1. The central theme here is pretty clear: what is human? Coming out in 1968, the same year as the Civil Rights Act of 1968—the Fair Housing Act—the metaphor here is pretty clear. And it’s not just context. The whole book deals with questions of what is human when Androids—bio-robotic beings created by humans in a human shape that largely act like humans—are considered subhuman. The culture has devised certain tests to differentiate between human and Android: two branches of testing mentioned in the book deal with reaction speeds and empathy. The former test relies on a limit of biotechnology in the world. But when Rachael is giving her villain interview in the car, she mentions that the company making androids, Rosen, will solve that issue. The main test discussed is the empathy one and the main character, Rick Deckard, is a bounty hunter trained to administer this test and retire/kill the fugitive Androids who have fled Mars for Earth. The empathy test mimics the classic security conundrum: a test detects Androids reliably enough to be used as evidence in a court of law, so the Android makers learn about the test, and design the next versions to pass it as humans, so the test is then modified to catch the new types, and so on. Dick’s conclusion seems to be,
Rachael said, "Or we could live in sin, except that I’m not alive."—But part of the reason why this book is so engaging intellectually is that neither side, human or Android, gets a free pass. Dick shows both at their best and their worst, giving screen time to both sides so that the reader gets a complex conception of the central circumstance. And this writing tactic is something I strive to emulate.
"Legally you’re not. But really you are. Biologically. You’re not made out of transistorized circuits like a false animal; you’re an organic entity." And in two years, he thought, you’ll wear out and die. Because we never solved the problem of cell replacement, as you pointed out. So I guess it doesn’t matter anyhow.
"Do you have information that there's an android in the cast? I'd be glad to help you, and if I were an android would I be glad to help you?"
"An android," he said, "doesn't care what happens to another android. That's one of the indications we look for."
"Then," Miss Luft said, "you must be an android."
2. The main way he wrinkles this central question comes from the specifics of the characters. Deckard isn’t a hero. He bests the other bounty hunters, in retirements/kills per hour, but that success tears him up inside through the central questions of the novel: spirituality, empathy, what makes humans human, and where Androids fit on a human spectrum. These conflicts carry the novel crashing forwards.
—Similarly, Rachael Rosen and the Batys question their states from the Android side. When humans can rationally dial their emotional outlook on a machine, and Androids can emulate the emotional tenor of opera, that emulation of humans annoys the Android characters. In a sense, they want to be allowed to be Androids, but they also know too well the ways they can’t be human, and want that too.
"I’ll tell you what fouls us up, Roy; it’s our goddamn superior intelligence!" She glared at her husband, her small, high breasts rising and falling rapidly. "We’re so smart—Roy, you’re doing it right now; goddamn you, you’re doing it now!"This scene plays against numerous scenes between Deckard and his wife. It also shows that internal conflicts exist in the Androids themselves, despite being hyper-rational beings at the end of the day.
—This character building relies on Dick telling and showing Deckard, telling his thinking and showing the results of his mental processes; all while just showing the reader the Androids. The novel is a book about Deckard, through and through, yet his central conflicts constitute an interesting enough concept to carry the whole thing successfully. And Dick supports his theme with showing the Androids enough to bring contrasting viewpoints into the reader’s mind directly, rather than solely by implication.
Reality is approximately as dependable as a politician’s promise... the result is the same: Reality, of the capital "R" variety, has become as relative a thing as the dryness of our respective Martinis. Yet the struggle goes on, the fight continues. Against what? Ultimately, Powers, Principalities, Thrones, and Dominations, often contained in hosts who are themselves victims, prisoners, manipulated men and women.
3. At the same time that he has written great characters and focused in on an intriguing theme, Dick also seems maybe a bit too focused on that theme. If an effect of strong worldbuilding is the desire to know more about that world, the flipside is dissatisfaction with what is known. There are all these tantalizing glimpses of the wider world that get passed over to focus on the internal conflict of Deckard: World War Terminus, the architectural implications of a vastly depleted earth population, Mars colonies, why nobody is Jurassic Park-ing extinct animals when they have good enough genetic engineering to make credible humans, what’s really going on between the pair of married or sibling Androids who call themselves Batys. The first two of these may be aspects that Dick doesn’t want to get into—his rigid focus is in the way. But the Mars Colonies are teased so often and tantalizingly—in the TV ad, the words of the Batys and Pris, offhand remarks here and there—that the inclusion of more description or their presence on the page could have been a fantastic opportunity to further contextualize and wrinkle this central theme. Similarly, why Rosen isn’t using DNA to clone extinct animals appears a curious plot hole. And the Baty relationship is a dropped ball: Dick sets it up to be a discussion of potential Android empathy, between Androids rather than between an Android and an animal or human. Yet he drops that ball in order to focus on Deckard. While I appreciate the legibility the focus gives to the central theme, some missed opportunities beg for some more discussion in the book.
"You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe."
