I have a confession to make. I'd always regarded Dick as a second rate writer. Or rather (quick, before I receive hundreds of enraged comments) a second rate stylist. I thought he had great ideas but his prose was crude and clumsy. This impression was largely based on reading his book Galactic Pot Healer, back when I was at university and living in sin in a damp freezing flat in Clapton with Linda Simpson (Hi Linda!) who was a big fan of that novel, and of Philip K. Dick in general. Well, Linda was right and I was wrong. Galactic Pot Healer may or may not be a dud (I must re-read it). But Dick is the real McCoy.
True, there are some clumsy moments in his prose, even in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Instead of saying his characters disembarked from an elevator, he says they "disemelevatored"(!)... But there are also moments of considerable beauty.
Here is a description of what it was like before an apocalyptic war denuded the world of animals (the owls were the first to go, hence the emphasis on owls in the movie and on the book covers): "the entire peninsula had chattered like a bird tree with life."
Or when bounty hunter Rick Deckard is performing the Voigt-Kampff test on Rachael and discovers she's an android. The billionaire Eldon Rosen (Tyrell in the movie) who manufactured her, and expected her to pass as human, "regarded him with writhing worry." The book is often startlingly well written, and peppered with odd and intriguing observations. In a discussion about what it really means to be alive, ants are referred to as "chitinous reflex-machines".
The novel is surprisingly witty, too. The Voigt-Kampff test involves questions designed to provoke an emotional reaction, and in a world where animals have almost disappeared and are sought after and priceless, these questions often focus on cruel and inhumane treatment of animals.
It's a sign of Dick's prescience, and his compassion, that these are things we callously take for granted today, or at least did when the book was published in 1968: calf skin wallets, bullfights, killing jars for butterflies, deer heads mounted on a wall, lobsters dropped in boiling water, bearskin rugs. When Rachael is about to go to bed with Deckard, she declares her love for him by parodying the test questions, "If I entered a room and found a sofa covered with your hide, I'd score very high on the Voigt-Kampff test."
Voigt-Kampff is a great name and it survived intact into the film, as did the test questions. Dick had a knack for names, great, unusual, ludicrous, hilarious. We have a Milt Borogrove (a common mis-spelling of "Borogove") in this book. But what is really characteristic of Dick is the unsettling sense of reality about to give way under the reader like a tattered spider web. Here it arises in the uncertainty of who is an android and who isn't. In a spectacular scene, not replicated in the movie, Deckard is arrested and taken to an entire parallel San Francisco police department who have never heard of him or his branch of the police.
This is deeply disturbing stuff. Suddenly you don't know whether Deckard is the android passing itself off as human. And here Dick is at his best. Deckard is interrogated by a police officer called Garland. As they square off we're no longer sure which one is a real person. An uncertainty which even infiltrates the prose. As Dick puts it "Neither man — or rather neither he nor Garland — spoke for a time."
It's impressive how Dick zeroes in unerringly on the most interesting aspect of his material — what it means to be human. There are weaknesses to the book, though. The whole religious element, concerning a cult called Mercerism, is something which I could have done without. Especially when the prophet Mercer pops up out of nowhere to arbitrarily help Deckard in the climactic final shoot out. Very sensibly, this aspect was entirely dropped from the movie.
Nevertheless, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a striking, profound and often slyly well-written novel. If you are only familiar with the film it is very much worth checking out the original.
(Image credits: All are from good ol' Good Reads where I was spoiled for choice. There are more editions of this book — with more good covers — than any other title I have researched. Look at that great Greek one!)