Arguably Philip K. Dick’s most well known novel today, it’s the perfect place to start reading the classic sci-fi author’s works. It’s a short, fast read, but compact with action, reflection, and mystery.
The story centers on Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who ‘retires’ humanoid roberts (or andys, as they are called in the book) that escape from extraterrestrial colonies. The setting is after a future World War Terminus in which the landscape and environment is toxic and ruined from nuclear fallout. Humans have been encouraged to resettle on Mars or elsewhere.
Rick lives in San Francisco with his depressed wife, Iran. They have a joyless marriage, and their only emotions and moods seem to be derived from an Empathy Box. Their religion, Mercerism, is followed without question. The only joy anyone seems to have on Earth is owning real animals. Rick owns an android sheep after his real sheep died. It causes much embarrassment for him. Animals are mostly extinct and expensive. He’s jealous of his neighbor’s real horse. Welcome to the future of keeping up with the Joneses.
The book centers around empathy. Rick finds androids by administering an empathy test. In this book, what it means to be human is to have empathy. The only person I found in the book that exhibited much empathy was John Isidore, a dim-witted human who protects escaped androids. Humans don’t even have empathy for their animals-they are just obsessed with them. They resort to buying android animals to put on a show, to fit in. Androids imitate human emotions, but have genuine self-preservation when trying to escape from their lonely servitude of humans on the colonies. Rick had no empathy for the androids, except Rachael, a female android whom he believed he loved while in the middle of his own existential crisis.
If I were to compare it to the movie, Blade Runner, I’d say (while I love that movie) it focuses too much on how AI can become human-like, instead of what I saw in the book as humans becoming very computer-like. At every turn, Rick questioned what he believed to be real, who to be an android, and the consequences of his job. The scene at the police station had me on the edge on my seat when I read it.
Overall, this is an excellent place to start if you’re interested in contemplating what lies ahead with the tangled relationship of technology and humans. I type that, on my computer that connects me to other humans, while talking to Siri on my phone.