***This contains MAJOR spoilers pertaining to both the book and the film. Read at your own discretion. If you haven’t seen Blade Runner, you should get off the computer and do that.***
NOTE: When referencing the film, I am speaking of the director’s cut. Because, let’s face it, it’s the theatrical cut is nowhere near as great.
The recent stir of rumors and reports of a Blade Runner sequel—or prequel—that started popping up late last month left me with more than just a sour taste in my mouth and a nervous churn in my stomach, but also a desire to revisit my favorite film (excluding the original Star Wars trilogy) of all time and its source material, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Instead of popping my brother’s Canadian DVD copy—adorned in both English and French—of the director’s cut in and immersing myself in a dystopian Los Angeles, I decided to opt out and go with the much similar San Francisco featured in Dick’s original story.
This foray into Androids was only my second. I was thirteen the first time I read it. Therein lies the problem. I was thirteen. I had always considered it to be one of my favorite books, even with only one read-through under my belt. I mean, how could I not when it gave birth to one of my all time favorite films? But traversing the pages of the relatively short novel six years later, I was left with a much different feeling. I’ve always felt the film to be superior, but reading Androids this time around, I could see why a thirteen-year-old version of myself enjoyed it much more.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does not present Dick at his strongest. My biggest problem with the book is the dialogue. Simply put, the people do not talk like people talk. It makes it even more difficult to tell who’s really an android and who’s not when everyone is speaking like they’re reading from a high school student’s hand written script. I understand the book was published in ‘68. But are the members of a darkened future going to address one another like it’s the early thirties?
That’s not to say the book doesn’t have its strong points. I still particularly enjoy the in depth look at the artificial animal market. This is lightly touched upon in the film with Zhora’s (Joanna Cassidy) snake and Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachel’s (Sean Young) classic exchange upon first meeting:
“Do you like our owl?”
“Of course it is.”
“Must be expensive.”
The extinction and endangerment of the majority of the animal kingdom casts a darker shadow over Earth’s future in PKD’s work. This also gives Deckard quite a different motive to track down and “retire” the rogue group of “andys” seeking to extend their limited lifespan. He simply wants a real animal, the ultimate way to signify his social and financial wealth.
He finally gets the opportunity after San Francisco’s finest bounty hunter takes a near-fatal shot from one of the rogue androids, Max Polokov. (Leon [Brion James] is the film counterpart if you are unaware.)
Much of the rundown, largely abandoned city Deckard traverses through in the book is identical to that of the film’s. Ridley Scott and the rest of the film’s crew truly excelled at translating this from the page. Though in the novel we learn the majority of Earth is left decimated from World War Terminus and most of its previous occupants have fled to off-world colonies in hopes of more prosperous lives, I find the film to portray this hopeless world in a richer light, if that sounds at all possible.
Stripped of much of a back story, the film rips upon a seemingly industrialized L.A., dominated by darkness and corporate buildings. The rain-soaked city in the film is nearly a character itself—an ominous, mechanical behemoth of concrete and steel drenched in shadows and lingering with sadness of dead dreams. Airships call out from above to the downtrodden souls below in near haunting voices, offering better lives away from the planet the entirety of the human race once called home. But these synthesized messages go unheard, perhaps ignored, as if most of Earth’s remaining residents are shrugging their shoulder and saying “Who cares?”
But with the surrounding world constructed, there then comes the characters. Sadly, Deckard seems to just stumble across the pages of the book, falling rather clumsily into the laps of the androids he’s trying to ruthlessly hunt. This proceeds into a clunky encounter that always ends up being anticlimactic to say the least. Especially with Roy Baty (Rutger Hauer in the film), the main antagonist, voiding us of a great moment that was constructed for the film—perhaps one of the most beautiful scenes in cinema:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
At one point in the novel Deckard even finds himself captured and hostage in an android police station. I want that to sink in for a moment. An android. Police station. And once Deckard escapes, it’s hardly ever touched upon again and simply forgotten. You sure you don’t want to inform your superior about that, Deckard? It is practically what you guys do for a living, you know. Just when we all though you could be an android, programmed to destroy your own kind, it’s just a giant building of androids dressed as cops. All right.
One aspect of the book I’ve always found rather intriguing is that of the character Pris (portrayed by Daryl Hannah in the film) matching the same model of android as Rachel Rosen, Deckard’s rather rickety love interest in both adaptations.
I always wonder how this would have translated into the film—Deckard having to face an identical copy of the replicant he can’t resist, having to watch the eyes of Rachel go cold with death as he retires her, fighting mental panic as his mind tries to rationalize that she’s not really the same.
The book touches lightly upon this with Deckard ultimately telling himself it’s not Rachel and retiring Pris comes with ease, revealing the same apathetic tone conveyed by much of the film’s cast.
The book ends with an exhausted and nearly beaten Deckard exploring the ruins of a world that used to be just outside what remains of San Francisco. He finds a toad, an animal believed to be long extinct. Catapulted into frenzied excitement, he captures the tiny, little creature and brings it home to his wife. As he lies down to take a nap, finally satisfied with life without technological aid, she discovers it to be artificial.
And Blade Runner ends with one the greatest film endings of all time. Remember, I’m speaking of the director’s cut here, the only version that really matters.
We are faced with the startling possibility that Deckard could be the very thing he has hunted and killed with such little compassion, a large strand of events forming to support the twisted side of the ambiguous climax, leaving us with a racing mind with what it truly means to be human, and what apathy and a lack of empathy can do to a species. We are begged to question our very reality and what it means to accurately perceive it.
All in all, I don’t find the novel to be terrible, but just simple, mild entertainment. It is not Phillip K. Dick’s strongest work, but it is far from being horrendous. I’ve always seen it as sort of a rough draft, a precursor—an unrefined sketch that eventually evolved into a painting of indescribable beauty coated in a looming aura of darkness.
That final product is, of course, Blade Runner.