Literary Learnings

Dreaming of Electric Sheep

By Dianna Sinovic

Over the last year or so, I have read several novels and a collection of short stories by Philip K. Dick, a prolific writer of science fiction and what we might call today dystopian scenarios. In his works, he returns again and again to two basic questions: What is real? and What is human?

By coincidence, I also recently read Eric Weiner’s The Socrates Express, in which the author explores the lives and ideas of fourteen philosophers through the ages who asked more or less the same questions.

Dick, who died in 1982 at the age of 53, has been hailed by fans and critics as one of the best science fiction writers of all time. Ironically, he only wrote stories of science fiction because it was the best fit for his ideas; he longed to be a mainstream writer. His work that came closest to that goal was The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history tale in which America and its Allies have lost World War II. It was recently made into a television series for Amazon Prime.

I turned first to Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? One of my all-time favorite movies is Blade Runner, and I had long wondered how the book that inspired the film compared. Although the book is much different in plot from the movie, Androids explores the same questions: Do humans have the only say in who lives and who dies? Do the things we as humans create have their own agency?

The climactic scene in the movie, in which android/replicant Roy Batty has reached the end of his programmed, four-year lifespan, touches me every time I see it. His is a very human lament—that when he “dies,” all of his memories die with him.

The end of Androids is darker, less upbeat, as is often the case in Dick’s fiction. In the novel, Deckard is married, and he returns home after dispatching the menacing androids. With him, he brings what he thinks is a real toad–a miraculous find because they have become extinct in this dystopian future. It’s his wife who discovers that the toad is essentially a robot, not real after all. Or maybe that reality is what the “natural world” has become: where household pets and domestic animals are all artificial even if they act like the “real” thing.

According to a New York Times essay about Dick, critics have often compared his writing to that of Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and Italo Calvino. I can see why. The mixing of the real and unreal is something that all four do, and do well.

Jonathan Lethem, author and screenwriter (Motherless Brooklyn), wrote of Dick’s lifelong exploration of his key questions:

“[Dick] sought to answer them in any framework he thought might suffice. By the time of his death, he’d tried and discarded many dozen such frameworks. The questions remained. It is the absurd beauty of their asking that lasts.”

Dick’s short stories address those two questions, and also play with time. In “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts,” the title characters, like astronauts attempting to reach space, try to make it to the future, only to blow themselves up on their return. They end up (maybe) stuck in a time loop, doomed, a la Groundhog Day, to repeat the sequence over and over for eternity.

And in “Minority Report,” made into a movie of the same name, time and reality are fluid. If you can predict the future, can you change it?

In “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the main character, Douglas Quail, takes a “memory implant” trip to Mars and realizes that he’s been there before. Yes, this was the premise of the movie adapted from the story: Total Recall. But the Dick story is more satisfying because it relies on Quail’s intelligence instead of his brawn to resolve the mystery of who he really is. And the twist ending is perfect. (Interestingly, Neil Gaiman did a riff on the theme with his short story “We Can Get It for You Wholesale.”)

Of the stories of Dick that I’ve read–and I have many more to go (he wrote about 150)—the one that strikes me as the most whimsical is “King of the Elves.” In this story, Shadrach Jones, an ordinary guy who works at a gas station in Derryville, a small, ordinary town, ends up as the leader of the Elves, who are battling the evil Trolls. Who knew there were Elves or Trolls in Derryville?

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