the story of
detective Rick Deckard in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco as he tracks down
runaway androids (who as slaves are forbidden to come back to Earth from the
off world colonies), deals with his Virtual Reality-addicted wife, and keeps up
the pretence that his electric sheep is in fact real. The latter storyline is
the most interesting thematic element of the novel. After World War Terminus,
real animals are rare and caring for and protecting any kind of a real creature
gives one incredible status. For someone with low self esteem in a job he
hates, Deckard hopes to fool everyone, including ultimately himself, about the
sheep; perhaps if he pretends hard enough that his sheep is real and that he is
a decent man these things might actually come true. The eco disaster theme was
largely dropped from Blade Runner but was developed again in Blade Runner 2049.
meets up with the beautiful and deceitful Rachael, who turns out to be an
android, and later in one fantastic scene he is taken to a police station where
he either has a mental breakdown or else he sees the world for what it really
is: everyone in this precinct appears to be an android – it’s the humans that
are unusual and in this place it’s Deckard himself who is the fake like his
sheep. Shaking off this strange vision he pursues the final runaways, becoming
more disillusioned than ever as he realizes that cracking this case will bring
not happiness but only further existential crises. Where is he going? What is
he doing with his life? What are any of us doing with any of our lives? Like
Sam Spade at the end of The Maltese Falcon Deckard has no solutions. He wonders
what all of it means and comes up with nothing. Philip K Dick doesn’t give us
any answers either except for the vague but possibly deep idea that the meaning
of life is to be found in the search for the meaning of life. The best we can
do is to strive for the truth, although we are constantly reminded to be wary, for
falsity is everywhere: the Maltese Falcon is a fake, the electric sheep is a
fake and Deckard himself is the biggest fake of all. This is an idea that Blade
Runner and Blade Runner 2049 flirt with throughout both films.
his near contemporary Philip Larkin, Dick increasingly became obsessed by and
wrote about death. Dick wondered what being alive really felt like and whether
death would kill that state of consciousness; sometimes he believed that death
was merely a transition between states and other times that it was the final
destination. Perhaps he hoped it was the former but knew it was the latter.
“I’d rather be a living dog, than a dead science fiction writer,” he once said.
Electric Sheep explores various aspects of dying and consciousness and asks if
it is possible to be a good person whose job it is to track down and kill
sentient creatures who just want to be left alone.
death obsession began early. Born in Chicago in 1928, his twin sister Jane
Charlotte Dick died when he was only a few weeks old. All his life Dick felt
Jane’s absence and her loss is frequently referenced in his fiction. Jane was
buried in a lonely grave in the bleak Colorado plains town of Fort Morgan with,
morbidly, a space left on the headstone for baby Phil. The grave awaited Dick
for five decades and when he died in 1982 sure enough the twins were reunited
in death. In middle age, after years of amphetamine abuse, Dick even flirted
with the idea that in a parallel universe he was the one that had died and Jane
had survived – he was already buried in the grim Fort Morgan cemetery, next to
Interstate 76, and Jane was the science fiction writer living in California.
(This idea was further developed in the playful novel Bad Monkeys by Matt
our universe, after Jane’s death, Dick and his family migrated to the San
Francisco Bay Area. He went to the same high school as Ursula Le Guin and after
a brief period at UC Berkeley he dropped out and quickly began selling science
fiction stories to magazines and newspapers. Dick’s adult life was fragmented
to say the least. He moved often, was married five times and even though he
wrote constantly he was not good at keeping money. His default paranoia was
exacerbated by his experiments with drugs, his dealings with local street
thugs, and his anti-government activities during the Nixon era.
Many of Philip K Dick’s stories were written hastily under the influence of
speed and are of dubious quality, but the books that he took trouble over –
Electric Sheep, The Man In The High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, Flow My
Tears The Policeman Said – are all well-crafted novels often with a cop protagonist.
final years were spent in an increasingly eccentric investigation of the true
nature of God and the cosmos. In a March 02 1980 diary entry, Dick predicted
that because he was close to uncovering the secrets of the universe, God would
pull the plug on this version of Philip K Dick; two years later, on March 02
1982, the plug was literally pulled on a brain-dead Dick as he lay in a
hospital after a stroke.
one would argue that Dick was a great stylist or an inventor of an American
idiom, like, say, Hammett, but he was the creator of brilliant concepts and
visions that were uncannily ahead of their time. Philip K Dick’s paranoid world
view distrustful of government, computers, purveyors of information and even
our own inner view of reality seems radically in step with our contemporary
world. Lovers of big concept science fiction will enjoy Dick’s better novels
and will judge him not by his prose but by his gift for originality and his
ability to convey extraordinarily prescient ideas in even more extraordinary