My assault on the novels of science-fiction writer and cult hero Philip K. Dick continues. For its first 220 pages, Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (1968) is a standout sf novel. Though it starts slowly, once rolling it builds steadily in character and incident, it complicates entertainingly, and the story becomes gripping all the way up to a high point of drama near the end.
All through the book, as I was hooked and got more involved and the reality of Dick's imagined world got more complex, I started saying "THIS is more like it! NOW I see what people were talking about with this guy!"
I got so involved that I read almost the whole book in just a couple of days, staying interested and enjoying it all the way. It wasn't work. SHEEP is much easier to read and get caught up in than PKD's VALIS (reviewed last post). It seems to have a lot more depth.
But as I closed in on the end, I had to take a break and go to work.
I should never have gone to work.
Because when I came back home and picked the story back up, PKD had somehow let the last 25 pages of his novel go pffff....
In the future, a massive nuclear war has virtually finished off Earth. A dark radioactive dust coats most of the planet. Fallout is an ongoing problem. The remaining cities are mostly abandoned, like ghost towns. Though San Francisco has somehow survived, western Oregon has become a desert. Most folks have left Earth for Mars. A few people crawl through life here -- those whose jobs won't let them leave, and those who aren't smart enough to pass the IQ tests to emigrate. Rumor has it the colony planets are in worse shape.
The remaining humans are plagued with guilt over the millions of animal species that have died due to man's stupid wars. Companies manufacture mechanical animals to placate this guilt. A few REAL animals survive, but they are only available at astronomical prices -- the bigger the animal, the higher the price. Real animals have become status symbols like cars or houses.
A sinister talk-show host named Buster Friendly has a 24/7 program on the only TV channel, where his guests are celebrities who are "famous for being famous." A religion called Mercerism seems to unite believers in a sacred shared ordeal similar to Sisyphus rolling his giant boulder up a mountain. And people use various mood-inhancing devices so they won't have to face too much reality.
Against this background, a police bounty-hunter named Rick Deckard tracks down a group of (supposedly evil) androids who've immigrated to Earth from Mars illegally. Deckard is told these androids are smarter and more brutal than humans ... but the androids are mainly just less empathic. Maybe conditions on Mars are even worse than on the dusty, depopulated Earth? We never find out.
Helping Deckard track down the androids is a mysterious woman named Rachel Rosen -- herself apparently an android, or at least a human with little empathy. It turns out one of the androids Deckard must locate and "retire" (kill) is a duplicate of Rachel.
The plot works from here. Much is promised. Much ominous darkness and threat surround Deckard as he proceeds in his mission -- he'll be paid $1,000 for each android he "retires." Then maybe he'll be able to afford a REAL sheep instead of the mechanical one currently pretending to munch grass on the roof of his decrepit old apartment building. Then won't his neighbor be jealous! Then maybe his wife will love him again and not consider him a failure anymore.
Much of the rest becomes a game of who's-real-and-who-isn't, as Deckard tries to take out the androids before they can get him. Which actually becomes fairly exciting. Until Deckard closes in on the last three androids hiding in an abandoned apartment building -- including the Rachel-duplicate and a supposedly evil and powerful android-leader named Roy Baty.
It may sound here like I didn't enjoy the book. Wrong. I liked it a lot. But PKD took the heavily dramatic ending that was staring him in the face and threw it out the window in the last 25 pages. The big expected fight with Roy Baty turns out to be nothing much, and Deckard's confrontation with the Rachel-duplicate is a wasted opportunity for much more ... because by then Deckard has fallen in love with the "real" Rachel.
I was also expecting more to be done with J.R. Isadore, the low-IQ pet-repair messenger who in many ways is the nicest and most genuine person in the whole book. But PKD just lets him slip away.
The last 25 pages are digressions and avoidances of drama. Rachel does sort of get her "revenge" after Deckard murders all of her friends, but even in the context of the book it comes across as a very small thing. After her function in the plot is made clear, she is also dropped.
How could PKD do this? Maybe because to round out this story in a way that seems dramatically obvious, he might have needed 50 more pages -- and maybe that room wasn't available in a Doubleday mid-'60s mid-list sf novel. Just a guess.
I've never seen the movie BLADE RUNNER made from this book, though I will say that the giant Japanese-style (or Times Square-style) neon advertising signs that allegedly made such a big visual impact in that film are NOT from this future. I've read that the movie does at least make the point this book doesn't -- that at the finale Deckard does recognize Roy Baty's humanity in a way that never comes close to happening in this book. About the only real humans here are J.R. Isadore and Deckard's wife, Iran. And we recognize Iran because she's as depressed as any normal person would be in a future world like this. Deckard comes across as just tired.
This is all too bad, because for the first 220 pages this is an excellent novel with action and vivid characters and some philosophical depth, and it deserved the Nebula Award it was nominated for. But PKD never answers any of the questions he brings up. If he had finished the job, this book could maybe have WON that award....