Bruce's Reviews > Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
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May 23, 12

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Read in May, 2012

Is there anyone reading this who doesn't know that this book was the basis for the movie Blade Runner? Look, this is a very good book that is worth reading in its own right, although what I think fans of that film will mostly take away from reading it is just how brilliant a screenwriter and adapter was Dennis Potter.* In retaining the book's mood and exploration of whether or not empathy can be regarded as a fundamental human trait (whether machines can have souls), it's fascinating to see what he and/or the set designers kept (such as delapidated urban landscapes, hovercars, the noirish bounty hunter's job details, tools -- the Voigt-Kampff empathy test in particular --, relationship with Rachael Rosen), what was changed (such as the opera singer turned exotic dancer, the chickenhead ambulance driver turned genius toy designer, the fallout-plagued, abandoned world turned Malthusian remnant), what was cut (such as Mercerism and its conflict with Buster Friendly propaganda, Decker's wife Iran, and the throwaway bit with the duplicate police office), and what was invented out of whole cloth or else extrapolated (Nexus-6 androids as "replicants," their motivations and character arcs, Kodalyi's transformation into Edward James Olmos' Greek chorus commentary by way of origami, and Roy Baty's showdown with his creator, Tyrell).

Potter's dialogue is especially transformative and illustrative, even poetic. Decker's first interview with Rachael appears in both the book (starting about p. 39) and is one of the movie's opening scenes; much of the dialogue is identical. However, the film version redacts and distills much of what Dick first put on paper, and the result is that much more profound. Going by memory, I've underlined what Potter, et al. left out:
"I'm Rachael Rosen. I guess you're Mr. Deckard."

"This is not my idea," he said.

"Yes, Inspector Bryant told us that. But you're officially the San Francisco Police Department, and it doesn't believe our unit is to the public benefit." She eyed him from beneath long black lashes, probably artificial.

Rick said, "A humanoid robot is like any other machine; it can fluctuate between being a benefit and a hazard very rapidly. As a benefit it's not our problem."

"But as a hazard," Rachael Rosen said, "then you come in. Is it true, Mr. Deckard, that you're a bounty hunter?"

He shrugged, with reluctance, nodded.

"You have no difficulty viewing an android as inert," the girl said, "so you can 'retire' it, as they say."

"Do you have the group selected out for me?" he said. "I'd like to--" He broke off. Because, all at once, he had seen their animals.
At this juncture in the film if I remember rightly, Decker is distracted by a beautiful, but obviously mechanical owl. The owl is a visual metaphor for how Decker and humanity writ large see Rosen's creations: as beautiful, albeit soulless creations, luxuriant mockeries of the real. In the book, however, Decker encounters a whole menagerie of caged animals, which he takes for genuine. He both envies this ostentatious display of wealth and covets the animals' possession as a conspicuous means to demonstrate his nurturing capacity to others. There follows a lengthy (and a bit repetitive) discourse on the Sidney's catalogue and the monetary value placed on the ownership of other living creatures as pets.

While Decker's Mercerist obsession with animals makes a fascinating addition to the book's backstory and does much to illustrate how a cult of empathy could emerge in the devastating aftermath of nihilistic war(s), both it and the addition of his wife undermine and detract from Decker's grapplings with his own identity. As a classic hardboiled detective in the noir mold of Philip Marlowe, Decker confronts filmgoers and readers with the irony that he may be no less empathetic -- no more human -- than the replicant androids he is paid to hunt. Potter reveals this conflict gradually, allows it to escalate toward the film's climax, at which point it is directly addressed (in parallel between Baty-Tyrell and Decker-Rachael). For Dick, it reverberates throughout his book.

I'm by no means the first person to point this out. In just looking up the name of the Eldon Rosen character in the movie (Tyrell), I came upon this similar analysis, which compares book dialogue and plot with similar material from the film, reaching similar conclusions. (Note that this link contains quite a few spoilers to both book and film, so be warned.)

Dick's book contains other extraneous material (such as the use of mood-altering electric field generators in lieu of drugs and the power of psychosomatic responses to impart real physical damage) that I think reflect more the author's immediate preoccupations than those of the world he wishes us to consider. However, these do not ultimately detract from the work as a whole, be it as a book or as a movie, both of which offer a fascinating and profound exploration of what it means to be human. I happen to think Dennis Potter, et al. do it better, but credit Philip K. Dick for pointing them in the right direction.

* UPDATE - regarding Dennis Potter, a friend of mine who ought to know corrects me, "I'm inclined to agree about Blade Runner improving on its source material, however, I don't believe that Dennis Potter was involved. Though Potter dabbled in science-fiction in his later work like Cold Lazarus, Blade Runner's script was written by others, in particular David Peoples who also wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood's movie Unforgiven."

Mea culpa. In fact Dennis Potter is not credited on IMDB, although he has been credited with Blade Runner authorship in multiple critical reviews of his work as a whole (which also address screenplays IMDB does credit him for: Gorky Park, The Singing Detective, and Pennies from Heaven). If the Blade Runner attribution is in fact just factoid, maybe it arises from confusion from Potter's teleplay for BBC's Blade on the Feather (which my friend describes for me as "a play he wrote for British TV in the late-70s featuring Tom Conti and Denholm Elliot")?
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Andrew Michael (new)

Andrew Michael Schwarz I agree with you. The movie is better than the book. I saw he movie years ago. Of course. And just finished the book last night so I'm scratching my head a bit.

Bruce His novels come across to me as great ideas, pulp execution (this one, Ubik, Clans of the Alphane Moon, The Man in the High Castle). Perhaps that's why his short stories have in some cases had deeper impact?

But what do I know, my favorite of his short stories are the lighthearted "Short, Happy Life of the Brown Oxford" and its sequel, "The Preserving Machine." (Along those lines, I'd love to hear the Wagner-beast performed.) If you haven't read these yet, they'll take only about 5 minutes of your time and are good for a quick laugh. I think they're collected in the same volume, too.

message 3: by Andrew Michael (new)

Andrew Michael Schwarz I think your right about this great ideas-pulp execution thing. Makes me think of the original superheroes. It's hard to see the evolution from pixelated 3 color on newsprint to the Motion Picture Events we all enjoy today. I guess Dick grew up in a different writing climate from the sophisticated and form-heavy School currently envogue. I'll have to check out those titles as you suggest.

I'm also going to Chandler to get the source material for the Marlowe-Esque detective for an upcoming novel I have planned. Chandler so far appears a bit more refined.

Bruce Love Raymond Chandler! Coincidentally, I'm currently reading The D. Case, a mystery that uses Chandler's character as part of a literary/mystery conference intended to definitively resolve The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The authors also threw in Archie Goodwin and Lew Archer. (I'm guessing they weren't acquainted with Elmore Leonard and Philip Kerr, or didn't care for their versions, or maybe couldn't get the rights. In any case, their detectives have yet to make an appearance 5 chapters into 'D.')

Good luck with the novel. The hard-boiled detective archetype is really hard to carry off outside of parody.

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