Blade Runner

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

DNDRDSDRMF2010Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1968. It is arguably one of PKD’s most celebrated works.  This is partially due to the fact that it was the fiction work that was the basis for the famous Blade Runner film (1982). This is also the eleventh novel by PKD that I have read and it is probably among my favorites of his works.

The movie uses a lot of concepts from the novel. But is not a strict presentation of the novel’s storyline.  In fact, both movie and film seem very different and yet very similiar.  I like both – and I should add that I also really enjoy Blade Runner 2049.  If I have to point out the largest gap between the movie (or should I say movies?) and the novel, I would say that the novel really drives home the point of ecological collapse. The demise of the animal world is really a major part of the plot of the novel, and the novel does look at the concepts of “living beings” and “pets” relative to the situation of ecological failure. As the movie portrays, the setting is post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, and cyberpunk.  So, while the focus of the loss of animals is absent in the film, the film presents the setting very well.

I do not want to compare the two mediums endlessly. However, I wanted to bring up these two points because I thought they were the easiest entry points when discussing this novel. I think the setting is absolutely crucial because a lot of the other concepts in the novel do not work as well without the heavy, post-nuclear war landscape.  The radiation fallout, the fog/dust, makes the questions PKD looks at a little more realistic. I am quite sure that humanity would be asking themselves a lot of introspective questions of a different tone than before such calamity.

Regarding these questions, well, one of things readers need to keep in mind is that PKD is not a philosopher. What is the nature of man? What is humanity? What is a robot/clone/android? It is unfair to compare the novels of Asimov and PKD and conclude that PKD’s novels are not well-thought-out. Asimov possessed a scientific-mind that was cultivated through some excellent academic studies. PKD was a writer in California. This is not to say that PKD was not, at times, brilliant, but the expectation that he would have the ability to attain the rigor for conceptual analysis that Asimov did is unfair. However, many times, the manner in which PKD approaches these so-called philosophical questions is more engaging and delightful than some of Asimov’s efforts.

PKD’s writing in this novel contains a driving insistence that makes all the questions about humanity seem poignant and pressing. PKD’s writing is always messy – he rarely (if ever) gives the reader the background detail and he never ever gets muddied by explanations. PKD is not Gregory Benford or Greg Egan – he is not writing “hard” science fiction and attempting to make plausible high-end mathematical or metaphysical concepts. He is literally forcing the reader into a storyline without any explanations and right into the middle of things, and he immediately will give them a test of their knowledge. Seems quite unfair to the reader – if the reader is expecting to be led along step-by-step with a syllabus.  Add in to this PKD’s fondness of writing stories wherein everything falls apart and breaks down, and you have a story that has urgency and immediacy and can seem very mad to the general unsuspecting reader.

This novel really is built on the idea of being able to (or not able to, as the question presents itself) determine humanity based on a test. Sometimes this test is response-related like a pseudo-psychology exam as with the story’s Voigt-Kampff test (Cp. a stanza of Nabokov’s Pale Fire poem), and some are more physiological related like the Boneli Relfex-Arc Test.

In this novel, PKD has a sort of dark science fiction tone coupled with an intense investigation into questioning what makes a human human? Some of the entry points for PKD’s wondering include: the quality of empathy, love of music, care of pets, relationship with animal realm, off-world colonization, reliance on slave-labor, relationship with suffering as presented by religion, consumption of media/broadcasting, manipulation of emotional states by artificial means, and “crime” as committed by and against non-humans. The copy I read is just over 200 pages, so a lot of the effort is placed on the reader, but PKD just keeps the questions coming so the reader does not get lazy.

One of the effects that works so marvelously in this novel is how deadpan Rick Deckard is. I think in both Blade Runner movies, this was portrayed fairly well, too. I find it absolutely chilling and perfectly aligned with the setting and storyline. Chapter eight is a mighty thing, from a literature standpoint – I think PKD wrote this one so perfectly so it can ensnare the reader, draw them in, toy with their ideas, etc. Of course, this only works if the reader is really, truly, invested in the novel, in which case it is edge-of-your-seat. If the reader is distracted or not fully-invested, I think this section will seem abrupt. I like chapter eight because I thought it was thrilling and intense. Also, it is the first real point at which PKD is showing how much he can shake things up and twist around reality for his characters and maybe even for his readers! Super cool PKD.

The props like Sidney’s catalog work really well for PKD – it jogs old memories from my childhood… black and white paper listings of pigeon racing, sales, etc… you could roll them up and crumple them up just like Deckard does – and they were just margin to margin listings of sales and races and other related things. Whenever Deckard encounters an animal in the story, I felt it quite natural to reach in my back pocket and pull out my tattered, rolled up copy of Sidney’s as well.

This review would, indeed, be very remiss if it did not touch on the fun word/concept of kipple. I am surprised it is not as well known by today’s readers. But there you have the eventual end of all the consumerism and manufacturing. Entropy for all things – garbage mountains of endless kipple. The meaningful and sentimental objects humans keep close slowly deteriorating into landfills and mountains of waste. So, what is truly important to a human? Endless fun can be had pondering kipple.

The storyline has some bizarre segments in it, but this is PKD, so that should be expected. The entire Wilbur Mercer thread is messy and crazy. But maybe that’s just because this story is in the future and you are in the past so, of course, you don’t understand what everyone there in the future understands.

