A mind-bending dystopian hero’s quest through the looking glass?
Summary: An impending sense of desperation pervades this gloomy romp of Dick’s arguably most famous work. The author’s prose, sometimes criticized, is a swift reading. In trying to keep up with the schizophrenic twists and turns of the story—I think that the digestible writing is well balanced. Though the dialog can be stiff in parts there is so much depth in what is going on, the work as a whole would suffer if weighed down by verbose diction.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website: www.nodeodorant.com.
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Review: Rick Deckard is chasing after six renegade androids in a post-apocalyptic earth. He’s a government agent/bounty hunter, whose main task is retiring escaped androids who are trying to blend in among humans. Sounds dangerous and exciting? Maybe. However, Dick gives the character a sort of “everyman” approach. Deckard is good at what he does, but it’s just a means to an end. And what is that? Well, that’s life baby. Deckard is just trying to get through the day like everyone else, and bring home a decent paycheck so he can afford the latest, coveted creature-comforts.
In this world, that means real-life “animals.” Deckard needs to make money so he can buy a live “animal,” now a luxury in a world where nearly everything seems to be rock, plastic, metal or kipple (more on that later). World War Terminus has already rocked the planet sending a vast majority of human emigrants into the skies to establish new colonies on mars. The earth has emptied out a good number of people, and for good reason as the planet’s covered in radioactive dust. So many animals have since died off, that now it’s considered “chic” to own one. So much so that a whole cottage industry has rose up around creating fake robot animals complemented with fake veterinarians. In keeping up with appearances, Deckard replaced his recently died sheep with a robotic one. And yet he can’t quite get over it. He want’s a real one damn it, and he’ll destroy as many androids as he has to so he can make enough money to do so.
He needs to. His marriage with wife Iran is strained. Everyday they dial-in their appropriate feeling for the day through the help of a bedside console known as a Mood Organ. One of my favorite lines of the book is when Deckard is trying to get his wife to dial in a happier mood from the console and she resists claiming: “My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression.” (!) And yet, even though Deckard also tries to enhance his mood with the console he remains gloomy. He’s out their searching, looking for some kind of connection. His job is starting to weigh heavy on him and all he can do is hold out a little longer until he can find that next “thing” to set matters right.
Iran (and Deckard to a different extent), finds some solace in the world religion known as Mercerism. The faith is a sort of communal virtual-reality experience where people of the world connect with one and another by watching a repetitive video of an old messiah-like figure plodding through a barren landscape of rocks. Mercer (the mysterious figure) toils along while getting occasionally stoned (and I don’t mean with drugs) by unseen forces, until he goes over this giant hill into the mysterious Tomb World. For some inexplicable reason, the worshipers, who engage this religion (also through a handheld console), experience the stoning. They even come away from the engagement with real-life injuries (though not severely). Iran seems to get something from this religion, a sense of belonging, a sense of community, which may be important in a world where mankind is slowly being siphoned away to distant planets.
Whether or not this religion is genuine is up for debate – but then, that’s faith. There is an interesting subplot woven through the story where a 24-hour vapid TV personality host attempts to debunk this would-be messiah as a fake. Dick manages to blend the lines between the virtual, spiritual, and physical world in a way that makes the reader question what is real (in a good way). Can we ever really know? Deckard finds that Mercerism, or his faith, or is it his humanity, cannot be so easily dismissed by a television expose.
As the messiah character toils uphill amid flying rocks, the reader can’t help but feel Deckard’s plight. Retire some androids. Make a little money. Buy something fancy. Then do it all again. Why? What’s the point? Mercerism seems to indicate that that is the point of everything. That’s what we all do. We slowly climb our hills, get a few rocks flung at us, and keep going. To where? The Tomb World? Who knows. The point is, we all have to do it. Nobody is exempt. It’s just a little easier to take when we can commiserate our woes with everyone else. To know we are not alone.
