“He wondered, then, if the others who remained on Earth experienced the void this way […]. He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabitated apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually, everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical […]. And, after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of the dust.”
“The painting showed a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast, soundless scream. Twisted ripples of the creature’s torment, echoes of its cry, flooded out into the air surrounding it; the man or woman, whichever it was, had become contained by its own howl. It had covered its ears against its own sound. The creature stood on a bridge and no one else was present; the creature screamed in isolation. Cut off by ̶ or despite ̶ its outcry.”
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I’ve watched 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner four times, enjoying both the director’s cut version and the happy-ending one, every time thinking it was a masterpiece ahead of its times. Yet I’ve always wondered how the story might be related to its original source, the 1968 novel written by Philip K. Dick called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Oddly enough, though sci-fi tends to be my favourite genre when choosing films, this is not always the case with books, so I’ve only read the book recently. Though being focused on Rick Deckard and his quest for truth while hunting down androids like Ridley Scott’s film is, the book leads you to a completely different journey ̶ and what a revelation it was to me!
In particular, the novel revolves around crucial questions which were completely ruled out of the film’s romantic, adventure-driven narrative. It’s not just the characters or the storyline that’s different ̶ Rick having a wife, Rachel revealing a ruthless personality or Roy being crass despite the complexity of his intelligence ̶ it’s the whole philosophical fabric lying beyond the story that makes the book both outstanding and surprising if compared to the film’s unparalleled evergreen status. The divide between organic and artificial, with Rick questioning what is real and what is fake while dealing with androids, is probably a core pattern in both the film and the novel; yet, in creating his future world through the book, Dick seems more concerned with exploring empathy as the ultimate frontier of human behaviour than with the divide itself. As a consequence of their empathy-oriented psychology (which androids apparently are unable to mimic), all human characters in the novel are obsessed with the idea of owning real animals as opposed to electric ones, not simply because most of the animals which used to roam the Earth in the past are now extinct or rare to find; more importantly, owning a real, breathing animal would be proof enough of life’s inherent purpose which, given the decaying nature of the world the story is set in, grows in fact thinner every day. Owls, spiders, sheep, goats, cats and toads crawl over the novel’s pages as tokens for the human desire to persist, despite decay spreading across the cosmos: buying or even just finding a real animal may hopefully reverse the tragic and inevitable nosedive into death the planet is heading to ̶ engulfing all the characters who chose to stay or had no choice but staying instead of embarking on a journey to the promised land of Mars. Unless, as Pris accidentally reveals to Isidore, Mars was nothing but another lonely place lost in the galaxy of life, as empty as a shell as the Earth is. Emptiness, both dreaded and embraced by the human characters of the novel, stands for a specific kind of fear we might refer to as the fear of shapelessness, seen as the only possible outcome of human life while facing the Great Leveler called entropy. In this sense, the idolization of real animals, as opposed to the mere tolerance of electric ones, may also represent the human will to revert entropy by opposing the proliferation of artificial beings with the uniqueness of a pet, cherished with care and fondness. And yet, once again, the divide is constantly contradicted and eluded by a simple, but clever, fact: though artificial entities may pose as endless replicas meant to last, they curiously end up deteriorating just like any fragile natural creature does, all lost in the hoarder-like pile of debris everyday existence is made of. As we find out that even electric animals, like real ones, can become “organically ill”, that is unable to function properly, we slowly realize that the fight against entropy and shapelessness may leave everyone, real and artificial alike , bare and meaningless.
Dick’s world truly is full of surprises, giving humanity yet another way out of misery, decay, entropy, and emptiness: a combination of religion and mystical experience humans can resort to whenever they feel all hope is lost. Mercerism consists in spiritually and physically merging with old and wise Mercer, thus in a way attaining shapelessness, the very thing human seem to fear; at the same time, being part of Mercer’s own experience in climbing a hill while being hit by stones changes the nature of this specific shapelessness, allowing humans to access a new dimension where the I and the whole universe radiate into one another becoming the shape beyond all shapes, the real beyond all fakes, the whole beyond all forms of decay. The I beyond all boundaries of the I, no longer “contained in its own howl”, like Munch’s painting so vividly described in the lines mentioned above, but finally free.
A friend once argued that Philip K. Dick was nothing but a “crap author”, perhaps quoting Dick himself and his memoir, “Confessions of a crap artist”. But Dick will never be a crap author to me, for he is a true magician and creator of a luminous universe where living may not have any purpose left but this desperate struggle to shed light into our fears and perhaps our dreams, clinging to accumulation but hoping for uniqueness despite decay. Despite death approaching by the minute.