4 stars

Pale Fire

Pale FirePale Fire was first published in 1962. This is the fifth novel by Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977) that I have read.  I know that most literary experts (take this term however you will) believe that Pale Fire is a special work that needs to be endlessly dissected and/or venerated. Anyone disagreeing with that will definitely be told that such disagreement proves their idoicy. (Cp. my thoughts and experiences reading Kafka). I share this upfront because I want the reader to be aware that I think Nabokov is a great writer, but that I think his best novels are not the ones usually spoken of in hushed-tones by tweed-wearing, eyeglass shuffling, affected personalities haunting insular literary meetings. Nabokov is undoubtedly and indisputably one of the greatest writers.  Nabokov was a great wordsmith, artist, poet, and writer. He wrote literature with skill, wit, and a unique style. Unrivaled, really.

But sometimes I suspect his awesome skill was wasted on the most uninteresting and tedious plots/stories. As with Despair, I feel this novel has wordplay par excellence and style and the tone is incredibly effective – but all in service to a plot/storyline that, were it not Nabokov, I would not have even bothered whatsoever.

Sure, at the end of this novel, the reader is left to (that is, if they care about reflecting on what they consume) wrestle with the psychology and existence of the main characters. Even, really, suggesting surprising psychological ideas like multiple-personality disorder and calling the story magical-realism, since the line between reality and fantasy is blurry as heck. All over the internet and (before there was a ‘net’) literary criticism texts one will find reference to the unreliable narrator as if this gimmick explains everything. And it very well might! But do we really feel comfortable thinking that the genius Nabokov is gimmicky?

My thoughts on this novel are nearly the same as on Despair:  I did not care at all about any character. Some parts of the text were really tedious and I struggled to not skip over them (e.g. lengthy sections that allowed Kinbote to ramble endlessly – long after the reader gets the gist of it all). I did not mind not knowing which storyline was the real one… I also did not mind the format (poem, notes, commentary, etc.).

But somehow, though sections of the wordsmithing are utterly brilliant and the novel as a whole is mighty – I’m not going to save this one in the proverbial fire, nor am I taking it to the hypothetical island. It is definitely worth reading and knowing about. What an amazing method to share a very robust fictional biography of a character I could not care any less about!

(By the way, Bend Sinister) IS indeed coming to the island and I am toasting my fingers to snatch it from a fire.)

Pale Fire can be read on all sorts of experimental and meta— levels. Nabokov was an academic, so he knew exactly how the literary world would approach his novel. I also think he enjoyed mocking such institutions when he could, if only because he could. Some of that is part of, I think, the value of his wit on display in the “commentary” to Line 949:  and all the time.  This lengthy section is really a culminatory segment to what has been a slowly developing and meandering monlogue by an unreliable narrator. And it is one of the best shows of comic relief I have seen in literature. I could not help but roar [see all epitaphs to Shade, John] with laughter as I read this part. If I had more time alloted me in life, I would scour the endless literary criticism available, because I am certain somewhere, some bright mind has decided to interpret the “symbolism” of Gradus’ distress.

The narrator of the work is installed as an academic at university – so he is surrounded by academics, scholars, and students. Not unlike Nabokov’s career. The narrator introduces us to John Shade with high praise:

Here he is, I would say to myself, that is his head, containing a brain of a different brand than that of the synthetic jellies perserved in the skulls around him. – pg. 27 (Forward)

Tell me honestly that you do not think Nabokov would poke fun at academia.  At the same time, I really appreciated the cantankerous discussion found in Line 172:  books and people:

“That’s where the broom should begin to sweep.  A child should have thirty specialists to teach him thirty subjects, and not one harassed schoolmarm to show him a picture of a rice field and tell him this is China because she knows nothing about China, or anything else, and cannot tell the difference between logitude and latitude.” Kinbote: “Yes. I agree.” – pg. 156 (Commentary)

Those of us old enough to do so – honestly look back on your education and wonder how many times you were subjected to, or knew of this situation, in which inadequate education was given to students that then resulted in students cheated of knowledge unbeknowst to themselves? Nabokov at the heart of it all was an educated man and valued education.

Part of being educated and faculty and an academic means dinner parties with tedious people. And I laughed quite a bit at the little rant by Kinbote in Line 579: the other

Every time I had but one additional guest to entertain Mrs. Shade (Who, if you please — thinning my voice to a feminine pitch — was allergic to artichokes, avocado pears, African acorns — in fact to everything beginning with an “a”).  I find nothing more conducive to the blunting of one’s appetite than to have none by elderly persons sitting around one at table, fouling their napkins with the disintegration of their make-up, and surrpetitiously trying, behind noncommittal smiles, to dislodge the red-hot torture point of a raspbery seed from between false gum and dead gum. – pg. 230 (Commentary)

The whole novel is not wit and frivolity. Indeed, one of the main threads in this novel is the concern and study of religion/afterlife/morality.

The more lucid and overwhelming one’s belief in Providence, the greater the temptation to get it over with, this business of life, but the greater too one’s fear of the terribe sin implicit in self-destruction. – pg. 219 (Commentary)

Indeed, this paradoxical sentiment is a sobering moment for the reader. Especially after realizing that the entire 999-line poem “by John Shade” is a musing on life and death. This includes the massively famous section depicting a “near death experience” in Canto three of the poem, which has been utilized so magnificently in Blade Runner. Cells. Interlinked. Dreadfully distinct. (If you know, you know…..)

In any case, the reader who opens the cover of this book needs to know this is a rewarding experience, but he should modulate his expectations. It helps to be familiar with Pope and Johnson and Shakespeare – but its not necessary at all. It is a study of literary tomfoolery, satire, gimmicks, wordplay, and also sorrow, loss, and exile. Just getting through the Foreward and the Poem will sift out any reader who is unprepared ability-wise for this novel. Readers should not shy from this one, but I think they should also not believe the hype that this is inarguably Nabokov’s greatest work.

I hardly know if I should read PKD or Albert Camus next…..

3 stars