A Scenic View of Tannhäuser Gate

My book club will be discussing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on Saturday so I thought I’d write out my discussion topics beforehand. Which is why this may read like a rambling and unfocussed sort of thing than a proper essay.

If you had not told me that Blade Runner was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I would have been hard pressed to guess that as the source material. “Loosely” based is an understatement. Riddley Scott may have glanced at the book sitting on a shelf. Once. Someone related to the film, possibly the second Grip or Best Boy’s third assistant, may have read the book and told someone a half-remembered plot synopsis. The book and movie overlap in that some characters share names and there are human-like androids hunted by bounty hunters. and that’s it.

Normally, this would be a sticking point for me but Blade Runner is such a good movie and Androids such a weird book that I don’t mind that they are essentilaly two different things. I’m glad Riddley Scott changed the title,[1] because it would have been confusing otherwise. Anyone sitting down to watch Blade Runner and expecting to see anything about Mercerism and Empathy boxes and Deckard’s preoccupation with owning a live animal would have been massively disappointed.

I could talk about the film all day long. It’s a classic that has held up remarkably well for a movie that is almost 30 years old. Few sci-fi films from the 80s can say that.

So. The book has a whole subplot about how fallout from the nuclear war[2] has made whole species and phyla already extinct, while the remaining real animals are highly sought after status symbols. Deckard, being just a poor cop who shoots androids for a living can only afford an electric sheep. Ersatz robot animals fill the need for the less fortunate and poor to own an animal, to have something to devote themselves to, as caring for a living creature is a sign of compassion and one of the dominant precepts of Mercerism, a new religion that Deckards wife, Iran is heavily into.[3]

Mercerism is such an obviously fake religion, even more so than Scientology, if you can imagine it. Over the course of the story, it’s even proven to be false, the empathic scenerio poeple experience when they use the empathy box to commune directly with mercer turns out to be just a series of short films made years before. It’s like a cult that watches clips of Charlie Chaplin films and builds a religion out of being kind to tramps. Very odd.

The whole Mercerism scam is uncovered by a popular radio/TV show host named Buster Friendly who is very clearly an android and runs a show that most poeple watch religiously. So it’s sort of a low grade religious war between Pop culture cults, The Little Tramp Vs. Coco. And, keep in mind, this is all just the subplot material.

The Andies[4] are depicted as grim, nihilistic sociopaths. You aren’t rooting for them in any way. Roy is barely there at all, certainly not the leering somber poetic replicant from the movie, who just wants more life. He and the rest of the Andies are pretty much resigned to the fact that they’re going to be hunted down and shot by Deckard and are just trying to prolong this from happening as much as they reasonably can, whicvh is not long at all. Pris shows up early and hangs out, manipulating a chicken head named Isadore.[5] Isadore really just wants to be liked and since he can’t even afford fake animals, he adopts the Andies and tries to take care of them.

As with many of Dick’s later novels, androids has a weird, anticlimactic mind fuck of an ending, in which the ghost of Mercer, the debunked ersatz prophet helps him shoot the Andies, then make shim drive to the deserted foreboding land of Oregon where Deckard finds a toad that he at first thinks is real, until he take sit home and his wife shows him that it’s electric. The End.

The movie bares so little resemblance to the book it was based on that it’s almost impossible to say that you prefer the book over the movie. That Blade Runner came from Androids, even in some weird distorted way, is one of those weird achievements of cinematic history that we’ll just have to marvel at. If pressed, i’d say I like the movie better, if only because it’s ambiguity and narrative structure is a lot more thought out and elgantly conveyed. Philip K. dick was not exactly a prose stylist and some of his sentences are clunkier than they aught to be, some of his ideas even more so.

Not that the book is without merit. Androids has some really great examples of those oddly charming anachronisms you find in mid-20th century sci-fi. The cops use laser guns but carry around blurry printouts of duty sheets. Videophones are in every home and flying car. There are weird, borderline telepathic mood enhancing machines, ubiquitous celebrity driven programming but no internet, and of course it’s 2019, and the Soviet Union is still alive and kicking. A strange and halucinatory mixture of the profound and the kitsch, all duking it out to save your soul, so long as you’re human and can prove it.

1. There’s an interesting story in itself: there apparently is another book titled Blade Runner, about futuristic black market organ trading, (which sounds an awful lot like Repo Men, quite honestly). Scott apparently bought the film rights to that now-obscure book solely because he liked the title. I wonder how the author of this now obscure book feels about that? Searching any bookstore oronline will land you hip-deep in a nest of the movie’s fandom.

2. That, in good old Phildickean fashion, no one really remember. The details are all a bit fuzzy for the characters, even the ones who aren’t chicken heads, but it’s generally regarded as this unavoidable natural disaster that happened int he past and is just one of those things. The slow death of a planet caused by humanity’s uncontrollably need to destroy things.

3. Oh right, Deckard has a wife. She’s not in the movie, as it would be too complicated. He still sleeps with Rachel though, but the dynamics of that relationship are completely reversed. Rachel in the book is an emotionally manipulative sociopath who pretty much seduces Deckard (who in tern lets her for reasons that are only slightly creepy) because she cana nd then kills the goat he baught with the bounty money he earned offing a few other androids. Deckard and Rachel don’t run off together but neither does Deckard rape Rachel, as he doe sin the movie.

4. They’re only called Replicants in the movie, and referred to as Andies or Androids in the book.

5. Isadore fills the role of JF Sebastianin the movie. Chicken heads are basically people who are too damaged genetically to be allowed to immigrate to the off-world colonies. Isadore is a retarded manchild who realizes a little too late that he’s being jerked around by Pris and Roy. He’s not a super smart geneticist with a disorder like Sebastian but just a not too bright guy who works for a fake animal hospital, pickign up and repairing malfunctioning electric pets. He has one of the saddest scenes in the book, where he picks up a sick real cat and doesn’t realize it’s owner thought they were a real vet until the animal dies.