Do androids dream?

This is going to be a strange post. I am currently reading Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Aloud. To my girlfriend Claire.

What?  hear you ask… why would you do that? Well, apart from being the best boyfriend in the world I’ll let Claire’s words why…

Why are we reading the book? a) I like stories. b) I like being read stories. c) Matt is constantly sharing sci fi and computer games (Not always successfully) with me in a gradual drip feed way and we’ve read a few short stories together before. I’d seen the book on the library shelves and been a bit intrigued by the title. (No I haven’t been brain washing her into reading SF rather than her usual “beloved crime fiction”.)

It is a really interesting experience. I am looking at one of my favourite books from a new perspective, and Claire is getting the audio book version (albeit without the professional narrator).

So far we have only read six chapters, but I felt that we have reached a point where I want to write about my thoughts both about the process and the book. I am sure she won’t mind my writing about this…I’d best go and check though… hang on *goes to get mobile*

….

Okay, so it’s okay for me to write about this…

Well last night we reached a bit of a good place for me to pause and discuss where we are and what has happened, and some of the discussions it has prompted. I’ll post Claire’s comments in bold throughout the post… because she puts things so much better than me sometimes.

Spoilers – If you haven’t read the book which was written in 1968 and you haven’t seen the film Blade Runner stop here. Go and borrow a copy of the book from your local library (or buy one) and rent the DVD or buy it, it’s worth it. Then come back.

Okay, so we can talk about the opening section here openly and share our experience.

Blurb from the back of the SF Masterworks edition of the book states…

War had left the Earth devestated. Through its ruins, bountysf-masterworks hunter Rick Deckard stalked, in search of the renegade replicants who were his prey. When he wasn’t ‘retiring’ them, he dreamed of owning the ultimate status symbol – a live animal. Then Rick got his big assignment: to kill six Nexus – 6 targets, for a huge reward. But things were never that simple, and Rick’s life quickly turned into a nightmare kaleidoscope of subterfuge and deceit.

So… we started reading this together a few weeks ago, with me reading a chapter aloud to Claire over the phone every now and then (when we aren’t too tired or it’s too late), which she loves and I originally didn’t like, but more recently I don’t mind as it is affording me a new perspective on the story.

I’ll discuss the chapters we have read until now and the main discussion points we had as a result of them, and then I’ll pop back and add more as we progress through the book.

Chapter One – in which the main character, Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter, is introduced to us. We observe what almost becomes an argument between him and his wife is a result of a discussion about what “mood” to dial on the mood organ. After narrowly avoiding this Rick heads to the roof where he keeps his sheep. Hints about World War Terminus, and some sort of fallout that has killed lots of breeds of animals.

Rick’s sheep is artificial, an android version, because to own a real sheep would be massively expensive. Especially after WWT. Rick has a discussion with his neighbour (who apparently owns a real horse) and then after admitting his sheep is an android, skulks off to work.

After reading this chapter we had a discussion about the electronic animals, and about how interesting perception can be. If everyone has an electronic animal but treats it like a real one, how do you know which ones are real and which ones aren’t? If it is the height of impropriety to ask, then everyone’s animal is real and yet, none are, how do you know?

When he ‘fixes’ his wife’s mood by turning her dial. Shocking and completely wrong! How it’s this even allowed to happen. Why doesn’t she stop him? What’s wrong with having a wallow day anyway? Isn’t that human nature? (no comment on the wallow day…)

This conversation then progressed to the nature of perception in general. How things become cultural norms and why they differ. Very interesting, and brought a new perspective to the world created by the novella.

Chapter 2 – In which we are introduced to John Isadore, a person who either as a result of fallout, or nature is classed as a “special”. These people are a new underclass, unable to hold down jobs, emigrate to the new colonies or pretty much do anything other than waste away. John shares with us how he is more able than most, and is able to hold a job as a ‘vet’ treating sick (broken) animals, and through him we experience the ’empathy box’. This allows people to experience what is basically a sort of religious experience, a cyclical experience of climbing a mountain, and then descending into nothing, only to climb again.

This then led to a discussion about the nature of religion, and why I felt that this reminded me of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the rise and fall and rise (to some extent) of Lucifer, the brightest of God’s Angels.

John Isadore then hears a new noise in his building (which until then he was the only occupant). He tries to remember what you take to people who move in to a new building, which prompted many comic suggestions, both from him and Claire.

Chapter 3 – Where Rick notices a shop with an Ostrich, upon arriving at work he calls the store and has a discussion with the salesman that is decidedly like buying a used car. Payment terms, down payment and so on. Again stressing the importance of live animals in Deckard’s world.

Why would you want a fake ostrich? I get the sheep or the horse but ostrich? Makes no sense. I like the catalogue prices though. (Think about cars, to some anything that runs you from a – b does the job, for others it is important that they trade in for a bigger, better make, Kia compared to an Audi or Mercedes – cue more conversation about status and ownership, the idea of the catalogue simply adds to the idea of animals as a status symbol – Parkers car price guide anyone?)