4. As to the writing, it doesn’t annoy me. The language never quite gets beautiful, but it communicates well. As Dick is focused on the theme, the writing itself exists to communicate that theme as efficiently as possible. And it does. When Deckard has his breakdown and is wandering in the wilderness, the language is esoteric and paradoxical. When he is killing Androids, it’s all short, declarative sentences with no room for any gray area or reader interpretation. And the rest of the writing oscillates between these two extremes as Deckard’s mental state changes. It’s a cool trick, but it’s not pulled off quite like Robert Heinlein lets his characters run away with his novels. With Heinlein, the characters are so different from novel to novel that the voice of his books changes drastically. With Dick, the voice here is pretty similar to what he did with Ubik. I wrote about that book, "The writing is fine. Nothing spectacular, nothing terrible. It’s a uniform quality, which is impressive, but doesn’t really sound beautiful or disappoint. It’s good, and that’s about as far as I can go." I think that applies to this novel as well. However, here he has more great one-liners that tap into the consciousness of American marketing strategies:
"Emigrate or Degenerate."These one-liners are great. They certainly help to keep the text moving along nicely and codify certain traits Dick is discussing.
"My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression."
"It's the basic condition of life to be required to violate our own identity."
"Everything is true," he said. "Everything anybody has ever thought."
"It's the basic condition of life to be required to violate our own identity."
"The writers," Pris said, "made it up."
You can't go from people to nonpeople.
Office gossip annoyed him because it always proved better than the truth.
—Dick uses them for offhand humor as well, and I’m left kind of wondering how sarcastic this novel is. For instance, Isidore’s line, "She’ll probably want to, once I show her how; as near as I can make out, most women, even young ones like her, like to cook: it’s an instinct." Or lines like, "I like her; I could watch her the rest of my life. She has breasts that smile," help define characters through showing, but are also pretty awkward to read in today’s world. How sarcastic was Dick being with this text? I think there is some sarcasm in here, some lampooning of the "sexual revolution" for being to the benefit of men by encouraging women to give more of their physical selves for less. Is that too Marxist of an interpretation for Dick? Maybe. But at the same time, the Deckards’ marriage, Isidore’s internal monologue—this book has certain moments that don’t really make sense without Dick putting some sarcasm in there. I probably need to know more about Dick to tell when he’s being sarcastic and when not.
"Is it a loss?" Rachael repeated. "I don’t really know; I have no way to tell. How does it feel to have a child? How does it feel to be born, for that matter? We’re not born; we don’t grow up; instead of dying from illness or old age, we wear out like ants. Ants again; that’s what we are. Not you; I mean me. Chitinous reflex-machines who aren’t really alive." She twisted her head to one side, said loudly, "I’m not alive!"
5. The structure here is my second favorite thing about the novel. On one hand, this is a pretty traditional structure: start with the character waking up, then going to work, then the task of the day spinning out of control until he’s sexing the enemy, finishing his task, and weeping alone in a desert of nuclear wasteland, hallucinating hard—and close novel. But the focus of the novel is the theme, not the sexy action plot. So, there are weird expansions within that pulp plot in sections where the theme takes over: the sex scene is pretty awkward and philosophical and long—intentionally—because it exhumes much of what is deep within Deckard. The ending doesn’t happen when the last Android falls, but rather after a bunch more pages of Deckard trying to come to terms with his place in the world and his views on Androids, spirituality, and the animal kingdom. So the structure is not a strict pulp plot, but rather a thinky book plot with a pulp plot inside it to help frame and drive the thinky bits. Great technique! As I bore of action, or every enemy is dead, a thinky bit appears; as I bore of contemplation, or it reaches a natural stopping point, a gunfight happens. Each pulls the other forward. It’s great pacing and feels honest to the lifestyle of a bounty hunter.
"At that moment, when I had the TV sound off, I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialed it. So although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn't feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don't. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it 'absence of appropriate affect.' So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair. So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that's a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who's smart has emigrated, don't you think?"
6. In all, I love this book, but it’s not my favorite. A couple of faults: the twin plots sometimes combine awkwardly in intentional ways—Deckard having sex with Rachael—and sometimes in ways that seem unintentional—Isidore is forgotten without really having enough flesh to contribute much; while the focus is maybe a little too tightly held.
—Yet, what I’m left with is not annoyance at these faults. What I’m left with is a full and entertained brain. The theme and characters are memorable, the structure strikes a nice balance between pulp and contemplation, the one-liners are endlessly quotable. It’s a good book, but not great.
—Like all books, Dick has to exclude some things in order to get his point across and finish the task of writing it. I may have made a couple of different decisions than what Dick did, but there’s no questions that Dick’s decisions worked out in the end. This is a book many people have read, but they’ve mostly read it in relation to Ridley Scott’s film. After approaching it as itself, some years after reading it for the first time, I found I appreciated this novel a ton. I hope more people will read it. After all, "Humans need more empathy." (Yet another great one-liner.) It’s a book I’ll read again and reference throughout my life. But hey, not every book is perfect: it’s just that the faults here speak to me personally.