That’s what makes us human. Separates us from the androids. Good old-fashioned “empathy”. In fact, that’s virtually the only way (besides bone marrow testing which will require a warrant) Deckard can determine if someone is really a some thing. Deckard must administer a verbal psychological test and monitor the reaction of the suspect with the help of yet another special device. But as technology increases, the androids are becoming harder and harder to detect—some of the androids don’t even know themselves that they are androids due to false memory implants (in classic Dick fashion even robots have to question what’s real and what’s not). In a great plot point, the author let’s us know that the tried and true “Voight-Kampf” android test has flaws. Apparently, people with mental issues or “flat affects” might elicit a false positive which puts Deckard in a conundrum because he doesn’t want to be blowing away real-life humans.
The fear of finding a false-positive is not fully realized though. Much like the fear that the androids are going to “retire” Deckard before he can retire them. Dick shies away from action-packed cliff-hangers. We don’t completely fear the danger that Deckard will be killed off by an android, even though his predecessor was severely hospitalized by one and unable to speak to him about it. As other reviewers have pointed out, many of the android confrontations are over as quickly as they start. To his credit, I think this keeps the focus on the more important esoteric questions being raised rather than the adventure story used to illuminate the issues. We are there, with Deckard, wondering just as he is, why he’s doing it all? If he’s killed off, we’ll that’s not the main stake here—his sanity, sense of self, sense of morality—those are the things at stake.
Even though the androids are definitely not human, they act and feel much like humans. Deckard sees this and he struggles with it, sympathizing for the androids he is seeking to destroy. One of the female androids, Rachel, seduces Deckard, putting him in a very precarious position as she tries to influence his actions. Things get really weird (is that even possible) when Deckard is picked up by the police, who seem to know nothing about him. This is Dick in his complete mastery. Deckard is held at a “second” separate police station and questioned in such a manner that we really begin to doubt who the androids really are. Is Deckard an android? Are these “other” policemen androids? Deckard even gives himself the “Voight-Kampf” psychological test at some point.
Near the end, Deckard is really questioning himself and Rachel’s influence weighs heavily. Still, he plods along, determined to finish what he’s started. The messiah-like figure Wilbur Mercer (hence “Mercerism”) suddenly appears in the real world (as opposed to the one on the tv screens which may or may not be real) to help him through.
For me, the most jolting scene in the whole book is when Deckard comes home after having completed his mission. After knowing he’s earned his bounties he decided to finance the purchase of a real-life goat. It’s a capitalistic bid for happiness, but Deckard seems sincere in his effort. After all his hard work and toil he comes home only to be told by Iran that Rachel (the android he’s spared), pushed the goat off their building to its death. Deckard seems to have done all for naught.
This would have been a real poignant place to end. However, we continue on with the character for a few more chapters when he lumps it, and heads out into the vast desolate wilds of the world. Again, things go from strange to stranger when Deckard begins toiling up a real life rocky hillside that too closely resembles the one Wilbur Mercer is always climbing. When at last he comes down again, he happens upon a little toad. Amazed, he looks up the animal in his trusty catalog and finds out they are supposed to be extinct. Suddenly, everything looks hopeful again. To have a found a real life animal—an extinct one! He’ll be able to sell the thing for untold riches. Deckard races back home to share the news with his wife. Tenderly she flips the animal over and points to the electrical panel beneath. Another fake. Defeat again.
Yet, Deckard returns home, not to plug in to the mood organ and zone out of life. Instead, he falls asleep. Unaided and disconnected from the artificial technologies of his world. He seems to get some comfort from being near to his wife instead of all the contraptions of the world. And, the android Rachel, by killing his goat, has shown him the foolishness of letting his happiness rely solely on materialistic things. Perhaps Deckard’s relentless pursuit of the androids was rote and mechanical. Was Deckard acting the part of the android in his role as bounty hunter? Did the androids act more like living things in their urge to resist “retirement” (or death)? Maybe Dick was trying to say that it is our actions that define us, rather than what we may claim to be?