Chapter 4 – In this chapter Rick goes through to meet his boss, where he is informed that the chief bounty has been shot by an advanced android that has escaped to Earth from the colonies. Rick is then tasked with hunting them down. But first he has to go to visit the company that makes them and do sort of a trial run of his android test on their super duper new android model, Nexus-6. Upon arriving at the company HQ, Rick finds that they have an owl, and he is introduced to the old gent who runs the company, and his daughter. As a test, he is forced to try his test (a series of empathy questions whilst monitoring subconscious responses) on the daughter.

This led to more discussion about how important animals are to the characters and where the story is likely to go. I dropped some hints and an already intrigued Claire wanted another chapter…

Discussion about nexus. Which came first the book or the Google thingy? Is this why the tablet is called the nexus? (The book came first, is Google’s device named after the androids? Quite possibly, you know first hand how geeky geeks can be)
Another chapter? Why? I really wanted to do the test 😉

Chapter 5 – There was a bit of a break in proceedings before this chapter due to a week on holiday, so I had to do a sort of “Previously on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep…..” bit before we started…(which actually is what led to the thought of doing this post)…anyway…. In this chapter we see Rick Deckard asking his questions the Rachael, the daughter of the company owner.

A number of questions are asked (which admittedly caused some confusion in the listener)…all of the questions are designed to illicit a response from the interviewee, not always in an obvious way… as has already been established in the world, animals are more than sacred. So questions regarding calfskin wallets, and children killing butterflies are obvious designed to lull the candidate into a false sense of security, then the complex interactions come. Posters involving naked ladies and bearskin rugs, bullfight posters and the like. The questioning leads Rick to classify Rachael as an android. As this is clearly not the case and his test has failed, he is no longer able to use it to track down the android(s) that shot the chief bounty hunter. They offer a trade, they keep his secret (and continue to be able to sell their nice fancy new Nexus-6 androids) and they’ll give Rick the owl. Rick has a Columbo moment and asks if he can ask one more question. In true Columbo style, his misdirection works and he finds out that Rachael, is, in fact, a Nexus-6 android. He was correct, they were trying to bluff him. Rick leaves, safe in the knowledge that he can hunt down the remaining android(s)… if he s up to the task.

I really didn’t get the quiz questions. Why some things are more acceptable and others aren’t? Why the wallet is less acceptable than a butterfly collection (It isn’t, the reaction SHOULD be the same, Rachael’s wasn’t). Why the responses about the naked women poster are all about a world without animals rather than the nature of relationships (Misdirection, the social response is to talk about the naked woman, the emphatic response is to react to the bearskin rug)

We went over this chapter a lot, examining the questions and discussing misdirection, likening the questioning to a magic trick..

“If a magician says look at my right hand, look at my right hand, not the left hand, your instinct is to look at the left hand, at which point, the right hand does the trick…. Same principle”

This then (somehow) led to a discussion about metadata, cataloguing and philosophy… Don’t know how, don’t know why, all I know is that it was very late and I may have ended up suggesting the Claire reads Sophie’s World… which is kind of a beginners guide to philosophy in the form of a fiction novel. I can only remember bits, but enough to make me sound clever…

Claire’s thoughts so far overall are…

It’s clear that you read things in a different way to how I do. Your background is in literature, sci-fi, philosophy, and technology (Yay).  Mine is in pure science, popular culture, arts and concept (or as I call it “arty ballocks”, but I am enjoying your perspective on the book).

My feminist beliefs kicked in in chapter 1 but not in chapter 5. I’m not bothered that the android girl is caught out but I’m very bothered that his wife is controlled in such a way in chapter 1(Perhaps, because the android girl is now dehumanised, reduced to a thing – we don’t think twice about trading in a phone for a newer model but to do so with people is frowned upon at least)

I’m confused why it matters if the animal is android or real, but I recognise the idea that if you really want something but can’t have it then perhaps you settle for the next best thing, which in this case is an artificial one. I don’t get why you would want an owl or an ostrich but maybe that reflects my own views on owning ‘the next best thing / designer item’. The idea of android animals to fulfil a need to care for something / own the animal you desire reminds me of the film ‘A.I.’ . in the movie the parents want the child and the child wants so much to be a real boy. Then, the child trades to have another single day with his mother. Heartbreaking. If you want something so much why wouldn’t you take any option available to you? (Really? using an SF film to illustrate a point? and one that is based on a short story by another master of SF… We are really are drip feeding SF into you aren’t we 😉 – hehe)

I guess that’s the point. (Yup, the point in this case is to use an analogy we can easily accept in order to further pomote the idea of androids that are indistinguishable from humans and, in the case of the animals (the pretend vets, the idea that no one admits their animal is a fake) then at what point do these things become real? Do they become real? What is real?

All in all, I am actually really enjoying reading this book to Claire, I get to share one of my favourite books with her, she gets a story, and I get a new perspective on the book. Which is really interesting. I won’t go into it now, but it’s funny how you think you know a book, and the process of sharing it with someone allows you to look at it from a new perspective.

Up to now I’m enjoying the story. I can’t remember any part without the ‘Previously….’ summary but I’m enjoying the story, being read to, the ideas we share and the opportunity to ask ridiculous questions 😉

I’m not sure if she’ll have the time, but I’d like to try and get her to write a few words when we have finished the book (maybe a guest post) and possibly after we have watched the film.

See you soon peeps.

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