Sep 052009

When talking about my favorite science fiction, Philip K. Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electric sheep? always enters the conversation. But before now, I never gave much thought as to what makes this novel work or looked carefully at how it is constructed. All things being equal, it’s an awkward piece of fiction: the plot contains at least one major hole, and the prose is replete with the kind of adverb abuse that sends me right up a wall. But, when a reader basks in the glow of P.K.D’s brilliant conceit(s), one realizes all things are not equal, and these complaints become trivial missteps.

That said, there are moments in this story that have always bothered me. The central problem I have with this novel occurs when Dekard goes to retire Luba Luft, and is arrested by a beat cop as a murderer. Approximately one third of the way into the story, the protagonist discovers an alternate police department that is not only crawling with androids but is run by an android who employs a human bounty hunter. The idea itself is clever and may cause the reader to doubt Dekard’s sanity. This could have been a nice turn in the plot but soon reveals itself to be a flaw. Once Dekard and Resch escape to retire Luft, a few sentences could have wrapped up the prior events in short order: the stations existence explained, Dekard’s boss saying something about an investigation, anything really; anything would be better than moving forward as if it had never happened. Instead, the alternate department is never brought up again even in passing. When the entire novel is predicated upon Dekard hunting a few escaped androids, and a police station full of them is not worthy of a few moments, I tend to get irritated. With a lesser author it would be unforgivable as would the sentences that get pushed along: relentlessly, jarringly, clumsily, awkwardly, and…well you get the picture.

Setting aside the glut of adverbs, on a sentence level Philip K. Dick is a competent writer. He writes with straight ahead prose and little flourish; this almost gives Androids Dream a hardboiled feel. The violence is delivered in a matter of fact manner that echo the mean streets evoked by Daly and Hammet. Considering the amount of alien concepts that the reader will be forced to process over the course of the novel, a narrative style that spares the reader both sentimentality and melodrama is one of the keys to success.

In the end, it is of course the ideas that drive this story. In the introduction to the Del Rey Edition of Androids Dream, Roger Zelanzy ponders a comparison of P.K.D to Pirandello, but then chucks the idea because Pirandello’s “triumph [was] of technique over convention, possessed of but one basic message no matter what was fed into the chopper” (vii). In contrast, P.K.D’S triumph exists as a series of brilliant metaphors that, while individually sound, are brought together to articulate a unified, original concept and theme. Greater minds than mine have written at length about the genius of Androids Dream, and his other work, so I will not trouble you with my feeble musings. However, I would say that anyone interested in writing SF would do well to study the way in which P.K.D delivers the information in his stories.

To have ideas, even great ones, drive fiction, it is imperative that one find a way to have them do two things: occur organically to the world the writer has created, and then feed the new information to the reader in such a way that the description does not disrupt the narrative. It is called “info dumping,” and not many writers can use expository tactics to weave information into a story with skill of P.K.D. A good example of the author’s genius in this department comes in the form of “kipple.” The Earth has been abandoned by most of its inhabitants, but they left behind empty buildings overflowing with the stuff they have left behind. In the beginning of Androids Dream, we are told that silence of the buildings drives Dekard’s wife Iran into deep depressions; not long after, the “special” Isadore is introduced along with the ruinous cacophony of silence:

He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all of its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of dust (20).

What works here is that kipple is both invented, introduced, and explained with an economy of language, allowing the story to continue to move along at a nice clip. The concept of kipple is as brilliant as it is subtle. For the rest of the novel, P.K.D. is able to weave in the imaginary byproduct of dead/offworld consumers, causing the reader to be viscerally aware of their absence. So, It works to amplify one of the themes of the story while providing a unique tone for the hopeless and abandoned setting. By properly explaining kipple, the author can move ahead with a story that is packed with action, meaning, and stark tragedy.

In the end, the sum of Philip K. Dick’s ideas are greater than all the hiccups and wild gesticulations that occur in their delivery. Going forward, there are not many SF writers that remain on my must-read list. But for raw, speculative genius, and generally good storytelling that make reading the genre enjoyable, P.K.D certainly abides as a master.